29 April, 2008

I Hope Lightning Doesn't Strike the Same Place Twice

Okay, I do know lightning can, and often does, strike the same spot more than once. Years ago, when I lived in Iowa City, I worked with a girl whose house was struck by lightning every few years. And not just the house, it always seemed to target one bedroom in particular--even coming into the room through a window once. It was crazy, because it certainly wasn't the tallest house on the block. We used to tease her that it was the wrath of God or something. Needless to say, I never visited her on a rainy night.

Anyway, we just found out that The Box House had suffered a lightning strike sometime in the past.

Last week, UPS delivered a package to the house that wasn't for any of us, and we didn't recognize the name as belonging to anyone who lived in the house before us. We tucked it to the side, planning to follow up on it (or keep it, I'm not sure), but ended up getting sidetracked by a billion other things.

Turns out the package was for the son-in-law of the previous owner. We should have recognized his name from the closing papers, as there were four siblings who had inherited the house and they each received a check at close. Their agent represented them, so they weren't there in person and we'd never seen any of them face to face before.

So the son-in-law shows up at the door, and we talked for a few minutes. He told us how happy they were that this building that had been in the family for forty years now belonged to another family. So I asked him if he had any photos of what The Box House might have looked like before. (I didn't expect much of a difference--I was mostly curious about landscaping, etc.) The son-in-law didn't think he had any photos to share, but he did indicate that our parapet was now nearly two feet shorter than it was originally.

What? Really? That thing is already pretty high, and kinda looks like some fake facade as it is. I posted about it a while back. We were all a bit flabbergasted to hear it was actually higher at one point.

So why the change?

Well, the southeast corner, right above the kitchen (currently obscured by the lurching cedar), was hit by lightning sometime in the last forty years--son-in-law couldn't remember exactly when, but it was a long time ago. The lightning did quite a bit of damage, and knocked out a bunch of brick. (Although it's tall, The Box House is not the tallest house on the block, and there are elms on our street that are even taller.)

When they rebuilt the parapet, they lowered it all the way around. We're not entirely sure why, and the son-in-law wasn't really clear. It's possible that rather than buy new brick, they had dismantled the parapet, salvaged the brick they could, and rebuilt the section. (This might explain why I'm finding brick all over the yard; wherever I dig to reclaim garden space, I'm finding bricks and brick fragments that might have been used as edging at one time.)

But this does explain some oddities:

  1. It does look like there should be more space between the top two decorative squares of limestone and the limestone caps at the top--like a couple of rows of brick are missing, maybe.
  2. This limestone square on the front is not proportionally centered (making it the only unboxlike thing on The Box House). A few more layers of brick between this and the capstones would correct this perspective.
  3. Okay, this bullet has nothing to do with the facade; I'm just so psyched this overgrown bush found a new home.
So wow. We learned a new bit of house history. But go back to the first picture a second:

All but one of those bushes along the front have moved to different homes (I'm taking out the last one myself), but we'd still like to remove the two-story tall cedar. It's planted about 18 inches from the foundation, and is leaning at a 22-degree (or so) angle. Aesthetically, it does not please any of us. Morally, we feel terrible about taking out such a large tree. So what do y'all think. Should it stay or should it go?

25 April, 2008

Dude, Where's My Glass?

Craig's List just saved us two days' work and hundreds of dollars. Earlier this week, I listed our evergreen yew bushes on Craig's List as "free" to whoever wanted to dig them up. The quote I had received from the tree removal service to take out the same shrubs and a cedar tree was $775. We'll still have to figure out what to do with the cedar, but as of tonight, a dozen or so bushes are gone and I fully expect the last few to find new homes over the weekend.

People do love their free stuff. I had, and I'm not kidding, 18 people e-mail me over the course of the week to say they'd take them. One guy even said, "Just leave them on the curb and I'll swing by to pick them up." Dude, there will be no "swinging by," don't you get the concept of "bring a shovel and dig them up"?

Of the 18 people who e-mailed to say they'd be right on over, guess how many showed up? Go on, guess. Exactly three. So that makes 15 people who simply flaked or realized I wasn't kidding when I said they'd have to dig the shrubs up themselves. In any case, by not even calling or e-mailing to let me know they were no longer interested, 15 people wasted my time. Humph. Good thing I work from home.

The first guy was pretty cool. He's a Chicago police officer and he showed up with his sister to help him dig out four of the bushes. He just bought a house, and was pretty psyched to be able to get some well-established shrubs. His sister is a pretty experienced gardener, and she helped me identify many of the plants that were emerging under the shrubs: peonies, grape hyacinth, assorted lilies, daffodils, tulips, etc.

It looks like at one time there was quite a nice garden here; the woman who owned the house before was in her nineties when she passed and I guess it got to be too much to maintain the garden. The bushes were overgrown and choking everything else out. I dug up and transplanted many of these perennials to the backyard.

Oooo, look! Fresh mint. Guess who's having a julep tonight!

I lent the police officer guy my shears so he was able to trim the bushes to manageable size, and he cleaned up the mess he made, too. He said he hoped someone would come to take the rest of the shrubs, because he was worried about them blocking windows in case of an emergency. How very sweet!

