Tag Archives: restoration

My April Fool’s Mansion Revisited

This weekend I was in the Wissahickon Valley Park (highly recommended) for a short hike. On the way back there was no choice but have a look at the place that surprisingly many people actually believed that I bought 2 1/2 years ago.

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This house is in Pelham, a section of Mount Airy that was one of the first planned suburban residential developments in the country. There is a mixture of detached homes and twins but all of them are set back from the street like in a modern-day suburb, but with cooler houses than most. If you’re a little older than me and used to watch Thirtysomething, that show was set in Mount Airy.

Below, note the inappropriate replacement windows on the first floor. If I lived here, these would bother me much more than the windows with glass missing.

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It’s pretty fancy for a colonial! Oh, and there might have been a little water damage here and there. (Photos with watermarks came from the MLS)3255092_103255092_5

But how about today?

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The stucco and pressed metal cornices are good as new! Looks like the original windows have been replaced, which is kind of sad. But it also looks like the replacement windows have been replaced, which was the most important thing in the world. But… I think I spot single panes of glass in the fanlights where there used to be really pretty patterned muntins. It doesn’t look like they cut corners with this place so I’m gonna assume that they had storm windows made and are using them to seal the house while the original sashes are out for restoration. I hope I’m assuming right. Also, how do I get to see inside?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Refinishing them was a chore.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

4th Anniversary Tour – Living Room

This was the first room I worked on. Of course it didn’t look too bad at the start.

 

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Stairs

 

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Living room, front

I got talked into the exposed brick on the stairway side and thought that this was going to nearly double what I had to do before moving in. Of course I doubled the scope several more times after that.

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Then when I enlarged the low and narrow opening between the living room and the kitchen I discovered that the whole house was on one knob and tube circuit – except for a few outlets that were dangerously installed with their wires loose on the outside of the house.

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At some point I grabbed the ceiling for stability and it squished – nail pops everywhere! The plan was to ignore this but then I took down all 3 ceilings. Yes, there were 3!

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And it looked super scary at the end of this.

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The big long wall had to be framed in about an inch because the new chimney didn’t fit flush like the old one did. But now I won’t die if I turn the heat on so it was worth it.

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In the back, I opened the wall to the kitchen but I still wanted it to feel like separate rooms. The doorway and window are now the same height. I was a little bit annoying nagging the Irishman to make sure this happened.

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And I had a few issues with the stairway wall. The basement stairs are super narrow.IMG_3656

 

And the door, which was moved rather crudely from the kitchen to the living room after this stairway was built, jutted awkwardly into the stairway woodwork.

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Some people take the wall out entirely but I like my basement closed. The Irishman had a great idea though. Build wood paneling (in a 1930’s style of course) with a hidden seam so the wall comes out. His idea, my sketch:stairway paneling

And his workmanship

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And I solved the other problem by using a skinny sash bead in lieu of door casing. The cap for the paneling runs straight across and the bead butts up to that, so I got to squeeze in my unbroken diagonal line.

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And here it is built. He then filled that hacked out spot with Bondo.

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And my favorite feature of the room, the inlaid banding on the floors. This is why my floors are blond.

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I picked up a retro modern chandelier and was nervous it would look jarring and out of place in this room, but I’m very happy with it now. The Danish modern dining room set ($218 with tax at the ReStore) helps it blend in, too.

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Just about everything else in the room is very traditional. The gods of Craigslist delivered it to me, but I take contrarian pleasure in bucking trends. Ironically, Apartment Therapy says that green will be the “it” color for sofas in 2017. And let’s not forget that I needed 4 friends to help carry it 6 feet above 4 other people’s back yards and dismantle the patio door to get it into the house. Also, I need a privacy fence ASAP mostly because of the yard pictured.

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And against the brick wall, a little dresser that my great-grandmother hated when she had it right here in South Philly in the 1920’s, the convex mirror that was my grandmother’s pride and joy, and a (plaster of course) Brancusi bust just like one my friend’s parents have that I was terrified of when I was little. This is why having stuff that matches is overrated. I finally, finally don’t need the electric radiators anymore.

