Aug 302015
 August 30, 2015  Uncategorized 5 Responses »

Refinished Floor

Before we began renovating the stairwell, I had an abstract idea of how the finished project would look – refinished wide-plank pine floors, a level staircase with dark-stained treads, a slightly raised handrail, white balusters and white trim, smooth, flat walls and so on. Even so, it was hard to picture just how all of these elements would come together. But when I came home at the end of last week and opened the front door to completely refinished entryway floors, the first major piece of that picture came into focus.

Refinished Entryway Floors

It was quite the transformation, considering that just a few days earlier the entryway looked like this:

The Stairwell at the End of Week 3

It feels like the stairwell floors are finally breathing a sigh of relief after likely not seeing the light of day for nearly 100 years. The original wide-plank pine flooring was first covered over in linoleum, which was later stripped off, leaving behind the glue and backing paper – the splotchy gray stuff you can see in the above picture. A 1/4-inch plywood underlayment was then nailed over the remnants of the linoleum flooring, and vinyl sheet flooring was installed over that.

With the original pine flooring exposed and brought back from the dead, the entire stairwell feels more homey and less institutional and decrepit. The original flooring isn’t perfect by any means. Not surprisingly, it seems that the flooring in the entryway and stairwell has been abused more than the floors elsewhere in the building. Several floorboards are scarred with dark gouges, while others are streaked with dark water stains (possibly from leaky steam radiators?). Pine is a soft wood and all of the floorboards sport nicks and bruises and scrapes, and have a darker amber tone than the pine flooring in the rest of the building. But I don’t mind these imperfections; they speak to the building’s long history and help ground the space.

Original Pine Flooring Close-up

I’m also hoping to find a runner or two for the entryway and laundry area, which will cover some of the floor’s more obvious patches and blemishes. Speaking of the ground-floor laundry area, it’s also been completely transformed by the refinished floors.

Laundry Area Floors 1

Laundry Area Floors 2

The original floorboards on the second-floor landing were never covered over, but the finish had almost completely worn off and they were in desperate need of refinishing. Here’s how the landing turned out:

Refinished Landing

Refinishing the floors really highlighted the curved edge of the landing, which will eventually be surrounded by a railing.

Refinished Landing Curved Edge

With the stairwell flooring finished, Gregg can begin reinstalling the handrail, newel posts, and balusters. And after that, I can begin a long list of finish work. Stay tuned.

Aug 242015
 August 24, 2015  Uncategorized 4 Responses »

Refinishing floors is almost always a logistical nightmare. It involves completely emptying a portion of your home and agreeing not to enter the area for at least two or three days. Things get even more complicated if the area to be refinished happens to include the primary entryway and common laundry for four condos. So I knew finding a convenient time to refinish the floors in the stairwell would be a challenge. But luckily, all of my neighbors were just as anxious as me to finally get the stairwell floors cleaned up and finished. And who could blame us? The floors have looked like this for the past few weeks:

Original Floors Ground Floor

Besides finding a time to refinish the floors that accommodated everyone’s schedule, we also needed to schedule the refinishing around the rest of the renovation work in the stairwell, and all things considered, this week seemed like an ideal time. We’ve reached a point where most of the carpentry work on the stairs is complete, so there’s less risk of damaging the refinished floors during later work. But we haven’t reinstalled the handrail yet, so the flooring guys  have easy access to the floorboards around the balusters.

But before the floors were refinished, I needed to patch all of the holes left behind years ago when the old steam radiators and steam pipes were removed from the building.

Radiator Holes in Stairwell Floor

To patch these circular holes, which ranged in size from about 1 inch to 2.5 inches in diameter, I used a jigsaw to cut circular plugs out of some scrap pine (the pine was pre-primed, but the primer will be sanded off before the floor is finished). I traced out each of the circles with a compass and held the jigsaw at a slight angle as I cut so that each plug was slightly tapered.

Circular Flooring PlugAfter sanding down the rough edges, I ran a bead of wood glue around the outer edge of each plug, and then hammered it into place with a rubber mallet.

Circular Floor Plugs

Circular Floor Plugs

Although these plugs might not look perfect, they’re sturdy and should be pretty inconspicuous once the floors are finished. And plugging the holes just seemed more practical than completely replacing all of the floorboards with holes cut through them.

The refinishers showed up early this morning, and by the time I got home from work, they had sanded the floors and put down the first coat of polyurethane. I peeked in the front door at the still-wet floors when I got home, and I think it’s safe to say that the original, refinished, pine floors are going to make a huge difference in the overall appearance of the stairwell. I managed to snap a few blurry phone pictures of the in-progress floors. Here’s the flooring just inside the front door:

Refinished Stairwell Floors In Progress

There’s some gouging and discoloring on a few floorboards, along with a haphazard patch job in the middle of the hallway, but let’s just say it adds a lot of character to the space. Here’s an overhead shot showing the little landing at the top of the ground floor stairs, which was apparently redone in tongue and groove heart pine flooring at some point:

Refinished Stairwell Floors In Progress

And finally, here’s the second floor landing:

Refinished Stairwell Floors In Progress

I can’t wait to see how the floors turn out after two more coats of polyurethane. I’ll be back at the end of the week with some pictures of the finished floors.

