Tag Archives: Colonial revival

Progress and Increasingly Delicate Sensibilities

My dad came today and we got the lower part of the stairway wall primed!


Old house purists: before you bite my head off for painting my woodwork, the first floor interior is a Colonial Revival style remodel from the 1930’s and had always been painted. But getting it back to this point seemed insurmountable. Especially these scrolly things under the stair nosings. There was so much paint glooped up onto them that I used 3 different types of chemical stripper, then burned it off with a heat gun, and finally gave up and used sandpaper. I then primed it, which exposed more flaws, so I sanded it all again and primed it a second time. It looks pretty good now!


There are still imperfections to fix, including all the little nail holes in the paneling. But the paneling all needs to be sanded as the paint raises the grain of the plywood it’s made out of.

Once this is done, there’s another round of it upstairs. I didn’t do it all at once because (1) there is only so much prep I can stand to do in one go and (2) I wanted to get the downstairs painted before reinstalling the top 2 stair nosings, and then I have to close up the unfinished underside of the upstairs box newel.IMG_0724.JPG

And I’ll be replacing the 8 bottom balusters in the second phase after getting everything painted that they’ll block. (No, not restoring. It’s not worth the trouble for paint grade pine.)


But my sensibilities are getting delicate. I can no longer handle this bit of unpainted trim on the ceiling that was supposed to happen later with the upstairs banister. It’s now getting moved up into this phase.


What is happening to me that this is bothering me? Remember when I was sleeping in the kitchen? That was totally fine.


And then this project is about to collide with the Phase 2 kitchen cabinet fronts thanks to another flaw my delicate sensibilities can’t handle. The casings around the big opening between the living room and kitchen is just tacked up so it can be notched into the cabinet fronts later. But this is affecting the living room now because I’ve decided that the little strip of molding on the left side of the door opening is too skinny.


You see, I opened the wall, but emphatically wanted it to look like the wall was still there, just with a big doorway in it. I think that completely open rowhouses can feel relentlessly long and narrow and liked the proportions of this room as it was at the beginning. And right now this skinny rip of trim doesn’t feel like enough to hold up the corner of the room. It feels more like an outside corner than a wall. It will also balance better with the window on the other side.


So, I’ll be yanking off that that piece of casing that had been ripped down, pulling off everything that had been tacked in place on the kitchen side, facing the cabinets, installing a new wooden board over the old one to make the doorway like an inch narrower, and putting up a new, heftier rip of trim on the living room side. Luckily, this isn’t the expensive special order casing, though I will, sigh, be needing more of that later, too.

So, does this sound like a good idea to you, or do you think I need to be medicated? My thoroughly practical dad flinched, but then took a second look and said, “You know it really will look better if you come out about one and a quarter and cover up the side of the refrigerator.”


Digging Into the History of the Stairway

Since there’s nothing new to talk about with what I’m doing right now and I got quite a few comments about my banister, I thought it’d be a good time go in depth with its history.

People might say it’s original and unique. It is neither of these things. Remember, someone remodeled my living room in the 1930’s. Before this time, I think the house had a parlor, a dining room, a vestibule, and a hall. I could be wrong about some of this but I had proof that the outside corner of the wall separating the living room from the vestibule once had a wall attached to it that divided the room width wise and made a hallway. See how wide the casing was next to the vestibule door? That was because they never plastered over where the wall was!

Living room, front

Living room, front

There are also dowels in the brick wall, indicating that there may once have been a decorative plaster arch dividing the living room length wise. That setup is common on South Philly. But these two ghosts of previous interior treatments contradict each other. That makes me wonder if the unbroken living room ceiling I have now could be the third version of the room (and the one I put back in). But anyways, if I’m right about all this, all the houses on my street may once have had walls around their staircases. Either that or the stairs turned sideways near the bottom and let out into the dining room.

I also found a ghost of the original railing upstairs. Under the oak flooring in the hall, the original pine floors have holes for the original balusters drilled into them. I can only see these two. This is interesting because my upstairs and downstairs banisters don’t match perfectly and I wondered at first if the upstairs one might have been original to the house.


So you believe it’s not original, but why do I say it’s not unique? It looks a lot like the one in my parents’ 1951 Colonial, but that’s not what I meant.


Plus mine is nicer than theirs. The biggest difference (besides that cool carved flower) is that mine has a compound curve. Whereas my parents’ railing has a segment for the vertical curve and a volute segment that is totally flat, mine has a piece that puts the vertical and horizontal curves together in the same spot. It’s still 3 pieces of wood with little seams, but it’s much more graceful that way. Like a roller coaster.


But what of the flower? You’ve never seen anything like it before, have you? That’s what I said when I bought the house, but since then I have been in 3 other Philadelphia rowhouses with the exact same one! One right on my block, one 3 blocks west, and once clear across town in Kensington. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that these railings were all made of off the shelf components. Maybe unique to Philadelphia, but not within it. Renovation contractors in the depths of the Depression must have been putting them into middle class homes all over the city.