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One thing that’s worse than before – drywall jambs and totally rigged 1/8″ thick Masonite trim around the front windows. The windows themselves are garbage so I promise this isn’t permanent, and in a year or 2 I’ll have a facsimile of what used to be there.

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And here’s the after – actual nice photos for a change!

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Atlantic City again – Preserving the Interiors

Now that I’ve scrutinized every detail  of the exterior let’s have a closer look inside. You’ve seen the magnificent hallway.

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Critically, I can’t see any water damage in here since I imagine that helical curved plaster would be especially hard to replace. The only big job to do with this plaster is make sure the electrician doesn’t rattle it off the lathe with a Sawzall. (Ask me how I know.)

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Then let’s proceed to the living room. It’s massive. It has fantastic original light fixtures. But you see the 2 holes in the ceiling? There are bathrooms up there. (You may want to enlarge these panoramic shots)

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I wanted to get a better look at the polychrome paint on the chandeliers, so I wiped one off with a damp cloth. The paint came off with the dirt, I recoiled in horror, and that was the end of that. If this were my house, I’d immediately take them all down for restoration.

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Then there are these built-ins. My friend’s grandparents bought the place and did some light remodeling around 1960. I want to like the weirdness of mismatched styles, but I just can’t come around liking these. Plus, to make way for this bookcase they got rid of the cross set on the left side of the door trim (which is replaceable).

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And a sconce, which may or may not be. Paging Ross. Though they put a lot of original bits in the basement when they took them out. The original could still be around.

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Then in the dining room, once again part or all of the ceiling has to go. And once again the really bad spot is underneath a bathroom.

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You need a better look at that chandelier.

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Then there’s the den. In here we have another fantastic light fixture. Some of the oak paneling is warped from water damage, but I believe just a few panels of good oak plywood and a careful staining job would undo the damage. (This photo was from the listing and can be found here on Old House Dreams.)

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And mandatory ceiling light closeup.

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Also this fantastic desk.

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Then off the den is the conservatory or breakfast room. This room is a blank slate. The French doors were boarded up and covered with paneling to make room for record storage, the floor covered with the type of asbestos tile that reminds me of school, and then it got lots and lots of water damage. I’d try to clean up and reinstall the casing around the doors because it wouldn’t be cheap to replace.

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Then because this post is already long let’s look at the bedrooms. There are 10 of them. Of those, 4 have very little wall space thanks to fantastic French doors everywhere.

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Some of these also have circa 1960 lights that I’m totally on board with keeping.

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Then there’s what my friend’s little sister called the spook floor. She had a point.

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All I can see is fantastic irregular shapes from that Mansard roof. But she does have a point.

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My sister’s boyfriend did this epic house staging.

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I also love that the original 1919 furniture just got shoved up here in the 1960 remodel. And yes you read that right. They have the original owners’ stuff from 1919! Given this light fixture, it’s clear that this was a servant’s bedroom.

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Then there’s this gem. A closet of light fixture globes!

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But where are the fixtures? I bet they’re around. Here’s one!

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We’re still not done, so see you next time.

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Restoring the Exterior Back in Atlantic City/Imagination Land

Back in imagination land, there are a lot of details on this house that (to me) absolutely cannot change – or have to be changed back – and some of that will be hard. But I like hard. So let’s start at the top.

The roof is terra cotta tile glazed green. There are fancy finials on all the gables – but with one or two missing. And there are box gutters integral to a fancy stamped copper cornice.

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You probably missed the ugliness. Here, have a closer look.

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The roof has been leaking for decades, and the salt spray has blasted holes in the outside of the cornice halfway around the house. You’re looking at a lot of money right here, probably about $300,000.00. It’s a good thing this house sold for a million dollars cheaper than similar houses in the neighborhood. An inaccurate roof and cornices would be really, really sad. Better than demolition of course, but sad nonetheless. And so if this were my house, it’s a no brainer. I’d save my money on things that don’t matter, like the kitchen.

