Home (and Life) in Progress

Today’s post is going to be a little different than my norm. Nothing historical or political. Instead, I wanted to write about something very personal. My home.

I’ve been too busy to write much recently. My company is in a mad dash to finish as many projects for our client as possible before our contract is up at the end of the year. There are the usual summer events– bbqs, farmers markets, birthday parties, weddings, parades, fairs, and other festivals. I got shingles all over my head and face. Holy crap does that hurt. Oh, and I’ve sold one house and bought another.

I moved to Delaware, Ohio in 2013. Originally, I came here to be close to work as Director of Instructional Design at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio (it shaved nearly 40 minutes off my daily commute at the time), but I fell in love with the town. I feel very comfortable here. It felt like a mix of all the places I’ve lived– the small town feel and blue-collar grit of my hometown; the quaint charm, youthful energy, and educated crowd of the college towns I’ve lived in; the midwestern friendliness I missed when I went out west. Delaware has the feel of a town on the rise.

So I purchased a house. It wasn’t big or fancy. In fact, it was sort of a dump. But I’d always been in love with brick row-houses and the price was right!

Before

In fact, I didn’t really look at other houses. I knew this was what I wanted. I often make decisions this way. Most of my friends thought I was crazy, buying an 1850 row house that had been shoddily flipped in the mid-1990s? In Delaware (or Canada, as one urban core dwelling friend liked to put it)? But I was sold. And as anyone close to me could tell you, once I’ve made up my mind there is little anyone can do to stop me.

I lived here off and on for five years. I left MTSO for the University of Arizona and moved across the country to Tucson. I loved UA– my colleagues, the university itself, and desert winters were everything I wanted them to be– but I missed “home.” Even though I was fulfilled professionally, there was something missing. Tucson just didn’t feel right. So I left UA to work in learning and design in the private sector. With that, I transitioned into the life of a consultant, able to live wherever I please. And that was back here in Delaware.

As a first time home buyer, I missed a lot of issues (and hired a garbage home inspector). The gas lines were completely shot. Didn’t really need a soap test to see it either– the cracks in the old iron pipes were visible (this feels a lot more embarrassing now that I’ve worked in the natural gas sector). I shrugged off the heavily sloping floors. “The house was built before Lincoln was President for god sake, there are going to be some issues,” I told myself. So what if the floor feels like it might cave in when people take heavy steps? No ceiling lights on the first floor? No problem! Tile countertops with wood casing? Easy fix. There are five types of flooring on the first floor alone, including insufferable tile “entry spaces”? Eh, I should be able to fix that.

Bit by bit I tackled these problems as best I could. Often, it took me more than one attempt to actually fix something. There was my cheap, quick fix (which either didn’t work or looked kind of chintzy), the more expensive and time-consuming fixes (where I bought high-quality materials and took my time doing something I had already learned hard lessons about), and finally hiring craftsmen to follow your designs and implement your solutions (carpenters are much better at installing hardwood floors, building trim that mimics the original, and creating custom cabinets).

There are always surprises along the way. Like when you tear out the crappy laminate flooring to find several layers of linoleum under it!

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Seriously. The entire first floor had three or four kinds of linoleum under the laminate and apartment grade carpet. I’m still wild about the brick remnants of the original kitchen exterior wall that the 1990s flipper used as the base of the peninsula/breakfast bar area.

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So you level the subfloors and lay a beautiful oil-finished oak hardwood throughout the 1st-floor. Note: oil-finished floors are incredibly pretty and resilient. Get a little scratch? Put some oil on it! But know that they are also WAY MORE WORK to clean and maintain.

I am an occasional cook. Even still, the kitchen just didn’t have enough storage. So I walled off the back door (there is one in the dining room no more than 15 feet away) and built a custom pantry.

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One day I even got around to grouting the backsplash, putting up all the overpriced oil-rubbed bronze outlet covers I fell in love with, painting everything, and putting the hardware on. I’m still in love with these pulls.

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The 2nd-floor shower (directly over the refrigerator) developed a leak. So I demolished it in a fit of rage after a Browns game one fall afternoon.

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Note: this was a very bad idea. Do not start demolition on a project months before you have the time or resources to finish it. Living without a shower on the 2nd-floor sucked. Made worse by the fact that the cobbled together 1st-floor bathroom really shouldn’t have been used daily (there was so much wrong with that room I came close to just ripping the bathroom off and going down to one full bath).

I also learned that fancy shower doors are a real bitch to install. Seriously, it took nearly as long as tiling the surround.

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The 1st-floor bathroom got more extensive and organized treatment. Rather than rip it out and then let it sit for months, it got tackled in a matter of weeks (save the floor– it took me FOREVER to remove the old floor and lay the new tile). New tub, tile, drywall throughout, custom vanity, new plumbing, replaced the door to the utility room (there was a rotted out folding door before). Also, I learned I never want to chip tile off a concrete floor again. It is slow, painful, and never comes out quite right.

