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.

Apr 262015
 
 April 26, 2015  Uncategorized 2 Responses »

Magnolia Blooms

It’s been over two months since my last post, and you may be wondering, ‘what ever happened to that stairwell renovation?’ The short answer is, winter happened. Boston shut down for most of February as consecutive snow storms dropped a historically unprecedented amount of snow on the city. The public transit system was effectively unusable for more than a month, so I ended up spending a lot of time at home. But even so, it was so dark, and cold, and dreary, that I couldn’t muster the motivation to tackle any major renovation work.

But now spring finally seems to have arrived. We’ve had a handful of warm, sunny days, and the magnolia tree in front of my building bloomed this past week. Gregg, our contractor, has caught up on a backlog of work from the winter, but before he starts working on the stairs he’s taking care of a more pressing project: building new bulkhead doors to the cellar. Over the course of the winter, the old, wooden bulkhead was completely crushed, and when the snow melted – all nine feet of it – all that was left was a pile of boards leaning against the side of the building. Gregg  is currently building a new bulkhead out of pressure treated lumber framing and pine planks. As long as we regularly seal/paint the new bulkhead it should hold up much better than the old one.

Maybe my greatest home-related accomplishment this winter, as sad as that is, was finding two more slip shades to complete the living room chandelier.

markel chandelier 2

As you may remember, I put the complete chandelier together using original parts from the 1930s, most of which I bought on eBay. The total cost for this project ended up being around $250, which included the cost of the cast iron frame and canopy, the slip shades, new cloth-covered wire and sockets, paint, and light bulbs. At $13-35 each, the slip shades themselves were the single biggest expense. Completely refurbished versions of this chandelier seem to go for as much as $1000, so even though it took months to find all the parts I needed, I think it was worthwhile.

markel chandelier

With longer days and warmer weather ahead of us, I have a bunch of new projects in the works, in the stairwell and beyond – so stay tuned, for real this time. And since I don’t have any actual updates on the stairwell renovation, I’ll leave you with a picture of a much larger, much fancier stairwell. We just got back from visiting my brother in Baltimore, and this is the stairwell in his building, a formerly-single-family townhouse (really a semi-detached mansion) built in 1850 and lavishly renovated in the 1890s that is now divided into ten spacious apartments.

Baltimore stairwell

Feb 092015
 
 February 9, 2015  Uncategorized 6 Responses »

A week and a half ago, I had just started repairing the plaster ceiling in my building’s common laundry area on the ground floor of the stairwell, and things weren’t going well. After drilling a dozen holes in the ceiling, I hadn’t found a joist. Each new hole I drilled created a little cascade of plaster dust and loosened the surrounding plaster even more. I would later discover that the ceiling joists in this part of the stairwell not only run in the opposite direction from what I had expected, but are also spaced at irregular intervals.

Last year, I used construction adhesive to repair the loose plaster walls in the bedroom, which worked well and seems to be holding up all these months later. But since a large portion of the ceiling in the laundry area had completely detached from the lath, and was fighting a losing battle against the forces of gravity, I decided to use plaster buttons to reattach it to the lath.

Plaster buttons are special washers that can be used with screws to secure plaster to the underlying lath. The idea is that the plaster button distributes the pressure from the screw and prevents the surrounding plaster from cracking. Then, once the plaster is secure, the plaster buttons can be hidden with a skim coat of plaster or joint compound.

I began working in a corner of the ceiling where a small section of plaster had come loose. To fully support the weight of the ceiling, it’s best to screw plaster buttons directly into a ceiling joist. But as we’ve already established, joists were hard to come by in this corner of the ceiling. So instead, I settled for screwing the plaster buttons into the lath. But as I tightened the screw on the first plaster button, the entire plaster button punched through the crumbly plaster. The plaster in this area was so soft that it seemed to be held together by the ceiling paint and little else. I did my best to gently secure the surrounding plaster with more plaster buttons, but in the end I was left with a mess.

Plaster buttons in ceiling

I decided to leave the hole I had created in the ceiling for the time being and moved on to the ceiling’s main problem area – a roughly 3 foot by 4 foot section of cracked and buckled plaster that seemed ready to collapse at any moment.

Cracked Plaster Ceiling

When I tried pushing the loose plaster back into place, I discovered that a bunch of plaster chunks had gathered above the loose plaster, preventing it from sitting flush against the lath. The loose plaster also had the consistency of damp cardboard, so I decided to pull it all down and replace it with sheetrock. I used a utility knife to cut a line between the loose plaster and the stable plaster to prevent any damage to the stable parts of the ceiling, and to keep the area of missing plaster as square as possible so that it would be easy to fill in with sheetrock later. And then I  set about peeling the old plaster away in big chunks.

