Tag Archives: remodeling

Throwback Thursday Condo Post 3 – Living Spaces

There’s not much room for surprises in a high-rise condo with concrete ceilings, is there? Not much, but there’s some. Remember how I said the carpeting was beat and grimy? It turns out that the padding under it had also hardened into some strange mealy substance that was stuck to the floors and had to be scraped off and bagged up. And there were vinyl baseboards coming unglued throughout the place. We naturally wanted to replace them with wood, but it turned out to be kind of complicated to attach them into the steel studs. And it didn’t help that the walls were 3/8″ drywall (1/2″ is standard) and the studs were 24″ apart (16″ is standard). It took a lot of trim head screws but we got it done. Mostly my dad. (This is the only before pic we have but you can kinda see what I mean).


But the biggest challenge with this project was Nana herself. She was always into decorating but this time around she was 87 and couldn’t process all the decisions that go into a project of this size anymore. They would talk about colors, then my mom would pick them and give Nana a few options. She picked the lightest option every time. We tried and failed to get her to go darker in the living room, then she didn’t like the color either. I wanted to paint it again but my mom said no  way. And when it was all done and the grimy woodwork was painted over, it looked fine.

Living Room 2.jpg

While we’re in the living room I’ll show you the rest. A friend of the family had a swag and jabot valence that was about 8 inches short for the huge window in the living room. Nana didn’t want it because she thought plaid was too informal but my aunt forced her to take it. We lengthened it by taking the jabots off, splicing wood onto either end, and stapling them back on. That was surprisingly easy. The hard part was hanging it. The ceiling is some kind of insane precast concrete and my dad’s power nailer wouldn’t go through it. I’m talking about a tool made by Remington that shoots 22 caliber charges, not an air compressor. But anyways, we got it up.

Living Room.jpg

And my mom gave her a bit of that separate dining room she wanted with a different wall color in the alcove. Putting up the chair rail was not fun.

Dining Room.JPG

Then there were the closet doors. Originally the place had floor to ceiling metal bifold doors with louvers that looked like lockers. And they stuck and made horrible noises when you tried to open and close them. My mom has an aversion to flat doors and was gonna get hollow paneled ones. I talked her out of it. The plan had been to add trim to all the doors and make them look like 2-paneled doors. That never happened. And in her bedroom there was a narrow hallway with closet doors on one side and a door to the bathroom on the other. Instead of replacing the closet doors, we left them open and walled off the whole hallway. Unfortunately, I have no photos of this. But here’s a look at the room.

nana's bedroom.jpg

And the den, because yes, she needed a den separate from her formal living room. Here’s a look at her old one. There’s a small chance I’m looking for an exuse to get this awesome picture in this post.


Squaring off the room with bookcases was my idea. And I guess ignore the sheet on the couch. She was very dissatisfied with this furniture but still insisted on keeping it protected.

den sofas.jpg

And we put up a shelf with old things on it like she had before. But a lot fewer old things. Her TV show is a perfect match too!


And I guess we can play “Count the things Chad took” again.

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.”

4 Year Anniversary Tour – Upstairs (Hall)

Upstairs, the house had the original Victorian trim. I was kinda thrilled to have unique woodwork in not 1 but 2 unique styles. Sadly, almost half of it was missing or butchered, I made changes that required more, and what did survive I couldn’t get off the walls unbroken. So out it went and I got a very good (and expensive) reproduction.


All the doors had at some point been replaced with stained flush doors. Then later on, exactly half of those were replaced with the cheapest hollow 6-panel doors you can buy.


I decided that new solid pine doors would miss the mark with the period look I wanted, so I was planning on putting in new flat doors and recreating the mid-century era update. (The surviving flat doors were shot.) But then I found a set of 5 4-paneled Victorian doors at Philadelphia Salvage and used them instead. This was one of the happiest days of my life.

little volvo truck.jpg

Refinishing them was a chore.


But now they’re my pride and joy. Some of the white porcelain knobs came from my mom’s old house, which was the caretaker’s quarters on an estate in South Jersey built around the same time as mine.


