And Now We Are Six

Late March 1969, the perfect family is enjoying a Sunday afternoon in their perfect house. Eric and George are out on the sun porch making a fort for the guinea pigs while Kara naps upstairs. George is in the living room, watching a basketball game on TV.  I sit down next to him…

“There’s something I need to tell you.”

He raised one hand, like a cop stopping traffic. “It’s a tie game with two minutes left.”

“What I have to say is important.”

“The game will be over in a few minutes.”

“I think I’m pregnant.”

“Yes!” He punched the air.  His team had scored.

“You’re not listening to me.”

A commercial break saved our marriage – or at least prevented a major meltdown on my part.

There was plenty of room in our hearts for the new child, we weren’t so sure about the house.

The solution lay over our heads. We could convert the maid’s quarters into a fourth bedroom. After all, we’d already turned the butler’s pantry into a children’s eating area. Maids? Butlers? Not for us. We had children.

The maid’s room took up two-thirds of the attic and had its own sink but no toilet. (She used a chamber pot?)  It also lacked insulation, windows that opened, paint on the walls and anything else that might make it comfortable or attractive. No problem. We insulated, replaced the windows, painted, lay carpeting and put in a window air-conditioner. A few months before our baby was due, we moved the boys up. At their request, the guinea pigs also moved up.

Eric and George were delighted to have their own floor and lots of room for setting up train tracks, building forts, etc., but I was concerned. What if we had a fire? George devised a fire escape, using a ladder that extended from  one of their windows down to the roof of the ex-butler’s pantry bump out. We demonstrated its use and stressed that it was only for emergencies. Happily, they never had to use it and, as far as I know, never experimented.

The bedroom they left behind was decorated for little boys and we decided to leave it alone. If we had another girl we’d worry about it then. My concern with gender appropriate decor melted under the pressure of caring for three little children while pregnant and married to a man who was working longer and longer hours.

Robert Asher inherited his brothers’ bedroom with its fire truck motif. Once again, all was well. That year, 1970, we stayed home, our home, for Christmas.

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Wallpaper Woes, part 1

Once we had the basic comforts – that is, heat and intact windows – the wallpaper demanded attention. At least in my mind. Every room but the bathroom and kitchen was papered in different shades of the same paper, a pastel with white and metallic dribbles. Even in the Age of Aquarius, an era not known for good taste, this wallpaper was hideous. No, I don’t have pictures, and you should be grateful.

I decided to paint the walls while Georgie and Eric napped. They weren’t quite two and still taking long afternoon naps. We were broke but paint was cheap. The hardware store a couple blocks away sold paint. I was ready to go. The boys and I walked to the store, and they helped me select chips to take home and show Daddy.

I told clerk about the ugly wallpaper, soon to be buried under fresh paint.

“You’d better remove that paper first. Otherwise it’s likely to peel. Then you’re in trouble.” He shook his head. “Cover it with paint and you’ll have to sand it off.”


“You’ll probably want to rent a steamer.” He showed me one, essentially a twenty-pound foot-square steam iron, and told me how to proceed.

What was supposed to be a  simple project actually involved six-steps. 1. Scratch the surface of the paper with a wire brush, which he was happy to sell me. 2. Hold the steamer close to but not up against the wall until the paper is thoroughly damp. 3. After a few minutes, scrape off the soggy paper with a spatula or similar tool. 4. Scrub off ALL the goopy old wallpaper glue. 5. Sand and smooth the wall as needed. 6. Finally, apply paint.

No way I was doing this myself. I scratched the walls and waited for the weekend. George, who was anxious to get to work re-screening the back porch, agreed to help me instead.

Saturday morning we settled the twins in the sun porch, which had become a large play pen, and started in the living room. George got the heavy lifting. He wielded the steamer, a heavy hissing beast that I couldn’t hold up for more than a few minutes.  I scraped off the paper, slowly and carefully so that my spatula didn’t gouge holes in the plaster, and scrubbed off the glue.

We were a team, and we improved as we went along. By Sunday night the downstairs and the stairwell had lovely bare walls. The stairwell had been particularly challenging. One side was open to the living room, but to reach the top of the other, George had to balance on a ladder, not easy to do while holding the steamer. Still, Team Dusenbury prevailed and with no injuries.

Our success with downstairs left us tired but triumphant – and optimistic. I could paint downstairs during the week. Removing the wallpaper from upstairs, three bedrooms and a hall with no ceilings over eight feet, would be a snap. Or not.

The next weekend, we learned that the upstairs wallpaper had been serving a dual purpose. Not only was it “decorative” it was also holding the walls together. There had been leaks under windows and in the exterior walls. The water had softened the plaster, and our steamer finished the job. Great hunks of plaster came off with the wallpaper, revealing the underlying lathe and horsehair.

I pulled long strands from the mess on the floor and held them against my upper lip like a mustache.

George was not amused.

“Would you rather I cried?” I felt like crying. I was the one who had insisted upon removing the wallpaper. Maybe we could have just painted over it, and none of this would have happened.