Every time I remove old plaster, I think I’ll be able to contain the dust, but it never works out that way. I did my best to set up plastic drop cloths to seal off the floor and the washer and dryer. But as I pulled down the ceiling, I was showered in sandy plaster dust, which I expected, and a thick black grime of unknown origin, which I did not expect. It seemed to be the sort of black dust that tends to accumulate in cities. It must have settled in the space above the ceiling during the century-and-a-half since the ceiling was installed. Some of the dust that rained down on me probably originated in Industrial-Revolution-era coal fires. I could really feel the history. Fortunately, I was wearing a respirator, so I wasn’t breathing in the history.

After a shower and some intensive shop vaccing, I went out and picked up a sheet of 3/8-inch sheetrock, which is about the same thickness as the existing plaster. I used a 3-foot by 4-foot panel of sheetrock to fill in the area of missing plaster. I screwed the sheetrock directly into the ceiling joists, which of course were now easy to find since I had completely exposed them.

Once the sheetrock patch was up, there was a half-inch gap between the existing ceiling and the new patch. I covered this gap with drywall tape and a 50:50 mixture of joint compound and plaster of paris, sometimes called hybrid plaster. The plaster of paris acts as a hardening agent, while the joint compound keeps the mixture smooth and workable. This hybrid plaster hardens in about 10 minutes, which meant I had to work quickly using small batches of plaster, but it also made it possible for me to apply two coats of plaster in one day. And unlike joint compound, the hybrid plaster doesn’t shrink as it dries. If you’re interested in mixing up some hybrid plaster yourself, this guy on youtube will show you how it’s done.

Sheetrock Patch

As for that disastrous section of the ceiling that I filled with holes and plaster buttons, I was able to pull away some of the loose plaster and re-plaster over the whole mess. Although it still needs touching up, this section of the ceiling now looks much better and feels reasonably solid.Ceiling Skim Coat

The ceiling is now almost ready for paint. All that’s left is to touch up a few spots with another coat of joint compound and some light sanding to smooth everything out.

As you may have heard, we’ve gotten some snow here in Boston over the past few days. There’s over five feet of snow on the ground as of today, which means that sidewalks have been reduced to slippery, single-file trenches, and the time-honored Boston tradition of using overturned trash cans and folding chairs as parking space savers in the days after a snow storm is threatening to become a permanent practice. It also means that Gregg hasn’t been able to get started working on the front stairs. But assuming it ever stops snowing, I’ll share some more progress on the front stairs.Boston Snow

Jan 242015
 
 January 24, 2015  Uncategorized 12 Responses »

Front StairsA few months ago, I sold my old sofa on Craigslist. When the buyer came over to pick it up, I buzzed her in, and as she walked inside she turned to her husband and exclaimed, “Oh! It’s all old inside!” She seemed genuinely shocked by the state of the front stairwell. Maybe she had unrealistically high expectations for the building’s interior after seeing the exterior (including the newly repaired and repainted front door). Or maybe her expectations were neutral and the stairwell just looked so crappy that she felt the need to say something. I was still upstairs at the time, so I don’t think she realized I heard her, but I wasn’t offended anyway. In fact, I remember having a similar reaction the first time I walked into the building when I was thinking about renting my now-condo, although I didn’t say anything out loud. In the two years since I first saw it, I’ve gotten used to the run-down state of the stairwell. But every now and then I pause and really look at it, and behind the dull paint, dim lighting, and chipped stair treads, it’s actually a really beautiful space. The original architecture is more or less intact, and like so much of the rest of the building it has a lot of Potential.

The stairwell is a common area in the building, so it falls under the purview of the condo association, which consists of me and the owners of the other three units in the building.  We’ve neglected the stairwell for the past few years in favor of more pressing maintenance projects, but this winter we finally decided to invest some time and money in the space. Let’s take a look at the current state of the stairwell and some of the changes we have planned for it.

Laundry Area Under the Stairs

This is the ground floor of the stairwell, one floor down from the main entranceway. This narrow hallway serves mainly as our common laundry area. The washer and dryer are tucked underneath the stairs, which is an efficient use of space. The door on the left at the end of the hallway leads down to the cellar. The washer and dryer are only a few years old, but every other aspect of this little hallway is in rough shape. I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been updated, or even maintained, since the 60s, and it’s seen some heavy use over the years. The linoleum floor tiles, which are beginning to crack and peel, are stuck directly to the original pine floors. I’d love to pull up the linoleum tiles someday and refinish the original floors, provided the tiles aren’t full of asbestos. It’d be nice to spruce up the laundry area as well with some fresh paint and some new shelving.

Cracked Plaster Ceiling

Of all the problems in the hallway, the one that requires the most immediate attention is the ceiling. A big section of  plaster in the center of the ceiling is detached from the underlying lath. The plaster has cracked under its own weight, and at its worst point, the ceiling is hanging down about three inches below the lath. It’s a pretty precarious situation, and there’s a very real risk that a big chunk of plaster could fall on someone’s head without warning. So needless to say, I’m planning to fix the ceiling asap. I’ll try to reattach the existing plaster to the lath, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll strip away the loose plaster and replace it with sheetrock.