Jul 272015
 July 27, 2015  Uncategorized 8 Responses »

Over the past few weeks, our contractor, Gregg, has finished the bulk of the repair work on the stairs. He’s almost ready to begin reinstalling the original newel post and handrail. But all of this progress has reminded me just how much work I have left to do in the stairwell. Once Gregg is done, I’ll still need to stain and seal the treads, add a new coat of varnish to the handrail and newel post, paint the balusters, risers, and the exposed edge of the staircase, skim coat and paint the walls, and lots of other stuff I haven’t thought of yet.

But before I can start most of that work, Gregg needs to put the stairs back together. After a break for the Fourth of July, Gregg finished installing the last of the replacement treads. The entire two flights of stairs are now straight and level, and walking upstairs no longer feels like quite the adventure it once did. Gregg used flooring adhesive to secure the treads, so they don’t even creak. Here’s a look at the complete, second flight of stair treads.

Second Flight of Stairs New Treads

At the top of the second flight, Gregg added a little curved piece of wood to the front of the landing to match the curve of the last riser.

Curved Landing

This little detail had been lost at some point when the flooring was replaced on the landing.

With all of the treads replaced, Gregg moved on to installing the end pieces on all of the new treads. Traditionally, in a staircase like ours where one side of the stairs is open, the treads are constructed in two pieces – the main body of the tread and a little end piece called the return, which typically runs an inch or two beyond the end of the tread, giving the appearance that the tread is set into the riser. The return is joined to the rest of the tread with a 45-degree miter joint. I don’t know why treads are constructed this way. In many cases it would be just as easy, maybe easier, for a carpenter to cut the entire tread, return and all, from a single piece of wood. But I guess this two-piece construction is the way it has always been done, and now it’s considered a sign of good craftsmanship. So that’s the way Gregg decided to make the treads.

Curved ReturnOf course, making the returns was complicated by the fact that the inner edge of many of the treads is curved. Gregg used a jig saw to custom cut each of these curved returns and added the outer bull-nosed edge with a router. He shaved and sanded each return until it fit perfectly. The results are impressive, more impressive even than the old stairs, since without any paint obscuring it, you can see the tight joint between the tread and the return. Here’s an overhead shot of a few of the curved treads.

Curved ReturnsGregg decided to add 3/4-inch cove moulding under each of the returns, since that’s what was originally there. But making curved cove moulding is even more challenging than making curved returns. The original moulding was carved from solid wood, but given our timeline and budget for this project, hand-carved moulding isn’t a practical option. Instead, Gregg ordered some flexible cove moulding, which showed up this past week. The flexible moulding is made out of what feels like dense rubber, and it arrived coiled up in a box. It’s a weird material, and it took Gregg some time to get used to working with it. But after he installed a piece on the first step, it looks pretty flawless. It’s supposed to be paintable, so it should blend right in with the rest of the moulding.

Flexible Cove MouldingWhile Gregg worked on the stairs, I finished cleaning the original handrail and newel post. I continued my strategy of wiping down each section of the handrail with a rag soaked in mineral spirits, and when I was done, I had removed a ton of brown-black gunk from the handrail (most of which was probably decades-old grease from peoples’ hands).

Cleaned Newel Post

Once the mineral spirits had completely evaporated, I could see that the underlying finish was really uneven. The finish had completely worn off on the parts of the handrail that people had grabbed the most over the years, particularly where the staircase turns, but the finish was intact in other places. You can kind of see what I’m talking about in this picture:

Handrail Uneven FinishOnce the handrail is reinstalled, I’ll probably add a new coat of polyurethane to the whole thing to even everything out.

By the end of last week, Gregg had finished installing all of the moulding on the first flight of stairs.

Stairwell Cove MouldlingAs you can see, there are still some big gaps that were created when the new treads were shimmed and leveled. But we (or I should say Gregg, it was completely his idea) have a plan to (hopefully) quickly and easily patch over these gaps, leaving everything smooth and seamless. But more on that next time.

Jun 282015
 June 28, 2015  Uncategorized 6 Responses »

The original newel posts and handrail might be the most impressive part of the stairwell. They’re constructed from tightly-grained, solid walnut. The handrail twists and winds its way up a curved flight of stairs and across a landing before doubling back and climbing a second flight of tightly curved stairs, terminating at a small newel post on the third floor. Although it was fabricated in several sections, once assembled, the handrail looks like a single strip of undulating wood. Just how craftsmen wrought this sinuous, fluid form from solid wood over 150 years ago using only hand tools remains a mystery to me.

Curved Handrail

In any case, the handrail seems like an irreplaceable part of the stairs. Or, at least, it would be so expensive to replicate that it may as well be irreplaceable. Even so, it’s gotten pretty dirty and dinged up over the years, and I felt like I should do something with it while it’s disassembled. But I didn’t want to remove all of it’s character by, say, sanding it down to bare wood. Cleaning it seemed like a good place to start.

But after wiping down a short section of the handrail with soapy water, it was still coated in some sort of dark, gunky grime. “You’d be surprised at how much skin grease builds up on stuff that people touch” my brother, who works as an art conservator, explained when I asked him how best to proceed with the handrail. I was worried about messing up the original finish, which I assumed was an old varnish or laquer, if I used a harsher cleaning agent to remove the grease and oil that had accumulated over a century-and-a-half of people running their hands over the railing. My brother recommended low VOC mineral spirits, which should dissolve grease and wax without disturbing the original varnish. Here’s the handrail before I started cleaning it:

Handrail Before

As I wiped down the same small section of handrail with a rag soaked in mineral spirits, the rag picked up a surprising amount of dark brown-black gunk. As the mineral spirits evaporated, I realized that there wasn’t any finish left on the handrail – I had cleaned it down to bare wood.