The second guy who was here was just as courteous, taking four shrubs with him and even taking time to bag the extra clippings and tidy up, though it was pouring rain by the end. I had gone inside--I certainly wasn't going to hang out in a thunderstorm--and left him on his own. When he left, he had put the tools away in a dry corner.

Nice guys like these lull me into a false sense of security. I feel like I can just let them in my yard with my tools and trust that they'll respect things. Not all people are so nice. Some of them are Dons.

Don came over, excited to be getting free bushes. Don had e-mailed me twice, and then decided to come over midweek instead of the weekend as planned because he was afraid someone else would beat him to the bushes. After so many people flaked, I had stopped scheduling times and told everyone "first come, first served." Don and I chitchatted for a few minutes, I gave him the shears, pointed out the bushes that were available, and told him I'd be inside if he needed anything. A little while later, Mom went out with a glass of ice water for him because it was hot, his face was red, and we didn't want him passing out in the yard.

Don worked at those bushes for quite a while, taking occasional breaks on the front step, sipping delicious icy cold water.

Ted and I were looking out the dining room window when we saw Don dump out the remaining ice from his drink, walk over to his car, and put the glass in his cup holder.

"He's not taking that, is he?" Ted asked.

"Nah, I don't think so," I said, stepping up to get a better look. "He can't be. I think he's getting something off the seat."

We watched as Don got out of the car with a camera in hand and walked over to the bigger bushes, where he proceeded to snap pictures of them from every angle.

"I'll go see what he's up to," I said, heading towards the back porch stairs.

As I'm walking down them towards the back door, Don is already shouting into the house--not knocking politely on the door, mind you, but bellowing through the screen. "Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? Hel-lo?"

"Hi. You finished?"

"Yeah, just taking some pictures of the rest for my wife. I don't know how those Hispanic guys do it."


"The lawn care guys. You know. I don't know how they do this all day. They're strong."


He nodded at us, said goodbye, and got back into his car. The whole time he was blathering on I was barely listening to him, wondering if he really was going to drive off with the water glass.

"Dude, I think he's stealing our glass," I said. (By the way, we have an uncontrollable habit of saying "dude," it's rather a term of affection these days.)

"Do you think we should say something?"

"He can't really be stealing it, can he? Surely he'll hand it back to us."

"I don't know, he's starting his car."

"Dude, that's so wrong."

So we watched him drive off with nary a backward glance, giving him every opportunity to "discover" that he had "accidentally" taken the glass into the car with him. We didn't want to embarrass him needlessly if it was a mistake, after all. Hey, man, we saw you put the glass in the car. Ya gonna give that back?

I'm not sure why we didn't stop him. Maybe part of us just wanted to see if he'd really do it. Really drive off with our glass. I mean, it had to be deliberate, dumping out the ice and going straight to the car to put it in the cup holder. He planned it.

The thing is, it's not a particularly great-looking glass. It's your standard plastic restaurant-style-fill-it-up-with-Coke-or-maybe-Dr-Pepper-if-they-have-it kind of glass. Nothing fancy.

But Ted's somewhat sentimental about it. It's part of a set he nicked from Valentino's in Lawrence, Kansas, during his college days as a pizza delivery driver. Okay, technically, he didn't steal them. Whenever he'd go out on delivery runs, he'd fill a glass with Diet Coke and take it with him. But when the restaurant closed unexpectedly and they phoned him to say don't bother coming in, he had a half dozen or so left in the back of his car. So he kept them.

But now we're short one because Don felt that free bushes just weren't a good enough deal. Don had to sweeten his score with a free cup as well. And Don wasn't courteous and respectful of our yard. Oh no. Don left a huge mess, with dirt piled on our windows and branches everywhere.

Don even hacked limbs off other bushes to get to the bushes he wanted. Don even hacked off canes from our climbing roses that were in his way. (It doesn't matter that I was going to trim the roses back anyway; he didn't even ask if it was okay.)

This is Mom cleaning up the mess Don left. I don't know what's up with this photo--it looks like Kirk and crew are beaming down to the left. Or is it our ghosts? Seriously, what is that?

So Don has left me all suspicious-like and wary of letting people wander the yard unattended. I darn near tackled the Comcast guy when I found him walking around the yard with a shovel this afternoon. Poor guy was only here to bury the cable for our recently installed internet service package. But how was I to know he wasn't here to help himself to our glasses?

24 April, 2008

Groovy, Man

In another two or three years, after the market improves and we sell the condo in Chicago, Ted and I would like to get another multi-unit building as an investment property. So I'm always looking at the house-for-sale adverts for in town and our old neighborhood, Uptown. Ideally, we'd like a two-flat in Uptown with a semi-finished basement that we can create office space in for ourselves or use as a mini owner's apartment. That way, we'd have our "city" place and our "country" place. We really do miss Uptown, sometimes. We lived within a few blocks of two major concert venues, the Riv and the Aragon Ballroom, as well as The Green Mill, the oldest continually operated jazz club in the United States. No kidding. Al Capone hung out there, and everything.

But I did spot a listing for a bungalow a few blocks up the street from The Box House. It's going for half of what all the other single family houses on the street are listed or appraised at. So what gives? Could it be this:

Well dy-no-mite, how cool is that? Funky basement murals! It would feel so hip and urban living in there!