Front Entrance

Moving upstairs to the first floor, this is the view looking toward the building’s main entrance. The first thing you’ll notice is that this space is really dark. Since the stairwell is located in the center of the building, it doesn’t get much natural light, which means we keep the overhead lights on most of the time (we should really install a motion sensor light switch). It also means that this space doesn’t photograph well. But at this point, the dim lighting might be for the best. It helps disguise the fact that every wall in the stairwell has been slathered in a chunky textured plaster treatment. Combined with the dim lighting, the textured plaster walls gives the stairwell a cave-like appearance that is completely at odds with the space’s original architectural elements. Eventually I’d like to skim coat all of the stairwell walls to a smooth finish. It will be a big job, but it will make a huge difference. And luckily, the walls seem really solid  – unlike most of the original plaster walls in the rest of the building – so there won’t be any extensive plaster repair needed.

A few other things I’d like to change on this level: The flooring consists of vinyl sheeting on top of a quarter-inch plywood underlayment. I’m almost positive that the original pine floors are hidden under the vinyl and plywood, and I’d eventually like to uncover and refinish them. Of course, there’s some risk involved in uncovering the original floors, since we won’t know what condition they’re in until we’ve torn out the current flooring, but I think it will be worth it. Also, the trim around the entrance way is inexplicably painted red, but that’s nothing that can’t be taken care of with some white paint and a lot of primer. And once I get around to painting the walls, I’ll also paint the exposed gas line and electrical conduit to match. I’d also like to replace the wall sconces with something brighter and more attractive.

Front Stairs

This is the view of the main staircase as you enter the building. There are a lot of impressive, original architectural details here – the newel post, the handrail, all of the curved trim and plasterwork – but there are also a lot of problems. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had friends over who have noted that the stairs are “kind of scary,” or asked “are these stairs safe?” Since I walk up and down these stairs a few times a day, I’ve gotten used to them. But the truth is, these stairs aren’t as safe as they could be. It’s not that the stairs are in danger of collapsing (trust me, we’ve had several contractors reassure us on this point), but the stairs simply don’t meet modern code. Since they’re so old, they’re not required to meet current code, but at the same time building code exists for a reason. The stairs are narrower than most modern stairs, the handrail is significantly lower, and the steps themselves are uneven, all of which adds up to a trip and fall hazard.

Newel Post

So we’re bringing my contractor, Gregg, in to address some of these problems. He’ll replace and level all of the stair treads, replace all of the balusters, and raise the existing handrail a few inches. In order to raise the handrail, he’ll also have to raise the newel post, probably by putting some sort of inconspicuous blocking under it.

SONY DSC

The current stair treads are pine, which is a soft wood that wouldn’t be expected to last more than a few decades in this application. As you can see, many of the treads are chipped and cracked, and some of them have deep grooves worn into the center by decades of shuffling shoes. The current plan is for Gregg to replace the old treads with more-durable hardwood treads.

stair trim

Here’s a closeup look at one of the textured walls. Besides looking crappy, all the nooks and crannies on the walls collect a ton of dust – I’m not used to having to dust vertical surfaces. Below the wall is a really cool baseboard that curves upward, following the pitch of the stairs. The baseboard and a lot of the other woodwork in the stairwell is in rough shape. It’s covered in countless layers of cracked and chipped paint. Ideally I’d like to strip off all of the old paint and start fresh. Since most of the old paint here likely contains lead, the safest way to strip it is using a wet chemical stripper. But stripping the paint with a chemical stripper sounds like a lot of work, so it remains to be seen if I actually end up doing it.

coffin cornerOn the way up to the second floor, there’s a rounded nook built into the curved corner of the stairwell. Apparently these nooks were pretty common in 19th century row house stairwells. They’re sometimes called coffin corners, a name that originates from the misconception that these nooks were built to provide extra room for pallbearers to maneuver a coffin down the stairs. In reality, these corner nooks were built as display shelves for decorative items like a vase or statue. Someday, I’d like to use this little nook as it was intended and put a large vase in it for fresh flowers.

Second Floor LandingHere’s the second floor landing, right outside my condo. It’s a narrow, dimly lit space. The original pine floors are intact and exposed here, but they desperately need to be refinished – the finish is worn down to bare wood in spots. The curved railing continues up to the third floor, so when Gregg raises it he’ll have to do it as a single piece. The stairs up to the third floor are more of the same – worn stair treads that need replacing, and lots of textured plaster.

Right now, the front stairwell isn’t pretty, but someday it’ll look great. Gregg is set to start working on it next week, so stay tuned for updates.

Looking Downstairs