Handrail After

This might mean that the original finish was just paste wax that dissolved in the mineral spirits. Or, the original finish could have been lacquer, which was degraded by years of exposure to oil from peoples’ hands. Or maybe, the original finish has long since worn away and the current “finish” is just a layer of grime and skin oil.

Either way, it seems like the thing to do is to refinish the entire handrail, first removing all of the dirt and grime and any remaining old finish with mineral spirits, and then applying a new finish. It’s looking like the refinished walnut will be lighter than the current finish/dirt, but the grain of the wood will be more visible as well. All in all, I think it will be an improvement, not least because the handrail will finally be clean, probably for the first time in over a century.

Later in the week, Mara and I began skim coating the stairwell walls. The walls are currently covered in a lumpy, chunky, textured plaster treatment that makes the stairwell look like a mine shaft. Here’s a close-up look:

stair trim

Originally, the walls would have been smooth plaster, like they are elsewhere in the building. Skim coating all of the walls will be a big project, but I think it will make a huge difference in the overall appearance of the stairwell. I started with the wall directly outside the front door to my unit. This wall is one of the few flat walls in the stairwell – most of the walls and even the ceilings are made up of curved plaster work – so it seemed like a good place to start.

As I’ve renovated the condo over the past few years, I’ve done my fair share of skim coating (it kind of comes with the territory when you’re fixing up an old house), and I’ve come up with a skim coating technique that seems to work for me. I use premixed joint compound with a little bit of water mixed in to make it more manageable and to give me some more time before it begins to dry. I start by applying joint compound to a section of the wall with a drywall knife. I get things as smooth as possible with the drywall knife, but I don’t obsess over little marks and ridges. Then, while the joint compound is still wet, I go over it with a magic trowel (which is really just a big, heavy duty squeegee) to achieve a smooth finish. Once I’ve added the last coat, and the joint compound is completely dry, I lightly sand the whole wall before priming and painting. I’ve started to get faster at skim coating, but it’s still a time consuming process. We managed to get the first coat of joint compound on this weekend, but it looks like the stairwell walls will take at least two coats of joint compound to fully cover the lumpy, textured plaster. Here’s current state of the wall – the skim coated wall is to the right, and the wall on the left is still covered in the textured plaster.

Skim Coat First Coat

Meanwhile, Gregg continued replacing the treads on the second flight of stairs. By the end of the week, he only had one tread left to go. Here’s a progress shot of the second flight of stairs where you can see just how out-of-level the original treads had become.

Second Flight Progress

Second Flight Progress

Gregg will finish putting together and installing the last tread at the beginning of next week and then move on to installing trim.

Jun 182015
 June 18, 2015  Living Room 17 Responses »

When I decided to install a built-in hutch in the living room, I only had a few goals for the project – first and foremost, I wanted a spot to hang the tv without having to deal with a bunch of cables running down the wall; I figured some extra storage space and a few shelves for books would be nice; and finally, I didn’t want the new cabinetry to look completely out-of-place in the room. But now that it’s installed and nearly finished, I think it’s safe to say that the new built-in has exceeded these modest goals.

A few weeks ago, the corner of the living room next to the fireplace was dark, barren, and made all-but unusable by an awkwardly situated baseboard radiator. We mounted the tv in this corner, but the mess of cables running down the wall and a general sense of emptiness left this part of the room looking unfinished.

Corner TV Wall

You might notice in the picture above that all of the power cables are plugged into an outlet on the left wall. We quickly realized that a built-in cabinet would make it difficult to run power cables to this outlet. So I asked my electrician to add a new outlet directly behind the tv. He ran new wiring from the old outlet, around the corner, and up to the center of the wall, a process that involved cutting a pretty big chunk of plaster out of the corner of the wall. But no big deal, I knew this corner would soon be covered up by the new built-in.

Over the past month or so, Brandon, the owner of Grain Woodshop here in East Boston, constructed and installed the built-in. He built the hutch in his shop in three pieces – a lower, four-drawer unit, an open space for the tv, and an upper shelving unit. He securely attached these three pieces to the wall using some carpentry wizardry, somehow insuring that everything was straight and level and really solid, despite the walls being uneven and not-so-solid. Here’s the cabinet carcass after the first day of installation work. (“cabinet carcass,” by the way, is an unappealing name for the cabinet box and frame; although the name might conjure images of a freshly killed and skinned cabinet, carcass construction is actually one of the first steps on the way to building a living, breathing, finished cabinet.)

Cabinet Carcass

I decided that I didn’t want the shelving to go all the way to the ceiling for reasons both practical (I wouldn’t be able to reach the upper shelves) and aesthetic (a lower height would keep the built-in in line with the heights of the room’s windows). So next, Brandon filled in the gap between the top of the hutch and the ceiling with a piece of sheetrock.

Sheetrock Over Cabinet

And I taped and mudded the sheetrock so that it blends in seamlessly with the surrounding walls. Here it is after one coat of primer.

