What's Wrong With This Picture?
This Old House Magazine editor Scott Omelianuk takes you on a disaster tour—of his home renovation
It's my home, first of all, and, personally, I expect something a little more polished from the editor of This Old House. Second—and this is a list: the front door is a bad replacement for what used to be a pair of oak and beveled-glass doors with brass locksets. There is an air conditioner in the third floor window, which is pretty much the architectural equivalent of a black eye. And then there are the lintels above the door and windows. They used to be ornately carved brownstone. Someone decided they looked better cut off flush to the facade and painted. Plus the mortar's falling out from between the bricks.
In the November issue of This Old House magazine I said I was going to post some photos of my place up on thisoldhouse.com, maybe as a way to shame myself into high gear with all the repairs it needs. And it needs plenty. But that's the deal with an old house. To get through it you need time and patience, a subscription to TOH wouldn't hurt, and plenty of money. I've started the work, but it's been sooooo slow. Have I mentioned it also requires plenty of money?
by Scott Omelianuk
This staircase is the first thing you see once in the door. The maple, walnut and mahogany newel is beautiful, as is the railing, which winds its way up three flights. Not so good: the two inches each tread pitches from left to right. Sloping stairs is a common problem in old row houses and there's a trade sprung up to fix them. But like so many jobs performed by skilled workers, the fix ain't cheap: anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a flight.
The previous owner had what a generous person might call a folk-art chandelier hanging from the plaster medallion in this second floor room. It was cockeyed and had bits of tinfoil and plastic army figures hanging from it by twist-ties. I knew it had to go pronto. What I didn't know: how hard it'd be to find a replacement I liked. I've lived with this temporary paper light for a couple years now, as I search for a permanent one. I also live with the quick-fix 'real brass-like finish' on the canopy. You'd think I could at least paint it white. But the thing is, the light doesn't fasten to a proper electric box, which is too large to fit in the medallion's opening. The opening is small, meant for the gas pipe that used to supply the house's original fixture. Dealing with that made the light so hard to hang in the first place that I can't bring myself to get up on the ladder again.
As thick as a nickel, the first couple of bits of paint came off with my fingernail. That thrilled me, as I thought with just a little effort I'd be able to rid this plaster ornament in my guest room of more than a century's worth of obscuring finish and reveal its original detail. Of course, there's no such thing as little effort in an old house. You see the extent of what my fingernail could do. The rest has been a whole lot tougher to remove. Anyone know of an easy way to remove paint from three-dimensional plaster surfaces?
However bad those stairs look on the first floor, they're worse on their way to the third, where gravity and time have pulled the treads away from their stringer, which remains attached to the wall. Of course, those gaps in the treads need to be fixed before a misstep sends my foot into the abyss. But did I mention the five to ten thousands bucks a flight that costs?
Even in otherwise finished rooms little problems remain. Here along the side of the chimney flue a foot long section of plaster cornice has gone missing. It's a small thing, but since you can't exactly pick it up in the molding
aisle at Lowe's, its repair will have to wait until I call in plaster ornament specialists to do work elsewhere in the house.
As soon as I bought the house, I had it rewired; the few switches and outlets the place had were likely installed with the original changeover from gas to electric. Shortly after rewiring, I had a steam radiator leak. Here you can see where the water from the floor above came through the porous patching compound the electricians pasted over the holes they made. Obviously it needs repair, but not before that steam radiator's been replaced. Of course that requires a system overhaul. There's only so many times a guy can climb the same ladder to repair the same water damage before he throws himself off it.
When I bought the house I had a couple of the old coal braziers converted to fireplaces. That meant relining the chimney from bottom floor to top. In this photo you can clearly see the line between where the old wall was left intact and where new Sheetrock covers the repaired flue pipe. What's not so clear: why it's taken me more than a couple of years to sand out the patch and paint over it. I guess that in a house such as mine anything short of a complete overhaul feels like you're just whistling in the wind.
There's no denying that my banister, balusters, and newel post make for a handsome balustrade, even with all the problems it has. The problem here on
the top floor: a baluster is missing, broken off right under the railing. There are four such broken balusters on three separate flights. I need to
get them fixed. But did I mention the $5,000 to $10,000 per flight that costs?