30 July, 2008

Uptown Theatre in Chicago Finds a New Buyer

As friends and family know, Ted and I have long been advocates for the renovation of the Balaban and Katz Uptown Theatre, which is perhaps the biggest movie palace ever built in the United States. We were only ever able to go inside once--it's been closed since the early eighties--but we've hosted a petition to renovate it, published a free PDF reprint of the opening day Balaban and Katz magazine, took part in a documentary (click here for a preview), and pretty much prayed for its restoration and despaired that we would never see it happen. Well, yesterday it was purchased at a forced judicial sale/auction for $3.2 million, and the new owner hopes to see it restored. We have our fingers crossed. It's going to cost a bundle.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from an entry I wrote last fall for my other blog, which focuses on the history of the Uptown Chicago neighborhood. To read a more complete history of the theatre, go to our Web site: Compass Rose Uptown Theatre History.


Near the end of 2005, I was lucky enough to take part in filming a documentary about the preservation efforts surrounding the Uptown Theatre. Prior to that, I had only glimpsed the interior from the street, but I had heard stories of its grandeur. My Aunt Marsha had told me how, during high school in the late fifties, she and her best friend would sneak into the Uptown to catch a show. It was also one of my dad's favorite theatres, the others being the Granada (demolished in the 1990s) and the Nortown (undergoing demolition this year). There really aren't many of these great movie palaces left standing.

The Uptown is a bit of a mystery to most folks in the neighborhood. It's been closed for decades, and it's very difficult to get permission to go inside. I work with Friends of the Uptown, and even I haven't been able to go back inside since 2005. (The caretakers won't let anyone in without a signed waiver from the city, and it's pretty much locked down tight. ) The exterior facade has been stabilized, which means that much of the elaborate terra cotta has been taken down for safe storage. She's certainly not looking her best, and for that she's often called "an eyesore" and a "stumbling block to neighborhood progress." But if they could only look inside! It's still in remarkably good shape. While many of the fixtures have been taken down and stored away over the years, the physical structure and the majority of the decorative plaster and features are there. I do have strong hope for its restoration. There are entertainment prospects who are interested. And heck, if the Oriental Theatre downtown can reopen after being shuttered for 18 years (and now hosting a very successful run of Wicked), it's quite feasible for another movie palace--this one located directly on the train line and in a rapidly improving area--to do the same...

28 July, 2008

Haiku for My New Shop Vac

Oh, Ridgid Shop Vac
What would life be without you?
Dust, grime, and chaos.

*The Rigid WD1950 shop vac, available at Home Depot, kicks some serious ass.

Minor Progress on Basement Office

There's not much to report this week home-improvement wise. I think the economy is hitting a lot of people pretty hard, as a few of my clients have been a little slow to pay--30, 60, 90, 120 days late in some cases. They're good clients, and they do pay eventually, but it is a bit of a burden. So I've taken on a couple of extra projects this week to keep the cash flow going (you freelance types know what I'm talking about) and it's been kinda nose-to-the-grindstone 'round here.

But I get sick of looking at the computer all day, and if I lean too far back in my seat, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, not working, and I feel guilty.

I know it seems a bit narcassistic to have this gigantic 3-piece mirror sitting on my desk, where I can easily admire myself all day. But it's a very cool, very large, art deco mirror that the previous owners left behind; I imagine it belonged to a dresser. We found it in the basement along with two other antique mirrors, which I'm working on rewiring to hang up. This one is sitting on the back edge of my desk until we decide on a more permanent home.

So, tired of the overall view at my desk and in need of a good stretch, I decided to take down the drywall in my office now, rather than later.

My office is the only room in the basement where the sheetrock is intact, nailed up in large, whole sheets rather than the patchwork we found in other rooms; so we didn't expect to find any termite damage at all. I pulled all the nails myself, but the sheets are taller than I am, so Ted helped me haul them to the garage to the ever-growing pile of basement debris. The USG label on the back of the sheetrock has a patent date of 1921, a copyright of 1924, and a manfacture date of May 1926; USG is a Chicago-based company. Mom was talking to one of the neighbors this week, who said her house, our house, and the one in between were all built at the same time, which I'm now guessing is 1926.

I'm about halfway done with the tearout. Here's how the wall looks without the drywall on it.