Finished Sheetrock Above Cabinet

Next Brandon added the drawer fronts, and began installing the trim. He added a baseboard with a heating register grill set into it to allow heat from the radiator, which by this point was buried under the cabinet, to escape. Brandon custom milled casing for the built-in to match the original casing that surrounds the room’s doors and windows. But as he was installing the casing, we ran into a problem.

Cabinet Progress

Cabinet Outlet Problem

As you can see, the old outlet was in the way of the new casing. After consulting with my electrician, I decided that the best solution was to move the old outlet two inches to the left so that it would just clear the casing. Although I’d never done it before, moving the outlet wasn’t all that difficult. I turned off power to the circuit at the breaker box, removed the old outlet and pulled the wiring out of the electrical box. Then I cut out a section of plaster, added a new electrical box, and rewired the outlet. Since there’s no stud next to the new outlet, I had to use a “remodeling electrical box” which is designed to clamp onto the wall without the need for a stud.

Moved Outlet And here’s the new outlet after I patched and painted the surrounding wall.

Moved Outlet Finished This past week, with the outlet out of the way, Brandon finished installing the trim and put a coat of paint on everything. The hutch isn’t completely finished – it needs another coat of paint, the drawer glides aren’t finished, and the drawers need pulls – but the bulk of the work is done, and it looks great. The whole room actually feels more balanced than it did without the built-in. The casing around the hutch reflects the size and proportions of the casing around the room’s windows, bringing some symmetry to the fireplace wall.

Finished Built-in Hutch

Finished Built-in Hutch

There have been a few other changes in the living room over the past few months, so look out for a living room update at some point when the built-in is finished.

Finished Built-in Hutch

Jun 072015
 June 7, 2015  Uncategorized 7 Responses »

The finished staircase came into focus this week as our contractor, Gregg, finished installing new treads and risers on the first flight of stairs. Gregg spent most of last week custom milling curved treads for the first five steps. But things went more quickly this week as he moved on to a straight run of about eight steps with rectangular treads – instead of cutting the treads into weird, curved shapes and recreating the front, bull-nosed edge with a router, Gregg was able to simply cut the pre-made treads to size and install them.

As Gregg installed one tread after another over the course of the week, it became increasingly obvious just how crooked the old steps had been. As they climbed higher, each step became more crooked than the last, and with new, level treads providing a point of reference, the stairs started to look really wacky.

old stairs new treads

Gregg shimmed each tread, some as much as two inches on one side, and then glued and nailed them into place. The extreme shimming means we’ll have to figure out how to cover the newly-created gaps along the edge of the stairs. Trim will cover about an inch of the gap, but we might have to patch in the rest with some thin pieces of plywood.

Shimmed Stair Treads

Things slowed down a bit again as Gregg reached the next section of curved stairs near the top of the first flight where the stairs turn the corner to the second floor landing.

Corner Stairs

As the stairs curve around this corner, the inner and outer edges of each tread follows the circumference of a giant circle. Again, Gregg had to custom mill each of these treads. The inner edges of the treads in this corner of the stairwell follow a tight curve, so some of these treads are pretty weird shapes.

Corner Tread 2

Corner Tread 1

By the end of the week, all of the new treads and risers were in place on the first flight of stairs.

First Flight With New Treads

The Stairwell at the End of Week 3

This past weekend I started pulling up the vinyl sheet flooring and plywood underlayment on the ground floor of the stairwell, in our communal laundry area. I used the same pry-bar-and-brute-force technique that I used to remove the plywood underlayment in the entryway. But since it was an unseasonable 80-something degrees last weekend, I only managed to pull up half of the old flooring before deciding it was just too damn hot to keep working. My downstairs neighbor pitched in later in the week (once it had cooled off) and pulled up the rest of the old flooring in an afternoon. With the plywood underlayment gone, we were left with this:

Original Floors Ground Floor

I’m aware that it looks like an awful mess, and you’ll just have to trust me that there are original pine floorboards under all of this. The splotchy gray stuff is the same paper underlayment (possibly linoleum backing paper) that we found under the plywood underlayment in the entryway. I sent a sample of this paper out for asbestos testing at the same time that I had the paper backing from the entryway tested. And like the paper in the entryway, this paper was asbestos free. So we’ll just let the flooring guys sand through it when they refinish the floors.

We also uncovered a fairly sizable hole that was cut clear through the original floorboards and subfloor along the edge of the hallway.

Hole in the Floor

There was a length of cast iron pipe that was not connected to anything and was just sort of wedged into the hole. I’m guessing the pipe used to serve an old steam radiator. I’m not sure why someone decided to leave this piece of pipe dangling here, covered over with a plywood underlayment. Once I cleared out the pipe and a few chunks of unsecured wood, the hole was completely open to the cellar below.

Open Hole in the Floor

I encountered a similar situation when I uncovered the original floors in the kitchen. I decided to shuffle floorboards around in the kitchen to patch the hole seamlessly. But since this is an entirely utilitarian space where no one spends much time, I’ll probably just patch the hole as it is.

Gregg will tackle the second flight of stairs next week, and I’m hoping to get started cleaning up the original handrail and newel post.

