Bed Stuy Reno
On our parlor floor, we have two fireplaces. When we bought the house, both fireboxes were closed up with gyp. We opened them up out of curiosity, but we never really addressed them – seemed like to make them safe and functioning wood-burning fireplaces would cost roughly $5000 a pop, and that was on the cheap side. G and I always thought it would be awesome to have the two beautiful, stripped and restored fireplaces functioning, but it just wasn’t in the budget. However, they still needed stripping and the fireboxes needed to be re-closed until the day when we hit the lottery.
So when we finally got through last odds and ends for renting out our place, it included stripping, re-staining, and closing up the fireboxes. The tiles on the fireplace surround had always been painted since we bought the house. Stripping them revealed some funny kitschy Italianate style tiles. The front parlor has a cherubic scheme going on, while the back parlor has what look like Robin Hood-style pied pipers and mandolin players looking off into the distance. Interesting indeed . . . I can only guess these are original to the house, and maybe it says something about circa 1895 tastes.
The pictures above show some before and after action. The stripping and re-staining is not without imperfections, but overall the fireplaces are a huge improvement from what we started with! And if anyone would like to contribute to our fireplace restoration fund, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Just kidding. Unless you would like to contribute. Please feel free if so.)
As G and I tackled the last of the outstanding items necessary to get our bottom duplex ready to rent out, we turned our attention to access to the front parlor. Previously, in order to create privacy in the house, we had separated the bottom duplex with the top floor apartment (ours is a two-family, three-story house) by adding a wall in the parlor level hallway, and keeping the front parlor pocket doors to the hallway closed and locked. The effect of this however, meant that in our duplex, the front parlor could only be accessed by passing through the back parlor. (See the plan above.) Since we used the back parlor as our bedroom and the front parlor as a work studio/guest bedroom, it meant that guests had to pass through our room to get to theirs. It wasn’t a big deal for us, but when it became clear we would be moving to Philly and renting out our space, we decided to add a new doorway to the front parlor from the hallway within the duplex. That would allow for direct access to the room from the hall without having to pass through the back parlor, and hence it could function as a completely independent (and hence private) guest bedroom.
The first thing we had to do was see if it would even be possible to fit a door where we wanted it to go. We had found a free salvage door (thanks, DIBS!) that matched the height of our existing parlor doors, but thankfully was quite narrow. After a little exploratory probing, it became clear that the door would (just) fit. The completed project adds such functionality to the bottom duplex, that we were kicking ourselves for not doing it earlier! But the future is unknown â€“ and whether or not we will be back to enjoy this unfettered front parlor access ourselves, it was definitely a good move to put it there.
The stairway and hall between the lower level and the parlor floor was another one of those projects we really wanted to get to, but it just seemed to take a while. The original plaster walls were kind of beat up, so we had them skim coated by our elusive neighborhood plaster guru â€“ when we could find him.
G and I had looked at a lot of hallway inspiration images, and the hallways of our friends and family. We decided on doing an accent wall along the stair because it travels between both floors, and to paint the baseboard and mouldings a lighter complementing color. All other walls and ceilings would simply be painted white. On the lower level, the enclosure under the stairs that closes off the hallway to the basement is all beadboard, and we decided to treat that like it was moulding too â€“ aspirations for large-scale wood stripping had gone out the window a long time ago!
We settled on a rich deep gray-blue, much like one of the inspiration images you see a bove â€“ Benjamin Moore’s â€œWhale Grayâ€ â€“ for the accent wall, and a lighter blueish-gray for the mouldings â€“ Benjamin Moore’s â€œGullwing Gray.â€
Primer went up on basically all surfaces, followed by white paint. Then mouldings were painted in, and finally, we cut-in and painted the accent wall.
A note about the stairs: they had been covered in linoleum. I wanted to sand them down to bare wood, but that proved incredibly difficult. Using the edge-sander (I tool I hate with a passion), I was able to get most of the remaining gunk of the tops of the stair treads, but I wouldn’t really call the results â€œclean.â€ And I didn’t feel like it passed for â€œrustic,â€ either.
The risers were even more difficult to clean than the treads. I couldn’t really get at them with the sander (edge-sander, no way, and the palm sander just wasn’t up to the task). I tried a multitude of stripping products with mixed results, and finally suggested to G, â€œHey, let’s do carpet!â€
She asked, â€œWhat kind of carpet?â€
I said, â€œYou know that sort of entry-mat rigid straw-like material?â€
Turns out I was talking about Sisal, and G liked it because it was a natural material. So I shopped around, got a few quotes and went with a sketchy outfit I think called Empire Carpet. I say sketchy because they dropped their price in half after I told them I worked for Skanska, and repeated requests to do better. And then I had trouble getting an actual install date. But the guys who showed up to do the work couldn’t have been nicer, and they did a good job. And because Sisal was a special-order carpet (hence kinda pricey), they brought the whole roll with them, and left the leftovers with us, of which there was enough to practically carpet another room. Nice!