Look at that absolutely gorgeous beam at the top near the ceiling; it's beautiful, solid, and there's no sign of termite damage whatsoever. I'd love to be able to figure out how to keep this beam visible without it looking stupid or awkward. Unfortunately, it's flush with the studs, and we do have to put new drywall up on this wall, because this is the wall we will run electrical through. It's the load-bearing wall that runs down the center; the opposite side is part of Ted's office. (Note that one of the studs has lathe marks on it; I'm absolutely convinced now that our house was built from reclaimed lumber--probably what brought the termites in in the first place!)

The old wooden skiis and the horsecollar mirror are estate sale bargains--five bucks for the skiis, and twenty for the mirror! I never had them hanging at the condo, because they didn't really fit, but here in our rustic basement they seem right at home.

The next two pictures show the exterior walls. It's hard to photograph these, with the light coming through. It's a lot of light for a basement. The beams above the windows are like the beam in the wall, but they are painted the same 1930s battleship gray as our porch (we found the old paint samples in our basement, check 'em out). How could they have done that to the wood? The plan is to strip them when we get around to installing new windows. These windows do nothing to keep out the cold, and are single-pane glass. As historic as they are, we need something more energy efficient if we expect to work down here this winter.

What's going to be more difficult is figuring out an effective means of stripping the paint from the brick. The brick is a lovely light reddish orange, and I think it would look stunning when cleaned off. The lower half is concrete, half-painted green, and I may try covering that in bead board; I'm just not sure yet. I've tried a few low-toxicity stripping products on the paint, such as SoyGel, but so far no luck.

So, that's it. Not much progress to report, but the office is where I spend the majority of my day, so any little bit of progress feels good.

In an unrelated photo, here's a color combination we particularly like--the green, beige, red, blue combo might, just might, work on our front porch entrance, which is currently painted stark and boring white. This is of the top of a house on our street; it's several blocks closer to the lake on a more affluent, slightly older stretch of road:

And here's our place. It's definitely color challenged. What do y'all think?

And in completely unrelated news, here's last night's cocktail. Are my garnishes getting a little over the top? That mint sprig (more like a whole plant) looks like something from Royal Ascot.

22 July, 2008

Downtown Evanston Illinois

I found a poster of our downtown  showing a cool panoramic view of my town, although you can't see The Box House (I think we were just barely cut off on the right). That's Lake Michigan off to the left, and downtown Chicago in the background, about twelve miles away (or half an hour by the Purple Line Express, if you're lucky enough to catch that).

19 July, 2008

Old Termite Damage in Load Bearing Supports in the Basement

On Thursday, after my cousins left from a day of helping tear down drywall in the basement, Ted and I cleaned up the area of all debris and took a closer look at what we had uncovered. We'd removed most of the drywall from the ceiling and along the center load-bearing wall. Some stretches of the center wall had drywall on one or both sides of the studs. Along other stretches, the walls are made of tongue and groove boards; those we left in place, because they look kind of neat and we'll try to incorporate them when we finish the rooms.

This is the tongue-and-groove wall after the drywall boards were removed.

This is the reverse of the same tongue and groove wall, which is part of Ted's office. I'll clean it up and paint it a better color, but it's actually pretty neat-looking and rustic, so we're leaving it. The reverse side will get drywalled again.

Here's what we have for the studs themselves. There are several large, load-bearing supports and several two-by-fours (actual 2x4's, and not the 1 1/2 × 3 1/2 modern boards) running the entire length. While the load-bearing studs are probably original, the other studs may not be. These have what looks like marks from an old lathe wall, but the marks are facing every which way, not outward, as you would expect. I suspect they were salvaged from somewhere else--another building, another room, who knows? Or is it possible that when the house was built in 1925 (or '26 or '28) they used reclaimed lumber?

This was part of a non-load-bearing wall built between the mechanical rooms. Because it's a two flat, each unit has its own boiler and hot water heater. We plan to remove these studs and create one room for the mechanicals. But note the old lathe marks; there was no lathe or plaster here, just oddball pieces of drywall nailed up, and the marks fall on all sides of the wood, indicating it was probably salvaged from elsewhere.
The wall itself was built over a drain, and sort of floats there, hanging from the ceiling. It was kind of like a curtain between the rooms.