May 312015
 May 31, 2015  Uncategorized 6 Responses »

Over the past two weeks, the stairwell has been reduced to a grimy construction site. But somehow, each day that I came home this week and walked through the front door, I thought that the space looked better than I’ve ever seen it. The stairwell has been stripped back to its bare bones. The dingy vinyl flooring, the chipped and sagging stair treads, the balusters caked with dozens of layers of cracked paint – all of it’s gone. And there’s something satisfying about that; it feels like a sorely needed fresh start for this well-used, more-than-160-year-old space.

When we left off last time, I had just finished pulling up the vinyl flooring and plywood underlayment in the entryway. Once the plywood was up, I noticed some patches of old, gray paper stuck to the original pine floorboards, but I figured the flooring guys would have no problem sanding off the paper while refinishing the floors. It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that this old paper could contain asbestos. And the more I looked into it, the more it seemed like the paper was the backing from an old linoleum floor that had since been removed. And the information I found online about asbestos content in old linoleum backing paper ranged from ‘almost certainly contains asbestos’ to ‘definitely contains asbestos.’

Stairwell Floors

So much for sanding off the paper, I thought. But just to be sure, I mailed a sample of the paper to an asbestos testing lab, and a few days later I got the results back – no asbestos. So I guess even if everyone tells you that a certain building material contains asbestos, it’s worth actually having the material tested. Especially considering that the test only costs $20-30 and takes about a day plus shipping time.

While I was worrying about asbestos in the floors this week, our contractor, Gregg, got started rebuilding the stairs. At the beginning of the week, he installed a new stringer against the wall along the straight section of the stairs. The new stringer wasn’t installed for structural reasons, but instead will provide a surface for attaching the new treads, since the original stringer is buried in the wall. You can see the new stringer here on the left:

New Stair Stringer

The first five steps are curved, and Gregg spent most of the week custom milling treads to fit the curvature of the original stairs. We’re replacing the old, pine stair treads with new, pre-made, red oak treads. But the new, pre-cut treads are rectangular. So to make each of the curved treads covering the first five steps, Gregg cut two of the pre-made treads into the correct shapes, used a router along the curved, front edge of the tread to recreate the rounded, bull-nosed front, and finally glued the front and back sections of the tread together. Here’s the tread for the first step clamped and glued and awaiting final installation:

Glued Stair Tread

And here’s the first tread after it was installed, photo courtesy of Gregg.

First Curved Stair TreadGregg used flexible vinyl boards for the curved risers. The vinyl easily conforms to the contours of the original, underlying, curved substructure. And once it’s patched and painted, it will be indistinguishable from the surrounding wood trim.

Gregg repeated the process of cutting, gluing, and installing curved treads for the next four steps. Each step is a slightly different shape, so it was a time-consuming process.

Newly Installed Stair Treads

After installing each tread, Gregg covered it with rosin paper to protect it until I get around to staining and finishing the treads. The stairs are so out-of-level that the new treads are shimmed about an inch and a half on one side to make them level.

Shimmed Stair Treads

Now that most of the complicated, curved steps are out of the way, the re-treading process should move along more quickly – most of the remaining treads are more straightforward rectangle or triangle shapes.

Stairwell at the end of week 2


May 222015
 May 22, 2015  Uncategorized 10 Responses »

Renovation work on the stairwell kicked off this week, and I think it’s safe to say we’ve officially reached the point of no return. The old entranceway floor is gone, the stair railing is down, and the stairs are pretty thoroughly torn up. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s where we started a week ago:

Front Stairs

The stairs were intact and I’d just finished repairing the ceiling on the ground floor of the stairwell. I’ve been working on this ceiling off and on for what seems like forever – adding more joint compound here and there, sanding, trying to get a smooth finish – but I finally decided that it was good enough. To recap, last winter a portion of the original plaster ceiling had cracked and buckled and seemed ready to collapse at any moment. It looked like this:

Cracked Plaster Ceiling

So I removed the plaster, replaced it with a piece of sheetrock, and stabilized the surrounding plaster with screws and plaster buttons. Then I taped and skim coated over all of the seams and cracks and plaster buttons with joint compound.

Since I was patching over small areas of the ceiling and wasn’t skim coating the whole thing, it didn’t look perfectly smooth when I was done with it. But it definitely looked better than it did when I started, which seemed good enough. Besides, this ceiling has been patched and repaired so many times that it’s now a sort of franken-ceiling made up of bits and pieces of original plaster, sheetrock, joint compound, caulk, layer upon layer of paint, and some wood thrown in for good measure. So at some point I decided to stop messing with it and just primed and painted the whole thing with flat white ceiling paint, which helps disguise some of the imperfections.

Ground Floor Ceiling

This past weekend I moved upstairs to the entranceway and began pulling up the old vinyl floor. The vinyl sheet flooring was laid over a 1/4-inch plywood underlayment. I assumed that this plywood was nailed on top of the original wide-plank pine floors, but there really wasn’t any way to know what lay beneath the plywood until I started tearing it up. Starting along the edge of the hallway by the stairs, I pried up a corner of the plywood underlayment. I peeked underneath and, in the moment of truth, caught a glimpse of intact, pine floorboards.

uncovering pine floors

Encouraged by the sight of the original floors, I worked my way down the hallway using a combination of a pry bar, a rubber mallet, a claw hammer, and brute strength to pull up the plywood underlayment and the vinyl sheeting along with it. Five hours later I was left with a sore back and an unfinished – some might call it rustic, others might call it filthy – pine floor. Admittedly, the floor looks pretty terrible at this point, and I would be nervous if I hadn’t done this before. Even though the floor currently looks like it belongs in a barn, I know it will turn out beautifully once it’s refinished.