From the very first day of home ownership, G and I knew we there was at least one window we would need to replace in the house. The window glass in the back parlor that had been broken by one of the house’s tenants when the previous owner had run it as a more-or-less de facto SRO. Part of our agreement with the seller was that they had to fix the window. Instead, they simply swapped out the broken panel with another broken panel, held in place by screws. This rendered the window inoperable, and it would not fully close at the top. We took a credit at the closing for this and other issues (the usual stuff: basement flooded, ceiling fell to the floor, power cut by ConEd, house broken into, etc.)
So there was one window to be replaced that we knew of. Aesthetically, if it had been in our budget, we would have done a wholesale replacement of all the house’s windows, swapping out all the tired vinyl units with new insulated, low-E glass wood windows. But since we never found that stash of cash hidden in the house’s walls (which only half-jokingly reasoned might exist, since we had already found an actual stash of drugs during our demo phase), we could never afford a giant window project.
So we lived with that one less than perfect window for three years. But when it became clear that we were in fact moving to Philly, and that it was time to prepare the lower duplex for rental, we needed to deal with that window.
But why replace one window when you could replace the whole floor’s windows? They did need it. The parlor floor had the worst windows of the three levels, for whatever reason. Aside from the broken one, the other windows were either impossible to open, or once open wouldn’t stay open, wouldn’t lock properly, didn’t seem to insulate (certainly not from sound, and certainly not from noise), and were just pretty ratty and beat up on the whole.
I looked on the Bstoner forum and called around to get some prices. Wood windows were our ideal, but damn were they expensive. It was something like two wood windows were equal in price to six aluminum windows. Which I guess really equals one to three, but there’s no way to know for sure because the math is just too complicated.
We wound up getting aluminum windows with low-E, insulated glass from AirFlo Windows. All I can say about AirFlow is that they are a pain in the ass to deal with, but their product seems good. I was able to negotiate a per-window price that seemed more-or-less reasonable for what I was getting, but after I placed my order, they fell off the map. They had told me three weeks lead time from order to install which would have been fine, but later they changed their tune and explained that they had meant that at the end of three weeks, they could tell me when the install date would be. What? They were killing my schedule, and when I called them on it, they accused me of lying and harassment.
In the end, they showed up to install our windows on the same day that we had movers at our house loading up our furniture. Amazingly, everyone worked around each other amicably, and at the end of the day, the house was empty, and the new windows were in.
Back Parlor Bureau Process
For our bedroom, G and I decided to build ourselves a bureau large enough to store a lot of different things. We used what was essentially the same system as our bookshelves from the lower level, but used deeper 2x10s as opposed to 2x8s. We also wanted doors for this piece, because we didn’t want to see a lot of clutter and clothes in the bedroom.
Taking a page from her Urban design book, G thought it would be cool to fashion the doors out of old doors – we found two salvage doors on the sidewalk near our house that someone was throwing out, et voila, we had all we needed.
We cut the doors to size and then stripped their faces once in place. End result was pretty sweet!
Desk and Return Bookshelf Construction Process
Desk and Return Finished Product
So, getting back to the house and our work. The desk and return were the last pieces to our lower level built-in bookshelf puzzle. We wanted a built-in desk near the kitchen so that if one of us was working (say on a blog or something like that), we could still be near the central action of the kitchen. Also, it would be a useful location to stash the computer for looking up recpies, playing music, etc.
The “return” portion, as we call it, returns out into the room, and does what we always told people we wanted it to do – divides the kitchen area from the living area, giving scale to each space, without visually closing them off from eachother.
The construction technique, clearly, was the same as with the rest of the project, but here on the return and in the desk’s open shelving, we doubled up on the depth. This was so the return could hold some of our larger books, and the desk shelving could hold file hangers and have room leftover for odds and ends.
In the end, both G and I were happy with the results – it looked a lot like what we had designed, didn’t cost a lot to build, and was an enjoyable project to boot. All in, our costs were around $600 bucks for the total project. One of the largest expenses were the self-drilling hex-head screws that we used – we liked how they looked when screwed into the joist hangers. As I mentioned before, the wood was your basic Lowe’s 2x8x10′s (maybe $5 a board), and the joist hangers were something like $0.59 cents a pop. (I’m not proud with how ruthless we were, but when we finished the project, we did actually return the chopsaw! We were working on a budget after all . . .) Most importantly, it put our mark on the lower level, and was a great focal point to the room. With all our books and objects in it, art on the walls over and around it, we felt it warmed up the house and gave it our own character.