Actually, the house is very much a fixer-upper, way more than I'd probably want to tackle. So I say we'll have to take a pass on this one. *Sigh* If only...

23 April, 2008

It's Cherry Time!

The orchard is off to a humble start. We have quite a bit of sun in the yard, particularly on the west and south sides, and lots of open space, so we thought we'd give dwarf fruit trees a try. In time, they'll provide the added bonus of partially blocking off our "back" yard from the street. Because it's a corner lot, anyone walking or driving by can glance at what we're doing out back. Not that there's anything nefarious going on...

So I picked up two different kinds of cherry trees from Home Depot, and planted them in the ground. They're a good size, about four feet tall. I've never actually grown fruit before, but I have my pruning book and a pair of shears, so I'm set.

Man, that's a terrible picture. It started to pour while I was working outside, so I quickly snapped the photo and ran in. I didn't realize I cut the trunk off in the photo! Eventually, I want to cram in a dwarf apple, plum, and peach tree into the yard as well.

Hey, does anyone else out there like Robert Graves? Here's a poem he wrote, published in Fairies and Fusiliers, 1918:


CHERRIES of the night are riper
Than the cherries pluckt at noon
Gather to your fairy piper
When he pipes his magic tune:
Merry, merry,
Take a cherry;
Mine are sounder,
Mine are rounder,
Mine are sweeter
For the eater
Under the moon.
And you’ll be fairies soon.

In the cherry pluckt at night,
With the dew of summer swelling,
There’s a juice of pure delight,
Cool, dark, sweet, divinely smelling.
Merry, merry,
Take a cherry;
Mine are sounder,
Mine are rounder,
Mine are sweeter
For the eater
In the moonlight.
And you’ll be fairies quite.

When I sound the fairy call,
Gather here in silent meeting,
Chin to knee on the orchard wall,
Cooled with dew and cherries eating.
Merry, merry,
Take a cherry;
Mine are sounder,
Mine are rounder,
Mine are sweeter.
For the eater
When the dews fall.
And you’ll be fairies all.

Forsythia in Bloom

It turns out the scraggly bushes on the west side of The Box House are forsythia. Beautiful, but dreadfully overgrown forsythia. They are over ten feet tall, with a lot of dead wood and looking a bit leggy. A friend of ours who is a master gardener has recommended hacking them to the ground to force new growth and improve their condition. I think I'll go as far as taking out all the dead wood, the rogue tree growing through the middle of one of them, and trim it back by half. I know they are hardy and can stand such vigorous pruning, but I'd still like to leave some height in place. View from the other side:

"If you don't know what's meant by God, watch a forsythia branch or a lettuce leaf sprout."
—Martin Henry Fischer

21 April, 2008

Bungalow Door — A Dumpster Diving Adventure

On the way back from a late-night run to 7-11 for our Big Ass Diet Cokes, we decided to come back via the alleyways. It was garbage night in the 'hood, and we were wondering if we'd find anything interesting now that it's spring and everyone is working on their houses. The night yielded a few choice finds: a set of funky old rocks glasses and this great, solid-wood swinging kitchen door that came from a bungalow. Now, we already found the two kitchen doors that were original to The Box House, so we don't really need this one, but there was no way we could leave a perfectly decent door to be tossed out with the trash.

It does need some work; one side is painted white and on the top, at the part where it attaches to the top of the door frame, there is a bit of wood loss that can probably be filled in with epoxy. But still, they just don't make 'em like this anymore. I was too paranoid to take the Cokes home first and come back, lest someone snatch it from under my nose, and I didn't want to leave the Cokes behind with the rest of the garbage. Who knows what could happen to them in the five minutes they were out of my sight. So we carried the door under one arm and balanced our drinks in the other hand. What an odd sight!

I have to laugh--after weeks of trying to find new homes for all the junk left by the previous owners, here we are bringing more salvage home!

Free Shrubs to New Home, Come and Get 'Em!

Along the entire front of the house is a row of kinda nice but very badly placed evergreen shrubs. (Ignore, for the moment, the tall fir tree practically growing out of the foundation--that's a separate issue to be dealt with later.) The bushes completely block a row of windows. Aside from smothering any light that trys to make its way to our basement, they block important egress routes from the building. I'd hate to be caught in the basement if something blows up or catches fire and the only route out is by trying to struggle through a bush. And if I dread the thought, imagine my mom trying to make her way past them.

So we don't want them.

I'll be calling around to a few tree removal places to get a quote on what it would cost to take out the lot. No doubt it will be prohibitively expensive, so we will also look into the DIY route and maybe rent the equipment to chip out the roots. But because I'm a big softy when it comes to trees--even shrubs I don't want--I'd rather see them go to a new home than be chopped up.

So, I just placed an ad on Craigslist, but if there is anyone in the house blogging community who wants a bunch of bushes for their yard or knows of someone who might, drop me an e-mail at blog(a)compassrose.com or post a reply. They're free!

(The pics are from last fall; I have actually raked up the leaves since then.)

18 April, 2008

Celebrating 100 Posts at The Box House

How can I have posted one hundred entries already? We've only lived here since the end of February. But that's what Blogger is telling me, so it must be true.

So, what better way is there to celebrate than with flowers? Mom and I went to the Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago this afternoon. And we sniffed the pretty flowers.

And we drooled over the trees that, unfortunately, won't fit in our budget this year.

