27 January, 2009

Happiness is a Working Toilet

For Jean, who requested (demanded) a new post.

It took us one year and three hours to get our antique toilet in the basement working again. I'm not sure why some house projects manage to get done immediately, while others languish for months on end. Our Standard Low Tank Toilet project dragged on forever.

A nifty relic from our house's early origins, the toilet sits in a corner of the basement in its own little room. It's legendary on our block. At the block party, several neighbors laughingly asked about it. The previous resident had hosted a movie night in the basement for the dads on the block, and everyone remembered the "scary toilet." And I have to admit, it was a bit of a scary little room--dark, spider-infested--and the toilet was pretty unsanitary-looking, with an ancient wooden seat that had hosted untold generations of residents. *Shudder*

We took the toilet apart, I'm embarrassed to admit, a year ago this week with the intention of evaluating its functionality and giving it a thorough cleaning. All gun ho, we tore into it, deeming it repairable.

And then it sat there in pieces. For months on end, we'd trip over the box of parts, cursing it and promising to get to it "this week." We bought a nifty new toilet seat back in April or so, and made a trip out to the amazing Clark Devon Hardware in June for replacement parts. I even proclaimed on the blog then that we'd have the toilet working in "a day or two." Ha! A few months ago, we tore out the old drywall, got rid of the spiders, and scrubbed the room down with disinfectant.

But still the tank parts sat in a box, gathering dust.

Other house projects got in the way over the year, more pressing matters like leaky roofs, leaky basements, broken heating systems, and random tenant issues.

But finally, finally, we found time to work on it this month. And when we did, it took all of three hours to put the toilet back together again. I cleaned the heck out of the porcelain, preserving the old Standard label, and polished the metal bits:

Ted did the actual repair and re-assembly. DEA Bathroom Machineries was very helpful for this; they have an online repair guide for old toilets, with illustrations. This is what the system more or less looks like: Tank Diagram.

Anyway, one of these days (*cough, cough* years) we'll finish this room with tile and fresh drywall. But for now, the toilet itself is very clean and very usable--even if the only wall we have to block the view at present is a temporary folding one, since I tore the old one out.

Please enjoy the following video, which is music to my ears. The toilet repair project has been one of the most satisfying of all. It's so much nicer having to walk only ten feet from my office, rather than down the length of the basement, up the stairs, and into the unit above.

Now, instead of our galvanized shop sink, we just need a vintage Standard sink to match! We had found one in an alley nearby, but it wasn't quite what we were looking for, and it found a new home with Denise at The Bungalow Chronicles. Be sure to visit her and check out the installation!

19 January, 2009

Barack Obama Dragon Sculpture

This has got to be the weirdest Obama memorabilia I've come across yet. A Design Toscano exclusive, it features Obama as a dragon. (The company is known for its dragon and gargoyle figures.) The one they have of McCain is even creepier...


I may be a bit behind the curve, but I finally got around to joining Facebook. I don't know why I haven't before; it seems a fair number of friends and acquaintances are already on it--and a quick check revealed some of our past and present tenants are too. It's slightly addictive. I've already looked up friends from grade school and crushes I had throughout high school just to see who's out there and what they're up to now. Ted joined recently as well, and has made contact with people he hasn't seen in 20 years.

Anyway, you can find us both on the Housebloggers circle, started by Jocelyn at Chicago Two-Flat. Let us know if you're on Facebook too!

Oh, and looky! We have our own bit of summer sunshine in the dining room. Our tangerine tree, one of four miniature citrus trees I got last spring, has presented us with fruit. It's hard to believe it's been 10 below zero this week.

16 January, 2009

Home Improvement Resolutions for January 2009

We decided not to make a list of New Year's Home Improvement Resolutions for 2009. Our list of uncompleted projects at the end of 2008 was just too depressing. Instead, we're going to do a month-by-month list of goals that we might reasonably be able to accomplish in a 30-day period. This is what we want to accomplish for January, and where we're at now that it's the middle of the month:

1. Remove drywall and shelves in our "electrical room" and clean room [Done]

This room was a disaster. I forgot to get a picture of what it looked like before I started. Every inch of space was cluttered with stuff [read: junk] left behind by the previous owners, including 30 odd cans of old paint now waiting in the garage to be hauled down to the recycling center. [Note to self: On next home purchase, make sure we have it in writing that the seller will have all of their possessions removed; don't just believe it when they say they will.] Above is a picture of some of the bounty I dragged out into the laundry room. This is maybe a fifth of what was in there.

