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I COULDN’T HAVE SAID IT better myself…and that’s why I’m lifting, wholesale, a sidebar that appeared in the November 5 issue of New York Magazine to counter-balance a real estate story on brand spanking-new condos. Under the headline “Old Rules! A Contrarian’s View,” architectural conservator James Boorstein, a man after my own heart and mind, explains the enduring advantages of vintage construction. If there’s a manifesto that expresses the guiding principle behind this blog, this could be it. Bolding mine.
I’m an architectural conservator, and my firm, Traditional Line, restores interiors for museums and homes. I own most of the building I live in, which I’m guessing is from the 1860s. Tearing it down and putting up a seventeen-story building would be a financial boon, but I don’t want to live in a new building. In most new condos, the spaces are tiny, the ceiling heights are low, the materials are poor, and things are not well made. In the old days, labor was cheap and materials were expensive. Now material is cheap and labor is expensive, so things are fabricated in factories and brought in. But labor is a big part of making something right. My building has the kind of ornate plaster molding in the hall that not even a very wealthy person would typically reproduce today.
New has become synonymous with good, which means we don’t fix things anymore. A lot of old buildings have 100-year-old wooden windows that just need to be repaired. Instead, people replace them with aluminum windows that are more like appliances than part of the architecture: When they get old, you throw them out. Everything used to be built of wood, and when you get a dent in it, you scrape it out and refinish it and it’s literally as good as new. In a lot of cases, you don’t have to do anything at all. An old wood-paneled library doesn’t require any maintenance. That woodwork just sits there and looks good for years. It’s like the food in some very expensive restaurants: The attention to detail shows, and it can be a source of deep pleasure.
As told to Justin Davidson.
OUTSIDE MY USUAL ORBIT (I’ve never even been to Colorado), but I enjoyed this renovation tale by a young newspaperman named Matthew Beaudin, who fixed up a late 19th century workman’s shack measuring all of 400 square feet, with the help of all four of his parents, his girlfriend, and IKEA.
….The shed was nothing new or novel; here in Telluride, where supply and demand has elevated the price of old miners’ shacks to that of a three-bedroom home in Montrose, sheds are among the most coveted and cherished dwellings in town.
Their charm is one of utility and purpose.
It was most likely built in the late 1800s, out of barnwood, tin and whatever else was nearby and cheap. Over the years, the town had grown around it, with the condos to the left and right now nearly swallowing it whole…
I saw it there, its barnwood curling at the corners and its tin nearly black, and I could imagine myself in it, drinking coffee and looking out my tiny front window as it snowed heavy and cold, my dog curled up at the far end of the room, chasing something in a dream. I wondered what history I could add to it….
….within three days of purchasing it, I had taken a building that functioned and ripped it to the point of being uninhabitable.The toilet sat at the bottom of the stairs for two weeks; the mini-fridge, stocked with just beer, takeout and half-and-half, was the only appliance that worked. The concrete floor, drizzled in carpet-glue graffiti, was the closest thing to art in the entire house.
At first, I owned a shed. Now, I owned a very expensive storage container. Someday, I still hoped, I would own a home…
JULIA AND JOHN MACK have plenty to do to convert the 19th century Cobble Hill brownstone they bought recently for just under $2 million into the kind of home they want for their family of four. But before they do anything, they have a lot to un-do.
The building has little in the way of original detail; the fireplace mantels are long gone. As we tour the building from bottom to top, you’ll see that it has some…er… unusual features. The most bizarre, a rarity in brownstone Brooklyn, is a large swimming pool occupying the far reaches of the L-shaped lot (how it got to be L-shaped is a matter of speculation, possibly involving an unpaid long-ago debt).
Julia is a Brooklyn-based interior designer, one of whose finished projects will be the subject of “The Insider,” my new interiors column for Brownstoner.com, next Thursday, Sept. 22. I’ve covered Julia’s work before, in magazines and online (go here to see the Cobble Hill house they owned previously). The family is living in temporary rented quarters until April, at which point they’re moving into this house. Time is of the essence, but Julia is indomitable, full of ideas and energy, and undaunted by the task ahead.
