If it’s one step forward and eight steps back, it’s time to demolish a wall

“I just wanted to make some forward progress,” S. said, turning off the car and leaning back somewhat desolately in his seat. “I just wanted to move forward a bit.”

“I know,” I said, remaining in my seat as well despite the frigid temperature. “But I guess today is not the day for it.”

Saturday, we were supposed to price out various tile prices for the pantry floor. Actually, Wednesday we were supposed to to price out various tile prices for the pantry but both Michigan State and Duke had basketball games that day and if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know how we prioritize our winter.

We’d set ourselves up to accomplish a lot on Saturday – pay the bills, grocery shop, pick up the dry cleaning, and hit Home Depot and Construnction Junction. Sure, we were perhaps running a bit behind schedule but it was, after all, a Saturday and we had nothing to do besides make sure to be home for, yes, college basketball at five. Around twelve-thirty or so, my arms full of dry cleaning, the grocery bill clutched between my teeth, I went outside to join S., who had spent the last half hour unearthing our car from a pile of snow, to find him speaking with our neighbor and looking with some concern at second floor roof – the same roof we had an ice dam-related leak last spring and had fixed once already.

Now, I could spend some time here explaining how we thought, according to the information the previous owners provided, that the roof on the house was new, and leaks weren’t something we were supposed to deal with, but I think an individual post on the nature of our neighborhood and previous neighbors’ approach to home repair is warranted – I will write it this month sometime. So trust me when I say yes, our roof is new, but only in the most do-it-yourself-with-some-of-your-buddies sense of the word.

“What’s up?” I asked S., shoving the dry-cleaning into the back seat of the car. Skylar was running circles around the back yard, stopping periodically to flip snow with his nose.

S. and our neighbor, F., pointed to a long stream of water running down the side of our house.

“We’ve got an ice dam in the same spot we had the roof fixed last year,” S. said.

“How serious is that?” I asked. I will admit, sometimes I just want to ignore problems such as these. I mean, the day was meant for tile shopping! I had geared myself up for tile – my head was not in a “roof problem” place.

“Hard to tell,” F. said. “But you need to make sure the leak isn’t permeating your house. I hear water running down my house, too – I’m going to investigate.”

“I’ve got to get the snow off the roof to see what’s going on. Can you check the second floor living room for leaks?” S. asked.

For the next who-knows-how-long, S. shoveled loads of heavy snow off both of our roofs while I alternately inspected for leaks ( a small leak coming through a window, but not through the roof, was discovered) and tried to keep Skylar from jumping through the open second floor window to investigate what his master was doing. At the end of all the shoveling and inspecting we placed a call to our home warranty people – and people, if you ever buy a century old home, I can not emphasize enough how much you should extend your home warranty – and headed to the grocery store.

What we’ve learned in a year, is this: this old house is not going to cave in on us. It’s a big, solid, weathered home that has withstood more kinds of weather than S. and I are likely to see in our lifetime. Unlike this time last year, neither one of us lost our cool or our tempers or our enjoyment of one another – simply, we were supposed to go shopping for tile for renovating the pantry, and we ended up searching for roof leaks. These are, after all, the days of our lives.

But when we returned home in the late afternoon, what light was left in the day disappearing behind the house, with not as much accomplished as we’d hoped, there was a moment of despair.

“Just one step forward,” S. repeated, before stepping out of the car and grabbing a few bags of groceries. “That’s all I wanted.”

Well, as any person rehabilitating a home will assuredly tell you, when hopelessness begins to wash over you, it’s time to grab your power tools, which is exactly what S. did yesterday in attempt to reestablish his alpha status with the house.Ā  We have been informed by neighbors and friends familiar with renovating old homes that we had secret entrances and pocket doors on the first floor, all of which had been plastered and dry-walled over the course of the last century, changing with the fashion and trends of the time. The ultimate goal, if you own one of these houses, is to strip down all the ugly and reveal the home’s original architecture. We had been hesitant, up to this point, to drill into the baseboards and walls to find out if our sources were correct but yesterday S. came to conclusion that we really couldn’t make the house much worse in terms of appearance and broke out a couple different drills and saws.Ā  He methodically moved around the first floor, removing baseboards, drilling holes, cutting out pieces of wall, revealing an actual entrance way into our dining room, a place for pocket doors in the living room, a wider entrance way in the hallway. Over the course of a careful day, he managed to find a whole bunch of secret, beautiful opportunities on the first floor, more than enough to finally focus our attention on this house and decide, for the moment, anyway, to concentrate our rehabilitation efforts on the first floor. Next weekend, once breathing masks, tarp and goggles have been purchased, we will be tearing down some walls.

This house keeps throwing us curve balls, and we keep bunting them. It’s time to knock one of these suckers out of the park.

