31 January, 2008

Growing Oranges in Chicagoland

I made my first pre-purchase for the garden this week. Now, growing citrus trees in Northern Illinois doesn't sound like the smartest thing to try with our harsh winters (we're in gardening Zone 5), but I found this company that sells patio-sized trees you take indoors to overwinter.

Stark Bro's in Missouri sells a Citrus Garden Assortment of four different fruit trees: Valencia Orange, Tangerine, Meyeri Lemon, and Key Lime. Aren't they adorable? They'll arrive the first or second week in April, and I think we'll put them at the front entrance of The Box House, by the stairs. The house faces south, so I'm pretty sure they'll receive enough light.

With all of the other expenses that come with the first year of living in a new house, we've given ourselves a pretty tight budget for the garden and will probably only be able to focus on a few things, like the entryway and general cleanup. Most of our grand schemes--the fish pond, the flowering trees--will have to wait until this fall or even next year.

It looks like the bulk of this summer will be spent prepping the ground and taming or removing the shrubs that are already here. I think most of them are going--including the two-story evergreen tree that's practically growing out of the foundation. The dense row of shrubs in front of the house blocks all of the natural light coming into the basement--believe it or not, there are some very large windows just above ground level. So those bushes will have to go, too, as much as I hate the idea of removing greenery; I think we should be able to handle the bushes ourselves, if not the evergreen tree. (Before anyone asks, all the trees in the parkway stay.)

I would love to hear from anyone who has taken out a large tree themselves. Is it worth the effort and hassle? Just how hard will it be to dig out a root ball? Or is a tree as large as this evergreen a good candidate for a professional?

The photo shows Mom in front of The Box House on the day we closed.

30 January, 2008

Original 1930s Paint Palette, 2 of 3: Rust-Oleum

Here's part two of the series on vintage paint chip samples we found in the basement. This one is for Rust-Oleum, which had a factory at 2425 Oakton St. in Evanston.

The paint chip samples included hues for exterior surfaces, roof and barn paint, porch and deck paint, flat oil paint, floor enamel, and shingle stain.

Here's the text Scroll ahead if this kind of stuff bores you.

Our paints, colors of which are shown on the following pages, are designed to meet the exactly requirements of extreme wear and weather conditions, and also to produce a finish that is both durable and beautiful.

Our aim is to submit a line of popular and serviceable colors, capable of pleasing combinations.

If you will carefully follow the general directions for the application of these high grade paints as shown on each can, you will be well repaid in long years of service.

To get real satisfaction use your paints made on a pure linseed oil base. You will be better satisfied and the saving you will make in longer service will repay you many times over.

Directions for Use

Remove full head of package and stir paint thoroughly; this is accomplished by pouring off the liquid portion of the paint, then stirring with a lifting motion from bottom and side of can, gradually pouring back the thinners while stirring. This will insure a uniform consistency of the paint.

For new work

For priming coat, thin the paint with raw linseed oil, using one quart of oil to one gallon of paint. For the second coat, in case thinning is necessary, use one pint of turpentine to one gallon of paint. For third or finishing coat, always apply paint just as if comes from the can.

For old work

Remove all loose paint from surface with steel brush or scraper. When surface is porous and has not been painted for a long time, apply three coats of paint, the same as for new work. When the surface is in good condition, thin the first coat with one pint of turpentine and one pint of pure linseed oil to one gallon of paint. For finishing coat, apply just as it comes from the can.

The above directions will cover the average conditions in painting to insure an absolutely perfect job.

Painting Suggestions

Be sure to brush out paint well, as three thin coats of paint wear better than two thick coats.

To insure best results, new work should always have three coats, two besides the priming coat.

Don't paint damp, unseasoned, sappy or pitchy wood.

Allow three or more days between coats for drying.

Putty all seams, cracks, nail holes, etc., preferably after the priming coat has been put on, as the putty will adhere more closely than to the bare wood.

Always begin at the top in painting, working across the entire width of the building taking care to remove all dust in advance and covering knotty or pitchy portions with shellac.
There's more on how to determine the quantity of paint needed, but I'm feeling too lazy to type that in, and it's the difference in painting techniques from then to now that really has my interest, anyway.

Some of the colors in this palette are actually quite nice, and I'm toying with the idea of using them. As soon as Ted and my mom agree to let me build a shed in the backyard for the chickens (which I'm sure I'm not allowed to raise within city limits), I'm going to paint it this barn red.

The Box House is a democracy, and everything gets voted on. I doubt they'll let me have chickens.

Except for the basement and the back porch, everything at The Box House is currently painted white, but here and there where the paint has chipped and where I've managed to poke behind radiators, I've found evidence of a few of these colors. There was once "cream" colored trim and "pea green" shelves in one of the bedrooms. Another bedroom was wallpapered, with what looks like light pink trim at the base.

In the basement, the exterior brick walls are still painted ivory, moss green, and battleship grey and the sheet rock is ivory and white. Eventually, I hope I'll be able to find a good way to remove the paint and restore the brick.

So, has anyone discovered any of these colors in their own homes?

Our Standard Low Tank Toilet

"Behind the nuts were even bigger nuts," Ted explained as he described trying to remove the tank from the bowl of our 1920s Standard low tank toilet in the basement. I was wedged into the corner of the tiny bathroom, which thankfully was now clear of spider eggs, twisted awkwardly and trying to keep the 7-gallon tank from crashing to the floor as Ted attempted to remove the final nut holding it in. Or what we thought was the final one.

Twenty minutes later, my interest in the toilet had waned and I was rearranging unpacked boxes in new, more-interesting configurations while Ted continued to putter with the tank. He had it propped up with a stack of paint cans he found in the electric room, the 3 x 10 foot room in the basement with two outdated service boxes and shelves filled with various types of paint cans left by the previous owners.