Now, when we refinished the floors on the first floor unit, we found and replaced several boards with what looked like very old termite damage. There didn't appear to be any damage to the subfloor, just the floorboards themselves. We did a cursory check below, removing a few drywall ceiling boards in the basement, but didn't find anything. Still, we suspected we might find some evidence of an old infestation when we tore out the wallboards and the rest of the ceiling.

Oh boy, did we ever, and it covered a wider area than we anticipated. There are shallow tunnels on the surface of the studs and a few of the cross beams and joists. As far as we can tell, it's pretty much on the outside surfaces only. Peeling the chewed up layer away reveals solid hardwood directly below in all areas tested. But it does look scary. I spent an hour googling and looking at photos of such damage, and in most cases it seems people just put on a wood hardener or filled the studs with epoxy if the damage was only on the surface, or added a few support beams.

All of the termite damage is to one side of the beams, the south side, and is very shallow. Scraping off the surface reveals undamaged hardwood.

Some previous owner in the past was aware of the problem, because one beam already has some support pieces nailed to the side, and these are undamaged.

Now, the drywall that was on this section was not in clean, full-sized sheets as you would imagine. Rather, it was a patchwork of small pieces--some only 2x2 foot square--nailed down with a billion nails and--get this--taped with masking tape rather than standard tape and mud and then painted over. Cah-razy. A few of these pieces had the old US Gypsum Corporation label on them, with a copyright date of 1924. (Our house was built somewhere between 1925 and 1928). Because of the patchwork craziness of the drywall pieces, my guess is that they may have been salvaged from elsewhere, too. So we really can't use the copyright date as any indication for when this wall might have gone up, although there was a ton of black coal dust and crap behind it, so my guess is that it was a long time ago, probably even before the last set of owners, who had been here for forty years. My theory of the day is that a long-dead previous owner discovered the infestation, tore down whatever wall covering might have been there, dealt with the problem, and either used the old drywall pieces he pulled down in a new quilt-like configuration, or put up random pieces he found elsewhere.

So, gentle readers, what are your overall thoughts? Our plan is to put down drywall, and leave the studs as they are. There doesn't appear to be dry rot in any of the supports, and the termite damage, like I said, only looks cosmetic and pretty ancient and only on the surface (and only on the south side of any of the pieces).

Anyway, our inspector has an open door policy, and I'll probably bounce the question off of him and see if he thinks we should get a termite inspector in, even if it's old damage. I was just wondering if anyone else out there in House Blogger Land has had a similar scenario.

But seriously, the house has stood for 80+ years, I'm not terribly worried. But better safe than sorry, they say.

18 July, 2008

Basement Demolition and Black Boogers

Yesterday was a black booger kind of day. On a scale of one to ten, with one being light housekeeping and ten being working in a coal mine, it ranked about an eight—right on par with an afternoon of sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh City (and believe me, I know what I'm talking about). Yuck. It was the kind of day where you blow your nose and all sorts of grit comes out.

Well, I hope you weren’t eating breakfast or lunch, or whatever it is you were snacking on in your part of the world. But c’mon. Home improvement is messy, and some projects more so than others.

My cousins Jason and John came by yesterday to help me and Ted pull down drywall in the basement. I have the bestest cousins. Really. I mean that. Jason actually volunteered to help us tear out stuff when he heard we wanted to demo, and recruited John with the words "Do you want to go to Jo's house and break stuff?" Honestly, who could resist that? John's reply was, "You had me at break stuff."

The guys started by pulling down the drywall in the laundry room. I'm too short to reach the ceiling, so my job was to drag out the large drywall pieces to pile in the yard and keep empty boxes rotating to toss the nails and smaller bits into.

To tackle the first wall, they had to carry the old garage doors back to the garage. Unfortunately, the boards in the door are not the same size as the boards used to build the garage roof, as I previously thought. So the doors will sit there at the back of the garage until I can figure out another use for them.
We all wore masks while working, not the cheap dust ones, but masks rated for drywall. They were absolutely necessary, as the opposite side of the drywall boards, particularly the ceiling ones, was coated in a thick layer of black, black dust and grime. Our best guess for the composition of that dust is coal dust from the old boilers. Anybody else ever encounter this? The air was thick with dust the entire time we were working. Even with the masks, my nose was filled with grit by the end of the demolition.

