Feb 112017
 February 11, 2017  Historic Preservation No Responses »

When we left off last time, it was 1837, and Jeffries Point was a sparsely settled spit of land in the middle of Boston Harbor. The East Boston Company was busy filling in marshland, laying out a grid of wide, straight streets, and trying to convince investors and real estate developers to buy into the new neighborhood. They had big plans for the area, but by 1837, they’d only managed to convince a handful of people to build homes in Jeffries Point. This 1837 map shows just how empty the neighborhood was:

Jeffries Point 1837_1

No one was sure how the fledgling neighborhood would develop, or whether it would succeed at all. At the time, the East Boston Company had two competing visions of the neighborhood’s future. On the one hand, they saw East Boston as a future center of commerce and industry – an urban neighborhood, densely settled with factories, piers, shipyards, and housing for working and middle class families. On the other hand, they were marketing the neighborhood as a sparsely-settled, upscale, resort community where wealthy Bostonians could build fancy summer homes to take advantage of the island’s cool sea breezes and harbor views, all within a short steamboat ride of downtown. It’s unclear whether the East Boston Company actually thought that these two visions of the neighborhood were compatible, or whether they simply decided to pursue both development strategies simultaneously to hedge their bets.

Either way, if we fast forward to 1851, it becomes clear which strategy won out.

Jeffries Point 1851

In just 14 years, Jeffries Point had become a radically different place. Hundreds of new houses – represented by dark gray rectangles on the map – had been constructed one after the next across the neighborhood. Landfill operations and construction of new piers had nearly doubled the neighborhood’s usable land area. And a new railroad connected the Jeffries Point waterfront to Salem and other towns to the north. Although it never really took off as a summer resort community, the neighborhood was booming.

In many ways, Jeffries Point’s rapid success was a result of its geography. The neighborhood’s southern waterfront not only faces downtown Boston across the harbor, it’s also situated along a natural deep water channel that can accommodate large ships. The East Boston Company and early investors in the neighborhood capitalized on this natural shipping channel by constructing large piers, shipyards, and warehouses along the waterfront.

Their timing couldn’t have been better. In the late 1840s, just as development in Jeffries Point was taking off, the California Gold Rush began. As tens of thousands of people from around the world descended on the California goldfields, demand spiked for fast transportation of goods and people from the East Coast to California and back. Since the first transcontinental railroad wouldn’t be completed for another 20 years, most of this demand was met by ships sailing the ‘Golden Route’ around the bottom of South America and up the west coast to San Francisco. And with direct access to a deep water shipping channel and plenty of room to expand, the new port along the East Boston waterfront happened to be well-positioned to exploit this new demand for shipping.

As shipyards, machine shops, warehouses, and shipping terminals sprung up along the Jeffries Point waterfront,  hundreds of workers moved to the neighborhood. And since these workers needed a place to live, developers built hundreds of new houses. In 1851, most of these new houses were concentrated along the southern and western edges of the neighborhood, within easy walking distance of the booming waterfront. This 1848 engraving gives a sense of what the Jeffries Point waterfront looked like at the time (in the foreground):

View of Boston 1848

The East Boston Company originally laid out lots in a variety of sizes designed to accommodate different types of housing – dense, affordable houses on smaller lots, and expensive suburban estates and summer homes on larger lots. But by 1851, the neighborhood had begun to look fairly uniform, with row after row of narrow, closely-spaced houses built across small and large lots alike. Looking at the map, it’s almost as if the original lot lines had begun to disappear. As with so many things, the reason for this change was money.

Faced with skyrocketing demand for new housing, real estate developers and many of the neighborhood’s land owners decided to cash in. They maximized the value of their land by subdividing the original lots, squeezing as many as five houses side-by-side along the front of a single lot. By 1851, Sumner Street was lined with small, narrow houses.

Sumner Street 1851

Some developers even constructed a second row of houses directly behind the first, along the rear property line, accessible only by walking through the narrow gaps between street-facing houses. In a time before zoning codes existed, developers ignored the fire and safety risks that come with this kind of ultra-dense, inaccessible development. Even so, many of these rear-lot houses survive today.

Other developers took advantage of the neighborhood’s deep lots by running dead-end alleyways between some of the larger lots. These private alleyways provided access to the rear of the lot, allowing developers to build tightly packed houses along the lot’s entire depth. Located in lot 136, Hooten Court was an early example of this kind of development.

Lamson Hooten Courts

Modern apartment buildings didn’t exist in the 1840s, but these private alleyways, lined with small workers’ cottages built one after the next, served a similar purpose, providing dense, affordable housing for urban, working families. A number of these alleyways still exist in Jeffries Point, several with their original houses intact. Over the years, these clusters of small houses have fostered close-knit communities, miniature neighborhoods within the larger Jeffries Point.

Jeffries Point in 1851 was an emerging neighborhood of narrow, tightly-spaced houses, many occupying just 20-25 feet of street frontage. Even though there was plenty of open space left, the neighborhood had taken on a definite urban character. If we overlay a map of the neighborhood’s current buildings (in pink) over the 1851 map, it immediately becomes clear that most of the houses that existed in 1851 still exist today (click the map to expand). A few of the houses have been demolished or replaced, and others have been added on to – rear additions are particularly common – but, amazingly, the majority of these 166-plus-year-old houses are still standing.

Jeffries Point Buildings 1851

If we fast forward another 23 years to 1874, the East Boston Company’s luck had held, and the neighborhood had continued to expand.

Jeffries Point 1874

Through the 1850s and into the 1860s, this growth was again fueled by the demand for shipping created by the California Gold Rush and the country’s westward expansion. Beginning in the 1840s, several young shipbuilders set up shipyards along the East Boston waterfront. Up until this time, shipbuilding had been more art than science, often relying on inherited traditions and guesswork. These new East Boston shipbuilders were some of the first to introduce scientific rigor and evidence-based engineering to their craft. During the two decades between 1850 and 1870, East Boston shipyards produced some of the fastest and most technologically advanced wooden sailing ships ever built, ushering in the golden age of the clippership.

Shipwrights, carpenters, sailmakers, and other skilled artisans, many of them from the Canadian Maritime Provinces, moved to the neighborhood in droves to work in East Boston’s world-renowned shipyards. As housing was constructed across Jeffries Point for this rapidly growing workforce, the neighborhood continued to become more dense.

The shipbuilding boom also brought a new level of prosperity to Jeffries Point. The hilltop area surrounding Belmont Square has long been considered one of East Boston’s most desirable residential enclaves, and during the clippership era, it was home to some of East Boston’s wealthiest residents, including Samuel Hall, the first shipbuilder to move to East Boston and one of the most famous clippership builders of his day, who lived in the grand townhouse that still stands at 199 Webster Street. By 1874, some of the neighborhood’s largest houses had been built around Belmont Square. In another sign of the area’s exclusivity, many of these houses feature generous street setbacks and large side and rear yards, making the area noticeably less dense than the areas of working and middle class housing that surround it.

Belmont Square 1874

By 1870, the clippership boom had begun to collapse. Clipperships sacrifice cargo space for speed, and as technological and economic conditions shifted, this tradeoff no longer made sense. Railroads, which crisscrossed the country by 1870, offered fast, reliable cargo transportation, and the shipping industry was increasingly dominated by large, iron steamships. As the age of wooden sailing ships drew to a close, more than half of the workers who had been employed by East Boston shipyards left the neighborhood.

Despite this mass exodus, the neighborhood continued to expand. Although some of the old shipyards took on ship repair work and new machine shops and iron foundries opened along the waterfront to support the new iron shipbuilding industry, the neighborhood’s industrial economy would never fully recover. Instead, by the late 19th century, the primary driver of growth in the neighborhood was immigration.