Part of the second floor had oak floors probably from the 1930’s remodel, but I had to take most of them out. Instead of reinstalling them, I re-exposed the original random-width heart pine. By doing this, I’ve attempted to get the second floor back to something like its original look while the downstairs has a reconstruction of the 1930’s remodel. These floors creaked really badly, but while the ceiling was out downstairs I glued all my scraps of plywood up onto the back sides of the floorboards, and now (except for one bad creak right outside my bedroom) the problem is fixed.


Now on to the hall, the first thing I called it was “comically narrow.” It’s about 26 inches wide and I left it that way because I didn’t want to lose closet and bathroom space.


Upstairs hall

And I said I wanted to restore this floor to at least the architectural style I started with even though I reconfigured it a lot. Here it is now from the same angle as before.



And a friend of mine offered me a huge abstract painting for free. Unfortunately, it took me 4 months to pick it up and during that time he and a friend had some wine and tried to paint a pagoda over it. I took it and hung it up anyway. It’s super bizarre looking but the scale is great.


And one big change I made to the hall was adding in a big square skylight. I can’t tell you how much it changed the house, including the living room below. The back of the living room doesn’t get much light so every bit helps.


If you can’t tell from my photos, the walls are just primed right now. I’m thinking that with the exposed brick, the stained doors, the flooring, artwork, and every room up here being a different color, I’ve got enough going on visually up here to paint the walls the same color as the trim, but less glossy. But feel free to change my mind. No decision is set in stone until it’s paid for.

The Dreaded Post-Construction Clutter

Amid all the odds and ends and this goal to not work too hard on the house, I’ve been chipping away at the dreaded clutter. And there were some pleasant surprises. First, I had some old kitchen cabinets in the basement but decided they won’t be reusable after all. I was ready to drive them out to my parents’ place in the Land of Good Public Services. But luckily for me, the Irishman was cleaning out his basement, too. And he rented a very large dump truck and loaded it up. And now my stuff is gone, baby, gone! This also marks the first time, I believe, that there is absolutely no scrap wood or scaffolding anywhere in the back yard. I still do have a big pile of Belgian blocks in the alley but they can stay.

Then there were lots of boxes to go through. But it turns out most of those were half empty. And half of what was in them was construction detritus. I found broken trim pieces from the old recessed lights, small strips of bathroom floor tile that were cut off, and of course lots of dirt. I also finally found the roller ball catch for the linen closet door! I was not willing to buy this again since I knew it was down there, so now I’m finally free to make all the interior doors operable


(If you forgot, I put a dummy knob on this door because it’s too thin for a mortise lock. At one time it had a latch more like a cabinet door.)

And this is now all that’s left in my big dumping ground under the kitchen. Trust me, it’s progress.



And the same thing happened in my bedroom and the bookshelves in the living room. I’ve passed Peak Box and shedding cardboard fast.


But there is a downside to all this. The bookshelves are much tidier, yes. But what’s left on them is morphing into the physical manifestation of a to-do list. There are hinges for the doors that aren’t hung, missing pieces to the kitchen drawers, rolls of non-slip shelf paper, laminate adhesive… but I’m loving being able to put these jobs off.


Of all the random junk sitting out, I started with instant gratification. I owe Mary Elizabeth a big thank you for mailing me curtains for the only room that’s ready for them, the one that I don’t use.


And I’ve finally hung up the bathroom mirror. This was probably the most pathetic thing to hold off on, but apparently I found it less aggravating to sit on the floor to shave than to put 2 screws in the wall. It’s kinda junky thermofoil over particle board and didn’t hold up very well to being stored in the basement through demolition but I’m thinking of painting it a fun color to spruce it up until the Phase 2 bathroom work happens. Whadaya think? Maybe not worth the trouble since it’s going in 2 years.


And I hung up “Ne buvez jamais d’eau,” which was easily the best piece of artwork in my grandmother’s house. I thought it was too small for this wall but it’s actually fine. You can kinda see the scale in the photo above.


3 years!