Here's the closest thing I have for a before picture; the window in back had been replaced last month, and then replaced again a few weeks later after this picture was taken when it developed a stress crack [thank you, Scientific Window, for your 20-year guarantee]. The electrical room is so named because that's where our service boxes are for both units, which are off to the right in the photo. These were "upgraded" in 1970, based on a receipt we found in the basement. Ted had already removed the ceiling board in this room, and I was about to remove the shelves and wallboard, behind which were literally hundreds of spider egg sacs and a quarter-inch of coal dust.

After (at right): I think it took about six or seven hours total to remove and break down the wall board, clean every surface of coal dust, scrub down the floor, haul the junk out to the garage, haul our old metal shelves in, and stock the room with supplies--both ours and the previous owners--we think we might actually need. I know, I know, it still looks like a grotty basement room to the untrained eye, but to me it's a haven of order and [semi] cleanliness. Behind the wallboard (dated 1926) was the wood-slatted wall shared with the storage room. You can follow that link to see what the boards look like.

Also in the electrical room, we found the fireplace insert for the second-floor unit. Okay, we knew it was there, but it was pretty filthy and covered in spider egg sacks. This was the first real opportunity I had to drag it out and get a good look at it. Here it is with most of the dirt knocked off of it.

It needs to be rewired and derusted, but it's pretty cool. On the underside of the logs are two lightbulbs, one red and one whitish-yellow, to simulate that warm fireplace glow. At present, the tenants upstairs are using a modern light-only fireplace insert. I have no idea if this restoration project will make it to my list of things to get done this year or not.

2. Get the rest of our possessions out of Mom's other house so the new tenants can settle in. [Done]

We did manage to do this, but an unexpected flood in the basement kept us over there more often than we planned.

Okay, so those are the only things we've accomplished on the list so far. Here are the rest of the goals for January 2009.

3. Install new light on back porch

This is for the landing leading to the upstairs porch. At present, it's a bare bulb.

4. Finally finish cleaning and reassembling the 1920s toilet in the basement that we took apart a year ago and bought replacement parts for in June.

Seriously, I'm sick of tripping over the pieces, and we really need another working toilet.

5. Finish removing grotty old ceiling board in both the mechanical rooms, and demo the wall inbetween them.

Two boilers, two water heaters, two rooms to house them. We refer to these rooms as the Mechanical Room and the Tool Room, the latter so named because that's where all our tool chests and assorted fix-it gear have ended up. And the wall separating these rooms? You can hardly call it that, it doesn't even reach the ground, but sort of hovers over the floor drain.

6. Install new door to Ted's office, which currently does not have one.

We found a door at Menards to match the five-panel doors we have downstairs already. It's sitting on its side, still in its packaging crate. We just need to find age-appropriate hardware. This does not mean that the door will be stained and finished, but it will be at least be hanging in place until we can get it finished.

7. This is on Mom's list, to select a replacement sink and toilet for the first floor unit's bathroom.

After a year of using a bucket of water to make sure everything flushes down properly, it's time. It's strange how normal that act has actually become. The ridiculousness of it only crosses my mind when I have to explain the procedure to guests.

Alrighty, that's it. The pressure is on! Only two weeks to the end of the month. Any bets if we'll get it all done?

13 January, 2009

Maggie's New Toy -- A Dreidel!

Petsmart had holiday toys on the clearance rack, and we picked up this stuffed dreidel.

Instead of squeaking, it plays the dreidel song!

The video is dark, but you can hear the tune. (And yes, that's my voice.) It lasted maybe five minutes before she ripped out the stuffing; one of her favorite games is to find and pull out the squeaker of any stuffed toy, so she doesn't get these often.

12 January, 2009

Interior Drain Tile System for the Basement

Water, water, everywhere--

Well, we had several contractors come out to look at my mom's basement to see what might be going on. According to our tenants, water has been coming in at a steady rate since last week. They've been nice enough to keep sweeping it towards the sump pump pit, but I know it's a huge hassle for them and not something they wanted to tackle right after moving in. To complicate things, one of the two sump pumps--located at either end of the basement--just burned out.