In the 1840s, the Cunard Line built its first American passenger ship terminal on the Jeffries Point waterfront. Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of European immigrants arrived at the Cunard Terminal in Jeffries Point, and many of them chose to settle in the neighborhood.

Jeffries Point Cunard Wharf

Immigrants from England, Ireland, and Canada were the first to arrive, but by 1874, an increasing number of immigrants were from southern and eastern Europe. Looking at the 1874 map, the most obvious evidence of this surge in European immigration is the Catholic Church of the Assumption, built around 1870 just north of Belmont Square to serve the rapidly expanding Catholic immigrant community. As the population of the neighborhood grew, developers continued building new housing. By the early 20th century, very few open lots remained in Jeffries Point.

We often think of globalization as a new phenomenon. But for its entire 180-year history, Jeffries Point has been shaped by global forces. The neighborhood flourished early on thanks to the discovery of gold 3000 miles away in California. And for nearly a century-and-a-half, Jeffries Point has continued to grow and reinvent itself as thousands of immigrants from across the globe have made homes in the neighborhood. This legacy lives on in the neighborhood’s buildings and streetscapes – because residents chose to preserve and adapt existing buildings rather than demolish and replace them, the vast majority of buildings ever constructed in Jeffries Point are still standing today.

I’ll leave you with the 1874 map of Jeffries Point with current buildings overlaid in pink (click to expand). As you can see, most of the neighborhood’s 19th century buildings still exist today. But what did these buildings look like when they were built? And what do they look like today? Check back next time to find out.

Jeffries Point Buildings 1874

This post is part of a series about the process of nominating my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

Jan 262017
 January 26, 2017  Historic Preservation 4 Responses »

Old maps provide a unique window to the past. They give us an immediate sense of what a place was like when the map was drawn, and provide information about how a place has changed over time. As I’ve gotten into the research required to nominate my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places, I’ve found old maps of the area to be an incredibly useful resource.

There are dozens of maps of Jeffries Point spanning nearly 300 years of history in the Boston Public Library’s map collection. The earliest of these maps provide important information about the neighborhood’s origins. Many of the later maps show individual buildings in the neighborhood. By comparing the shapes and locations of buildings on historic and current maps, we can estimate construction dates, and even track additions and changes to  individual buildings over time, all of which is essential information for the National Register nomination form. And these days, GIS (geographic information system) software, like QGIS, is available for free, making it easier than ever to quickly and accurately overlay and compare different maps.

But before we look at some old maps, those of you who aren’t familiar with Jeffries Point may be wondering exactly where it is. Here’s a present-day map of the area (click any of the images in this post to enlarge them).

Jeffries Point Map

The distinction between Jeffries Point and East Boston can be a little confusing. East Boston is one of Boston’s 23 ‘official’ neighborhoods. It’s situated along a peninsula in Boston harbor, completely separated from the rest of the city by water. It’s a big neighborhood – it covers about the same amount of land as all of Boston’s downtown neighborhoods combined – and over time, different sections of East Boston developed their own characters and identities and eventually came to be seen as distinct neighborhoods.

Jeffries Point is one of these neighborhoods-within-a-neighborhood. It’s located at the southern tip of East Boston, surrounded by the harbor on two sides. The neighborhood straddles a hill that overlooks the harbor and downtown Boston beyond. For much of its history, Jeffries Point has been defined by its harbor-front location, and even today, its harbor views, sea breezes, and maritime character continue to make it a desirable place to live.

Jeffries Point

That’s Jeffries Point today. But let’s back up a bit. All the way back to 1837 when East Boston was a brand new neighborhood, located on one of the largest islands in Boston Harbor (it would be nearly 100 years before landfill projects turned East Boston into a peninsula).

East Boston 1837.LARGE

A few years earlier, a group of businessmen and investors bought the island and formed a real estate venture called the East Boston Company with the goal of developing a new neighborhood. By 1837, they had laid out streets and divided the island into lots. The area we now call Jeffries Point then had the rather unimaginative name “Section 1.” Here’s a closer look at Section 1 in 1837: Jeffries Point 1837_1

A quick comparison of this map to the present-day map of Jeffries Point reveals some major differences. The landmass of the neighborhood was much smaller in 1837, and it was almost completely surrounded by water. Here’s a comparison of Jeffries Point in 1837 and Jeffries Point today. The black line is the current shoreline.

Jeffries Point 1837 vs today

I’d never thought much about the origins of the name Jeffries Point, but the first time I saw this map, the name suddenly made sense – the neighborhood was originally a peninsula (or, more precisely, a point), and the land at the end of the point was owned by a man with the last name Jeffries. Over the years, the tidal marshes, mud flats, and shallows surrounding the neighborhood were filled in, gradually expanding the neighborhood’s landmass until it was no longer a point. In 1837, Maverick Street, along the northern edge of the neighborhood, marked the boundary between land and sea. Today, the same street divides the neighborhood from Logan Airport.

If you look closely, you’ll also find, amazingly, that many aspects of the neighborhood haven’t changed over the past 180 years. The street layout is the same. Even the street names haven’t changed. Belmont Square, a large, open space at the center of the neighborhood, still exists as well, although it’s now called Brophy Park.

Belmont Square 1837

At the same time, it’s important to note that this map was drawn for the East Boston Company, and it reflects the company’s aspirations, which didn’t always line up with reality. In 1837, many of the streets depicted on the map were still under construction, and the northern section of the neighborhood between Everett and Maverick Streets was a salt marsh (which helps explain why none of the lots in that area had been sold).

If a present-day resident of Jeffries Point were to travel back in time to 1837 and walk the neighborhood’s streets, she would hardly recognize her neighborhood. The area was almost completely empty. The newly graded streets cut through meadows, marshes, and pastureland. Only a handful of houses, represented by little gray rectangles on the map, had been built. The most prominent of these houses – a mansion near the top of the hill in lot 47, built for Benjamin Lamson, an early investor in the East Boston Company – would have stood out. But this mansion was demolished in 1910 to make way for an elementary school. In fact, as far as I can tell, none of the buildings shown on this map survive today.

Even though the neighborhood was sparsely settled in 1837, a close look at the size and layout of the open lots reveals clues about the East Boston Company’s vision for the neighborhood. In fact, this was a time before zoning codes existed, and decisions about lot size and layout were one of the only ways the East Boston Company could influence the course of development in the neighborhood. The smallest lots in Jeffries Point were located at the western edge of the neighborhood, with larger lots further east and the largest lots located along the southern waterfront.

The reason for the varied lot sizes has to do with the scarcity of transportation options in the 1830s. Public transportation was nearly non-existent, and private transportation was largely limited to horses, which were unavailable to all but the wealthiest city dwellers. In their day-to-day lives, most people walked wherever they needed to go. Today, walkable neighborhoods are desirable, but in the 1830s they were essential. Factories, docks, shops, churches, schools, worker housing, and housing for wealthy business owners all needed to be within easy walking distance of one another. It was this kind of intensely walkable, mixed-use neighborhood that the East Boston Company had in mind when they laid out East Boston over 180 years ago.

Steam-powered ferries, a relatively new technology in the 1830s, provided a vital link between East Boston and downtown. Without this fast and reliable form of water transportation, East Boston likely would’ve remained farmland. So it’s no surprise that the neighborhood’s earliest development was clustered around the ferry landing, just to the west of Jeffries Point near Maverick Square (then known as Hotel Square).

Hotel Square

By 1837 a sugar refinery, warehouses, and a hotel had been built in this area. The deep, narrow lots surrounding Maverick Square, including the lots in the western end of Jeffries Point, were mostly empty. But these small lots were sized to encourage dense development around the ferry landing, then the neighborhood’s industrial and commercial hub. In particular, these small, affordable lots were designed to accommodate rows of modest worker housing to support East Boston’s burgeoning industrial economy.

