SMHR Working in the Dark Ages, Fifteen Years Ago

SMHR: Working in the Dark Ages, Fifteen Years Ago

Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us, and fixing them up. An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can. We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.

Or sometimes, we just gab. A few weeks ago I introduced you all to our modest little fixer-upper, RiverBank. Previously I wrote about fixing the kitchen fireplace and restoring the staircase. but in the way of introductions, I thought a few more photos might be in order about where we started with the house.

We bought the house in late 1997. The foundation had been flooded the previous year and all the bricks had spalled, and we knew that the only chance we had to save the house was to move in before cold weather and keep the basement dry and above freezing so it would all harden up before the walls came down. We didn’t close until October 15. Although it was months before we would actually own the place, we worked every weekend and spare evening because we knew how tight our time window really was.

The original plan was to restore a couple of rooms before we moved in. With one live electrical outlet in the basement, I was able to run an extension cord up to the main floor and hook up a hot plate. The well was out in the yard. I could heat one pan of water at a time and pour hot water and lysol into a pail for washing. Not perfect, but it worked.

Of course, the plan to restore a couple of rooms wasn’t workable on one electrical outlet and a hot plate. Then we went to painting a couple of rooms. Then we adjusted our expectations again and agreed to clean a couple of rooms. In the end we scraped up the mud where we were going to put the furniture, and moved in.

Yeah, it was nasty. This is the upstairs hallway, with wall- and ceiling-paper stalactites.

The middle parlor, which became our first bedroom. We were there for about a month before I couldn’t stand the dirt on the ceiling any longer. Bad as it was dark, stark white was even creepier.

A bathroom that was leftover from Laugh-In.

Being on the first floor and previously flooded, the tiles just weren’t going to cut it. This room was where I learned the deep and abiding satisfaction that comes of taking a sledgehammer and Doing Things With It.

It made the fact that, for a month or so, we had no electricity in the bathroom worthwhile. If you wanted a shower and it was dark, you had put an oil lamp on the toilet. It was downright romantic.

This was the worst damage the house sustained:

This is an upstairs bedroom where the roof had a tree growing in it. Years of water damage had brought down the ceiling and rotted the plaster wall. After restoration, it looks like this:

How did we do it? We made mistakes. We had lots of help and advice. We fixed things. We’ve worked slowly. Every year we get better. Lots of elbow grease and sweat equity.

We still have a lot of work to do, and this is a busy season—cool enough to work outside comfortably, pretty much dry enough to paint, yet still warm enough. We’re working on windows on the house, fences and barn work on the farm. And the meat house. The meat house will have all its walls today, and its door tomorrow (if hope holds and the weather stays dry).

Today things are better for house restorers and do-it-yourselfers than they were even fifteen years ago. Today you can find videos online that show you how to do practically anything (this week it was how to plaster walls. This week I was going to write about the wonders of lime plaster, but the final skim coat isn’t up yet because the scratch coat isn’t cured enough.) Today we have abundant resources at our fingertips. Google and YouTube, US Department of Historic Preservation Briefs.

For practical advice on best practices, however, this Saturday morning gathering is the best all-around expert resource I’ve ever found. Not only how-to’s and best practices, but also adaptations and work-arounds, how to finesse and substitute, how to do it right and, failing that, how to keep the whole thing from falling down.

I only wish I’d found you guys sooner, because you rock.


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