In all, we pulled down about 60% of the drywall in the basement. There are some walls/ceiling sections we left intact because we want to take down those sections and drywall them all in one weekend, so don't want to tear apart those rooms until we're ready. This includes our offices and the storage areas. We don't want to leave those open for gosh-knows how long.

With the cousins here, it didn't really seem like work. We took frequent breaks--after all, the four of us will all be turning the big 4-0 within a year of each other, starting with Ted this fall. No sense in wearing ourselves out completely; we're not as young as we used to be! Here's what the basement looked like when we were done.

Yikes. As careful as we were, that's still quite the mess. We celebrated with not one but three pizzas from Lou Malnati's (The Lou, a thin crust cheese and sausage, and a pepperoni pan, in case you were wondering, Marilyn). Jason's mom was here, too, visiting from Arizona. It's always a treat to see my Aunt Sheila.

After everyone left, Ted and I stayed up until about one in the morning to do the clean up. Neither of us really, really wanted to do it, but we also didn't want to face it the next day. Here's how it looked afterward:

All of the drywall is now in the garage. I read in a magazine a few months back that there was a place in the Chicago area that recycles old gypsum boards, but I'm having trouble tracking that down. I'd like to be able to dispose of all of this waste and not feel guilty about it.

Anyway, tune in tomorrow for some detailed pictures of what we discovered behind the wall boards--there were a few surprises!

17 July, 2008

Memories of My Dad and a Visit from an Old Friend

Like many young men of the sixties, my dad was drafted into the army--almost immediately after he married my mom. He lucked out, though. They didn't send him to Vietnam. The rest of his recruitment class were sent to the war zone, but he was held behind because The Army wanted him to go to officer's training school. They couldn't convince him to make a career of it, however, and so he was shipped out with the next wave of recruits, and they went to Germany. My mom was able to join him--what a great way to spend a first year of marriage! They lived in Heidelberg, and were able to travel throughout Western Europe.

I was conceived in Germany. My parents used to kid me that they had tattooed my butt with "Made in Germany." I can't tell you how many times I used to twist and turn in front of the mirror when I was a kid, trying to get a glimpse of that tattoo. Every once in a while I think about actually getting that tattoo made.

When I was 17 or so, my parents took my brother and me to Germany, and we saw their former apartment, met their landlady, and even went to a couple of their old haunts. My parents regaled me with stories of one friend of theirs from that time, Joey Parent. He and my dad were as thick as thieves back in the day. I just knew that he would have some good stories to tell me about my father; but I hadn't seen Joey since I was maybe two or three. All I remembered was his glasses and his dark, somewhat curly hair, which I loved to pat. Over the years, he and my dad would occasionally get together, but time and distance took a toll on their friendship, as it often does, and they didn't get together as often as they used to.

After Dad died, Mom had an unexpected call from Joey, who had heard of Dad's passing from the obituaries, I think, and they've been in contact ever since. Earlier this Spring, Joey and his wife, Gwen, came out for a visit. Gwen is terrific, she had arranged the whole thing as a surprise for Joey. He knew they were going somewhere, but he wasn't sure where, and it wasn't until he pulled up in front of The Box House that he knew he was there to see an old friend.

Mom has been after me for months to get these photographs off of my memory card. I actually downloaded them to my hard drive ages ago, but have been too lazy to burn a disc for her. So here they are, Mom! Click to enlarge them and then save them to your computer! :-)

It was good to see Joey again for the first time (for me) in 37 years or so. He shared stories of my father from when they first met, some of which I had never heard before. Those stories were as precious to me as gold or rare gems, allowing me a more complete picture and a different perspective on the man who raised me. It's funny how you can know someone your entire life, and still learn new things about him.

Yesterday marked the four-year anniversary of my dad's death. For weeks, I knew it was coming, and I dreaded it in many ways. Each year it's been a brutal day to get through without completely falling apart. Ted has come to expect my regular meltdowns at Halloween--my dad's birthday--Christmas, which was always a big family gathering; New Year's, when I would make my drunken phone call home, no matter where in the world I was; and July 16th, the day of my father's passing.

But this year, I forgot.

Even though I was busy tracking down just what I did with the photos of Joey's visit, I forgot.