Is there a way to save money on this that’s wouldn’t make you want to gouge your eyes out? Could we re-line the gutters with new copper, make spot repairs on the cornices, and leave the fancy corbels with holes in them? That would certainly be better than an inferior replacement.

Moving downward, you saw the big porch with the big balcony on top of it.

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But doesn’t it look a little off?

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Clearly it was redone. Badly. It looks like the cracks were patched up but re-cracked, and original detail was stripped off. And I have a treat for you!

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So what can we see from this photo?

  1. D’aww!
  2. Yes, that tiny woman had all those kids.
  3. A parapet! Here’s a closer look.

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So, I have a feeling it’s time for a new porch, and not a cheap one. We can’t know for sure what the parapet looked like, but the garage gives us a pretty good guess. There is a little more fanciness in the unaltered corner of the porch against the wall if you look back at that. (And also the garage clearly has issues, too.)

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Then, I said there are 11 Juliet balconies. And there’s a big hazard with these. The railings are too low to meet code.

And I have a story. Once I got locked out on one of these Juliet balconies. I squeezed through the aluminum storm door and never noticed that it was locked. I asked my friend’s little brother, who must have been like 3, to let me back in, and instead he locked me out on the next one over. And then I got upset and so he CLIMED OVER THE RAILING to be in the same one as me.

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So pretty scary, right? Nope, that’s not it. After all, this scariness would never have happened if the tacky storm doors weren’t there. So I don’t blame the railings for any danger. No, I’d be scared that I’d be required to bring them up to code. Especially since some of them definitely have to come down for restoration.

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So what to do here? Exemptions? Leaving them as is and repairing them without permits after the project is done? Temporary railings that come down the day after the inspection? Everything is on the table except permanently altering them to meet code. As Boar’s Head says, compromise elsewhere.

And… one more essential is missing from the front entryway. Can you tell what it is?

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It’s those piers with not-so-big flower pots on them. They are for the original lights. But we’re saved! They were in the garage!

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And then there’s one restoration I probably wouldn’t do. Originally the terrace had pretty tile. (Also my friend’s dad on a trike.)

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Facade Plans Post 3 – How NOT to Restore Historic Masonry

Then comes restoring the brick, and this job is scary. I’m going to take the paint off my brick. Many sources recommend avoiding this as it can damage the substrate, but you saw what the paint looks like on my house. For further reading, I suggest this piece from the National Park Service, the preservation guidelines for Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the New York and Philadelphia Rowhouse Manuals.

The problem is that traditional bricks have a durable outer layer from being kiln fired. Inside of that they’re much softer and it’s important  not to take that off. So…

What you really should never do is of course what everyone does. Scrub pointing, or covering over the mortar joints with new mortar without removing the old. This alters the look of the brick and it doesn’t hold up.

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Don’t power wash the brick with high pressure. Traditional bricks were kiln fired and you could take off the outer later, which is the most durable part. And NEVER sandblast historic masonry. This can wear away the surface badly, altering its appearance and shortening its life. I encountered this poor facade on tony Spruce Street. I would have thought it was some kind of rustic 1920’s brick except for that little square that was once covered, revealing the same pressed brick as I have. Also pictured: scrub pointing, paint.

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NEVER use dry heat like a heat gun. This can drive paint deeper into the masonry and make permanent stains. Plus, it doesn’t work well on masonry.

NEVER clean or strip masonry when there’s any risk of frost as any extra moisture that absorbed could freeze, expand, and cause the masonry to spall.

Avoid driving too much water into the masonry even in mild weather as it’s weaker when wet. Repointing before cleaning the surface is a good move, but you can also temporarily caulk the joints and repoint later.

Don’t sand or grind the surface.

Avoid strong acids (Hydrochloric/Muriatic) and alkaline (lye) products and only use in very limited applications.

Don’t use acidic cleaners on acid sensitive stone like marble. (That’s me!)