Actually it’s tomorrow, and the plan was to have a blowout party yesterday. Instead I’m sitting on a wooden chair looking at how torn apart the living room is and thinking I’d rather take a gun to my head than tackle any more painting just now. And so instead I’m blogging. Everything is a little half done because surprise surprise, it’s twice as much work as I thought again. Even with my parents and their friend (which is amazingly nice) helping. And when it comes to that punchlist, there’s more painting making its way into Phase 1. Partly because many of the most important things to paint are in the way of each other.

So here’s how it went. At year 0 the house looked great even though there were unseen things that could have killed you.



But then some issues, like this extreme crookedness, were pretty visible right away.


Back bedroom

A year later, the scope bloat was complete and instead of living in a slightly buffed up old house and tackling issues slowly, I had a shell and was looking forward to owning windows… and returning to compliance with a law requiring them. Luckily I didn’t get busted for having a chopped up door here for 3 months. Also, I just got rid of the last of this green textured plywood.


And we have to remember this mess just because. There was drywall nailed onto these half wrecked walls and the Irishman told me I had to add framing for the cabinets. I didn’t do it anywhere else and it was torture!


Year 2 ended with very, very exciting white drywall primer.


And a not-so-functional bathroom. The bucket was to flush the toilet until I finished painting the room and got the tank back on.


And in year 3? So many firsts. Paint colors!


The doors! My first love. (Keep this in mind, suitors. You’re my second at best.)


Lights that turn on (without risking burning the house down)! And none of them are in boob form!


Floors! Holy crap, they were holding up everything!


Furniture! And my mom cleaning like a (heteronormative) badass.


Of course owning furniture isn’t enough in these narrow working class rowhouses. You also have to get it inside.


And most recently, all the kitchen appliances work! I just picked up spaghetti and tomato sauce at my corner bodega and it was joyous.


So… let’s pretend it still looks like this.


Actually it looks like this. But when the living room looked like that the kitchen didn’t work and was jammed with stuff. And this actually looks pretty under control.


So a real, functional, homey house? I’m SO CLOSE. I said a small house was more than enough, but I didn’t know how hard it would be to get away from all this construction stuff in 800 square feet.

And here’s one more thing to mark off the to do list. I’m deleting the remaining banister work from Phase 1, so this is what I’m calling complete enough.


And let’s talk about the silly things that are annoying me. Like looking at mugs, toothpicks, and candles where the china belongs.


But compared to July 2013, I’m SO CLOSE. I said that before. But it’s true.



New for 2016: An Actual Punchlist!

I’ve (mis)used the word before and gave you a list of basically building the whole house, but the things on this list actually seem like finishing touches to me. Even all the kitchen appliances. I’m trying to keep this list to things it really makes sense to finish, but I may call Phase 1 complete without actually finishing the whole list. I really just want to get the basic functions and then cut back on the work a lot.

So here’s the new list.

Building Systems

zone valves 1

  • Connect radiators, fill system, fire up the boiler. No explanation needed.
  • Wire thermostats and activate zone valves. Until I do this, the heat will be controlled inaccurately from a thermostat in the basement. After, I’ll have separate thermostats in the living room and both bedrooms. The bathroom will be on whenever the heat is on anywhere else.



  • Finish installing laminate countertops.
  • Install sink. Procure and install faucet and drain.
  • Procure and install 30 inch gas range.
  • Procure refrigerator, install hinges on the left side (Most come with right side hinges but are reversible. Refrigerator must be 28 inches wide to fit through the front door, which is the smallest full size refrigerator available in the US.) Because the mini-fridge with the missing hinge pin isn’t cutting it.20160101_144555
  • Build remaining countertop out of leftover oak. (Requires dowel or biscuit joints)
  • (Optional) Install drawers in lower cabinets.
  • (Optional) Procure and install dishwasher, garbage disposal, and over-the-range microwave.

Front Bedroom


  • Finish painting closet shelving. Add clothes bars.
  • Finish painting temporary particle board around windows. Install temporary blinds.
  • Install door strike, stop molding, and door knob at entrance to room.
  • Pre-paint and temporarily install trim around closet doors.

Back Bedroom Note: This list is low priority unless I find someone to rent the room. And then I’ll be scrambling to do it.)


  • Sort all tools in closet and move to basement.
  • Install closet door strikes and stop moldings on both doors.
  • Paint closet doors, closet shelving and trim on door wall.
  • Install permanent blinds, shades, and/or curtains.