Finally, after a bit more banging around the bathroom, success!

We were taking the toilet apart in order to thoroughly clean it, sanitize it, and to more or less see how it worked and what kind of seals we would need, as it was leaking slightly. Sure, it wastes a lot of water with each flush, but it's vintage, and would only be used as the spare toilet if the ones in the units were occupied (or if one of us was having trouble digesting our dinner and didn't want to...er...offend).

Only, with the tank off and more light illuminating the base of the bowl, we could see that it was cracked in several places. Is it worth salvaging? Or, since we have to pay to get a new toilet seat and replacement parts anyway, is it better to simply get a whole new, more energy-efficient and environmentally responsible toilet? Touch and Flow sells vintage parts, including bowls, and has instructions for making repairs. And I like the idea of salvaging this if possible. Thoughts?

And before you ask, yes, I have used this toilet, grotty though it is at present. In a moment of desperation because we were locked out of the upstairs units and while hovering precariously--Lord knows I wasn't going to sit on that--I made this house truly mine.

Men have it so much easier, don't they?

Original 1930s Paint Palette, 1 of 3: Porch and Deck Paint

Light Drab or Dark Lead? It's so hard to choose...

While puttering in the basement yesterday, I decided to take out a junky old cabinet in the work/tool room. None of us liked it, and had no intention of reutilizing it anywhere in the Box House. For now, it's in the garage, awaiting some decision as to its ultimate fate.

As we were wrenching it from the sheet rock, Ted noticed that on top of the cabinet was a collection of paint chip sample brochures from the 1930s. One of them was dated 1935, and I assume, from the style of the illustrations, the other two are from the same period. Sweet!

Those of you who are trying to restore your 1920s or 1930s home may find these palettes of interest. I plan to upload images from all three this week, and type in the accompanying text.

The first is for Florex Wood Cement: An Enamel Paint for Concrete and Wood Floors. It was distributed by the Wood-Davis Company at 1565 Sherman Ave , which today houses Vive le Crepe, a French-style bistro and creperie. There were other Wood-Davis locations at 4664 Lincoln in Chicago, 6316 Northwest Hwy., and 1318 N. Clark St. in Chicago.

Here's the text from the Florex brochure:

Quick Drying
One Coat Covers

For use on all surfaces--wood, concrete, metal, and composition inside and out. Let us tell you how small the expense will be to paint your basement or attic floor, porch, laundry--or any inside or outside surface.

Porch and Deck Enamel Paint

Floors, both inside and out, steps, and boat decks are necessarily subjected to an unusual amount of wear. Unless coated with a finish designed to withstand the constant abrasion from walking and moving of furniture, as well as exposure to the elements, floors and decks soon take on a very unsightly appearance.

Porch and Deck Enamel is scientifically prepared to withstand especially hard usage on wood, metal, or concrete surfaces. It forms a beautiful gloss that does not become dull from repeated washing and scrubbing.

Porch and Deck Enamel is a product of high gloss and extreme durability. Specially adapted for garage floors, porch floors, hospitals, offices, factories, etc. It comes ready for use, drying hard over night.

General Directions

The surface must be thoroughly dry and free from loose paint, grease, and dirt. Brush the paint out thoroughly in thin even coats. Make certain that each coat is perfectly hard and dry before applying the next coat.

*New Floors: To obtain best results, use three coats of paint. First coat should be thinned according to instructions on the label. Apply the second and third coats without thinning.

*For Previously Painted Wood Floors: Bare spots should be touched up with paint thinned as for "New Floors." Sandpaper the surface well when dry, then apply one or two coats without thinning. If there are cracks between the boards, fill these with Paste Wood Filler after the first coat of enamel has been applied.

*For New Concrete Floors: Important--Do not paint concrete floors when they are cold, or when the room is cold and wet. This condition will retard the drying of the enamel.

Cement floors that have been laid directly on the ground without the proper drainage rarely present an ideal surface for painting, because moisture will cause it to remain in a tacky condition. The surface should also be free from alkali, as an alkaline surface will prevent the enamel from drying.

Test for Alkalinity

Wet various spots of the floor with water and place a piece of litmus paper on each spot. Allow to stand for a few minutes and if litmus turns blue, it is an indication that there is alkali present. In such cases, the alkali should be neutralized by applying a wash coat of three pounds of Zinc Sulphate to the gallon of water. Let dry thoroughly (at least three days) after which brush the surface carefully to remove any remaining crystals.

*For previously painted concrete floors: Touch up any bare spots as directed for new concrete. When thoroughly dry, apply one or two coats without thinning.

Paint techniques don't seem to have changed that much--except for maybe the alkaline test!

Color 227 Battleship Gray is the exact color used in our back stairwell/porches. (The flash makes it look lighter in the picture.) The porches are enclosed, but not heated, and the interior wall surfaces and decks are this very shade. Do you think it's possible the paint job dates back to the 1930s? Or have previous owners just used the same color over and over? It doesn't really look like there are too many coats of paint.

On one of our errands this week, we stopped at a Sherwin-Williams paint store to pick up a few of their interior preservation palette samples, which I first discovered after reading Chicago Two-Flat's description of using Bunglehouse Blue for their door. They are an excellent source for reproducing period interiors. Here are links to find the palettes on the Sherwin-Williams site:

The warmth and charm of the 1800s that's just as beautiful today.

Arts & Crafts
Return to the basic lines and balance inspired by the Arts & Crafts style of the 1900s.

The intricate delicacy of the Victorian decorative style.

The Jazz Age
A palette of contrasts captures the vintage look of the 1920s.