At the beginning of the week, our contractor, Gregg, started taking apart the stairs in preparation for replacing the treads and risers. As he gradually dismantled first the handrail and balusters and then the old treads and risers, he uncovered the guts of the stairs and was able to see how they were constructed. Luckily, everything seemed to be structurally sound.

My guess would be that the entire staircase was ordered as a kit when the house was built. In the mid-1800s when our building was constructed, mass production of house parts had just begun to make fancier architectural elements – like, for instance, a curved staircase – more readily available. Even so, a lot of the stair parts seem to be of higher quality than anything you could buy today. Gregg was surprised to find that the bullnose trim along the edges of the treads, some of which is curved, was carved from single pieces of wood. Unfortunately, most of this trim was too cracked and brittle to salvage. Here’s a few pieces of trim after they were removed.

Curved Stair Trim


Curved Stair Trim

Gregg is planning to replicate this trim as closely as possible, but he’ll probably use two pieces of trim to achieve the same look.

The curved handrail that winds its way up two flights was milled from solid wood in several sections. Each section attaches to the next with a threaded pin imbedded in the center of the handrail. I’m debating whether I should try to refinish the handrail while it’s disassembled.

Curved Handrail Section

The newel post was also secured by a long, threaded pin that ran from the top of the post all the way to the floor.

Newel Post Top


Newel Post Bottom

The interior of the newel post seems like a great hiding spot. But, unfortunately, we didn’t find any jewels or treasure maps, or important documents hidden inside.

Gregg carefully took the handrail and newel post apart and will reinstall them once the new treads and balusters are in place. In the meantime, he put up a temporary handrail made from 2x4s.

Temporary Railing

The original balusters were round and unadorned. Some of them had been replaced with mismatched dowels over the years. As Gregg pulled down the balusters, he discovered that several of them were solid, iron rods. These metal balusters had an upside-down-V-shaped bracket at their base, which was bolted to the stairs and hidden under a riser.

Iron Baluster

The iron balusters were evenly spaced along the length of the staircase and must have provided a way to keep the railing secure and rigid.

The stairs themselves were built over ‘sub stairs,’ for lack of a better term. As far as I know, the treads and risers on most modern stairs are laid directly across the stringers with nothing underneath. But beneath the finished treads and risers on our stairs there’s another set of solid wood surfaces that provide structure.

Stair Structure

The underlying structure of the risers was made from a series of vertical boards, sort of like a barrel, which allowed some of the steps to have a curved riser. Gregg found that all of the curved woodwork on the stairs was made by cutting a series of parallel notches into the back of a thin piece of wood to make it flexible and then bending the wood into place and securing it, a process that required some serious carpentry skill, especially considering that this curved woodwork has held up for 150 years without beginning to look angular. Here’s the back of one of the curved risers:

Notched, Curved Riser

In the 1800s, East Boston was home to a booming shipbuilding industry, and it’s possible that some of the workers who built our building also worked as shipbuilders, which might explain their experience working with curved wood.

All of the new treads and risers are awaiting installation in the cellar, and next week, Gregg will start putting the stairs back together.

May 132015
 May 13, 2015  Out and About 3 Responses »

Putnam Square Eagle Hill

We took advantage of the beautiful weather this past weekend and went for a walk through East Boston’s Eagle Hill neighborhood.

Eagle Hill is a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood tucked into the northwest corner of East Boston, directly across the harbor from Charlestown, another of Boston’s harbor-front neighborhoods. Eagle Hill’s dense collection of wood-frame, Victorian houses, hilly terrain, and proximity to the waterfront – not to mention the large number of excellent Mexican and Central American restaurants around the neighborhood – remind me a little of San Francisco. It’s an architecturally unique area within Boston, and a large swath of the neighborhood near the top of the hill has been designated a historic district under the National Register of Historic Places.

Eagle Hill Map

We took a meandering route, beginning at Bremen Street Park, a long strip of green space next to a raised highway that was reclaimed from an airport parking lot in 2007. Leaving the park behind, we slowly zig-zagged our way up the Hill, wandering down a street and then moving up a block and walking back the way we had come. Eagle Hill is laid out in a grid, with east/west streets named for Revolutionary War battles (Saratoga, Lexington, Trenton) and north/south streets named for Revolutionary War generals (Marion, Brooks, Putnam). This naming system, put in place in the 1830s, seems appropriate, given that the second battle of the Revolutionary War was fought on and around Eagle Hill back when the area was pastureland. American forces sunk a British schooner just off the coast of Eagle Hill in the first naval engagement of the war. Aside from the street names, nothing remains to commemorate the battle, although this Memorial Day, a community canoe and kayak regatta will retrace part of the battleground along the East Boston shoreline.

Whenever I visit Eagle Hill, I find myself admiring the neighborhood’s architecture. As we walked, we passed block after block of late-19th century houses, many with immaculately restored facades. At the foot of the Hill, we walked along a full block of mansard-roofed, brick row houses built in the 1860s.

saratoga street row houses 1saratoga street row houses 2

Saratoga Street Row Houses 3

Eagle Hill was divided into residential parcels and sold for development beginning in the 1830s. The original developers envisioned the area as a high-end suburb, perched atop a hill, separated from downtown by the harbor, and filled with spacious estates owned by some of Boston’s wealthiest residents. A number of these single-family, suburban mansions were actually built and several, like these two located near the top of the Hill, survive to this day.