“Let’s take a break,” he said. “Go downstairs and admire your newly painted walls. Then I’ll go to the hardware store and get some patching plaster.”

A Little Context

On April 4, just a month after we moved into our house, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Over the next several days, some one hundred US cities experienced civil unrest, but not New York, where George went to work every day. Thank you Mayor Lindsay for having guts and compassion. If you’re not old enough to remember what happened or have forgotten here’s the story.

Civil rights and the King assassination might seem irrelevant in a blog about fixing up old houses, but it’s part of our story.

Back in 1968, unscrupulous real estate companies generated high profits by blockbusting. This involved frightening white homeowners in segregated neighborhoods into selling cheap by creating the perception that minorities were about to move in and, simply by their presence,  lower property values. The companies then resold the properties at an inflated price to minorities. This scenario may sound ridiculous today, but assume widespread racial prejudice, and it works.

Blockbusting and white flight were reshaping cities – and close-in suburbs. Montclair, which already counted racial minorities among its residents, was seen as particularly vulnerable. Thus, houses were relatively cheap – big old houses with lots of space and charm, on tree-lined streets, and within close commuting distance of New York City.

We, and lots of other young couples, could hardly believe what we could afford to buy, and we weren’t afraid of integration. Some of us had even been involved in the civil rights movement. When a black family moved in down the street, we didn’t consider moving out.  As I recall, the father worked as an interpreter for the UN – hardly a “there goes the neighborhood” addition.

President Johnson signed the 1968 Civil Rights Act, also called the Fair Housing Act, on April 11, during the civil unrest following Dr. King’s assassination. Now, 45 years later, the term blockbusting has to be explained.  But even in the bad old days of 1968, not everyone was attuned to the issue.

George’s father, who worked in New York two weeks a month, came out to visit shortly after we moved in.  We were having drinks before dinner in as civilized a manner as is possible with almost two-year-old twins running around when he asked how many of the houses on our block were white. (We learned later that colleagues in his office had told him Montclair was going to “tip.” His son had made a big mistake.)

George, to his everlasting credit, didn’t understand the question. He frowned, did a mental tabulation, then said, “About half.”

“Half?” My father-in-law’s eyes widened.

“Ours is the only pink one,” George said. “And as soon as the weather warms up, we’re going to paint the trim dark brown. That should tone it down.”

And we moved on to other subjects.


Murphy’s Law

We moved into our new, to us, house the first week of March 1968. Despite its dilapidated condition, the almost 2000 square feet pink and green Tudor felt like a mansion. The front door opened into a living room that ran the length of the house. To the left was a big dining room with a bay window and behind that a butler’s pantry and a tiny kitchen. A sun porch beside the living room and a back porch behind the kitchen completed the first floor. Upstairs were three bedrooms and a bathroom with an enormous old tub.

Our house had been built with the expectation of servants, thus the kitchen only slightly larger than the butler’s pantry. In the attic was a finished room with its own sink, the maid’s bedroom. The toilet in the basement was for the handyman or gardener. The staircase connecting the first and second floors ran down to a landing and then split. Four steps to the right would take the servants into the kitchen; four to the left would take the owners into the living room. Needless to say, we went in both directions.

We cleaned before the movers came – empty houses are easier to clean. Most of the broken windows were just cracked. We taped them and put cardboard over the ones that had been knocked out. Temporary fixes, but the first order of business was to repair the front stoop. More sophisticated buyers might have asked the seller to replace steps that the inspection report described as dangerous, but we were newbies.

The sight of George out front, hammering away, introduced us to the neighbors, and they welcomed us with open arms. We’d bought the neighborhood eyesore, and we were fixing it up. Our new neighbors brought casseroles and fresh-baked cookies, offers to lend tools, and recommendations for electricians and plumbers. Grateful and a bit overwhelmed, we thanked them and explained that we planned to do the work ourselves.

“The inspector says the systems are fine. It just needs cleaning and painting, a little carpentry – nothing complicated.” Unsaid, but probably not unheard, was the additional explanation that buying the house had left us flat broke. We couldn’t afford to hire anyone.

There’s probably a corollary to Murphy’s Law, something about storms moving in as soon as you empty your rainy-day fund.

We’d been in the house two weeks when the heat went out. We jiggled the thermostat, checked the fuses and the level of oil in the tank. Everything seemed in order, but nothing happened. We went down in the cellar and surveyed the furnace that sat in the middle of the basement like an enormous octopus, its tentacles extending to pipes that served the radiators. We didn’t know where to begin.

One of the neighbors suggested we call our heating oil company. They sold and repaired furnaces. As customers, we’d get a discount.

The repairman poked around for a while then shook his head. “It’s shot. I’m surprised it’s lasted this long.”

“It’s shot?”

“This used to be a coal furnace. It’s probably as old as the house.” He pointed out the little room where coal had been stored. “Even if I can get it going, which I doubt, there’s no guarantee it won’t stop working tomorrow. You need a new one.”