Streamlined Years
Warm, personal hues evoke the simple sophistication of the 1930s.

Suburban Modern
An optimistic outlook reflected in the cheerful colors of the 1950s.

28 January, 2008

I Don't Like Spiders and Snakes, a Basement Adventure

I don't like spiders and snakes
and that ain't what it takes to love me
you fool, you fool.
I don't like spiders and snakes
and that ain't what it takes to love me
like I want to be loved by you...

I've had this song, Spiders and Snakes, going through my head all day. It's from Jim Stafford's self-titled album, one of my all-time favorite cassettes growing up--yes, I'm old enough to remember cassettes. Actually, it was my mom's tape, and I swiped it from her when I left for college. It was great roadtripping music between Chicago and Iowa City, where I attended university.

I don't really mind snakes or spiders. Spider egg sacs, however, I can do without. Particularly when they're in my house. Lest you think we've been slacking this week while the contractors sand and refinish the floors, rest assured we've been hard at work clearing out the basement of junk, sweeping, and sorting through the items left by the previous owners. We've put in two full work days so far. (The highlight of this week's Basement Finds: A box of underwear, including boxers, granny pants, long johns, etc. Ted threw it away before I could take a photo. But really, who out there wants to see a box of old underwear? I don't have to chronicle everything.)

So. Spiders. While I only spotted one live spider and a half-dead moth, there where hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of egg sacs surrounding each window and piled in the corners. I don't know if these are all from this year, just waiting for spring to inundate us, but I took no chances. With our handy dandy (actually, it's a bit of a junker) shop vac, I vacuumed the bulk of them up, returning with a broom and rainbow-colored dust grabber to get the rest. Eeew. Our basement has two boiler rooms (one for each flat), three separate storage/bedroom/office rooms (not sure what we'll use them for yet), a laundry room, an under-the-stairs storage area, and a main, general-purpose room. All but the under-the-stairs room have windows. That's a lot of spider eggs. I feel like I wiped out an entire civilization from our basement, a spider armageddon.

Lucky for us, today was trash day, and we were able to clear several bags of assorted basement junk all the way out of The Box House, to the curb, and away. However, not everything can be dealt with immediately. There are old glass table tops, half-used paint cans, nearly-empty-but-not-quite cans of twenty-year-old spray starch, and a host of other things that I need to contact the city about for the means of proper disposal. All in all, we can only get one car in the garage at present because the other half is being used as a staging area for this stuff. I'd like to recycle, donate, or reuse as much of the stuff as possible and keep it from the landfill, but it's not going to be easy.

So yes, we've been busy dejunkifying.

I was going to bore you all with more pictures of how the floors have been coming along, but unfortunately we've been locked out of our own house for the evening. We ran a few errands this afternoon, and came back to find that the contractors had used the chains to lock all the porch doors. We didn't plan on sleeping at The Box House because of all the fumes from the stain and the still-lingering dust clouds, but I did want to stand in the kitchens, which are accessible from the back porches, and survey the overall progress. We can't go up the front stairs tonight because the stairs themselves have been stained today. I was told in no uncertain terms "no walk floor" by one of the work crew, about the extent of our communication. (Only the project manager, who wasn't there today, is easy to talk with.) It's no big deal, really, but it is slighty funny in a frustrating way to be locked out.

Floor pictures will have to wait.

27 January, 2008

So That's What It's Called

I'm a child of the suburbs. Although born in Chicago, I grew up in the Northwest Suburbs, in a home built in 1977. Forced air heating was all I knew, and my first encounter with a radiator was in my college dorm. I had steam radiators in a few apartments as well, but never concerned myself with how they actually worked. That was the landlord's job.

Now I live in an 80-year-old brick two flat with hot water radiators--and I have no idea, really, what we should do to maintain them in proper working order. Our home inspector gave a brief demonstration on how to bleed the air out of the radiators and, armed with that knowledge, I rather smugly went from radiator to radiator this week, turning the key and listening contendedly to the little hiss of air escaping. However, only one radiator spat water out of the valve after expelling the air. That's when I realized that whoever painted the radiators in the past had painted the valves shut, and the air was coming out the key hole.

I knew we were going to need some kind of radiator upkeep manual to learn more about the system.

I work as an editor, so I do pride myself on my Google research skills. Yet I am embarrassed to say it took me two days before I stumbled upon the proper name for the type of heating system we have at The Box House--hydronic, which simply means that water is used as the heat-transfer medium. (When I told Ted the proper term, he gives me a look and says, "Yeah, I know." *Sigh* Nobody told me.)

Armed with this new tidbit of information, I quickly found a Web site called Heatinghelp.com. There is a forum for questions and information on the mechanics of various heating systems. They have one book for sale that I might get: How Come? Hydronic heating questions we've been asking for 100 years (with straight answers!). It's $25.00, and not available any cheaper on Amazon, so I may wait a bit before making the purchase.

My question for you all is this: What other resources have you come across for learning about hydronic systems? Later this year, when the weather is warmer and we can open the windows, I want to paint some of the rooms and we will need to move the (friggin' heavy) cast iron radiators to paint behind them. I'd like to do so without destroying the system.

26 January, 2008

Goo Be Gone

The contractors have begun staining the floors of The Box House with Minwax Special Walnut. This pic shows the bedroom on floor two that gave Ted and me the worst time when we pulled up the carpets. While we were able to to tear out the carpet and padding ourselves, we couldn't remove all of the gummy glue used to keep the carpet in place. The floor contractors were able to sand it smooth and the stain looks marvelous. They did a fantastic job around the radiators, too, using small hand sanders.

There will be two coats of finish on top of this, which they'll begin applying on Monday.