And while we really wanted to bring home some bold and beautiful items to plant in the yard...

... we only picked up a few annuals, deciding to wait to see what other treasures pop up that were left behind by the previous owners.

Valvoline / Pure Oil at Lake and Sherman in Evanston

Here's another series of photographs on eBay that will probably only be of interest to other local history geeks. (I won't be bidding on them this week, so don't worry about outbidding me and hurting my feelings.) From the auction description:

This combination of photos represents 2 generations of stations at a Pure Oil Company service station at the intersection of Lake and Sherman in E--, IL. All photos are black and white.

Photos 1 and 2 - 3X5 of the station when it was owned by someone else...circa 1920s based on the vehicles.

Photos 3 and 4 - 3X5 after branded Pure Oil. You can see the Pure Oil sign...circa 1920s based on the vehicles.

Photos 5 and 6 - 8X10 of the traditional Pure Oil cottage design constructed primarily in the 1930s...Circa 1930s based on the vehicles and gas pump design. Both photos have some very small tears in the border and some very slight creases but are generally in very good condition.

The seller, LibraryFriendsFund, has many other interesting and unique photos for sale. I absolutely love this kind of stuff, seeing how the neighborhood has changed over time. Here's what the Lake and Sherman intersection looks like today: (Well, not really today, silly people. Today it wasn't rainy and overcast. Or summer.)

16 April, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are

A few days ago, there were reports of a cougar prowling around the Linden Street train station in Wilmette, roughly 3.5 miles north of The Box House. The general consensus at the time was "yeah, right," because this is very much an urban area. Later, a cougar was shot and killed in Roscoe Village, in Chicago, just a few miles south of us. It was the first one sighted within the city limits since Chicago was founded in 1833, and many people assumed it was the one seen previously in Wilmette. After all, the odds are already huge that a great cat would make its way here. But more than one? Never.

My mind boggles at the thought of a cougar padding its way through my town on gigantic cat feet and into the City unseen. Although, if he followed the train line, I guess it's quite possible. Maybe he passed me silently in the night as I took Maggie out for her last call. What would I have done had I seen it? Probably wet myself. Many years ago, I had unexpectedly run into a black bear while on a canoe trip, and froze in near terror as the boat glided within inches of him on the shore--so close I could smell the musty odor of his fur.

So the assumption in Chicago was that the mountain lion gunned down in Roscoe Village had to be the same creature seen on the North Shore. But maybe it wasn't the same cat. Today, there were reports that another cougar has been spotted up in the Skokie Lagoons, to the north and west of Wilmette.

Who would have believed this could happen? Although there are the occasional rumored sightings of big cats along the Mississippi River or just on the other side of the Wisconsin border, the last confirmed sighting in Illinois of a wild cougar was in Southern Illinois in 1862.

I like that my stable, predictable Midwest surroundings can still surprise me.

(I couldn't post the photo of the dead cougar; it didn't seem right. So I took one from Wikipedia instead.)

14 April, 2008

Sewing Room / Quilt Room Progress

When last we left our heroine, she was building cabinets for her sewing room. Well, there has been a great deal of progress on the sewing room since then, and it's just about done. Mom says if the room was five feet longer and three feet wider, it would be perfect, as she'd have all her stuff in one place. For now, her long quilt frame is on the porch, along with a few boxes of fabric, and will probably stay there as "a summer sewing room." There are a few more boxes in the basement as well. But she's essentially crammed a houseful of sewing and craft projects into one room--an incredible accomplishment! I told her I believed it would happen, but didn't really think for a moment that everything would fit.

It's all about the cabinets. For years, Mom has dreamed of a sewing room built from scratch. Before, it was a hodge podge of hand me down furniture. Now she has all of her fabric stored in three large cabinets purchased at Lowe's with one of those great "Welcome to the Neighborhood" coupons.

Here they are:

They're so big it takes two photos to capture it all! They are lined up on the south wall. On the west wall, just below the window, is her sewing machine. The window looks out to the corner crossroads, so there's always something to look at. She plans to build shelves above the radiator. That cute little hand print hanging by the window was done by my brother, when he was about five.

On the north wall is a long table; at present, it's covered in those loose odds and ends that need to get tucked away somewhere. She may put shelves on this wall as well.

The east wall (not shown) has a closet (filled with more boxes) and a "quilt wall," a large felt square that Mom uses to lay out quilt pieces to get a sense of what they'll look like before she stitches them all up. I'll have to update this post with a photo of that, too.

My favorite part of her sewing room is the cabinets filled with fabric. Do you want to see them up close? I love going into her sewing room every now and then for a bit of color therapy--just to open the cabinets and stare at all the pretty colors. She spent days folding all the fabrics and sorting them into a pretty rainbow.

There's a shelf with nothing but green fabrics:

Another with red fabrics:

Half a cabinet devoted to African prints, Egyptian prints, and Batik fabrics:

There are shelves devoted entirely to pinks, to yellows, to oranges, to browns, and to creams--lots and lots of creams and beiges to contrast with all the bright colors.

And then there are the blues. Oh my! How I love these blues. Go ahead. Click on the picture to zoom in for an up-close-and-personal look:

Although if you get too close and stroke the fabrics a little too vigorously, you might accidentally knock down one of the shelves (cheap Lowe's shelf pegs) and get banished from the sewing room for the rest of the evening:

But if you apologize nicely, she'll probably let you come back in.