The general consensus is that with the record rains we've had the last few years, the water table in the area has risen. There has been an increase in the number of basements taking on water The neighbors on either side of mom's house are currently dry, but her house does sit a little lower.

The seepage is coming from the cove joints, where wall and floor meet, as well as from a few cracks in the floor slab, common symptoms of hydrostatic pressure. Basically, the water table is trying to equalize itself from the exterior walls to the inside of the basement. We need an interior footing drain tile system. This will relieve the pressure, and channel the water to a sump pit.

What that means is that they will have to crack the concrete all around the interior perimeter and install a perforated drain in a bed of washed gravel, leading to the sump pump. This will get covered back up with concrete. I found a few pictures online of what this looks like:

Estimates range from $4400-$10,000. Yeah. Ouch. One guy was immediately eliminated from our short list because he was awfully patronizing, actually holding his finger up in mom's face and hushing her so he could go on with his long-winded explanation. You simply don't hush Mom if she has a question and expect to get her business.

I think we're going with a contractor in the $5500 range; we need to verify a few things yet, but it looks like his price includes building a whole new sump pit. Ours looks in rather sad shape; it's metal and 30+ years old. They'll patch a few minor cracks on the walls as well. The estimator is going to check with his boss, but may be able to include putting a concrete slab in our crawlspace as well for the same price. We'll see. (The crawlspace is currently gravel, and never gets used. Having it available for additional storage might be nice.) Their lifetime guarantee actually is for the lifetime of the house (others guaranteed the work for 10 years) and is transferable to subsequent owners. Best of all, they can schedule it this week and get it done in a day because they have a large crew. Other estimates said it would take 2-3 days and we'd have to wait 2-3 weeks.

So, while a nasty unexpected expense, we're looking at a guaranteed dry basement as a good selling point in the future, adding value to the house.

So, now we have to tell our tenants, who just set up a jumbo aquarium in the unfinished basement, that they'll have to move it so work can get done.

Update: The contractor who was already our number one pick ended up giving us a new bid of $5000, which does include laying a slab in the crawlspace. Times are tough out there, I guess, and he knew we had other contractors making bids. It's definitely a good idea to comparison shop; even the well-rated guys (per Angie's List) are willing to make deals now. They're coming in Monday at 7:30 and should be done by 5:00. Can't beat that.

05 January, 2009

Well, $#&*#$. We don't need problems with the foundation.

Today was supposed to be a happy day.

Mom's tenants moved into her other house this weekend, and Ted and I were over there this evening to pick up the last of our possessions: a desk, a dollhouse, and an old file cabinet. After more than a year of moving stuff (we had rented out our condo, moved to Mom's, put some of our stuff in storage, closed on The Box House, moved our stuff from storage to Evanston, and moved Mom's stuff here) we were done. Now we had tenants for both the extra properties, and could wait out the housing crisis and bad economy until we could sell them.

We were actually in high spirits as we drove to the Western suburbs, knowing that we wouldn't have to make the trek out there as frequently. I was even okay this time having to ring the doorbell to be let in.

And then I made the mistake of asking how things were going, and if they were all settled in.

They were settling in nicely, they assured us, but wanted to let us know that there was water in the basement.


The only time there was ever water in the basement was when the sump pump failed, and we didn't have a battery back up. The sump was working now--our handy man we sometimes use when we can't get out to the house had even checked it a few days before--but there was a small amount of water pooled in the middle of the basement and along all the edges. We could actually see it seeping in on the western edge, where wall met floor. My mouth literally dropped open, I was so surprised.

Seriously, what the heck?

The best we can figure, since the sump was working, is that the rapid freeze and thaw of last week, in which the temperature went up forty degrees and then back down within 12 hours, had somehow shifted or nudged or did some damage to the slab.

In more than 30 years of occupying the house, we had never had water seepage. What are the odds it happens on the weekend we get new tenants?

I broke the news to Mom as gently as I could, but it's a bitter pill to swallow. And checking the insurance policy yielded little hope. It doesn't look like they cover this type of damage, or, as clause 12 puts it, movement, settling, cracking, bulging, shrinking, heaving, or expanding, whether natural or otherwise. And clause 36 says they do not cover loss from extremes of temperature, including freezing.

It is speculation on our part regarding what exactly is happening in the basement, and we won't know more until we can call the insurance company and a few contractors to come out and look at it. But gee whiz, this sucks.