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13 Responses to If it’s one step forward and eight steps back, it’s time to demolish a wall

  1. Lizzy says:

    Dear Courtney, I think you’re lucky to own a house with a history.

    I can’t wait to go back to the US, get a house and start fixing it up.

    I want to see some pictures of your secret passages. šŸ˜‰

  2. appellationmountain says:

    I can just SEE S. with the power tools – and having gone through the House Rehab process, I know exactly the madness of which you speak.

    I don’t think you were in the ‘burgh when I decided an ancient cedar closet had to be moved from the attic NOW. Forty minutes later, said cedar closet was wedged in the stairwell and I was stuck in the attic. Obviously, I made it out, but there really is a kind of insanity that washes over you from time to time.

    And yes, we move into our homes thinking about tile and paint colors and then realize it is all about furnaces and roof leaks, oh my.

  3. Elaine says:

    Woohoooooo! Good for y’all for taking that first big scary step. Looking forward to seeing what’s hiding in there.

  4. shoreacres says:

    I suspect what’s true with a boat makeover is true with a house: structure first, lipstick last.

    What S did with those power tools is an exact equivalent to tapping through a boat hull with a hammer, testing for soundness. It’s always a first step – no sense putting on those new sails and varnishing the wood if the stanchions are going to pull out in the first rough blow and electrolysis is going to blow out the through-hull fittings and sink the boat.

    Truth is, those tile stores won’t be going out of business is the next month or six. Just keep listening to the house – she’ll give you some clues on how to proceed šŸ˜‰

  5. SA says:

    If I can find a cheap flight, I will totally fly to the Burgh and rip floors up and walls down with you and S. personally. I am concerned about how to mainline Labatt’s down my gullet whilst wearing a breathing mask, however.

  6. auntjone says:

    I feel your pain. My house is 100+ years old but thankfully the roof is a-ok. For now. Aw hell, I probably just jinxed myself.

    Anyhow, I’ve owned it for 5 years now and while we’re still renovating, now it seems like it is time to redo some things that were done, well, 5 years ago. The upstairs bathroom needs scrubbed from top to bottom and the trim needs repainted. The upstairs hallway and my son’s “man cave” need touched up. The master bedroom needs attention, as does my son’s bedroom (somehow he has outgrown the super hero theme. My heart aches).

    In short, a homeowner’s work is never done. And don’t get me started on the yard. Hoo-boy.

  7. Stefanie says:

    That must have been cathartic for S to go around drilling and sawing pieces of the walls. I hope the tearing down of walls goes well. Are you taking pictures? I hope so. Before during and after seems like it would be fun to keep track of.

  8. Andi says:

    It’s like a treasure hunt in your own home! Given, there will be handfuls of seaweed along the way, but it sounds like y’all are doing a beautiful job.

  9. Cam says:

    I did the 100-yr old house rehab thing when I was in my early 30’s (and had a toddler, increasing the level of difficulty & speed of progress). It was quite an experience and while I don’t know that I’d do it again, I have great memories, tales to tell. It remains my favorite house, although I’ve owned 3 others. Sometimes, when I drive through that part of town, I wistfully think about the house and hope that it’s current owners are taking care of it.

    Have fun with the process, and take Stephanie’s advice about documenting with pictures.

  10. Courtney says:

    Lizzy – you are so right – I am very lucky to have a house to fix up! And I hope you return to the U.S. as soon as you possibly can!
    A. – you can see S. with the power tools and I can totally see you getting trapped by a cedar chest! You are so correct – we think tile and paint, we deal with furnaces and roofs…
    E. – you are so, so welcome to come over anytime and offer your input and expertise!
    SA – I am pretty sure s. has already figured out the mainlining labatts/breathing mask thing. You are welcome forever and always, etc. And also, I miss you. And go State.
    Aunt Jone – I adore you. But reading your reply made me a little nauseous…I can’t even think about redoing things that I haven’t even done yet!
    Stef – we have so many pictures it will make your head spin! Stay tuned – you will see many, many photos!
    Andi…I don’t know if it is so much beautiful as it is ad hoc, but I totally dig what you mean! And I am super excited for your baby…I can’t wait to see pics!
    Cam – I am very hopeful that our angst is someday transformed to happy memories – I am looking forward to that possibility. Although i must admit we are having quite a bit of fun along the way!

  11. litlove says:

    Great story, but ugh, roof problems are the kind that wake me up worrying at three in the morning. Such are the joys of home ownership, however. It’s your roof over your head, even if it is leaking!

  12. Burgh Baby says:

    I’m pretty sure we will never find any such surprises in our house, so I’m jealous. I’d rather uncover treasures than fix shoddy plumbing any day.

  13. A Free Man says:

    This is beautifully written, but I sympathesize with your plight. Older houses are beautiful, but full of unknown traps. Part of their ‘charm’ I suppose.

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