Here she is at her small quilt frame, which she can drag out to the middle of the room when she needs to use it. She is currently working on several lap quilts that will be given to wounded soldiers getting treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) down in Texas. She has made and donated a number of these already. (I feel very guilty and a little selfish that I ever grumbled at her for not finishing a quilt planned for me--which I have now, it's gorgeous--when she spends her free time on something worthy like this.)

Look at that "smile." I think she's just humoring me and my camera.

For an article about how senior groups across the country are helping soldiers and their families, go to: Seniors Helping Ease Burdens. There's a bit about the quilt groups. I also found a photostream with images of some quilts collected for families of soldiers at BAMC. You can also go to Quilts for Soldiers.

Our Ghost Smokes?

I mentioned the other day that maybe The Box House is haunted, because both my mom and I have heard footsteps walking around upstairs. Well, the night after I posted that, I came upstairs from the basement where I had been working and walked into my bedroom only to be hit with a wall of what smelled like cigarette smoke. The odor was so strong; it was like walking into a smoky nightclub. I couldn't see anything-- there weren't any wispy curls of smoke--but I could smell it.

Now, none of us smoke. There's no reason the room should be smelling like cigarettes. Ted followed me up the stairs and I'm like, "Come here, come here. Can you smell it? Can you smell it? What is that?" He couldn't smell a thing, not a thing. I went into the adjacent bathroom, and couldn't smell anything there. I even went so far as to open the window and stick my head outside. Nothing. It was only in the bedroom. I went back into the basement, to the room below our bedroom, and took a sniff. Still nothing. The odor lingered for a while upstairs, but Ted swears he couldn't smell any cigarette smoke at all.

Weird, eh?

13 April, 2008

Repair and Maintenance of Historic Limestone and Marble

I had relatives over today, and should be catching up on some work-work now, but instead I've been surfing the Net for more info on removing paint from the exterior of The Box House. Here's a brief summary of what I've found if anyone else is working on something similar:

I found what looks like a good article on the subject of limestone repairs, originally written by Hoffman Architects: Maintenance of Historic Limestone and Marble

Unfortunately, it doesn't cover paint removal. An excerpt reads:
Marble and limestone are relatively soft stones and can be easily scratched and marred. This softness means chemical cleaners, sandblasting and wind-driven grit will take their destructive toll.
I imagine if chemical cleaners are going to be harsh, than chemical stripping will take its toll as well. Old House Journal agrees:
As opposed to kiln-dried masonry materials such as brick and architectural terra-cotta, building stones are generally homogeneous in character at the time of a building's construction. However, as the stone is exposed to weathering and environmental pollutants, the surface may become friable, or may develop a protective skin or patina. These outer surfaces are very susceptible to damage by abrasive or improper chemical cleaning.
From a message board I found this method for removing paint from limestone:
Try some liquid cooking oil. Rub a coat on and let it sit. It should soften and swell the paint. On another site, I was asked how to remove paint from rocks without harming the moss on them. I wasn't sure, but suggested the cooking oil. It worked, the person was very happy...The oil will soak into the pores of the rock. It will take repeated washing with soap and water over a period of time to remove it. I cringe every time I hear of somebody going to paint brick or stone.
Oil seems like it should be mild, but messy. I found a number of sites praising it for removing paint, tar, etc., but haven't come across anything "official" sounding.

From another architectural site I found this, geared toward graffiti removal:

For the removal of the paint from the limestone follow these steps:

  1. Saturate the wall. This is to prevent driving the paint further into the porous material when solvents are applied. The easiest way to do this is to set up a lawn sprinkler or garden sprayer and direct it onto the wall above and below the graffiti. Let the wall absorb water overnight. There is some possibility that water will saturate all the way through the wall.
  2. Apply a poultice that is a mud-consistency mix of a solvent (if toluene doesn't work try xylene or methylene chloride) with diatomaceous earth (obtained from a water treatment supplier) or commercial clay. The poultice must be of a consistency that will adhere to the wall.
  3. Tightly cover the poultice with plastic sheeting taped to the wall and leave for three or four hours. This will allow the solvent to remain in contact with the paint without evaporating.
  4. Remove the plastic sheeting and allow the poultice to dry. This won't take too long on a sunny day. Once dry, the poultice will begin to crack and fall off. At this point you can use a vegetable (not steel!) brush to remove the admixture. As the poultice dries, so will the wall, and as the water migrates toward the atmosphere it will help carry out loose particles of paint
  5. Spray the wall with a high-pressure water jet to clean the rough surface. This equipment is available at most rental outlets.

You may need to repeat the process several times.

The cautionary notes that I emphasize strongly are: DO NOT apply the solvent directly to the paint without first saturating the wall. Solvent alone will drive the paint deeper into the limestone. DO NOT use a caustic stripper because it will etch the limestone or brick and leave what, from a distance, will look like an embossed version of the graffiti. DO NOT try to physically remove the paint with brushes, scrapers or high-pressure sprayers alone, because you will remove more stone than paint

All of the solvents are commonly available at hardware and paint supply houses. I would avoid the environmentally friendly paint removers because they are usually non-solvent based material and rely more on acids, which are caustic. They also tend to be expensive and viscous, making them difficult with which to work.