02 January, 2009

The Butlers and the Wintons Lived Here, Among Others

I dug up a little bit more house history today. Searching the Chicago Tribune archives specifically for our address, I found out that a Philip L. Butler lived here in the fifties. Whether he was the owner or a tenant, I don't know. But here's the info from the obituary section:

Butler--Marion Elizabeth Butler of the Ridgeview Hotel, E--, Ill., formerly of Morristown, N.J., July 15, 1955, mother of Philip L. Butler, 1XXX Monroe Street...

In the late forties /early fifties the Wintons lived here. A May 12, 1949 article on local golf caddies earning scholarships had this: "Glen Winton, 1XXX Monroe st., E--, Westmoreland, chemical engineering." Westmoreland is a country club founded in 1911 when a group of men from the local golf club grew dissatisfied with the space limitation for their own course. It's name literally comes from their move "West for More Land."

A May 4, 1950 article with the headline "Catholic High Schools Name Star Seniors" mentioned that a James Winton of 1XXX Monroe was named to the National Honor Society and also was a member of the golf team at St. George High School. St. George was an all-boys school located at 350 Sherman Avenue that opened in 1927 and closed in 1969.

So, that's about all I dug up searching for The Box House address in the Trib archives. Searching for the last name of the most recent previous owners in the archives provided a few leads regarding where the family used to live, etc., but nothing about their time in our house.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? But searching for information on our condo address, that's another story.

Prior to the construction of our six-flat building in 2002, a turn-of-the-century frame house existed. And in 1977, it was the site of a grisly murder:

"Criminal Court Judge William Cousins, Jr. sentenced a man to 60 to 70 years in prison Wednesday for what he called the 'hideous' burglary and muder of a 79-year-old woman.

'This crime is one of the most grisly than can be imagined,' Cousins said in sentencing Leon Blackwell, who was convicted last month of the murder of Agnes Bookham in her home at 4XXX N. Winthrop Av.

Court observers said it was the harshest sentence ever handed down by Cousins, a former liberal alderman from the 8th Ward who took the bench last December...

Blackwell, 34, of 4329 W. Washington St., stood motionless as the judge handed down the sentence...

According to testimony presented at the three-day jury trial, Blackwell and two accomplices entered Miss Bookham's home June 4, 1975, to steal money for narcotics. They bound the victim's hands and feet, sexually assaulted her, then wrapped masking tape around her head until, in the words of prosecutor Howard Schaffner, 'she looked like a mummy.' Doctors testified the woman died of suffocation..."

There is nothing left of Agnes Bookham's house or garage; everything was torn down to make way for the condo building. But it makes me sad nonetheless that such a horrible thing happened where we used to live.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1899, 1920, 1946

Even though I no longer live in Chicago, my library card is still good. This allows me online access to some of the databases at the Chicago Public Library, including the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Illinois. These maps were originally created to assess fire insurance liability in urbanized areas. The oldest maps date to just after the Civil War, and roughly 12,000 towns and cities across the U.S. were covered between 1867 to 1970. The Sanborn Maps are an excellent resource for researching urban geography, as the company's cartographers mapped out everything. Individual volumes might include an "index of streets and addresses, a ‘specials’ index with the names of churches, schools, businesses etc., and a master index indicating the entirety of the mapped area and the sheet numbers for each large-scale map (usually depicting four to six blocks) and general information such as population, economy and prevailing wind direction. The maps include outlines of each building and outbuilding, the location of windows and doors, street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, fire walls, natural features (rivers, canals, etc), railroad corridors, building use (sometimes even particular room uses), house and block number, as well as the composition of building materials including the framing, flooring, and roofing materials, the strength of the local fire department, indications of sprinkler systems, locations of fire hydrants, location of water and gas mains and even the names of most public buildings, churches and companies."

Across the Street from The Box House, 1899

I was able to check our neighborhood in three different volumes. The 1899 map showed that some of the streets in my neighborhood existed back then, but ours did not. There are a few farmhouse-style buildings marked out, including the Twin Yellow Houses we considered making an offer on, which were once owned by the town's first black doctor (according to the current owner). There were a few parcels of land marked out into lots for future development, but most of it looks like farmland or open land with a few greenhouses, including the Weiland-Risch Floral Company just to the south (of our present location) and the Nicholas Welter Florist and Pete Schumer Florist just to the west. If The Box House existed then, we'd be able to look out from our living room windows at the greenhouses across the street.