“But the inspector said…”

“Your inspectors just see if the heat comes on or not.” He shrugged. “All that proves is that the thermostat works.”

“How much is a new furnace?”

“A thousand dollars, more or less” He must have seen my stunned look. “You can buy it on time.”

We had no choice. Mid-March is cold in northern New Jersey. The fireplace really did work, but we were running out of stuff to burn, and maybe George and I could tough it out until spring arrived, but we had two little kids. We took on another thousand dollars in debt, crossed our fingers and kept on trucking.

Making the Commitment

I was the one who, exasperated by a slovenly landlord, had initiated the search for a house. Weekday mornings after George left for the train, I bundled our almost two-year-old twin sons into the car and set out. My search began in southern Westchester County, where we were renting, and moved steadily northward, seeking something we could afford – northward and northward until it seemed the next stop would be in Canada. I crossed the Hudson and stumbled upon Montclair New Jersey. The tree-lined streets and roomy old houses looked like heaven, and prices were much lower.

I liked Montclair, but this house was a mess.

Still, the neighborhood was nicer than I’d dreamed possible. The pink and green Tudor was one of the smaller houses and the only one in disrepair. Traffic wouldn’t be an issue; we hadn’t seen a car pass since we’d arrived.

A tree that would be perfect for climbing when the boys were a little older stood beside the driveway. In the backyard, there was a little stand of pines around a fishpond plus plenty of space for playing ball. Behind the garage would be perfect for a garden. As for the house, a second look only added to the list of needed repairs, but I could see the potential, and maybe the problems were just superficial. George had worked construction summers during college. He was handy. He really liked this house.

“The neighborhood is great, and so’s the yard.” I tried to focus on the positive.

“Come warm weather, you’ll really enjoy this screened porch,” the realtor said.

“What screens?” I muttered. They hung in tatters or were missing entirely.

“Easy to fix.” George was already picturing himself on the porch, lord of the manor with a cold beer in his hand.

The realtor suggested an offer contingent upon a professional inspection, which, he assured us, was standard procedure and would protect us from any unforeseen problems. On our way back to the office, he drove us past the bus stop, the train station, and the elementary school – all within a five-minute walk.

“The three most important things in real estate are location, location, location,” he said.

 We smiled and nodded at this wisdom, which, bless our naïve little hearts, we’d never heard before.

Within the month, our offer was accepted, the inspector said the structure, systems and roof were sound, and the bank approved our mortgage. We were barely twenty-five years old, the parents of two little children, and the new owners of a three bedroom one bath plus a toilet in the basement house that needed work.

This was late winter of 1968. We paid $21,000 for that house and owed the bank almost $17,000, an amount neither of us could contemplate without feeling the cold fingers of panic. We’d sold everything that wasn’t nailed down to raise the down payment, but we had our own house.

The Beginning

What better place to start?

I am one of those otherwise sane people who look at a ramshackle house and see charm, what it could be rather than what it is. This is a disease I contacted from my husband. It certainly wasn’t genetic. My parents ran a tight ship. In our house, you mopped the kitchen floor every night after you did the dishes, and no faucet dripped nor did any toilet run for longer than 24 hours. It simply wasn’t permitted. I married a man who was far more creative than precise, and I loved him for it – still do, but I’ve had to do some adjusting. Isn’t that what marriage is about?

We entered the housing market at an early age with little money, two small children, and boundless optimism. The realtor assessed our situation and suggested a fixer-upper. For those who have not been there, “fixer-upper” is real estate for dilapidated.

The house he showed us was a small tudor, pink with bright green trim rather than the usual beige and brown, a little bit of Miami Beach in northern New Jersey. As we walked around the house, I counted twenty seven broken window panes in the first floor windows. The windows were six over one plus a bay. I did the math. Approximately half the panes were broken.

We entered cautiously, stepping around the rotten step on the front stoop. The front door opened directly into a living room with a huge fireplace, which we were assured worked just fine. The floors and interior woodwork were dark-stained, following the Tudor theme, but the walls leaned toward Miami Beach. All three bedrooms plus the living room and dining room were papered in a pastel wallpaper featuring metallic drips, gold drips on the mint green, silver on the pink, and copper on the blue. There must have been a sale.

Back in the realtor’s car, my husband turned to me. “What a great house, plenty of room.”

“It’s a mess,” I said. “Twenty-seven broken windows.”

“I know how to fix windows. We used to play baseball in the back yard, and sometimes a foul ball hit a window.”

I contemplated the vast differences in our upbringings. One broken window and I would have been playing ball somewhere else. “The window behind the stove looks frosted, but it’s grease.”

“I’ll replace the broken windows and you clean the dirty ones.”He gestured broadly. “Trees, sidewalks, tricycles and kids’ toys in the yards. This is a great neighborhood.”

I looked from my beaming husband to the realtor who was trying to keep a straight face. Great house, great neighborhood. Really? “Let’s go back inside,” I said. “I need to take another look.”