We’re entering on the ground floor, below, to see the future rental apartment first. Not so bad — to my mind, practically rentable as-is. (Well, something must be done about the dowdy flowered wallpaper.) The biggest job here involves closing off the apartment from the rear hall so the homeowners can access the basement.
Soon it’ll be a perfectly nice apartment.
The Victorian gingerbread trim is fake and doesn’t go with the ceramic tiles, but it’s lively.
We’ve now gone up a flight. The hallway on the parlor floor, below, is classic and intact. Julia has dramatic ideas for wallpaper.
Let’s enter the parlor. Will it be breathtaking? Will it be grand? Unfortunately not. The original long, elegant windows have been shortened. The tongue-in-groove flooring is meh.
Now turn around… Ugh. The parlor floor has been divided into three rooms with awkward partitions. This mirrored closet wall is, of course, going into a dumpster ASAP.
The windowless middle room shall remain unshown. The back room, below, with its linoleum floor, is simply claustrophobic.
As for the bathroom, below, it’s not Julia’s taste, to put it mildly (she can hardly bear to look). It’s gotta go.
Onward to the second floor. Turn around and look back at the entry — nice arched window over the front door.
On the second floor, below, Julia’s two teenagers will have bedrooms, common space, and a bath.
Here the windows are the length they were intended to be, with original shutters to prove it.
One flight more, and we’re on top floor, which will become a master bedroom and family room, with a new bath. Below, fab forest wallpaper in the existing front room (part of me has always wanted something just like that).
The long view to the rear of the house…
and toward the front.
The kitchen, below, has no place in a master suite.
Finally, a glimpse of the backyard, where improvements are sure to be forthcoming.
I can’t wait to see what Julia does with the place, and hope she’ll invite us in for another tour as things unfold.
MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT to report down in Philadelphia: my son Max and his girlfriend Alexis, who bought an 1870s house in Fishtown in June of last year, now have a beautiful, functioning kitchen.
They’ve been working on it all spring and summer. (Go here to see how the room looked in May.) First, they tore out what was there before, reducing the 120-square-foot room to studs. Then, working mostly on the weekends and almost entirely by themselves, they created a kitchen a mother would envy, with abundant storage space and a slew of bells and whistles.
Max, who is a woodworker, rented shop space and used it to build custom cabinets with those swanky smooth-gliding drawers. The cabinet boxes are birch ply, with solid maple doors and drawer fronts.
Below, century-old brass cabinet handles from architectural salvage emporium Provenance.
Then, both Max and Lexy primed, brush-painted, sanded, and painted the cabinets again (and again, and possibly again — I lost count). They painted the walls, too — Benjamin Moore’s soft Palladian Blue — and installed and painted the tin ceiling.
Left, beyond the stainless fridge with the ice/water thingie in the door and the 8″-wide pull-out pantry that nicely fills otherwise unusable space, you can glimpse dangling BX cable and open ceiling beams for a sense of what remains to be done in the apartment.
Coming next: a subway-tile backsplash above the butcher block counters, below.
Since I haven’t had to personally live through it, this kitchen seems to have come together reasonably fast, though I gather it’s been eons in young-person time. Onward, soon, to the bathroom and the rest of the apartment, much of which still resembles a construction site. But first, I hope they’ll give themselves the luxury of a few weekends off to savor their progress.
GET READY to be blinded by the white…
They may look OK here, but trust me, they’re bad in spots, and I just couldn’t get excited about the idea of sanding and refinishing them when I can go all screaming white.
You’ll forgive me if I don’t properly credit the rest of the photos, lifted from other websites. Most of those sites didn’t give proper credit, so I don’t know the original sources. I did note that many of them seem to be of homes in London, though white-painted wood floors are very popular here in the Hamptons, too.
I’ve rented out my cottage for the last two weeks of August, and no sooner do I anticipate some extra income, I make plans to spend it.
Of the three main items remaining on my wish list (painting the floors, a new kitchen counter, and glassing in the screened porch to create a year-round room with fireplace), the last is too major to contemplate immediately, and of the first two, it’s the floors that bother me most.
So next Monday, a painter is coming to move all my furniture out to the back deck (weather permitting) or onto the screened porch (weather not), sand the sad floors down, and give them two coats of white paint for that clean, beachy look I covet.
I’m lovin’ it already. What do you think?