Tag Archives: renovating old houses

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.”

“Oh.”

“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.”

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.