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When you put in a second subfloor to level the house (the kitchen was nearly an inch higher than the dining room and living room) you have to trim your side-door so it can still open. Note: be careful looking at art online after a few cocktails– sometimes you end up buying a huge bust of Napoleon on accident.

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I found out that exposing brick walls was messy work, so I stopped at one. I still think it is pretty cool that when I snapped this photo I was the only person who had seen these bricks since Millard Fillmore was President of the United States. It took several days of chiseling, followed by using a wire brush to remove the remaining plaster. While I had the room taped off and ventilated, it still took weeks to get the dust levels down in the rest of the house. I gave it several coats of a matte finish sealant to keep the brickdust to a minimum going forward. You’re welcome, new homeowners.

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And as much as tearing off all that plaster sucked, it is one the best things I did to this house.

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I’ll miss this little place. I’ve spent many an afternoon or evening enjoying a drink and chatting with neighbors from this porch swing (thanks to Jack Arthur for building it and to Mike Arthur for sending it along to my family– note: it is coming with me to the next house). People in town have always known where I live– “do you own the cute brick house with the yellow door?” I hope I find something as simple to so easily distinguish my new place. I got to watch my first niece learn to walk and talk here. I got a lot of help from friends and family on various projects (especially my mom and dad, my siblings, my brother-in-law John, and my friends Tyler and Jay). That meant a lot to me. I’ve housed friends, family, and people who had nowhere else to go within these walls. 271 N Union Street will always have a place in my heart.

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There is still much for the next owner to do. I never got around to building the alley access garage. The flooring in my office and the guest room could use updating. And boy could the backyard use some sort of landscaping. I am awful with plants. Still, the new homeowners are getting a much nicer place than the one I walked into on September 1, 2013. I hope they make it their own and keep improving it.

On September 2, 2018, I will jump forward a half-century in home design when I take possession of the late Victorian home I purchased (built in 1910). I’m going from 1500 square feet to something north of 4200 (I wasn’t looking for this much home, but the housing stock in Delaware is pretty tight so you take what you can get to be in the area you want). I’m in love with the original features of this home.

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The formal entryway, original hardwood, the beautifully maintained posts, banisters, and stair rail, along with the huge stained glass window instantly had me.

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The backstair well that wraps all the way up to the finished 3rd-floor is a big luxury to me. My only stairwell right now is more narrow, steeper, and less inviting than the “servants stairs” in this place. That ugly kitchen will be the first thing to go– I think I’ll try to write a few posts on that project this fall, time and health permitting.

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The original fireplaces and the beautiful tiling in four rooms will be a huge change for me. The fireplaces in my current home had long been dismantled and walled off.

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There is an original butler’s pantry! I’m in love with this cabinet. I plan on using it as inspiration for the new cabinets in my kitchen renovation, assuming my carpenter approves. The dumbwaiter to the left of the image (with a passthrough to the dining room built-in China cabinet) is not currently functional, but I’d like to try to restore it eventually. Because who doesn’t need a dumbwaiter?

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Aforementioned China cabinet and doorway into the butler’s pantry. Pictures don’t do it justice– it is a really wonderful bit of craftsmanship. This light fixture is also on the “not long for this world” list.

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It is hard to tell from the photos, but between the dining room and den (and then between the den and the living room), there are original pocket doors in basically perfect condition. Also, I have a den! And an office. And none of them are technically bedrooms. And I have a true master suite, with a balcony overlooking my backyard. What world is this?

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I’m really looking forward to getting into this place and making it my own. We’ve been in contract for well over a month now, but I’ve been looking at this house since it came on the market in the early summer (and fell out of contract in late June). It feels like forever.

A lot of people have asked me why I would want to move once I had finally finished all the big projects I had in my old house and got it the way I wanted it. For one, it was simply financially advantageous. I felt like I was getting good value on the sale and ended up with a really good deal on the purchase too. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in the long run, I genuinely enjoy the process of planning these sorts of projects. There is something very rewarding about looking at something and seeing it as it could be rather than as it is. And following through on that brings me a lot of joy. Much like my first home renovation, I have no doubt that I will learn a great deal. I’ll miss some important detail, find something unexpected, and occur greater costs than I have planned for. That is part of the “fun” too. And with a house this large, I can probably just move from room to room, floor to floor, and by the time I get done, it will be time to start over again where I began.

Moving forward, I’d like to share part of that journey here. It is a nice break for me, especially during the Trump era– what else is left to say about all this? And I’m a historian. We love journals.

Beyond that, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ways in which we present ourselves, our homes, and our lives online. I have no illusions that I am being fully transparent here– there is not sufficient space, my memory is fallible, and our narratives tend to smooth over a lot of the rough spots in retrospect (like people don’t need to know how much I yelled and cussed at each hiccup during these and hundreds of smaller projects). But I think there is utility in showing life in progress, messy and clumsy as it often is, rather than life as an idealized finished product. This is my attempt to show some of the messiness of my life. I bought a cheap, old house. I made some bad choices. I made some good choices. It took me a long time to fix it. And I had a lot of help along the way. Let’s see what happens next!

 

 

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