Just a quarter-mile to the east, the lots became much larger. With their hilltop location, harbor views, and proximity to the landscaped Belmont Square, these lots were set aside for the new neighborhood’s wealthiest residents. At upwards of three times the size of the lots surrounding Maverick Square, these lots were large enough to accommodate grand houses, stables, and landscaped grounds. Benjamin Lamson’s mansion in lot 47 provided an early prototype for this kind of upscale development. Despite the intended grandeur of these lots, they were located right next to higher density worker housing, within easy walking distance of the ferry landing and the neighborhood’s industrializing waterfront.

Decisions made about Jeffries Point’s layout in the 1830s have reverberated through the years, and in many ways still define the neighborhood I live in today. Constrained by the limits of the transportation technology available at the time, the East Boston Company designed a neighborhood where businesses, housing, factories, and docks were built side by side. The end result was a vibrant, 19th century urban neighborhood. But this dense, walkable layout has remained vital today for an entirely different set of reasons. It’s environmentally sustainable, making walking, biking, and using public transit more attractive than driving a car; it allows residents to live close to work and reduces commute times; its density and human scale encourage a tight knit community where neighbors know one another; and it produced an architecturally diverse neighborhood that now supports a diverse community with a variety of housing options, from grand townhouses to modest workers’ cottages, converted factory lofts to apartment houses.

The original planners of East Boston never could have imagined that their design for the neighborhood would remain relevant 180 years later, but the dense, multi-use development that they encouraged may be their greatest legacy.

I’ll leave you with a map showing present-day buildings (in pink) overlaid on the 1837 map of Jeffries Point.

Jeffries Point 1837 Buildings

How did we get from the nearly empty Jeffries Point of the 1830s to the dense, urban neighborhood we see today? Check back next time for Part 2 to find out.

This post is part of a series about the process of nominating my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.


Jan 162017
 January 16, 2017  Historic Preservation 12 Responses »


When I moved to the Jeffries Point section of East Boston in 2012, I had no idea that it was one of the oldest neighborhoods in Boston. There were a lot of things that appealed to me about Jeffries Point – its proximity to downtown, its harbor views, its beautiful parks and walkable streets – but I mostly overlooked the neighborhood’s historic character.

It was only after moving to the area and settling into an apartment in a 170-year-old building that I became curious about the neighborhood’s history. Talking to my neighbors and reading everything I could find about the area, I gradually learned about the neighborhood’s rich and varied past – as the entry point to America for thousands of immigrants in the early 20th century, as a world-renowned center of the shipbuilding industry in the middle of the 19th century, and as a staging ground for British forces during the second battle of the Revolutionary War, back when the area was pastureland. Looking through old maps and photographs, the seemingly ordinary buildings around me took on new significance as I discovered that many of them had been built well before the Civil War. I started to see evidence of the neighborhood’s 180-year history everywhere I looked. The ornate, cast iron fences surrounding many of my neighbor’s front gardens, the narrow, cobblestone alleyways hidden behind densely-spaced houses, even the towering, old elm tree down the street.


As I gained a new appreciation for my neighborhood’s long history, I began to realize that many of the things I like best about Jeffries Point – the diverse and welcoming community, the proximity to public transit, the tree-lined streets – are directly connected to its historic character. It isn’t just a desirable neighborhood that happens to have a lot of old buildings, it’s a great place to live precisely because it’s a well-preserved, historic neighborhood.


Of course, I’m not the first to realize this. Over the past 50 years, Jeffries Point residents have fought unwanted changes while promoting improvements that benefit the entire community. This long history of community activism began in the late 1960s when nearby Logan Airport planned to expand into the neighborhood, seizing land by eminent domain and demolishing historic buildings to make way for runways and airport support buildings. Residents mobilized against the expansion, winning a series of legal challenges, persuading elected officials, and, when necessary, taking to the streets to block construction. In the end, Jeffries Point was spared, but other East Boston neighborhoods weren’t so lucky.

Today, the stakes might not be quite so high, but Jeffries Point faces a variety of 21st century challenges related to housing affordability, density and (over)development, environmental sustainability, and adapting to a changing climate. I’ve decided to nominate part of the neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places not only because the neighborhood’s historic significance deserves to be recognized, but also because I believe that advocating for historic preservation is an important strategy for confronting many of these challenges.


The National Register of Historic Places is the Federal Government’s list of places that are most important to America’s history and culture. It’s one of the broadest and most flexible historic designations – it doesn’t restrict homeowners from making changes to their property in any way. This flexibility is important. No one wants to live in a museum, and neighborhoods need the freedom to adapt over time to remain vibrant and relevant. At the same time, historic buildings are an important, irreplaceable part of our heritage. The government recognizes this importance and encourages the preservation of properties listed on the National Register by offering generous tax credits for certified historic rehabilitations of income producing properties. Parks and public buildings listed on the National Register are also eligible for a variety of state and local grants for maintenance and restoration. But perhaps most importantly, listing a neighborhood on the National Register represents a prestigious recognition of the area’s historic value. And official recognition of the historic value of Jeffries Point is long overdue.

Ask someone to think of a historic Boston neighborhood and they’ll probably imagine the Federal style townhouses of Beacon Hill, or Back Bay’s Victorian mansions. Like me when I first moved to the neighborhood, many people are completely unaware of the historic significance of Jeffries Point, even though much of the area’s architecture was built decades earlier than those Back Bay mansions. Because Jeffries Point is separated from downtown Boston by the harbor, many Bostonians only ever pass through the neighborhood on their way to the airport. I know people who have lived their entire lives in the Boston area and have never heard of Jeffries Point. I hope that by nominating part of the neighborhood for the National Register, I can help draw attention to the importance of Jeffries Point’s history and architectural heritage.


Recognizing the value of Jeffries Point’s historic character has become critically important over the past few years. For much of the 20th century, Jeffries Point was a predominantly working-class neighborhood. It was a welcoming and affordable place to live for immigrants and other newcomers to the city. Even today, it’s one of Boston’s more economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. But in recent years, property values have begun to rise dramatically. Developers and real estate speculators are buying up property, gut-renovating and demolishing existing buildings, and constructing new, luxury housing on open lots. Some longtime residents – and even some recent arrivals – have suddenly found that they can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood. “This was the neighborhood that no one wanted” one longtime resident told me, “but now everybody wants in.” Jeffries Point is in the middle of the biggest building boom the neighborhood has experienced in over a century. Decisions made today will define the neighborhood’s character and community for decades to come.

In the face of all this change, Jeffries Point’s historic buildings, parks, and streets provide a measure of stability. They tie us to the past and provide a sense of continuity. They give the neighborhood a unique sense of place, and an atmosphere of dignity and beauty that only comes with age. But even more importantly, the neighborhood’s historic architecture is a crucial part of its future. Working to preserve the neighborhood’s dense, historic housing stock, rather than replacing it with often less dense and less affordable luxury developments, is one way to help retain our diverse community in the face of increasingly unaffordable housing options. And when we consider that it can take decades for even the most energy efficient new buildings to make up for the carbon emissions associated with demolishing an older building and constructing a new one, it becomes clear that preserving our historic and older buildings is a critical strategy for reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change. With all of this in mind, recognizing the historic significance of Jeffries Point by nominating a portion of the neighborhood for the National Register is, I think, the right thing to do.


I’m excited to dig into the research required for the nomination, and I’m hoping to gain a deeper understanding of my neighborhood’s past in the process. But the end product, the National Register nomination form itself, is a pretty dry document – long, boring, and filled with a lot of architecture jargon. When I eventually complete the form, I don’t expect many people will read it. At the same time, I’d like to share what I learn with my neighbors and others outside the neighborhood. So I’ve decided to share regular updates on my progress here, along with interesting stories about the neighborhood’s past and how that past remains relevant today. I hope you’ll follow along!