The quality of old house construction staggers me. Our condo has wood floors, too, which were thrown in as part of a St. Patrick's Day special (the builders were Irish). But the wood, while pretty, is little more than a veneer, and very susceptible to damage. The planks at The Box House are more than half an inch thick, and could probably even withstand several more sandings before hitting the center groove--not that we plan on resanding again in the next few decades.

When budget allows, we'll be scattering around oriental rugs in all major traffic areas to minimize wear and tear, and all the furniture will have felt pads. I'm not sure how well my "no shoes in The Box House" policy will fair, but don't be surprised when I stare pointedly at your feet when you come by for a visit--it's not because I like your shoes. :-)

Love is the thing that enables a woman to sing while she mops up the floor after her husband has walked across it in his barn boots. —Hoosier Farmer

Smooth as a Baby's Butt

Our buyer broker rocked. When we first started looking for a new home, we knew we wanted to use a buyer broker--a real estate agent who only represented buyers, not sellers. After an initial bad experience with another agent, we were lucky to find Joel Epstein of North Shore Buyer Brokers. Joel's company offers a 20% rebate on their commission--which means that after we closed we received a check for a couple of thousand dollars. How many real estate agents offer that? Very cool.

So what did we do with that money? I guess we could have applied it to the first mortgage payment, but that didn't sound fun. After a short pow-wow session, we decided that the best use of the bonus funds would be to put it toward sanding and refinishing the floors.

Some of the rooms had carpeting, others were in desperate need of repair. Between the two units, there is 2100 square feet or so of floor space--and we wanted to sand and refinish the entry stairwell as well. After reading other house blogs I knew that we were probably capable of doing the task ourselves, but it would no doubt take us a really long time to get all of that done--and it wouldn't be anywhere near as good as what a professional could do for us. It was an easy decision, really.

All of our furniture and possessions are in the basement of The Box House, so this is the best possible time to work on the floors. In addition to being in desperate need of a good sanding, there were several damaged areas of flooring as well. The company we chose brought in wood to match what we already had. While the pieces are as thick as the 80-year-old floors in place, the planks are much, much shorter. We were told by each of the floor companies we interviewed that the wood you get nowadays is not of the same quality available to previous generations. You can't easily get 15-foot planks. The contractors brought in a pile of short replacement boards, but promised us they would blend in well.

Replacement pieces for the damaged portions of the floor.

The following sets of pictures show the floors as we first saw them, and what they looked like after being sanded and repaired.

Floor one, middle bedroom. There were several damaged boards near the wall, the longest of which was 15 feet.

Here is the same patch of floor repaired and sanded. The contractors left as much of the original boards as possible, removing only the damaged bits. If I didn't know better, I would not have guessed this was the same floor.

This is a close up of floor one's dining room. It looks like an attempt was made to replace previously damaged floor boards, but the repairs were not stained to match and are themselves quite old. I am not sure when these repairs would have been made.

The same section of dining room showing the repairs. Again, I think they blend in really well, even with the shorter boards.

We knew that we wanted a stain that would look traditional and yet would show the amazing grain of old-growth forest wood. We asked for something in the "medium" range that would compliment the baseboards and other trim. What we settled on was Special Walnut, made by Minwax. It's the bottom sample in the image below. It has a touch of red to it, and really makes the woodgrain jump out at you.

The contractors will be at The Box House for another few days as they continue to sand and repair the floorboards. It will be a week or more before the final coats of poly are applied and have had time to cure--and only then we can think about bringing our furniture upstairs.

I can't believe how much better the floors look already; the final results should be nothing short of miraculous. All I can say is "Thanks, Joel!" I'm not sure we would have done the floors like this without the rebate.

22 January, 2008

Worth Getting Up in the Morning

I am feeling rather creaky today, still a little stiff and sore from the carpet pulling adventure. But it's hard to feel truly cranky when waking up to this. This is one of the living room piano windows on floor one. The house faces southward, so we have light streaming in for most of the day. The window opens, too, so on warmer days we'll be able to get some great breezes coming through from all directions.

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.
—Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross

21 January, 2008

Ripping Out the Ugly, Toxic Carpet

We tackled our first real project at the Box House yesterday: removing the carpet in all of the Floor 2 bedrooms. (There was no carpeting on floor one, thank goodness.) We narrowed down our search for floor finishing experts and have a team coming out later in the week to completely sand and refinish the floors upstairs and down, with the exception of the kitchens and bathrooms. To save money we decided to tear out the carpet ourselves.

We had visions of the entire project taking only a few hours for the three rooms. I had picked up The Black and Decker Complete Photo Guide to Home Improvement and it looked straightforward enough. Step 1) Rip up carpet and padding, Step 2) Throw said carpet and padding away.

Uh-uh. It was a lot tougher than those photos made it look. Our carpets were glued down in some rooms and in others we had to remove literally hundreds of staples because some previous contractor had gone staple happy.

Here's what we started with. (Click to view larger images.)

Bedroom one is off the living room. The quarter round piece of trim that you see was an unfinished piece just sitting in the gaping crack where settlement had pulled the wall out slightly. We'll have to fill that in later...with something...when we redo that trim.

Bedroom two is off entryway and next to the bathroom.

Bedroom three, the smallest of the bedrooms, is off the kitchen. It's so small that I had to stand in the kitchen to take a picture.

My job was to pull up the carpet, cutting it into thin strips that we could then roll up and stuff into construction garbage bags. I used a carpet cutter for the task. We both wore face masks rated for dust and mold, as there was clouds of nasty stuff coming out of the carpets as we moved them. Underneath each one, there were piles and piles of dirt and grit. Whoever invented wall-to-wall carpeting was evil. I don't think your standard household vacuum cleaner can ever get them clean enough and when people have carpets installed, they tend to stay there for decades. Unless you never use a room, carpets tend to look shabby within a few years, in my opinion. Give me hardwood floors and easy-to-swap-out oriental rugs any day.