So I should probably stop scraping, too. We had used a scraper on the loose bits that were obviously coming off--just had to slide it under the paint and flip it up. When I tried to press a little harder, I noticed some teeny tiny flecks of stone came up, too. I'm not sure if this was because the surface wasn't cleaned before painting, or if it's damage from moisture getting under the paint.

At the Chicago Bungalow Forums, they had a few more suggestions, ranging from steam to power washing. The Chicago Bungalow Association had a PDF on it.

Sigh. It seems like there's definitely some conflicting info out there, with some saying "no" to power washing, chemical strippers, steam, etc., and others saying "yes, this worked for me," trying all of the above and even using sandpaper to smooth the surface. I don't know anymore. I think I'll have to call around some and get a few more opinions from the pros.

Why, why, why do people paint stone and brick?

12 April, 2008

Removing Paint from Concrete, Masonry, Limestone

I have a hard time sitting still without getting antsy. I think it's because I work for myself, so time spent not working on a project is time spent not making any money. When I'm not on the computer, I feel I should still be doing something somewhat useful and not just sitting around and relaxing. Ted's much the same way.

A few days ago, when the weather was in the sixties, I whined until I got Mom and Ted to sit with me on the front steps to enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the world go by. The picture below was taken in winter, but that's pretty much what the front entrance looks like now, just without snow.

But did any of us sit still? No. I'm pacing back and forth in front of the house, coffee in hand, discussing plans for the garden with Mom. Ted was sitting on the porch in the shade, but in between sips of coffee he's working on this:

Scraping off flaky white paint. (What's the matter with us? Why can't we just relax?)

The previous owners had coated everything they could in white paint prior to selling. The interior walls had a fresh coat and I think the same paint--interior paint--was used to paint over all of the decorative masonry on the exterior. If you look at the top photo, you can see that all of the window sills and all of the horizontal trim has been painted white.

You can tell better in this photo (from the original listing):

So those little squares at the top, those long horizontal decorative bits that wrap around the house, and every window sill has been painted white.

Only, I'm pretty sure it's the same interior paint used on the walls. The flat surfaces are mostly peeling and flaking, and I don't recall them doing that last fall when we first saw the place. Winter was harsh on them. It's very easy to get the paint off these surfaces with a scraper, and as Ted removed the paint, we saw that the surfaces are actually dirty, and in some spots there is green algae, or whatever it is that grows on limestone. So the paint doesn't have a firm grip. At least not on the horizontals.

Ted made some decent progress that day, and every nice day we've had since I've been out there with my cup of coffee. I have most of the flat surfaces by the front steps now clear of paint. But I still have the vertical surfaces to do, and I'm encountering quite a bit of trouble. The stuff is not flaking nearly as much, and in some parts, it's quite stubborn. I'm afraid of scraping too hard.

I was hoping not to have to go the chemical route, but I think a trip to Sherwin Williams or Home Depot might be in order. I had tried a soy-based paint remover on some of the interior brickwork, but without success. Although I've heard a few good things about PeelAway 7 and its use on masonry, I haven't personally encountered anyone who has tried it for such. I tried PeelAway 6 on some woodwork with mixed success--it's okay on latex, but has problems with enamel. Is there really that big a difference between the 6 & 7? I haven't been able to locate the PA7 locally, and it's pretty expensive online, so I'd like to know more about it before making the investment.

So, does anyone have a recommendation for removing paint on masonry? Have you been able to remove paint from similar surfaces?

Update: My apologies to Dynochick; I originally called all of the decorative trim concrete, when it fact some if not all is probably limestone. I was not aware of just how different the care of both materials are, and carelessly mixed terms. Sorry that my post led you astray.

Before heading out to the paint store for PeelAway7, I decided to check for some coupons online and found one on another blog for 20% off at Sherwin Williams. I'll give it a try this week. Hope it's a valid one.

11 April, 2008

Is The Box House Haunted?

Shortly after we closed on The Box House last December, I spent the night here alone. Ted and I both work from home, and live in each other's pockets. Most of the time--99.999%, I'd say, or maybe 99.998%--I'm happy about it. We've always had our own offices and can shut out the world when necessary. I like, no love, having him just down the hall, around the corner, or in the next room. A lot of couples can't handle it, but it's been like this for us from day one, so we're used to it. I consider myself lucky to have my guy around as much as I do.

Still, it's nice to have a night to myself every one in a while. I know he feels the same way.

The last time that I can remember having a night to myself--prior to my camp out at The Box House--was more than three years ago. Three years--is that weird? Maybe I was getting a bit bitchy to be around. Both my mom and Ted suggested I needed a night to myself, and so I drove out to The Box House and rolled out the sleeping bag on the living room floor of the downstairs unit. We weren't living here yet; we were only staying here a few nights a week to work on the place, but spent the majority of the time at my mom's other house.

I loved my Night to Myself. I ate junk food, watched bad television, read trashy novels. And in the middle of the night, I was woken up by someone walking back and forth in the upstairs unit.