Aug 262016
 August 26, 2016  Uncategorized 13 Responses »

It wasn’t until I’d finished painting two and half walls and taken a step back to admire my work that I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. I had spent the past few weeks struggling to choose a paint color for the stairwell walls. I sifted through dozens of paint chips searching for the perfect greenish gray color. I bought sample pots and covered the stairwell in so many earth-toned swatches that the walls began to resemble military camouflage. I tried to imagine what each small sample paint patch would look like if it spread out to envelope the entire space. And finally, I made what I thought was a safe, reasonable choice. But now, with almost half the walls in the entrance hall painted, it was clear that my choice was all wrong. The paint was just too dark.

The color was Benjamin Moore’s Horizon Gray, a color that the paint swatch and a Google image search had led me to believe was a lovely, misty gray with green undertones. But here, in the back corner of the entrance hall, a space almost completely devoid of natural light, the color looked lifeless. It took on a dull, mossy cast, absorbing and suffocating what little light was available. The dark color accentuated the hall’s narrowness, making the walls feel as if they were closing in from all sides. (As much as I’d love to share a photo of the offending paint, all photographic evidence of this debacle was lost to a corrupted memory card. Maybe it’s for the best.) I put down the paint roller, cleaned out the paint tray, and went back to sifting through paint swatches.

One week and three or four sample paint pots later, I settled on a new color. I originally looked at mid tone colors, but I now knew that I needed something much lighter. And anything with brown undertones was out of the question since it would turn muddy in the low light of the stairwell. Eventually I decided on a color called Shaded White by Farrow and Ball (I had it color matched at Home Depot since $100 per gallon paint wasn’t in the budget this time around), which is a slightly warm, true gray.

As I began to roll the new paint onto the walls, I wondered if it was too light, but as it dried, it darkened slightly. I’m happy with how it turned out. The architecture of the stairwell and entrance hall seems like it was meant to convey a sense of grandeur, lightness, and air, and the new, lighter paint color, I think, contributes to this effect. Here’s a look at the notorious back corner of the entrance hall:

stairwell back corner

After spending two weekends painting three stories worth of stairwell walls, I was ready to tackle some of the remaining unfinished details. First up: repairing the plaster cornice above the front door. Most of the lower portion of the cornice was missing along this wall. Ornamental plaster work like the entrance hall cornice can last hundreds of years if it’s well cared for. But it’s also very delicate. A leaky wall or roof can destroy a decorative cornice or ceiling medallion within hours. And as a building shifts and settles, plaster work can crack and break away from the walls and ceilings. So it isn’t all that surprising that small portions of the cornice are missing from the entrance hall. You can see the missing portion of the cornice on the right here. The grooved bit on the left is a piece of wood that someone nailed to the cornice for unknown reasons.

missing cornice

Back when the building was built, the cornice was probably run in place, as opposed to casting it in a workshop and attaching it to the wall and ceiling in pieces. The process of running a cornice starts with cutting the cornice profile from a piece of sheet metal to create a custom blade. Then, after roughly troweling plaster into the corner between the ceiling and the wall, a plasterer runs the custom blade across the wet plaster, leaving the cornice profile behind. Using this method, a plasterer could have easily created a cornice that follows the curves of the stairwell in my building’s entrance hall. This is a 19th century technique that requires a great deal of skill and craftsmanship, and these days, now that walls and ceilings are made from sheetrock and moldings are made from wood, it seems to be pretty rare. But there are at least a few people out there still doing it. Here’s a video showing how the process works.

Luckily for me, the plaster cornice above the front door was mostly intact. Only the lower portion consisting of a flat, rectangular run of plaster was missing, so there was no need to redo the entire thing – something I have neither the skill nor the patience to do. I used hybrid plaster, a one to one mixture of premixed joint compound and plaster of paris, to recreate the missing part of the cornice.

It took a while for me to figure out the best way to make a clean, sharp edge as I applied plaster to the wall so that it would match the bottom of the surrounding cornice. Here’s what I came up with. Using a level to make sure it wasn’t crooked, I screwed a 1 x 3 board to the wall so that the top of the board was even with the bottom of the surrounding cornice. The board formed a little shelf to temporarily hold the wet plaster in place as it hardened. I used a putty knife to apply plaster between the board and upper part of the cornice, building it up in layers and smoothing it out as it hardened. There’s a curved groove between the upper and lower parts of the cornice, so I used the handle of the putty knife to dig a channel in the wet plaster. Once the plaster had set up (hybrid plaster takes about 10 minutes to harden), I removed the 1 x 3 board and patched the screw holes in the wall. Having limited experience working with plaster, I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out – it blends right in with the rest of the cornice.

repaired cornice 2

And speaking of ornamental plaster, I’ve always felt like the entrance hall was missing a fancy, plaster ceiling medallion. Back when the building was built as a single-family townhouse, the entrance hall would have been designed as one of the most public spaces in the house, featuring some of the house’s most ornate architecture, likely including a large, decorative ceiling medallion, as a way to impress visitors. At some point, perhaps when an overhead light fixture was installed, the ceiling medallion (if it ever existed) and the surrounding plaster ceiling was torn down and replaced with sheetrock. Today, the entrance hall is still one of the most public spaces in the building, and although my neighbors and I may be less concerned with flaunting our wealth and status than the building’s original, 19th century owners, I figured that adding a ceiling medallion would complement the cornice and make the entrance hall feel more complete.

I’ve used reproduction foam medallions in the past, but I recently came across a company called Boston Ornament that casts plaster medallions to order. And their plaster medallions are about the same price as some of the higher quality foam reproductions. I ordered a 26-inch diameter, acanthus leaf medallion – a classical motif that should fit in with the building’s Greek Revival details – with a 3.5 inch hole cut in the center to accommodate the light fixture.

ceiling medallion

The plaster medallion was quite a bit heavier than the foam medallions I’ve used in the past, so simply gluing it to the ceiling wasn’t going to cut it. Instead, I used four 2-inch drywall screws to secure it to the ceiling joists. I painted the medallion with watered down paint and primer and predrilled pilot holes for the screws. I traced the medallion on a piece of cardboard and cut out a template, which I used to make sure the the screw holes matched up with the ceiling joists. And finally, I screwed the medallion into place. The whole process was easier than I expected. I covered the screw heads with painters tape before spackling over them to make it easier to remove the screws if we ever need to get at the ceiling electrical box.

taped screw head

Finally, I installed a new, bigger light fixture. It’s a pendant fixture from Rejuvenation with a large fitter shade that I found on eBay, which as it turns out, seems to have originally been from Rejuvenation as well. This larger, pendant fixture seems to be more in proportion to the hall’s 12-foot ceilings than the little flush-mount fixture that was here before.

pendant light

stairwell ceiling

The stairwell project has officially crossed the one year mark, but it’s really close to being done. All that’s left is some touchup painting and sealing the newel post and handrail. This space has come a long way over the past year. Next up, a before and after post!

front door

May 152016
 May 15, 2016  Uncategorized 24 Responses »

When it comes to renovating old houses, some people work tirelessly to restore a house to its original state. They relish getting all of the historical details just right – stripping layer after layer of paint from original moldings, finding period-appropriate paint colors, seeking out reclaimed lumber to seamlessly patch antique floors. Others take the opposite approach, altering the architecture to create a modern home with modern conveniences – removing walls to open up the  layout, installing wall-sized windows to flood the interior with light, or adding a sleek, contemporary kitchen. And then there are those who split the difference, finding ways to add modern conveniences while preserving as much of the original architecture as possible.

Depending on the circumstances, I think each of these approaches can be appropriate, but as I’ve renovated my condo over the past three years, I’ve stuck to the third approach, doing my best to respect the building’s original architecture while adding some modern functionality. And when my neighbors and I decided to renovate the building’s entrance hall and stairwell, we decided to take this same approach.

