Brownstone Boys Renovation Diary: Restoring Plaster Moldings

The necessary repair work after the kitchen demo

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 17th installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at www.thebrownstoneboys.com.

For many of us, when we step through the double front doors of a historic Brooklyn brownstone we feel a rush of excitement to see the charm and character of original features. The high ceilings and tall doors, the grand banister and woodwork, the huge windows with wooden shutters and, of course, the sometimes ornate plaster moldings.

One of the things that attracted us to our place the most is that we have really nice original plaster moldings throughout a lot of our brownstone. They aren’t overly ornate, but they gave us that feeling of something that is special. The parlor level is especially nice. There’s a crown molding on the wall and ceiling with a cove. There’s also molding on the ceiling in the living room. The plaster isn’t in amazing shape; you can see where it has been repaired over the years. Our contractor suggested we rip out all of the ceilings and replace it all with new crown molding. We appreciate the suggestion as it solves some problems, but we just think it would be too sad to lose all of the history and character in favor of sharp new moldings that can be found in a new construction condo.

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The original mouldings that were a selling point on the brownstone

When we were looking for our place we also stopped by to see a few developer renovated buildings. They are beautiful, but most of the original features are removed in favor of a modern open space. The main wall that separates the foyer stairwell and the living area is typically gone. All of the ceilings are new. Fresh new moldings are up, with recessed lighting and central air and heat. It looks great and sometimes it’s done very well, but we want our place to look like a 19th century brownstone as much as possible. So we are going to pass on the recessed lighting and central air in favor of our original moldings and 19th century character!

Our moldings won’t be perfect. They have been painted many times and there are a few spots where you can see they have been repaired. There are also several places where we need to restore them as we reconfigure a few spaces. It’s not something that we have done in the past and it was really interesting learning about the process.

We have about a 12-foot section that needs to be restored in our living room, about 8 feet in the kitchen, and about 10 feet in our master bedroom. We looked into matching with new molding, but we decided that the new molding would be too much of a contrast to the old. We also looked into replicating the molding and having our contractor install and plaster, but we were worried how the finished product, especially the cove, would look, with a different fabricator and installer.

Finally our friend who is a master plasterer stopped by to take a look at our place. He is able to make molds and fabricate new moldings to resemble the old ones (with less definition to account for the many layers of paint). He will finish the plaster work, restore the cove, and blend the new sections in with the old to get the best finished look possible.

Our moldings are not especially ornate, and he often does much more intricate work, but it is still an expensive part of the project. We’re expecting to pay $5,000 to $8,000 for all of our plaster work (depending on the extent). This is not in our original budget, but we decided that it’s just too important to finishing the project and that it’s worth the extra expense.

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The demo of the existing kitchen caused the melodrama of the mouldings

One of the considerations with plaster is safety. Over time plaster can become unanchored to the ceiling and fall. It can be repaired by pinning it back up, but fortunately our ceiling doesn’t seem to have any of those issues. Even though restoring plaster is not something we originally budgeted for, it is still cheaper than replacing all of the ceilings. That’s a win, but it’s even more important to us that we are keeping something that is a big part of the history of our place. We’re excited to see the finished product!

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