While I was doing that, Ted pulled up the tackless strip--a stupid name, considering there are thousands of pin-sharp tacks along its length. I guess it's tackless because you're not supposed to need additional carpet tacks to keep your carpet in place. Each tackless strip was nailed down to the floor about every two inches or so with way more nails than needed to keep it in place. He used a molding pry bar to pull it up, but the wood strips were old and weak and kept splitting, making for a rather grueling task.

As Ted was finishing up with the tackless strips, doubling back to pull out all the nails, I began cutting and rolling the carpet pads. This was the worst part of the entire project. In bedroom one, it looked like it had sort of melted to the floor or was glued on in patches. It did not want to come up, and rather than rolling it up in neat strips, I had to tug it up in patches. It was stapled to the floor along the seams, so when I got to those parts I needed to get a hammer and use the nail puller end to pull out each staple, which was held in place with gummy, semi-decayed padding. Ted helped after he finished with the tackless strip. "This is as close to someone else's old carpeting as I think I ever want to be," he said. I agree. We had to work on our hands and knees, peering at the floor from mere inches away as we searched for rogue staples. Thankfully, we had our masks. And the padding in the other two bedrooms came up pretty easily.

Here are a few more intermediary stage picture:

Bedroom One

Wallpaper sample found behind a radiator.

Ted in bedroom two.

Clean-up took a long time as we bagged trash (nine bags in all) and swept out the rooms. Bedroom one with the glued down padding took the longest. I didn't have a floor scraper, as recommended in the Black and Decker book for removing gummy stuff, so I used a putty knife/paint scraper instead, gently running it along each floorboard to pull up as much gunk as possible.

What we ended up with were floorboards of three different colors. I think the original color of the stain was medium-dark, as seen in the next photo. The floors in bedroom two were sanded and not restained before putting the carpet down. Why would they sand first? I have no idea.

Bedroom one--cleaned of all the goo.

Bedroom three--looking good!

Bedroom two--all ready for a light sanding!

By the time we were through -- six hours later -- we were exhausted and starving. With nothing in the refrigerator and unwilling to cook anyway, we headed out in search of fast food. Thank goodness we're only a few blocks from the border with Chicago and all the late night and late late night restaurants that can be found on Clark Street. Although it was two in the morning, we founds a 24-hour place serving burritos as big as our heads. Really, I know we shouldn't be eating this stuff, but it was soooooooooooooooooo good. Heck, I think we earned it.

I can't wait for the sanding guys to get here this week!

Please don't feed the dust bunnies.
—Author Unkown

18 January, 2008

Winter of Our Discontent

A client sent me this macabre snow scene a while back--it nicely sums up my general irritation that winter has returned. It's bad enough to try to move and settle into a new place in the dead of winter; worse still is noticing some outdoor maintenance projects I'd like to get to sooner rather than later and can't because of the weather.

Last week it actually reached the low sixties in the Chicago area. The snow that had accumulated on the garage roof melted quickly, but we noticed that the brick at the back of the garage, below the gutter, was pretty damp--meaning the gutters were clogged and one of us would have to climb up and unclog them. Based on the visible brick wear and (mostly cosmetic) damage, I think this has been going on for a while.

So a few days ago, shortly before sunset, Ted and I dragged a ladder to the back of the garage and climbed up on the roof. I had it in my head that I'd be able to just scoop out the leaves and debris that had accumulated in the gutter and be done with it. That wasn't going to happen. It has been so long since the gutter had been cleaned that it was now firmly packed with mud, frozen mud. There were a few dead leaves embedded in the surface, but otherwise it was solid, unyielding, rock-hard mud. No wonder there was water backing up into the walls!

Because it was quickly getting dark, we decided to tackle it later in the week. I should have paid better attention to the weather report, because the temperatures have rapidly plummeted; it's like 2 degrees outside right now, and no relief in sight for the next 10 days. It's way too cold to work on the roof, and the job will probably take a while because I'll have to dig out all the compacted mud with a spade. So far, the gutter itself looks to be in decent shape, thank goodness.

I know it's probably been like this for years and a few more weeks won't matter much, but things like this drive me crazy, especially when I see a newly formed sheet of ice on the inside of the back garage wall. Why was it never cleared out? Why? Why?

Burn Baby, Burn!

Unfortunately, the fireplaces at the Box House are decorative only, which is a bit disappointing. Our condo has a fireplace, and even though we only used it a handful of times each winter, I like the option of having a fire. Eventually Ted and I may get a gas-burning stove to put in the corner of the living room and satisfy our fire fetish.

Floor one of the Box House still has a decorative fireplace insert, original to the house. I'm not sure exactly what these things are called, and numerous keyword combinations on Google and eBay yielded nothing. I can't find anything quite like it. (If you know the proper term for this, please tell me!)

It's made out of cast iron with a polychrome painted surface. (The middle bedroom downstairs has sconces in the same medieval theme, but they are covered in heavy layers of paint, which obscures all detail.) The seller's agent, who is also a granddaughter of the Previous Owner, does not remember the fireplace ever working.

We spotted another of these fireplace inserts in the basement when we first looked at the place, and when we made the offer we made sure to have it written in that this would not get thrown away, as we might want to reinstall it on Floor 2. That one is pretty rusty, however, and would need to be stripped and repainted before it could come back upstairs. It has one red bulb, and one white, which I imagine give a sort of static reddish glow.