Living room and General Clutter


  • Count and sort kitchen items. Re-box items for yard sale and return them to parents.
  • Collect all unused building materials. Shamelessly return everything for store credit.
  • Install 2 remaining interior doors. Remove cardboard at entryway.
  • Paint temporary particle board around front windows and install temporary blinds.
  • Install panel sticking on stairway wall.
  • Repair and refinish banister.

Upstairs hall


  • Empty both closets. Paint closet shelving.
  • Install roller catch and stop moldings on linen closet door. This door is thinner than standard and has a dummy knob.
  • Install threshold and permanent stop moldings on bathroom door.
  • Paint all door jambs, casings, and remaining baseboards.


  • Procure and install towel bars, toilet paper holder, etc.



  • Remove lathe and borrowed tools. Clean floor and walls.
  • Discard duplicate paint cans. Consolidate paint to one can of each color.
  • Add additional shelving as needed.
  • Finish drywall at top of stairwell. Discard remaining stored drywall scraps.
  • (Optional unless I get a roommate) Procure washer and dryer. Consider 24 inch appliances or local appliance dealer that will dismantle full size appliances and reassemble in basement.

My Old Floors – Before, After, and a Whole Lot of Delerium

I was going to let this wait until after I have a real-world reveal tomorrow but I can’t contain my excitement. (Shoot me a comment if you want to come.) I’ve known what I was doing with these floors for more than 2 years and you have no idea what it’s like to see it finally happen!

So let’s go through it all. I knew the living room had nice floors, but they had (just) been refinished really badly. Like wavy, coins stuck in the poly, and they didn’t sand the corners or under the radiators. And ridiculous drips. I knew these had potential but was a little scared there wasn’t enough material left to redo them again. I think these floors were added in the 30’s when the house was about 40 years old.

Living room, front

Living room, front

And what do I have now? Drumroll please…


Then, did you see the pink marble tile in the vestibule? It was poorly installed and also (I think) 12×12 tiles were totally wrong for the space. Luckily, under a vinyl floor there was wood. And a lot of black glue.


And now? (You can also see that the water damaged area at the front isn’t perfect, but perfect wasn’t what I wanted anyway)


And how about all those carpet tacks in the stairs?




Then there’s the kitchen.


That vinyl floor was one of 7


And under it was this. This pine is not original to the house so I assume they needed a flatter subfloor for linoleum sometime between the 1930’s and the 50’s.


And now? (It’s not quite as yellow as it looks here.)


And the same angle as the February 2013 Before, just for fun.


Then we’ll go upstairs. Starting in the front bedroom. This room was the only place in the house where I could see the original random width pine subflooring. It was intriguing, but also painted purple. And yes, that’s a traditional South Philly master bedroom closet.

Front bedroom closet

Front bedroom closet

There were some bad patches at one end of the room, so I redid them with other original wood. (That process took several posts in 2014, starting here.)




I was expecting them to come out lighter. Not that I don’t love the color, but now that white paint between the floorboards shows more than expected. I might color it in with a marker.

It’s also fun that you can see where walls came out. There used to be a door connecting the front and middle bedrooms (this is a thing in Philly) that I enlarged when that part of the old middle bedroom became a closet. Here’s the scar.


And the upstairs hall might finally look better than when I bought the place. Tell me what you think. Also, this floor is fun because you can see the shadows of where the oak floorboards used to be. Also the crazy contrast between the oak and this old pine. Both just have clear water based poly on them.

Upstairs hall

Upstairs hall

Then with the oak out:


And now!


Then there’s the back bedroom.

Back bedroom

Back bedroom

I pulled out the original floors, enlarged and rebuilt the room, and put the old floors back in, plus some salvaged material mixed in. (This post shows the floors done, 6 weeks after starting in the other room.)



The floorboards in this room are lighter and more varied in color, which I assume is just because my installation as uneven and they had to sand harder.


And that threshold the Irishman built is really light because he cut the original patina all the way off.


There may be a few tweaks yet, but you get the idea for now. I’m pretty ecstatic.