Now, a sane person would have quietly crawled across the floor to where she left her cell phone in her jacket pocket and called 911. I mean, the footsteps were that loud and distinct. Not for a moment did I consider that the house was "settling" or that it was "the wind" or "some animal." No. These were definitely footsteps walking from the dining room to the living room upstairs, and back again.

So why didn't I call 911?

I'm not sure. I remember looking up at the ceiling and saying "Shh, keep it down," or something like that. And then I rolled over and went back to sleep.

So, who do I think it was? Well, my first guess was the Previous Owner, R.P., who lived in this house with one of her relatives living in the other unit. R.P. was in her nineties when she died a couple of years ago. Her husband, from what I can gleen, died years ago. I'm not sure if either one was here when they shook their mortal coil. Beyond them, I'm not sure who owned the building or lived here, so have no other guesses.

There was nothing menacing about the footsteps I heard. I actually put them out of my mind for quite a while until last week, when Mom said she heard someone moving around up there. Now, she was wide awake at the time--unlike me, who had been roused from sleep. She knew both Ted and I were working in our basement offices. But she heard the same thing I did: footsteps moving back and forth upstairs.

Are we supposed to inform the new tenants that their unit may be haunted? What's the etiquette on paranormal possibilities?

For now, what I want to know is this: Are we alone in thinking our house is haunted? Is there anyone else out there in the house blogging community who has experienced something similar? I don't just mean levitating dishes or ghostly vapors or classic Hollywood paranormal happenings. Okay, sure, that too. But I'm also interested in the more subtle things, cold spots or things out of the corner of your eye or just a vague feeling that you're not alone. Has something happened in your old house that you can't easily explain away?

Inquiring minds want to know.

09 April, 2008

Tenants for the Top Floor

Our new tenants came over tonight to sign the lease for the top floor unit--and they brought cupcakes with them! This is such a good sign. (Seriously, how cute is that Snoopy cupcake?)

We've spent much of the last several weeks showing the apartment, checking out backgrounds, and tinkering with the lease we used to rent our condo in Chicago in order to make it work for our two-flat. (Thanks so much to Jocelyn at Chicago 2-Flat for letting me pick her brain about the pitfalls of renting out a unit in an owner-occupied two flat building.)

For the most part, I do have to say that the bulk of the people who came through were pretty nice. However, we did have some of what I thought were bizarre requests and questions:

"Will you be updating the bathroom prior to us moving in?"
(Um, no. Have you seen our bathroom downstairs? That gets updated first.)

"Can we store a boat in the garage?"
(Um, have you seen how big our cars are and how tiny our garage already is? No.)

"Will you be updating the kitchen?"
(What's wrong with the kitchen?)

"Can you add water hookups for a dishwasher?"
(Heck, I've learned to do without a dishwasher for now and hardly miss it--although I admit Mom and Ted pull more dish duty than I do.)

"If I pay a little more, will you put new tile in the bathroom?"
(Honestly, the bathroom is not a disaster, people; you're starting to make me feel self-conscious.)

We had people who absolutely loved the place and drooled over the vintage details and original woodwork and people who looked down their nose at us as they said things like, "You know, a lot of people take out these old ironing boards and convert them to spice racks. Will you be doing that?" or "You have a lot of work ahead of you on this place, don't you?" or "You didn't use oil-based finish when you refinished the floors, did you? (Why yes, yes we did.) Hmm, I could tell" or "This old icebox is kind of big and useless now, isn't it?" (My favorite variation of that: "That's not what we're supposed to be using for a refrigerator, is it?" Um, duh. The refrigerator is behind you.)

We had a few inquiries as to whether or not we'd consider Section 8 vouchers. If you don't know, this is a government program that expands the available housing options for low-income families by paying a portion of the rent. It's a program we don't want to get involved in, nor as landlords are we obligated to do so. There are a lot of downsides to the program, such as rigorous government inspections and the withholding of their portion of the rent if they find something about your building they don't like. There's also a real concern that Section 8 tenant will not be able to pay their portion of the rent, in which case the government will not help with an eviction. For so many reasons, we're not signing up with the program.

A few people who toured the unit looked nervous when we mentioned the requisite credit check and employment verification. One even told us that we should just "pick the person with the best personality."

Of the applications we got back, some came with pages-long essays regarding what we'd find on the credit report, making excuses for themselves or asking for understanding, or saying that they're praying that we'll select them and, if it's God's wish, we will. I would find myself feeling sympathetic and almost willing to give someone another chance, but Ted would reel me in by saying "What happens if they don't pay?" It's a hassle to evict someone, and expensive.

But the lengthy search process seems to have payed off. We found a newly married professional couple in their late twenties who seem to like vintage buildings with character and collect antiques. We had a general conversation about our respective lifestyles, and they were the only prospective tenants to ask us how sound travels through the building and what they could do to minimize their impact on our lives. I think it will work out pretty well, touch wood.

I'm so glad the search is over.

But for now, you'll have to forget they exist. Pretend there is nobody upstairs from us. Pretend we don't even have a second floor. To respect their privacy, I won't be blogging about them at all--okay, well, maybe only in the most abstract way possible, such as, "Yep, we have tenants."