Our first priority was improving the safety of the stairs. We decided to rebuild the staircase, replacing all of the worn treads and risers and making sure each step was even and level in the process. We chose red oak replacement treads for their durability even though the originals were pine. We also raised the handrail a few inches to bring it to a more usable height (I’m not sure why 19th century handrails are always so low – I guess people were just shorter back then?). But even as we made these major changes, we did our best to retain the spirit of the stairwell’s original architecture. We maintained the sweeping, curved shape of the staircase, and reinstalled the original newel post and handrail. We found plain balusters that approximated the originals, and we uncovered and refinished the original pine floors. Newel Post Progress As the project progressed, and the major (re)building work drew to a close, I began to focus more on the finishing details.  I had spent far more time in the stairwell after working on it for a few months than I had in the previous two years combined, and I had gained a new appreciation for the quirky “coffin corner” nook, the monolithic newel post, and the rest of the space’s original architecture. A few weeks ago, when I finished stripping the paint from the baseboard, exposing the raw pine molding for the first time in 170 years, I started thinking more and more about what the stairwell looked like all those years ago. And now that work on the entry level of the stairwell is almost complete, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of restoring as much of that original appearance as possible. Coffin Corner Progress Of course I’m only willing to take this idea so far. Several doorways in the stairwell were walled up when the building was divided into apartments, and reopening these doorways wouldn’t make much sense, since the building is no longer a single family residence. Other architectural elements, like a ceiling medallion, have been lost, if they ever existed at all, and recreating them will be somewhat speculative. And I’m not opposed to using modern materials that didn’t exist in the 1840s to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the entrance hall as it was originally designed.

Luckily, the major ornamental features of the entryway and stairwell – the original molding, the “coffin corner”, the newel posts and handrail, the plaster cornice – are mostly intact. All that remains is for me to figure out how best to present these features.

As you might have noticed in the pictures above, I’ve spent the past few weeks priming and painting the risers, the balusters, and the rest of the trim. The color is BM “Simply White.” I had planned to paint the trim white all along, but after stripping dozens of layers of paint from the baseboard, I confirmed that the final and original coat of paint was white. White trim was common in Greek Revival buildings like mine – it was meant to evoke the marble columns and facades of ancient Greek temples. But unlike the “Simply White” I chose, the original coat of paint was a creamy, yellowish white (from what I understand, true, bright white paint didn’t really exist in the mid-19th century). Even so, since the stairwell is so dark, I decided to take some interpretive license – the brighter white paint will look cleaner, and well, brighter. Here’s the freshly painted, original parlor entrance (now the front door to the parlor level apartment).

Parlor Door

But I quickly found that bright, white paint can have its downsides. The stairs are a high traffic area, and within a few days of priming and painting the risers, dark scuffs began to appear.

Scuffed Risers

This was a problem that required a modern solution in the form of crystal clear, hard-wearing, water-based polyurethane. After scrubbing off the scuffs, I added two coats of Minwax Ultimate Water-Based Floor Finish, the same poly that I used to seal the stair treads, on top of the riser’s white paint. The poly didn’t noticeably change the color of the risers, and unlike oil-based poly, it won’t yellow over time. Just as I had hoped, the new finish seems to repel scuff marks, and when it does get smudged, a quick wipe with a dry rag leaves it looking like new.

The plaster cornice, another original feature of the stairwell, is in decent shape, but needs to be patched and cleaned up. It’s a simple profile that follows the curve of the staircase. Most of it is intact, but a few small sections are cracked, or were poorly patched years ago, leaving them looking slightly lumpy, without the crisp detail of the rest of the cornice. These sections don’t look so bad from a distance, but up close, they look a little off.

Plaster Cornice

I’m planning to clean the cornice and patch it with plaster of paris where needed before caulking and painting it to match the rest of the trim.

Maybe the biggest decision left to make, in terms of how it will affect the look and feel of the entrance hall, is what color to paint the walls. I’ve been agonizing over this decision for months. I’ve been thinking about painting the walls green, or gray, or greenish gray. Last week, after priming the skim-coated walls to seal the raw joint compound, I painted patches of four sample colors on the walls in different parts of the stairwell to see how the colors looked in different lighting.

Paint Samples Landing

Paint Samples Entrance

The colors, from left to right, are Nantucket Gray, Horizon Gray, Revere Pewter, and Edgecomb Gray, all Benjamin Moore. Since the stairwell walls have been plastered over many times, it’s impossible to know what color they were originally painted. But earth tone paints were gaining in popularity around when my building was constructed, so it seems like a brown, gray, or green color would complement the architecture. And since the space is so dark, and the ceilings are so high, I’m hoping that a mid-tone wall color will make the space feel more welcoming. Of the four colors I’ve tried so far, I think Nantucket Gray is too dark, and Edgecomb Gray is too yellow, but I’m torn between Revere Pewter, which is a warm gray, and Horizon Gray, which has green undertones. My neighbors are more or less indifferent about the paint color, so it falls to me to make the final decision, but I’m open to advice!

Apr 202016
 April 20, 2016  Living Room 8 Responses »

living room doorway view 2This past weekend I took a break from working on the stairwell to put the finishing touches on the built-in hutch in the living room. I thought the built-in was finished months ago, but a few weeks after it was installed, resin from the pine casing and drawer fronts began to leach into the white painted finish, discoloring it. It was just a faint yellow streak here and there at first, but after 9 months, the discoloration had spread and darkened. I finally primed the built-in with stain-blocking B-I-N shellac primer and repainted the whole thing last weekend. While I was painting, I realized that the last time I wrote a post about the living room, it was a mostly-empty space filled with left-over materials from the kitchen renovation. A lot has changed since then, and a living room update is long overdue.

Living Room Under Construction

Living Room Under Construction

Just a quick reminder before we get started – this room was a complete disaster when I first moved in. Here it is just a few weeks before I bought the place. Chunks of plaster were missing from the wall, some of the walls were covered in textured wall paper, and the maple floors were beat up beyond recognition. My contractor, Gregg, patched and skim coated the walls, and cleaned up and painted the molding, and brought this room back from the dead.

Three years later, the living room has turned out to be my favorite room in the condo. It’s a huge space (by Boston apartment standards, anyway) and it’s chock full of stately Greek Revival architectural details – chunky, column-like casing around the windows and doors, 10-foot ceilings, a monumental marble mantel with a cast iron fireback depicting pastoral scenes, and original, sweeping bow-front windows. Back in the 1840s when the building was completed as a single family townhouse, this would have been one of the most formal rooms in the house. And lucky for me, a lot of this formal architecture was preserved. Furnishing and decorating this room was  pretty easy – the room’s architecture does most of the heavy lifting here. Even so, it’s come a long way over the past three years.

living room doorway view

This is the view of the living room as you enter from the dining room. When I first moved in, the pair of closets  flanking the mini hallway that connects these two rooms had unfinished louvered doors, which looked completely out of place (and collected a shocking amount of dust). I replaced the louvered doors with two pairs of solid, single panel doors. Now this little hallway fits right in with the living room’s elegant casing and trim.

living room builtin

The new built-in is immediately to the left when you walk into the room. The built-in brought some balance to what was an awkward, empty corner of the room, and at the same time added some much-needed storage and functionality to the space. We hung the tv on an articulated wall mount, which allows us to angle it into the room when we’re using it, and to leave it hidden away in the corner when it’s not in use. I found a set of antique drawer pulls from the 1870s on eBay for the unit’s four lower drawers. The style of the pulls is a little more extravagant than the rest of the room’s austere architecture, but they add some interest to the otherwise boxy built-in.

drawer pull

living room stairwell door

There’s a door to the common stairwell directly opposite the built-in. The size, shape, and style of the built-in reflect this doorway, bringing another line of symmetry to the space. We bought the barrister bookcase on the last day of the Brimfield Antique Show last fall.