White Street Mansion

Trenton Street Mansion

By the mid-1800s, East Boston, with its expansive waterfront along Boston’s inner harbor, had become a center of the shipbuilding industry in New England. During the 1850s, some of the fastest clipper ships in the world were built here. The Flying Cloud, one of the most famous clipper ships of its time, was built by Donald McKay at his East Boston shipyard, and in 1853 set the sailing record for the “Golden Route” from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn, covering over 16,000 miles in 89 days. The record stood for over 130 years until it was broken in 1984. There are a number of plaques and murals in East Boston’s parks that celebrate the neighborhood’s maritime history, including this mural along the East Boston Greenway.

East Boston Maritime History Mural

East Boston’s shipbuilding industry expanded rapidly during the California Gold Rush, as demand increased for quick transportation to and from the west coast. As shipyards along the waterfront grew, they attracted carpenters, sail makers, and other shipbuilding artisans to the area, many of whom hailed from the Canadian Maritime Provinces. Most of Eagle Hill’s current housing stock was built between 1850 and 1890 to house this influx of middle-class workers. Many of the shipbuilders who constructed their homes on Eagle Hill viewed their private residences as advertisements for their work, and so a bunch of especially fancy homes were built here during the clipper ship era. Houses dating from this time were almost exclusively built in the Italianate and Second Empire styles popular in the late 1800s (think lots of mansard roofs and paneled window bays). Despite the original developers’ hopes for a wealthy, suburban neighborhood, Eagle Hill began to take on its present urban character during this time. Two and three story end houses, with the short, gabled end of the house facing the street, were built one after the next on long, narrow lots.

Eagle Hill End House 1 Eagle Hill End House 2


As we continued up the Hill, we passed Angela’s Cafe, one of the best Mexican restaurants in Boston. We were tempted to stop in for a snack, but the line for a table was out the door, so we moved on. The wide array of Latin American restaurants and corner stores in and around Eagle Hill is a reflection of the neighborhood’s large Central and South American immigrant community. In part because East Boston has a long history as a transportation hub, it has been home to a large immigrant population for well over 100 years. Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants arrived in East Boston beginning in the late 19th century, and as demand for housing increased in the early 20th century, many of Eagle Hill’s formerly single family homes were divided into apartments. Mansard roofs on some houses were squared off to make room for a full top floor apartment, and many houses in the neighborhood were modified to more closely resemble triple deckers, the three story apartment buildings that were being built in other working class Boston neighborhoods at the time.

East Boston Triple Deckers

Over the course of the 20th century, a lot of Eagle Hill’s 19th century architecture was heavily modified. External ornamentation was removed and houses were re-sided in vinyl and cedar shingles. Original slate roofs were replaced with asphalt shingles and copper gutters were traded for aluminum. Most of these modifications were made in the name of modernization and convenience before the value of the Victorian architecture had been fully recognized. But in the late 1980s, a group of Eagle Hill residents formed the Eagle Hill Civic Association to advocate for restoration and preservation of the neighborhood’s historic architecture. Their efforts led to the designation of the neighborhood as a National Register of Historic Places historic district in 1998. During the past 25 years, many Eagle Hill homeowners have restored their houses’ historic facades. And even as we walked around the neighborhood last weekend, we saw a lot of ongoing renovation and restoration projects.

Eagle Hill Renovation

A restoration project had just begun on the teal house on the right in the picture below. The vinyl siding was removed around the lower window bay, exposing the original wood paneling.

Eagle Hill Restoration

As we reached the top of the Hill, we came across one of the neighborhood’s largest collections of fully restored houses surrounding Putnam Square. Putnam Square is really more of a triangle where three streets intersect with a small park and a fountain at its center. On a nice day, it’s a great spot to sit on a bench and relax for a bit.

Putnam Square East Boston 1

Putnam Square East Boston 2

Some of my favorite houses in Eagle Hill are little, two-story, mansard-roofed cottages. There’s a bunch of them scattered around the neighborhood, but I haven’t come across this kind of house anywhere else. I like the way that such a grand architectural style was imposed on a modestly-sized house. Most of these cottages seem to have been too small to convert into apartments and so remain single family homes today. If I were ever to buy a single family house, I think one of these with a nice back yard would be ideal.

Mansard Cottage 1

Mansard Cottage 2

After wandering through Putnam Square, we walked down the back side of the Hill to the Condor Street Urban Wild, a former industrial site along Chelsea Creek that underwent hazardous waste cleanup and ecological restoration in 2003. The site is now a mixture of natural coastal habitat, including a salt marsh, mud flat, and meadow. It offers a tiny glimpse of what Eagle Hill may have looked like hundreds of years ago, before it was settled.