I don't know how it happened. But I went through the entire day without thinking that it was the day my dad died. Not once. And I'm not sure how I feel about it. I know that life must go on, and all that, but I feel guilty that I didn't spend this day in my usual funk. I worried about my cousins coming in tomorrow to help demolish our basement, and the bills that needed to get paid this week, and that we were running low on milk. I thought of my dad briefly when I rearranged some things in my office, and came across this picture and "booped" his nose with my finger. But I had completely forgotten that Wednesday marked the fourth anniversary of his passing.

It's crazy, I know, but sometimes I wish I could feel the same intense, emotional pain I felt at the beginning. I loved my dad so much, I miss him all the time. It seems like a dishonor to let the pain soften, to move on with my own life.

I don't know. Am I crazy?

I just really miss my dad, and wish he were still here.

15 July, 2008

An Historic Amusement Park, a Wedding, Cheese Curds, and the Hokey Pokey

Who believes it's possible to meet your soul mate in the eighth grade? When I was that age, I could barely talk to a boy. I didn't have my first date or even kiss a boy until I was sixteen, and that relationship certainly didn't last past my junior year of high school. I dated many boys over the years--kissed a fair number of them, too--and it wasn't until I was in my early thirties that I managed to meet my soul mate in Ted.

But some people do meet "The One" when they're still quite young, and we were at the wedding of just such a couple this past weekend. Ted's cousin met her husband-to-be when they were in the eighth grade, and the relationship has survived all these years, even though they lived in different states after high school and went to different colleges. It even survived the semester she spent abroad in Italy. (I know I would have been tempted by those darkly handsome Italian men!) Just imagine growing old with someone you also grew up with. It's a beautiful thought.

Here are some snapshots from the weekend.

When we got to the hotel, we found a goodie basket waiting for us with coffee from Door County, a bottle of wine, homemade chocolate chip cookies, a book of Irish verse, chocolate, gummie candy, a CD of the couple's favorite music, and miscellaneous sundries. Seriously, I think I love these people.

The basket included this vintage postcard of the Men's Quadrangle at Northwestern University. What a great addition to my postcard collection. And I think I like this tradition of guests getting gifts!

There was some free time the morning of the wedding, so we made a quick trip to Bay Beach Amusement Park, a century-old park that still offers free admission and rides for 25 or 50 cents. Um, the photo above is a self-portrait of us in front of the bay. There's water out there, honestly.

The Tilt-a-Whirl at Bay Beach Amusement Park.
Ted and me with my future inlaws, Bob and Rachel. What a handsome group, although I missed the memo that we were all to wear blue that day. :-)
Now this is how a wedding should be--leave the hokey pokey and the chicken dance to the kids! Kids were very much a part of the wedding, from the March of the Cousins at the church in the processional to hanging out all through the reception. At the reception, the kids all got to wear funny hats.On display at the reception were photographs and mementos of the bride and groom, including ticket stubs for concerts and pictures from homecoming.
Oops! I suppose I should share a photo of the happy couple. Here they are at church, greeting their well wishers. The dress and veil were gorgeous! The bride's grandfather blowing bubbles outside the church.

I felt a bit wistful at this point, because when Ted and I get married, we won't have any of my grandparents there, or my dad, or Ted's mom. So many people that we've loved over the years are no longer with us. But I'm so happy that Ted got to meet my dad and grandpa before they died, and spend some real time with them. Here's the bride's father at the end of the evening. This man is a dancing machine.On our way back home, we stopped for an A&W Rootbeer Float and Fried Cheese Curds--you gotta love Wisconsin. As if we didn't already completely gorge ourselves this weekend between the BBQs and buffets. Ugh, time for a few more situps.
All in all it was a great time, and I'm glad I got to meet a few more of Ted's extended family members. We hope to see you all again soon!

Porch Progress, Summer Quilt Room, and Saucy Pinups

The porch is almost there. A few weeks ago, I showed Mom how to search for extra bargains when shopping online. She found some good, basic, texturized vinyl roller shades that she really liked at JCPenny that were on sale at an already great price (I think they were originally thirty each). We searched Google with the phrase "JCPenny Coupon Code" and found a coupon for 20% off. Combined with a special one-day free shipping promo, we got all four shades for the porch for less than forty bucks with tax. Sweet! The gray-blue nicely compliments the yellow walls and gray trim. As a temporary measure until we decide what to do with the porch, it looks pretty good!