08 April, 2008

It's a Major Award

I didn't think anything could beat the Leg Lamp that came in the mail a few weeks ago, but the package that arrived today had us feeling like it was Christmas at The Box House. Last week Jean at Renovation Therapy (previously I Love Upstate) celebrated her one-year blogging anniversary with a little poetry contest--and I won! The task was to somehow celebrate her blog in verse. The rules were simple: "write me a friggen poem about this here blog…or the Fiance…or Tal…or whatever so long as it’s I LOVE UPSTATE-ish. Post it in the comments and you’re entered. US residents only…please."

I selected some of her catch phrases, made sure to include references to the major players in her life, threw the whole mess into an online poem generator, and tinkered with the output a tad until it sounded right:

Schidt, LOVE!
Upstate Mom fights stormy Jean.
Where is the freakin’ Fiance?
Why does the Fiance endure?
Tal remains silent.

(You'll have to read her blog to understand the references.) I was delighted to win, as I never win anything. (Okay, I did win a mountain bike, once, but it was stolen the same year. My fault completely for living in a college town and not keeping it locked.) So do you want to know what she sent? Let's take a peek inside the box:

Oh, fun! The first thing I took out was this trio of Vintage Kellogg's Snap! Crackle! Pop! PVC figurines. How could she possibly have known that I lived on Rice Krispies as a kid? So way cool!

Then there was a Hershey's Chocolate T-Shirt. I lived on these as a kid, too. One of these days I should make a pilgrimage to Hershey, PA to check out the birthplace of one of my favorite impulse grocery store purchases. (I'll take mine with almonds, thanks!)

Underneath the t-shirt I found the card she tucked in.

The card, and the next item in this wonderful goodie box, were published by Peaceable Kingdom Press. I met the founders of the company, Thacher and Olivia Hurd, years ago in Kathmandu, of all places. We had signed up for the same trek through the Himalayas with Wilderness Travel; it was a delight to share the trail with them. I had been backpacking solo through India for several weeks prior to the Nepal trek, and it was nice to hook up with fellow Americans for a while and trade travel stories. I had corresponded with them a few times afterwards, but lost touch long ago. Still, whenever I see Peaceable Kingdom products, I think of them.

The next item was this adorable notebook featuring Olivia, from the popular series by Ian Falconer. Mom was charmed by it, saying that there was now a line of quilt fabric featuring the little pig. I let her keep the notebook, and pass on her thanks!

But then Mom tried to take the other notebook in the goodie box, but this one is mine (hands off, Mom!) It has a lovely suede cover and you can even use your own photo for the cover.

I love this next item: Let's Paint the '90s! This paint book for adults features many famous and/or notorious nineties icons...

Such as the Olsen twins...

Hugh Grant...

...and many, many more.

Then there was this very lovely picture frame. I think it will go in my office.

And here's a cute little key chain camera.

There was also an advertising magnet for I Love Upstate! But don't go there for new posts, go to Renovation Therapy instead. Ted snapped up this item. He collects advertising magnets. When I first met him, he had the kitchen refrigerator covered in them. When we moved in together, I thought a better place for the collection was on the stackable washer and dryer. In the closet. Out of sight. Now that we're at The Box House, we need to find a new home for the collection.

Rounding out my Major Award is this Comic Book Creator software:

My family has always been kinda geeky about comics. My mom's favorites were The House of Mystery, The House of Secrets, and Donald Duck. I still collect Vertigo comics, my all-time favorite being Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. (Shoot, I just noticed there is an "absolute" edition I may have to get.) My cousin Jason, who collected more comics than anyone else I knew as a kid, is a teacher and a comic book artist. Sirius/Dog Star published his comic Poe, based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe--well, with a few creative liberties. Edgar Poe discovers that the only way to save his lost Lenore (from the poem, "The Raven") is to confront twelve demons loose throughout the world. Along the way, he encounters all of the strange and wonderful happenings that inspired his world-famous stories and poems, complete with twists and turns that make the familiar wildly unfamiliar--even to the most devoted fan of Poe's work!

Although I could never compete with Jason's talent, do expect to see some nifty comic-book-like posts in the near future. And to show you just how geeky I am, here's Ted and I on our way to our last comic convention, a half dozen years ago and ten, erm, fifteen pounds lighter:

Marc Singer, who was The Beastmaster back in the eighties, was signing autographs at the convention and said to me, "Nice Boots." *Sigh* I shall never forget that moment.

Finally, and this is my favorite item of all, is this great little bag made from mud cloth, sold by Hallmark. Their description: "Bogolan (or mud cloth), a traditional fabric art form, is
handmade by artisans in Mali, West Africa. Cloth is handwoven into strips from unbleached 100% Malaian cotton, hand-tinted using clay from the Niger River and then laid out in the hot West African sun. By choosing this bag, you’re helping artisans provide for their families, carry on a centuries-old craft and boost Mali's developing economy."

The bag Jean sent features the Finkumba crossroads pattern, which "encourages us to become living crossroads, where people with different perspectives find common ground." Now, I am an absolute nut about crossroads references. Ted and I founded a small non-profit publishing company called Compass Rose Cultural Crossroads; the web site even includes a short section on crossroads mythology. The bag was perfect for me, and is definitely something I would have bought on my own.

So no, Mom, no matter how cute you think it is, you can't have it.

Thanks, Jean, for this great box of goodies--it was very generous. All of you out there reading this should definitely go to her Web site for some fun stories about life in Upstate New York as well as some Renovation Therapy.