Condor Street Urban Wild

Today, Eagle Hill, along with the rest of East Boston, remains one of Boston’s more economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. But signs of gentrification have begun to appear within the past few years. Rents and property values, although still affordable by Boston standards, are on the rise, and overeager real estate agents have begun comparing East Boston to Brooklyn. Community improvements, including a new library branch, and new parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields have popped up all over the neighborhood. East Boston has a long history of welcoming newcomers to the city, whether young professionals or recent immigrants. The neighborhood also has a strong tradition of community activism – residents fought the encroachment of Logan Airport and advocated for more green space for decades, and, more recently, blocked a proposed casino. So East Boston seems well positioned to deal with the challenge of ensuring that the neighborhood remains welcoming, affordable, and desirable for all residents.

Eagle Hill is an often overlooked neighborhood. There are even people who have lived in Boston for years who have never heard of it. So if you find yourself in Boston and are looking for a historic, off-the-beaten-path neighborhood to explore, jump on a blue line train, head across the harbor, and check out Eagle Hill.


May 062015
 May 6, 2015  Living Room 7 Responses »

A few months ago, we got a new tv. After years of living in tiny apartments and watching tv primarily on our computers, we were ready to watch tv and movies on the big screen – well, a bigger screen anyway. And since we now had plenty of space in the living room, we chose a big, 40-inch LG tv. But we were still figuring out how best to lay out the room at the time, and we weren’t exactly sure where to put the tv. We wanted to be able to watch tv comfortably, but we also didn’t want the tv to be the room’s focal point.

The most obvious option was to hang the tv above the fireplace mantel. But in order to clear the mantel, the center of the tv would have to be at least five and half feet above the floor, which, given the size of the room and the height of the couch, would make for some serious neck strain after watching a two hour movie. Besides, the original, marble fireplace is the focal point of the room, and one of the most impressive features in the entire condo, so it didn’t seem right to distract from it with a tv.

This left the wall in the corner of the room between the entrance and the fireplace as the only viable spot. At first, I thought putting the tv in the corner was a poor choice from a viewing angle perspective, but then I realized I could use an articulated wall mount that would allow us to pull the tv away from the wall and angle it into the room when we’re using it. And when we’re not using it, the tv would recede into the corner.

Corner TV Wall

So we hung the tv in the corner, which, as you can see, left us with a mess of cables running down the wall. There are various cord managers that can be used to conceal cables against a wall or even inside a wall, but this corner of the living room was looking pretty barren. What we really needed was some kind of cabinet below the tv that would hide the cables. But the baseboard radiator would prevent a cabinet from sitting against the wall, and unless the cabinet was really shallow, it would protrude into the room past the mantel, which wouldn’t really look right.

I looked for some sort of wall-mounted cabinet/shelving/drawers that would fit under the tv and above the radiator, but I came up empty handed. Eventually, I realized that the ideal solution would be custom, built-in cabinetry. The shallow alcove formed by the chimney and the corner seems to be asking to be filled with cabinetry and shelving.

Grain Wood Shop

I got in touch with Brandon, the owner of Grain Wood Shop – a custom wood working and furniture shop located in one of the old warehouses in the Boston Harbor Shipyard right here in East Boston – about building a custom built-in. He came over and took a look at the space, and after some back and forth, here’s the design we came up with:

Built-in Plan

Since this built-in will be a more or less permanent addition to the condo, I wanted to make sure it matched the room’s original architectural elements. After looking through a bunch of pictures of 19th century built-in cabinetry, I decided that this unit should look like a true built-in. In other words, it should be flush with the wall and extend from the floor to the ceiling. Initially, I was picturing cabinets below the tv and shelving above. But after talking to Brandon, I decided to go with four drawers under the tv. The drawers will be more functional and look more interesting than a pair of cabinets. In order to accommodate the radiator, which will be buried under the drawers, the baseboard along the bottom of the built-in will be fitted with a metal grate, allowing heat to escape. The whole thing will be painted white to match the trim.

Living Room Wall

Here’s a shot of the living room’s side wall. The built-in will go in the alcove to the left of the fireplace, and in an effort to maintain the room’s symmetry, I’d like it to mimic some of the design details of the window on the right. Specifically, I asked Brandon to surround the built-in with casing that replicates the chunky, column-like casing found in the rest of the condo. And again, for the sake of symmetry, I decided to run the built-in shelving only as high as the window, stopping short of the ceiling. I’ll use a piece of sheetrock to close the gap between the ceiling and the top of the shelving, effectively creating a soffit, as a way to preserve the built-in look of the shelving. We’ll lose some shelf space by not taking the shelves to the ceiling, but I think it will look more balanced to maintain a consistent height between the shelving and the room’s four windows. And if we took the shelves to the ceiling, we wouldn’t be able to reach the top shelf anyway.

Panel Door

The four drawers under the tv will have raised panel fronts inspired by the paneling of the original door located directly across the room from the new built-in.

Panel Door Closeup

Technology changes quickly, and designing permanent features of a house – like built-in cabinetry – around a single piece of technology – like a tv – generally seems like a bad idea. Just ask all those people with late-90s tube tv niches over their fireplaces. But the design of this built-in is somewhat flexible, in that extra shelving can be added later on to fill the area that will house the tv. So years from now when tvs are obsolete and we’re all watching holograms, whoever lives in this condo can convert this built-in to a full bookcase – assuming that books and shelves haven’t become totally obsolete as well.

Brandon is currently in the process of building the cabinetry, but before he can install it, I need to get my electrician to move an outlet  for the tv. If all goes according to plan, everything should be done within the next few weeks.