Because we plan to have the floors sanded next week, we haven't moved any furniture in. Nearly all of our possessions are piled in the basement and on the back porches. The only furniture upstairs, if you can call it furniture, is a mattress and a T.V. Ted and I camped out in the Floor 1 living room a few days ago. We rented both Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and the later remake, The Money Pit, for an inspiring double-feature. (There's a strange parallel in both films as the new homeowners spend their first days on a mattress on the floor--it was a life-imitating-art-imitating-life moment.) As I brought in the snacks and a bottle of port, Ted shared his surprise--he had, unbeknownst to me, gotten the fireplace insert working! Unlike the rusty one in the basement, with its red and white bulbs, this one had been fitted with a spinning disc to simulate live flames. Mere pictures won't do it justice, so I've uploaded a movie.

Although there's not a bit of warmth coming from it, after a few glasses of port it definitely seems more lifelike.

15 January, 2008

Parkway Planting

Before planning anything for the parkway, I thought I'd better check to see what the restrictions are. The City has an extensive Web site, but it isn't always easy to navigate and find just what you need. Nobody seemed to know who I should talk to. After a couple of days of poking around, I finally found someone who could help. I'm posting the info in case anyone else has had difficulty getting an answer:

The City has two requirements when installing landscaping on a parkway. First, you must submit a planting plan that indicates the location and species of all proposed plant material to my attention. I will review the plan and either ask for changes to be made, or issue a parkway planting permit. We do not charge for this permit, and it can usually be issued within a few days of your plan submittal. In general, no plants that mature at a height greater than three feet are allowed on parkways, as they may obstruct traffic site lines.

The second requirement is that the grading of the parkway cannot change substantially underneath any existing trees. What this means is that you cannot add significant amounts of soil or build a raised planter at the base of, or under, existing trees. The addition of soil, especially at the base of the trunk, can cause serious damage to the tree’s root system and can pose a threat to the overall health of the tree.

Please let me know if you have further questions, and good luck with your efforts to beautify your parkway.

Paul D'Agostino
Parks/Forestry Division 
I know I'm probably being overly cautious. It's not like I want to build massive retaining walls in the parkway. I just want to plant some flowers and a few bushes. But have you seen how expensive landscape plants are? Yikes! The last thing I want is for some city official to request we remove them.

12 January, 2008

Thoughts of Spring, or Our Humble Garage

The "Shine in the Shade" collection by White Flower Farm,
an early contender for the garden around the garage.

As more and more flower, seed, and bulb catalogs arrive at our door (I sent business reply cards for, I'm not kidding, nearly 30 of them), I'm starting to look at the Box House yard as a blank canvas. Sure, it's only January, but with this freakin' weird fifty-degree weather we've been having in the Chicago area, it's hard not to think of spring.

I'm not sure what I want to plant; for the last five years, all Ted and I had was a small deck off the master bedroom of our condo. We had the top-floor unit and few things were able to survive the ever-present sun, which tended to bake everything. What Mother Nature didn't kill, our cat Pascal tried to finish off--she was forever balancing herself in the flowerpots to use as a summertime litter box, precariously hanging halfway off the deck in the process. In such harsh conditions and circumstances, we were limited to growing the most sun hardy, cat-repelling (and overused) flowers--geraniums, marigolds, and the like. Boring. Boring. Boring. I have no intention of ever planting an impatien or its kin in my garden again.

As for Mom, she has long kept a garden, and she's both looking forward to a smaller yard and new terrain. The Box House also gets much more sun than her previous house, so she'll get to experiment with new plants. Between the two of us, we should come up with something good. We've already had long, dreamy discussions of naturalizing crocus, snow drops, and daffodils in the lawn and planting wisteria trees and red horse chestnuts. But our budget is going to nip many of those ideas in the "bud" (Heh-heh).

So, yesterday I started taking pictures of the yard to share with family and friends and get ideas for what should be planted. Originally, I planned on scanning them into this computer program called 3D Home Architect: Landscape, but honestly, it looked like too much of an effort and I'm far, far too lazy. I'm good enough at visualizing things (I hope), and many garden supply centers sell pre-matched plants to take out some of the guesswork.

To begin, you see our saggy garage. It's a lot more solid than it looks. Really. I do trust putting our cars in it. Honestly. It's probably as old as the house--1928. The inspector seemed to think it had sagged as much as it was going to, but there were a few things we could do to strengthen it. But that's not what this post is about. Can you see how barren it is? It will definitely need some life, some color around it, next spring.

Here's the side adjacent to the alley. I think, once the sun passes its zenith, it will be fairly shady. So perhaps a morning-sun tolerant shade garden. Something bright yet simple to care for, as our neighbor across the alley will be looking at this more than we will. (Click to enlarge these pictures. I'm loading them as small pics to save on download time.)

But what the heck is up with all this sand? We'll have to dig it out and reprep the yard before planting.
There are also several weed trees which should be removed, but I'm not certain if we can do that ourselves or if we have to coordinate with Com-Ed; they come close to the electric wires (and block the back gate). Also check out the damp spot on the wall. I don't think the gutter was in the habit of being cleaned, the water backed up into the walls with snow melt. This would explain the efflorescence inside and the solid layer of mortar at the corner. Again, I'll save that for another post.

There's a small strip of grass and dirt alongside the driveway; it's practically begging to be landscaped.The side facing the house has two cast iron planters they left us, and a sidewalk that will only accommodate pots, unless we rip it out. Definitely ain't happening anytime soon. The bulk of the tiny back yard is comprised of bark chips where there was once a swing set. I think I'll be able to reuse those beams elsewhere as edging.

And finally, the back of the garage. Those doors have been sealed off for decades, allowing whole trees to come up through the sidewalk cracks. We don't anticipate using those doors anytime soon, but will clear the area of rubbish plants to at least make the place habitable, and extend the yard for our dog Maggie.