living room corner

Working our way around the room, we come to the marble fireplace. This is the focal point of the entire room — even though the fireplace is non-functional (the chimney masonry is degraded), it’s hard to miss this giant chunk of carved marble in the center of the room.

living room mantel

We arranged the seating area around the fireplace, with the sofa facing the mantel. We didn’t want to hang the tv over the fireplace, but clearly something needed to go there. We eventually settled on this print of a seascape collage by Matthew Cussick. The entire image is made of cut-out pieces of old maps and charts. It seemed appropriate since we live right next to the harbor.

living room print closeup

living room seating

For a while we thought about creating an L-shaped seating area with the sofa and a love seat. This is a big room – the carpet in the center is 9×7 feet to give you a sense of scale – and it could easily accommodate a love seat/sofa set up. But after years of living in cramped apartments, we really enjoyed  all of the open space. So instead, we decided to get a small armchair and an end table to fill in the short side of the L-shaped seating area, leaving plenty of empty space around the furniture. We also chose an arm chair and sofa with low backs that wouldn’t block the bow-front windows at the back of the room.

living room bow frontAnd speaking of the bow-front, we also decided to leave it mostly open. The small drop-leaf table is from an antique mall in Worcester. It looks like it was hand-made and probably dates from the mid-19th century. It’s the only piece of furniture in the room that’s close to the same age as the building, and it looks right at home between the two bow-front windows.

living room door

So that’s it, the current state of the living room. It feels like the most put-together room in the condo, and it’s become one of our favorite places to spend time at home. I’ll be back next time with an update on progress in the stairwell, where things are finally starting to come together.

Mar 252016
 March 25, 2016  Uncategorized 10 Responses »

In just under two months it will have been one year since we began renovating the stairwell, and I’ve decided that this renovation anniversary will be the unofficial deadline for finishing all major work in the stairwell. The end is in sight, and I’m hoping that setting an arbitrary deadline will help motivate me to plow through the remaining work rather than dragging things out for months and months. The problem is that the stairwell is separated from my main living space, so I haven’t viewed this renovation with the same sense of urgency that I’ve felt when renovating the interior of my condo. I only spend a few minutes in the stairwell each day, walking to and from the front door, and it’s been all too easy to live with the stairwell in a semi-finished state. Even though my neighbors and I have more or less ignored the stairwell as we’ve come and gone from our condos over the past year, I know that restoring the building’s entryway to its former grandeur will make coming home and walking through the front door immensely more enjoyable. So I’ve given myself just under two months to finish skim coating, sanding, priming, and painting just about every surface in the stairwell.

For the past few weeks I’ve been slogging through all of the prep work that needs to happen before painting can begin. It’s a hodgepodge of unsatisfying work that hasn’t made a noticeable impact on the appearance of the stairwell, which is partly why I’ve been putting off writing this update for so long. A few weeks ago, I thought I was almost finished skim coating the walls and ceilings, but then I reached the ceiling between the second and third floors and things slowed down considerably. This ceiling originally followed the gentle curve of the stairs, but a series of renovations on the third floor have left it looking like an M.C. Escher print. It’s composed of a series of seemingly disjointed bump-outs and sloped sections, all of which add up to a lot of awkward surface area to skim coat.

stairwell ceiling

After working on it off and on for two weeks, I managed to cover this section of ceiling in two smooth coats of joint compound. Some fairly serious cracks had formed in the ceiling over the years, so I covered them in fiberglass mesh tape before skim coating. The corners where the ceiling meets the walls (or in some cases where the ceiling meets another section of ceiling) had never been taped, and were defined by jagged, cracked plaster. I used paper drywall tape to make the corners look clean and sharp.

Only a few small sections of the old textured plaster remain on the walls and ceiling between the second and third floors, but a few weeks ago, I became so bored with skim coating that I decided to move on to painting the trim on the first flight of stairs. I’ll eventually finish skim coating, but freshly painted trim will make a huge difference in the appearance of the stairwell, and it’ll be nice to mark my progress with a visible improvement.

But before I could start painting, I needed to patch, caulk, and prime the trim. You might remember that I uncovered some large cracks in the curved section of the baseboard after removing dozens of layers of old paint.

split baseboard 2

I used WoodEpox, an epoxy-based wood filler to fill these cracks. WoodEpox isn’t the cheapest wood filler out there, but I decided to use it here since I was filling fairly large cracks, and it’s supposedly one of the most durable wood fillers available. It’s a two-part epoxy, and it’s straightforward to use. While wearing gloves, I grabbed a handful of each component and mashed them together until the mixture reached a uniform, dough-like consistency. Then I pressed the filler into the cracks and smoothed it out. 24 hours later, the filler had dried, and I sanded it until it was flush with the surrounding baseboard.

patched baseboard

Next, I caulked around the baseboard, the risers, and the edges of the stair treads. Since the treads are stained and sealed, I used blue painters’ tape to get a sharp caulk line. Putting a strip of painters’ tape along the edge of the tread before applying caulk, and then removing the tape before the caulk dries, prevents caulk from getting smeared all over the new tread. The process looked like this:

caulking tread 1

caulking tread 2

caulking tread 3

caulking tread 4

Here’s the first flight of stairs with all of the trim caulked – check out the sharp lines between the treads and the baseboard.

caulked stair treads

All of the trim on the first flight of stairs – the baseboard, the risers, and the balusters – are now ready for paint. Next time I’ll actually finishing painting the trim, and a small section of the stairwell will actually be finished.

stairwell trim primed

Feb 052016
 February 5, 2016  Uncategorized 15 Responses »

stripping the baseboard

When we left off last time, I had just covered the most visible baseboard in the stairwell – the one that curves along the wall, following the first flight of stairs – in a thick layer of a pH-based paint stripping paste called Peel Away. Two days later, I was scraping the paste off the baseboard, and at first, everything seemed to be going according to plan. The stripping paste had started out with a frosting-like consistency, but after sitting on the baseboard for 48 hours, it had absorbed some of the old paint and begun to dry out and was now the consistency of damp cardboard. When I slid a plastic scraper under the edge of the wax-paper-covered paste, it came away easily, pulling multiple layers of old, softened paint with it. As the first sheet of stripping paste fell away, I peeked behind it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the raw wood baseboard for the first time in nearly 170 years. But instead, I saw a pitted, mottled patch of green-brown paint.

For a moment I wondered whether the baseboard was composed entirely of layer upon layer of old, crusty paint. Maybe I’d never reach the underlying wood. I pushed the thought aside and went back to scraping away the stripping paste. The paste slid off the baseboard easily, but it left behind a slimy, brown residue that needed to be cleaned off. As I rinsed the residue away with clean water and blotted it with paper towels, I noticed a little patch of wood grain, and then another, and another. There was an archipelago of tiny wood grain islands spread across the cleaned section of baseboard where, for whatever reason, the stripper had managed to eat through all of the old paint.

It was reassuring to have broken through to the underlying wood, even if only in a few spots, but it didn’t change the fact that most of the baseboard was still covered in three coats of paint – the same tenacious three coats of paint that I was left with last time, after testing the Peel Away stripper on a small section of baseboard. The Peel Away instructions specified that the stripping paste shouldn’t be left for more than 48 hours, otherwise it might dry out completely, making it nearly impossible to remove. Since I was about to exceed the 48 hour limit, there was only one thing to do: scrape all of the Peel Away paste off the baseboard, and figure out what to do about the left over layers of paint later. A few hours later, all of the stripping paste was gone, and the baseboard looked terrible. From a distance it had a shaggy, almost mossy appearance thanks to the layers of olive green and dark brown paint I’d exposed. It was unappealing to say the least.

partially stripped baseboard

I thought about giving up and just painting over those final three coats of old paint, but the surface of the baseboard was pitted and uneven, and after everything it wouldn’t look much different than when I started. No, I’d come this far, I told myself, and I owed it to myself and this baseboard to remove those last few layers of paint and restore the baseboard to its former splendor. I left the baseboard to dry out overnight, and the next day, I covered it in a fresh layer of Peel Away stripping paste.