The tenants liked the overall look, so we'll be painting the upstairs porch yellow, too. We're moving the plain white vinyl shades that were on the lower level to the upper porch, which didn't have any shades, just crummy fabric stapled in place.

Mom now spends time in the morning on the porch working at her hand quilting. The quilt on the rack is one for my Aunt Marsha; the tropical fabrics include forties-style pinup girls. Too cute!

Here's a closeup of one of the fabrics she's using, although the background color on this sample is blue (hers is red, but same print):

13 July, 2008

Greetings from Green Bay Wisconsin!

Ted and I were way up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, this weekend for a wedding. I'll post pictures and share the stories after we've had the chance to unpack and find what I did with the camera. (We were only gone for three days, how did we accumulate so much junk and dirty laundry?) This is the first mini vacation we've had time for since beginning the whole house search last summer, and it was WONDERFUL to get away.

The Green Bay image above is from an old postcard made into a poster, and can be found here: Green Bay Poster

10 July, 2008

The Original Garage Doors

This is the room that Ted is slowly morphing into his office, circa last fall, just before we closed. Um, so far all we've done is take down the groovy bit of fabric hanging over the window and the crappy insulation from the pipes and clean out a garbage bag's worth of dust and all the junk left behind by the POs. But I did promise Ted I would post a before photo so we could chronicle all the progress, as we'll be taking on some more serious work next week when we remove the ceiling boards.

And that pale green stage or platform or whatever it is in the center of the room? Turns out those are our original garage doors, or at least part of them, constructed of tongue-and-groove boards. Very cool.

There aren't very many of these obscenely heavy wooden garage doors left in Evanston. Our inspector said he only came across two or three similar ones in the last twenty years of home inspection. Er, one of those was for a house he inspected for us, an inspection that turned out to be a train wreck because--among other disasters--the garage didn't have a proper roof! That tarp is sitting on bare boards; we have no idea why it didn't have a real covering--and no, you really, really couldn't tell from the ground it didn't have a real roof, only when we got up there did we know for sure. (But it did still have the original chimney, which was somehow used to heat the old Model T Fords in winter, so that's something.) This is the house we fired our first agent over. Here are the pics of that garage, inside and out (the doors slid from side to side, rather than up):

We tried out the forearm forklifts to carry our doors out of Ted's office and back to the garage, but they are so unbelievably heavy, that when we got to the stairs I couldn't lift them high enough. They're sitting in the laundry room, waiting for my much-taller cousins to help Ted get them out of the basement.

The boards are in great shape, and we will probably disassemble the doors to salvage the boards for repair projects. Here's the unpainted side of one of them...

All right, I know that doesn't show them off very well. If I think about it, I'll try to get a replacement picture.

Don't Forget to Vote for Your Favorite Edie of Grey Gardens

OMG, all the results are in, and they're hilarious. Drop what you're doing and go to Renovation Therapy and vote for your favorite Little or Big Edie. The competition is fierce, and Maggie is a bit anxious waiting for the results...

09 July, 2008

Maggie as Little Edie of Grey Gardens

Jean over at Renovation Therapy is sponsoring a Grey Gardens contest, where contestants must submit photographs celebrating the enduring spirit of Big Edie and Little Edie, aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who lived in a large, crumbling mansion in East Hampton, New York. Their lives inspired a documentary, a play, a musical, and a movie.

I dressed Maggie up as Little Edie, and adapted a few of Edie's more famous quotes. Check out Renovation Therapy for some great contest entries (feel free to enter as well--just do it by midnight tonight!) and be sure to vote on your favorite photo tomorrow when Jean has them all up.

Removing Insulation from the Hot Water Pipes

Ted surprised me this evening. When I wasn't looking, he removed a good chunk of the insulation that was wrapped around the hot water supply lines in the basement, which feed the radiators upstairs. This is one of the first steps to our basement remodel. A couple of my cousins are coming over next week to help us pull down drywall--I can't wait!

The pipes went from looking like this:

To looking like this:

Sometimes, it's the little jobs that can be so satisfying.

Party on!