So, if anyone has suggestions for how we can "spruce" (heh heh) up this area, let me know. We have a ton of terra cotta and ceramic pots, a couple of trellises, and some assorted garden statues to get us started.

Two More Flooring Contractors Visit the Box House

In our continuing quest for floor sanding options, we had two more contractors come in for an estimate in hopes of finding a midway point between the previous bids. Both of the companies that came in were top-rated on Angie's List, with what seemed like reasonable prices and lots of A+ reviews.

We liked the first guy quite a lot; he seemed to know his stuff and answered all our questions. He was here for about 15 minutes, and gave us a quote that seemed pretty decent. We liked that he could provide that on spot without having to go back to his office and crunch numbers.

The second guy provided more of a "presentation," explaining a bit about the sanding process and what we can expect as a result. He even had this nifty little laser tool for measuring rooms, rather than a standard tape measurer. (I have got to get one of those!) He brought a color chart, and based on the samples, I think we like the DriFast Special Walnut by Bona. It's an oil-modified quick drying stain. It's not too dark, not to light, and has a reddish cast to it.

This contractor also discouraged us from doing too much. The floors in the upstairs unit had been recently sanded by the Previous Owners, but we're not particularly happy with the results. He cautioned us that there is a limited number of times you can resand floors, so if we can live with it, that's what he would recommend, thus saving us some money. But he did also say he could probably buff those floors rather than fully sand them, and stain them a color we want rather than the yellowish color it is now. We'll most likely do that; as we will have to rip out the remaining carpet in the bedrooms and sand those rooms, I'd like all the floors to all match.

Most contractors have recommended doing only two coats of polyurethane, and this guy was no different. When we asked about a third coat, explaining that we have a dog and will soon have cats, too, he said he could do it, but it would not be the best use of our money. Then he told us that the stain coat is a sealant coat, and that the more top coats you have, the easier it will be to detect traffic patterns over time, as it will wear much differently. He said the coats are good for only 5 to 7 years anyway, and that we can always just buff the surface and reapply extra layers when we felt it was necessary. He was the only contractor to tell us that.

He did seem a bit concerned about the damaged floorboards in the downstairs dining room. He asked permission to lift one out to inspect the damage, thinking that it was termites. (Yikes!) It's only a few boards, and they look almost dry rotted. He was able to break a piece out pretty easily. He kept asking us if we had had the building inspected before purchasing it, which of course we had, and by someone who knows termites pretty well. I'm not sure what caused the damage, but I doubt it was insects. The building is solid brick, the foundation is concrete for 2/3 with brick above the ground, where the basement windows are. There's no exposed wood, and these floorboards are in the center of the house. Even so, after the contractor left we went into the basement to examine it from below. The great thing about the Box House is that much of its bones are visible or easily accessible. We pulled aside some of the ceiling panels in the basement and looked at the underside of the floor from below. Nothing.

So, now we're waiting for the last guy's quote to roll in, and will hopefully be able to make a decision by Monday.

08 January, 2008

Hey Hey, Ho Ho, These Radiator Covers Have Got to Go

Four of the radiators in the Box House (two in each unit) were protected with metal radiator covers made by a local Chicago-area company. My best guess (and my mom's opinion) dates them to the 1950s, but that's only a guess. Salvage One has one listed on their Web site for $100, but doesn't include a date.

Vintage or no, they had to go. They are bulky, not particularly attractive, and two of them actually blocked access to the valve, as they weren't the proper size for those radiators. (Lord knows when the radiators were last bled.) So Ted and I lifted them straight off and hauled them away to the kitchens. We plan on just sticking them in the basement for now, and possibly listing them on Craigs List later. (Or if anyone just wants to take them off our hands, let me know.)

The amount of dust under them is incredible, and I don't think the Previous Owners ever moved them to paint the walls, as subsequent coats stopped just behind the edges of the cover. *Sigh.* And one of them even has a carpet fragment under it, which I'll have to pull out before we have the floor sanders come in.

Of the remaining radiators, half of them were uncovered while the rest had various contraptions balanced on them to make a flat surface--sheets of painted metal, plywood, etc. There is one in the upstairs kitchen that has a sort of built-in shelf above it, which will have to go as well, but I didn't have the energy at the time to pull out the tools, so it's still there.

Overall, I think I like the look of the bare radiators. There is only one I think I'd like to cover, and that's in the dining room, so I can create a window seat. But that's a project far, far, down the road. For now, we'll continue to just pull out the junk and work our way to those "good bones" everyone tells us the Box House has.

The Bids Are In...

We've received the second quote for the floor sanding, and gasped at the cost--it was more than twice the estimate we received from the first contractor. It sounds like they'll do an excellent job, particularly in repairing the spots in Mom's unit that will really need to be repaired, but still...

So, it looks like I'll be setting up a few more contractor appointments to see if I can find a price that's somewhere in between the two estimates. It's off to Angie's List for recommendations.

05 January, 2008

Pantry Project

A quick, feel-good project that Mom has decided to tackle first is pulling up the old contact paper and recovering the shelves in her pantry. Each unit of the Box House has a rather large pantry, which compensates for the rather smallish kitchen. There is a ton of storage space in each. Just looking at all that space makes me want to try my hand at canning and preserving summer fruits and vegetables!

The glue on the old paper is so dry it just took a putty knife to loosen an edge before peeling it all off. All she'll have to do is wipe the boards down and recover them with fresh paper.