The more things stay the same, the more they change . . . or is it the other way around? In our case, the main constant in G’s and my life is change.
The latest change being that of location. G was offered a job that she couldn’t turn down. In fact, it was her dream job in many ways. The only catch was that the job was located in Philadelphia. And for G to take the job, we would have to be located in Philadelphia.
Long story short, we have moved. But before moving, we had to finish our damn house. Our beautiful damn house. It was done for the most part, but odds and ends still languished. We had decided to keep the house and rent it out. Which meant all those little things that G and I could live would have to finally be resolved. We had already been renting out the top floor apartment (it’s a two-family), but now we would have to race to the finish to get the bottom duplex rented.
Somehow, we made it, and have since successfully transitioned to Philly (about three weeks ago), and have wonderful tenants now living in what was our home.
All the logistics (I needed to find a job in Philly too) and work that had to be done to the house to allow us to move kept us pretty busy, and the blog suffered for it. But now that I write from the comfort of our South Philly rental (I know, I know), I’d like to catch up on the last works we did in the house and finally get to the finish with the blog.
Highboy Bookshelf Construction Process
The Tallboy is our floor-to-ceiling section of the built-in bookshelf. G and I used the same techniques as on the Lowboy, except it was a little more difficult to put together because of its height. We prepped all the horizontals first, by cutting them to size, and outfitting them with their â€œshoes,â€ the metal joist hangers. Once those were ready, we started by laying the base. Then we screwed the horizontals into each vertical, and raised the assembly into place one at a time, sort of like a barn-raising.
Once the whole shelf was assembled, we did tie this one back to the wall with masonry anchors and angles hidden strategically from view on the upper shelves. It is one solid bookshelf.
Lowboy Bookshelf Construction Progress
Et voila. The lowboy, or the first piece of our bookshelf project we finally built. The R&D phase for our bookshelves was about three years. OK, maybe two years. It was just something we were constantly planning and talking about in the background of everything else that was going on at the time with the house. So we had a lot of time to think about how they should look, and how we were going to build them.
G and I had grand aspirations of interlocking horizontals and verticals, but after buying a router and trying out some interlocking mockups on my own, it became clear I just didn’t have the control or know ability to get the look we want.
Similarly, we had some big ideas at first about the material â€“ we wanted something solid and with real weight, as this would be the anchor piece for the lower level. We looked at walnut, cherry, birch, and pine. We wanted something thick â€“ at least an inch, but every place I was calling quoted prices out of our range on the amount of wood we estimated we needed â€“ even simple pine was going to cost us upwards of a thousand dollars, and that was before we even started figuring in hardware and tools.
SO, it was back to the drawing board a little bit â€“ we went to Lowe’s to check out their lumber, and G flashed on their construction grade pine. We liked the look of the 2×8 boards. Actual size is more like 1.5â€ x 6.5â€. They came in 8 and 10 foot lengths, and they were cheap. Maybe $5 a board. Really cheap.
And then we looked at hardware â€“ joist hangers in particular. We thought we could use them to tie our verticals to our horizontals, instead of routing the verticals and locking in the horizontals. And they looked cool to us. We liked the industrialness of the hardware, with the rough unfinished look of the lumber. We bought a chopsaw with a blade big enough to handle the 2x8s in one go, and spent two hours picking through the stacks of lumber at Lowe’s two find the boards we liked.
When we got all the stuff back home, it was actually not hard to get the lowboy done. We did it in one day. With all our drawing and planning, the thing actually came together as planned. And, we thought, it looked pretty good!
Painting the Brick Wall to Prep for New Built-In Bookshelves
First order of business before G and I could really get into building the new bookshelves on the lower level was to paint the exposed brick wall. The lower level does not get a lot of light, and the unpainted brick wall tended absorb light rather than bounce it around. G and I had seen friend’s apartments with painted brick walls, which we really liked, and we started to get into the idea of painting ours. We thought painting the wall white would bring light coming in through the windows deeper into space, and brighten it up in general.
The painting took a while – we rolled what we could, but it took a lot of hand painting to get into all the nooks and crannies of the wall, and cover all the mortar between the bricks. We really dug the result in the end – the space was transformed, the white made the room look more finished and bright, but we still had the texture of the brick wall we liked. And we were now ready to get into actually building our bookshelves.