Coating the baseboard in stripper went faster this time. I precut trapezoids of wax paper to fit over each section of baseboard, which sped up the entire process once I began spreading the Peel Away paste. As I worked my way up the stairs, I fell into a rhythm: slather stripping paste over a section of baseboard, smooth a sheet of wax paper over the top, move up a step, and repeat.

baseboard peel away

24 hours later, I went back and once again scraped a spongy, homogeneous layer of wax paper, stripping paste, and old paint off the baseboard. This time, I uncovered big expanses of raw wood with just a few stubborn patches of paint left behind. Like the rest of the wood originally used in the building, it was tight-grained yellow pine. And as I uncovered more and more of this antique pine, I thought about how amazing it is that no one had seen the baseboard in this raw, unfinished state since it was installed sometime in the 1840s. I began to imagine the stairwell as it must have been when construction drew to a close almost 170 years ago, with plasterers putting the finishing touches on the walls and crown moulding, and painters adding the first coat of white paint to the trim.

stripped baseboard 2

stripped baseboard

These thoughts were interrupted as I began to notice that the second-to-last coat of paint, a thick dark brown layer, had made a huge mess. Unlike the other layers of paint, it had completely liquefied under the stripping paste, and some of this dark brown liquid had dribbled down the baseboard and pooled along the edge of the stair treads. I’d guess that this dark brown layer was a faux bois, or fake wood grain, treatment dating from the late 1800s when the entire building was renovated and an addition was added off the back. Dark wood trim was in at the time, and those who couldn’t afford hardwood trim often used layers of paint and varnish to create a faux wood finish to cover inexpensive pine trim.

But this faux finish was now a pool of dark brown liquid slowly seeping into my newly finished stair treads. I wished I had stripped the baseboard before finishing the treads, but since I had to coordinate with the neighbors to finish the treads, the timing hadn’t worked out. And now, even though I had taped off the treads with plastic sheets and painters’ tape, some of the dissolved finish had worked its way under the plastic. I wiped it up with paper towels, and most of it came up without any trouble, but in a few spots, it left behind dark brown stains on the treads. The stains are small and aren’t very noticeable, so for now, I’m planning to leave them alone. Here’s a close-up of the biggest stain.

stained tread

Once all of the stripping paste and paint was gone, I could see that the curved section of the baseboard had split in several places. This part of the baseboard is made up of 1/4-inch thick boards bent into place. These boards may have been installed when the wood was still green, or they may have been steamed before they were installed to make them more flexible. But either way, this wood has been under constant tension ever since, and as it dried out over time, it split and cracked. But these cracks should be easy to hide with some wood filler and paint.

split baseboard

split baseboard 2

Since Peel Away relies on very high pH to eat through old paint, the stripped baseboard needed to be neutralized before it could be repainted. The next day I dissolved the packet of citric acid that came with the bucket of Peel Away in a water spray bottle and soaked the baseboard with the resulting acidic solution. I waited for the baseboard to dry out and then sprayed it with the citric acid solution a second time for good measure. The Peel Away also came with some handy pH paper, which showed that the baseboard had reached pH 8 – close enough to neutral according to the instructions.

After letting the baseboard dry out overnight, I primed it with Zinnser B-I-N, a shellac primer. Shellac is great at stopping stains and raw wood resin from seeping through a top coat of paint. I’m not sure that there’s much resin left in the pine baseboard after 165 years, but better safe than sorry. (Fun fact: shellac is made of lac bug secretions that  are scraped off the tree branches where the bugs live and dissolved in ethanol to make primer, which helps to explain why shellac primer costs twice as much as other primers.) Next up, wood filler, caulk, and finally, paint.

primed baseboard

The experience of stripping paint was messy and frustrating, but at the same time it was some of the most satisfying work I’ve done in the stairwell. I’m left with mixed feelings. I simultaneously never want to strip paint again, and want to strip all of the trim in the entire building.

Jan 272016
 January 27, 2016  Uncategorized 14 Responses »

The day after Mara and I finished putting the last coat of polyurethane on the new stair treads, I walked through the front door and paused to admire our work. The treads looked great – smooth and flat with a subtle glowing sheen. But my attention was inevitably drawn to the baseboard that runs along the wall adjacent to the stairs. Now that the treads were clean and new, the baseboard looked like a pile of crap in comparison. Over the past 160 years, it had been slathered in coat after coat of thick, drippy paint, and now the top few layers of paint were cracked, chipped, and bubbling. Here’s a picture of the baseboard taken last year, before we began renovating the stairwell. Unfortunately, it still looked like this at the beginning of last week.

stair trim

I’d been putting off dealing with the baseboard for months. Even setting aside the obvious aesthetic issues, I knew that the existing paint on the baseboard was too degraded to simply paint over it. If it weren’t covered in countless layers of lead paint, I could scrape off the old, loose paint and add a coat of fresh paint. But since lead paint is poisonous, scraping or sanding it isn’t a good idea, particularly with a toddler living in the building. On the other hand, doing nothing wasn’t a great option either since lead paint chips were flaking off the baseboard at an alarming rate. The only real solution was to remove all of the old paint using a wet, chemical stripping method, which would avoid spreading lead dust and paint chips all over the stairwell.

If you’ve ever tried to strip paint from old trim or doors, you know it’s a long, messy slog. There are a few different ways to go about stripping paint, each with advantages and disadvantages, but they all come down to finding a way to dissolve multiple layers of old paint. And since paint is specifically designed not to dissolve under normal conditions – if you could remove dried paint with soap and water it wouldn’t be very good paint – this is no easy task. I’m a chemist by profession, so I thought a lot about the chemistry of paint strippers as I researched different ways to remove the old paint from the baseboard. (A word of warning before we go on, if you’d rather watch paint dry than read about paint stripper chemistry, you might want to skip down a few paragraphs.)

The most obvious way to dissolve something is to find the right solvent, and for paint, that usually means methylene chloride. Methylene chloride-based paint strippers work really well – I’ve successfully used them to strip furniture in the past – but unfortunately, methylene chloride boils around 100 ºF (40 ºC), which means it releases a lot of fumes, even at room temperature. It also has a nasty habit of eating through latex and nitrile gloves; you need special PVA-coated gloves, which aren’t readily available at most stores. Even worse, the EPA classifies methylene chloride as a probable carcinogen. And even worse still, it’s also acutely toxic – without good ventilation, it’s possible to inhale a dangerous amount of methylene chloride vapor without realizing it (most construction masks don’t block solvent vapor). There have been a number of terrible, tragic cases of people dying while using methylene chloride based paint stripper indoors. (Seriously, don’t use methylene chloride strippers indoors.) For this reason alone, I ruled out using methylene chloride to strip the baseboard.

Another common way to dissolve something is to heat it up. If you’ve ever made simple syrup, you know that you can dissolve a lot of sugar in a small amount of water if you boil the water first. The same goes for paint. Heat guns, which are sort of like really high-powered hair dryers, are commonly used to heat old paint until it begins to melt and bubble away from the underlying wood, at which point it can be scraped away before it cools and re-solidifies. Heat guns make it easier to scrape off old paint, but, in the end, you still have to manually scrape off all of the paint. Plus, heat guns are apparently something of a fire hazard. They get hot enough that they can ignite embers, which sometimes smolder unseen in the crevices of wood trim or clapboards for hours before sparking a full blown house fire.

heat gun

I actually own a heat gun – I used it to remove old window glazing putty – and I thought about using it to strip the baseboard, but in the end, I found a safer, easier method: a pH-based stripper. When you brush water at a neutral pH on old paint, nothing happens. But if you up the pH of the water a lot, making it highly basic/alkaline, it begins to eat away at the paint. The alkaline water actually reacts with the paint on a molecular level, liquefying it by breaking it down into smaller bits that dissolve in water.