I'm not sure what I'll do in my unit yet; I thought about peeling off the paper, stripping the paint, and leaving them as bare wood. Both our inspector and buyer's agent laughed at that idea, saying that new wood is cheaper to buy than the opportunity cost of going through all that effort. They're probably right, and Ted agrees. (He checked out wood prices at Home Depot today--our fifth trip there in the last week or so.) But I have a weird nostalgic streak, and like the idea of stacking my cans of food on the same shelves the original lady of the house would have used (if they are indeed original!)

In the vertical photo you can just catch a glimpse of the built-in ice box behind my mom. Yes, a real ice box! We were very excited to see these when we first looked at the Box House. My parents had one when I was growing up, and I would store all my crayons and art supplies in it. (Later, when it was temporarily stored in the garage, I accidentally tapped it with my car a couple of weeks after I received my driver's license. I have never been able to live down the fact that it fell over and more or less shattered. I swear I was just inching my way in.) At present, both ice boxes contain more junk to sort through--although I was grateful to find a large stash of light bulbs in the downstairs one. We've had two bulbs burn out since we've been here.

As these ice boxes are built directly into the wall, the back side opens onto the porch, and the ice man would deliver the ice without ever having to come into the house. The porch is now enclosed, and the boxes seem to be pretty well preserved. The backsides are coated in paint, but it looks like I'll be able to strip them and get them to open up again. I'm not sure what we'll use them for, but am open to suggestions.

04 January, 2008

Floor Sanding Options

Today we had a couple of flooring contractors come to the Box House to give us estimates on what it would cost to sand and refinish the floors in both units, as well as the front entry stairwell.

The floors in the main rooms of the top unit (living room, dining room, entryway) were recently "done," but I'm not sure if it was a "professional" or one of the Previous Owner's family members. In any case, he or she didn't bother going under or behind the radiators. The wood there is quite dark, while the rest of the area appears to have only a thin coat of varnish over bare wood. (The stairs are the same way. They have pools of darker stain in the corners, but the rest of the tread is quite light.) The three bedrooms upstairs are covered in ancient carpet.

Living Room of the Top Floor Unit. Sure, it may look good at a quick glance, but what you don't see is how the floor's only protected with a very thin layer of varnish. We also want to get it back to the original color, which is a little darker.

In the downstairs unit, the floors hadn't been sanded at all. Most of the floor downstairs is in decent shape--certainly better than many of the rental units I lived at in my younger days--but there are several boards that will have to be removed and replaced due to previous damage. Boards near a radiator in the bedroom off the kitchen appear to have water damage, and there are holes in the floor of the dining room. There's also a large dark stain we believe to be cat urine, but from what the contractors told us and what I've read on other house blogs, we may be stuck with that unless we replace those boards, too.

Both contractors who stopped by had been recommended by our buyer's agent. J.E. had previously recommended a mortgage broker and a lawyer who we were very pleased with, so we're willing to start with his recommendations here.

The first guy gave us an excellent price, one we can certainly live with, and even said he'd rip out and haul away the gawd-awful carpeting and replace the damaged boards for free. His quote included two layers of varnish; if we wanted more, it would cost more. But even then, it seemed a good price. However, there is a major language barrier and he was only here about 10 minutes or so. I'm not entirely convinced he really saw the full scope of the project, and I'm not entirely sure what we'd be getting. For example, it was difficult to convey that we wanted the floors to be a color complimentary to the rest of the trim.

The second contractor was here for 45 minutes, and she went over every room in detail, discussing which boards should be replaced, measuring everything with her tape measurer, giving us a bit of history of old floors. (The most interesting thing I learned is that they are no longer able to get wood flooring at the same length as was commonly installed 80 years ago. One of the floorboards that needs to be replaced is over 15 feet long; they'll cut only the bad section out at a length that can blend in easily, but leave the rest in place.) She's to send us a full proposal by Monday. My gut tells me it won't be as good as the other, probably nowhere near as good. She's talking about having two crews out here for upwards of two weeks. I'm sure the floors will look spectacular, but will we be able to afford it?

There's always the option of doing it piecemeal, one unit at a time as we can afford it, but right now we have all of our stuff in the basement, and it would be easy to work on the floors. The other option is to do it ourselves. *Shudder*

03 January, 2008

Environmentally Friendly Walls

The catalogs, sales brochures, and paint chip samples have begun to arrive in the mail, and although I know it will be months and months down the road yet, I'm already thinking of paint for the walls. Or rather, plaster.

I had previously used Behr's Venetian Plaster, picked up at Home Depot for $30 a can, for our condo, choosing colors that may either help or hurt us when it comes time to sell the place: red for one bedroom, blue for another, terracotta for the master bedroom, and Absinthe-green for the master bath.

Venetian plaster is ridiculously easy to apply, and the results are pretty impressive. All you really need is a steel trowel and a few hours of your time. Ted and I liked the effect so much, that we considered doing it again for our unit in the Box House.

However, lately I've been reading up a lot on so-called green building techniques. A lot of paint and building materials--everything from glue to varnish--continue to emit harmful chemicals for extended periods of time. There have been several studies linking the offgassing of these chemicals with asthma, and since my mother and I both suffer from it to varying degrees, we're now considering using more environmentally friendly products.

There are two companies whose products I'm considering: Bioshield Healthy Living Paints and American Clay. The overall effect of these plasters and plaster paints reminds me of hostels and hotels I've stayed in while traveling overseas where, in some cases, the plastered walls have endured for generations.

Image from American Clay web site.

Each company uses Earth-friendly or less-harmful ingredients in their products: clay, chalk, marble, cellulose, alcohol ester, sand, organic soap, casein milk solids, asbestos-free talcum, salt, etc. Sounds perfect, doesn't it? The only downside is that the products are shipped in a powdered state--you need to mix 'em up with water before applying. Still, if they're better for the Earth and might have an impact on our health, I'm all for it.