Our exact neck of the woods is not mapped, although everything around it is, which leads me to think it was completely undeveloped land.

Portion of Evanston, 1920

The 1920 map of the neighborhood, a portion of which is shown above, shows that most of the land has now been divided into individual parcels, although nothing has been developed on them yet. The land is marked as Kinsella's Addition and Welter's Ridge Addition; I'll have to see if those are the names of the actual developments or just a way to designated who sold the land for development. Based on this, it seems our parcel may have been owned by the same family who owned the Welter greenhouses. At any rate, with the exception of one lone house on the far end of the block, there were no other houses on my street prior to 1920. The street is marked, and the alleys are now marked, but there are no houses yet. The Nicholas Welter Greenhouse still existed, along with a Mat Welter Greenhouse just beside it. The Pete Schumer Florist Greenhouse has become the Schumer Florist Company Greenhouse, and there are a fair number of other greenhouses in the immediate vicinity that didn't appear on the 1899 map. In addition to all these glass buildings, The Box House (if it had existed in 1920) would have looked out onto a few wagon sheds.

Portion of Evanston, 1946

The Sanborn Map from 1946 is vastly different. Nearly every lot on my street is developed, and The Box House and its garage are clearly marked as part of the Welter's Ridge Addition. The land to the west is still mostly undeveloped, as far as housing. So up until World War II, at least, the residents of The Box House would have been looking out their living room window at the one greenhouse left, which looks like it was called Jack Clusen Greenhouse. Here's a closeup of our house on the Sanborn Map:

The Box House, 1946

It doesn't tell us much that we don't already know. The "D" stands for "dwelling" and "2B" means two-story brick (or two-story plus basement). The "A" on the garage indicates it is a private garage. The slashed lines on the house show that there were window openings on the first and second floors. I think it's saying that the house is 45 feet tall? I'll have to measure it sometime, that doesn't sound right. The porches are frame, and by 1946 were enclosed. I can't discern what the other symbols mean, and I don't know what the slashed lines on the garage indicate. I thought the black dots might be doors, but they're not positioned correctly.

Nowadays, the greenhouses are gone and it's solid dwelling units--single family homes, town homes, apartment buildings--for blocks all around us. But it is interesting to see how the immediate area changed in a little over a hundred years.

01 January, 2009

Deconstructing Our Workbench and a Bit o' Cream of Wheat

One of the things we inherited with The Box House was a monstrously huge, very heavy workbench.
It was in the room we call Uncle Jimmy's tool room, now my office, which is located at the far, far end of the basement. We hauled this puppy the full length of the basement, up the stairs, and into the garage. I'm stronger than I look, but even so, it was not an easy task.

We decided we already had enough workbenches, in the garage and in the house, and didn't really need or want this one. It looked like it was cobbled together from miscellaneous scraps of this and that. It's not the kind of thing that we thought would go on Craig's List, either. So we decided to take it apart and salvage what wood we could. But something made me wipe down one of the boards, thick with coal dust and decades worth of grit, and look! It's from an old Cream-of-Wheat shipping crate!

Now, I love a good bowl of cream o' wheat. It's one of the two foods my mother could get me to eat when I was sick (the other being creamed eggs on toast, which she'll still make for me when I have the flu). When I was in college, and poorer than I am now, a box of quick-cooking Cream of Wheat could last me for weeks. I'd have it every day for breakfast, with a pinch of salt and a dollop of butter. So you can imagine how excited I was to find this. The script on this board is rather old-fashioned, and I tried a Google search to see if I can date it based on the logo, but no luck. I assume it belonged to the previous previous owner.

There were other boards for Quaker Oats.

The boards all cleaned up fairly well, and I'll be putting hooks on them to hang up in the garage and/or my office. The rest of the wood made it to a scrap pile in the corner. Not sure what we'll do with it, yet, but we'll figure out something.

Maggie and Seamus, BFF

People let me tell you 'bout my best friend,

He's a warm-hearted person who'll love me till the end.

People let me tell you 'bout my best friend,

He's a one boy cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy.

People let me tell you 'bout him, he's so much fun

Whether we're talkin' man to man or whether we're talking son to son.

Cause he's my best friend.

Yes he's my best friend...

La la, la la la la, la la...