One of the few commercially available pH-based strippers is a product called Peel Away 1. It’s essentially a water-based sodium hydroxide paste, so it doesn’t produce any fumes and shouldn’t have much of an odor. It has the consistency of butter cream frosting, which means it sticks to vertical surfaces, unlike most chemical strippers – a definite plus given that the baseboard is decidedly vertical. And at $34 a gallon it doesn’t break the bank. I decided to give it a try.

peel away

I cracked open the bucket and read through the instruction pamphlet inside. Slather a thick layer of stripping paste on the painted surface using a plastic spatula, cover it with the included wax paper, wait 24 to 48 hours, and scrape off the wax paper, stripping paste, and old paint in one easy sheet. Wash off the residue with water, let everything dry out overnight, and neutralize the stripped wood with the included citric acid. Seemed easy enough. I started with a test patch on the baseboard at the bottom of the stairs.

As I started spreading the paste on the baseboard, it seemed to have a thinner, drippier consistency than I expected. It was hard to apply a thick layer of paste without it beginning to dribble down toward the floor. Eventually I realized what was going on. I had bought the bucket of Peel Away about six months earlier and was only now getting around to using it. The Peel Away paste is mostly sodium hydroxide, and sodium hydroxide is hydroscopic, meaning it has a habit of pulling water vapor out of the air. In fact, it’s so hydroscopic that it deliquesces, pulling so much water from the air that it begins to dissolve into a soupy mixture. In the 6 months since I bought it, it seemed that the Peel Away paste had absorbed enough water that it had thinned itself out. I did my best to apply the now soupy paste to the baseboard, covered it with wax paper and left it for 24 hours.

The next day, I slid a plastic spatula behind the wax paper and paste, which had dried out and firmed up, and the whole mess sloughed off in one piece, as advertised. I was left with this.

peel away test

Unfortunately, there were at least three layers of old paint left behind. The soupy Peel Away must have been too thin to eat through the last of the paint. But these three layers of paint were interesting in their own right. Who knew that the stairwell trim was olive green at one point, and dark brown (faux wood finish?) before that? Since I’ve already begun painting the stairwell trim white, I was relieved to find that the original paint color was also white. It would be disappointing to go through all of the trouble of removing a century-and-a-half’s worth of paint and restoring the baseboard to it’s original splendor only to find that the building’s architect had originally intended for the trim to be painted green or dark brown.

Since my old, thinned-out Peel Away didn’t seem to be cutting it, I went back to the paint store and picked up a fresh bucket. The consistency of the fresh paste was much pastier, similar to joint compound. Rather than re-testing the fresh stripper on a small patch of baseboard, I just decided to go for it and coated the entire thing in a thick layer of paste.

peel away paste

Will the original wood surface of the baseboard see the light of day for the first time in 160 years? Or will I be left with a mess of old, splotchy, half-stripped paint? Tune in next time to find out what happens when I scrape off the Peel Away.

stripping the baseboard

Jan 152016
 January 15, 2016  Uncategorized 13 Responses »

My upstairs neighbor and I spent the first Saturday night of 2016 staining stair treads. For the past few weeks, the stairs had been covered in red rosin paper and painters’ tape to protect the newly-installed, raw-wood treads. Since our contractor, Gregg, covered up each tread after installing it, neither my neighbor or I had actually seen the rebuilt staircase in its entirety. As we tore away the paper to prepare the treads for stain, the finished staircase emerged, step by step, for the first time. It was like unwrapping one last belated Christmas present.

new stair treads revealed

Standing there looking at a whole flight of clean, flat, uniform treads, it suddenly felt like we had reached the beginning of the end of this stairwell renovation. After taking a minute to admire the new treads, we got to work staining them.

Finding a time to stain and seal the stairs took more planning than you might expect. The stairs provide primary access to my second-floor condo as well as my neighbor’s condo on the top floor, so we wanted to find a way to finish the treads without leaving the stairs impassable for days on end. My first thought was to finish every other step, which would allow us to use the stairs, taking two steps at a time, while the stain and polyurethane dried. Once the first set of treads were dry, we could go back and finish the remaining treads. It seemed like a good idea until we remembered that one of my upstairs neighbors is two years old and probably won’t be taking stairs two at a time anytime soon.

If we couldn’t finish the stair treads gradually, in phases, maybe we could finish them all at once, as quickly as possible. I started looking for fast-drying stain and polyurethane and found Varathane stain and Minwax Ultimate Polyurethane for floors. Both products are well-reviewed with dry times of 1 hour for the stain and 2 hours for the polyurethane – fast enough that we could apply a coat of stain or poly in the evening after everyone is home for the night and safely walk on the stairs in socks the following morning.

Once the rosin paper was out of the way, my neighbor and I sanded each tread with extra fine, 180-grit sanding sponges. (The treads came pre-sanded, but the stain instructions recommended sanding with extra fine grit paper before staining to help the wood absorb the stain evenly.) Thirty minutes later we were left with sore arms and two flights of silky smooth stair treads.

Finally, after wiping away the sawdust with tack cloths, we actually started applying the stain. We worked quickly and didn’t worry too much about getting excess stain on the risers, balusters, and baseboard, since all of these surfaces will be primed and painted later. The Varathane stain soaked into the wood faster than the Minwax stains I’ve used in the past – we only had to leave the stain on for three minutes before wiping away the excess.

stair staining in progress

Before we started staining the treads, I spent a few days testing stain colors on some of the scrap cut-offs that were left over from the tread installation. At first I wanted to stain the treads to match the handrail and newel post, which, as far as I can tell, are made from American black walnut. I tried Minwax “dark walnut” stain, but it ended up looking too dark and lacked the warm red undertones of the real walnut.

Eventually I came across Varathane “American walnut” stain, which was a much warmer dark brown. I sanded and stained a section of scrap wood, and brought it upstairs from the cellar to compare it to the handrail. The stain left the wood slightly lighter than the walnut handrail, although the color was about right. But then I noticed that the stained scrap wood was a pretty close match for the stairwell’s original pine flooring, which is a medium amber color. I decided that matching the treads to the floors actually makes a lot of sense, so we went ahead with “American walnut.”

It took about an hour and a half for my neighbor and I to each work our way down a flight of stairs, applying stain to each tread and wiping off the excess as we went. But when we were done, the staircase was transformed.

Freshly stained treads

Stained Treads

After looking at dusty, paper-covered stairs for so long, the freshly stained treads were an enormous improvement.

The next morning, the stain seemed to be fully cured. As we walked downstairs in our socks, carrying our shoes, our feet didn’t stick to the treads, and we didn’t leave a trail of linty footprints behind; so mission accomplished.

Finished Stair Treads 2

Mara and I spent the next three evenings sealing the treads with polyurethane. Each night we worked our way down the two flights of stairs, wiping away dust with tack cloths and applying poly with foam brushes. The Minwax Ultimate floor polyurethane that we used is water-based, so it dried faster and didn’t smell as much as oil-based poly. And it’s supposed to be just as durable. Hopefully three coats of poly will hold up for a while, but the stairs are a high-traffic area, so realistically, we’ll probably need to sand and put another coat of poly on the treads every year or two. And since the original floors are already scuffed and scarred, a little wear and tear on the stair treads will only help them blend in.

Finished Stair Treads

With the treads done, the stairwell is finally coming together. I’m excited to get this project done – I’m looking forward to coming home and walking upstairs through a clean, finished space.