Don’t expect surfaces to look brand new. Some patina may be desirable and vigorous efforts to remove troublesome stains or residual paint can damage the substrate.

So what can you do? Use the gentlest means possible. Low pressure washing, hand scrubbing, washing with a non-ionic detergent, some mild acid and alkaline cleaners, steam cleaning, and dangerous chemical solvents can all be effective. Test in an inconspicuous area (which I don’t have) preferably a full year before proceeding, but at least a month.

And when I repoint I must not use modern masonry techniques. My house is made of traditional clay bricks with lime mortar. Modern mortars are harder than this kind of bricks, so if the wall shifts, the bricks fail instead of the joints. Some preservationists recommend only using lime while others specify a soft mortar made with lime and Portland cement.

 

My façade is pressed brick, which is very smooth and uniform with very thin mortar joints. The mortar is washed or colored red to match the bricks. Scrub pointing is putting a false wider mortar joint over the real ones. This kind of halfassed job eventually pops off and until it does, it fakes the look of inferior and historically incorrect masonry.

And what about that damaged area?

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I think I should use a water resistant coating here. These are formulated to let water vapors out but prevent liquid water from getting in. Never use a waterproof coating that traps both. And even the best of these products can do more harm than good, but it sounds like treating the damaged areas only could help preserve it. Or if I pick the wrong one it could help destroy it.

So this will be fun right?

Facade Plans Post 2 – A Cornice Vocabulary Primer

The first day of façade work is gonna be fun. I’ll triumphantly rip down the awnings, the capping around the windows, and the siding over the cornice. This will wait until after there is no danger of frost, probably next spring. All façade work including the brick and windows will then need to be done by fall so that the house is waterproof without the awnings.

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But let’s start at the top. The cornice is aesthetically important since it’s really the only decoration a flat-roofed rowhouse has, but it also has a function, partially protecting the façade from rain. At first I regretted having a wooden one, thinking the stamped metal ones would be easier to restore. Now I’ve thought better of it and feel much less intimidated by what I have under the ugly.

But today let’s take a very geeky look at how it’s put together.e. Though it has a distinctly Victorian look, my cornice has essentially the same parts as Classical architecture. And so I want to name them properly.

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The drip edge is part of the roof. This is the roof’s highest point – there are no gutters and the downspout is on the back. I think the original would have been galvanized tin but now I have a modern aluminum one. I’ll probably dent it and call the roofer back to replace it. And today’s off-the-shelf aluminum drip edges are deeper than the traditional ones, so I’ll have to decide if I want a custom one, if I want to cheat the crown down, or if I’ll just let it partially obscure the crown and ignore it.

Then comes the crown. This part is where I most often see rot on other houses, so there’s a good chance I’ll be replacing it. Luckily it’s a standard molding.

Below the crown is the fascia, just a flat upright board. Behind the fascia is the soffit, a flat horizontal piece of wood. You can see that the fascia makes a drip edge, so I’m hoping most of the cornice is protected.

Below the soffit is the bed course, which is much bigger on my cornice than in Classical architecture, but it’s still the same thing. It’s mainly a big flat board with reeding cut into it, and I think I can count on that being in good shape. There are also 5 decorative brackets, 4 rosettes, and half round molding near the top and bottom. These fancy bits are often missing or damaged.

Below that is the frieze, which is technically not part of the cornice anymore. (Architecturally correct language would call all of it together an entablature – but I’ll avoid pretention and stick with cornice.) It’s also reeded and has 4 more rosettes that are smaller than the ones in the bed course. And below that is the foot molding, which is small enough that it might also be wrecked. Below all that there are 2 courses of brick set to look like dentils. I suppose we could call this the architrave.

So when it comes time to restore this, my fingers are crossed that the larger flat boards are all intact. I can use some Bondo if I need to. I’ll have new crown and foot moldings made out of good wood if I need to. Luckily I only need about 14 feet of each. This much of the job has to be done in Phase 2. The brackets and rosettes, not so much. If they’re in bad shape and I max out my budget again, they may have to stay down a while.