Hamptons Pre-novation: End of Phase 1

IMG_1847GREETINGS FROM THE LAND of rhododendrons. They’re pink, it turns out, the stand of old rhodies at the eastern Long Island property I bought in March — hot, gaudy pink, immensely cheering on a foggy 57-degree morning.

I’ve been living here four days now. I’ve got all the basics: water hot and cold, electricity, Internet, termites…

At least I think they’re termites [They weren’t. They were carpenter ants]. Yesterday’s hot weather brought them swarming out of a rotten ceiling beam in the front room that I knew would need replacing, now sooner rather than later. I conducted my own attack with a can of Raid and a vacuum cleaner; the exterminator comes tomorrow.

I’ve got a space heater and a fan, which I’ve used alternately over the past few days, and a stove and refrigerator as of this morning, though the stove isn’t hooked up — the installers didn’t have the right size connector (I’m not feeling very good about PC Richard right now). The refrigerator looks monstrously huge, though I expect I’ll get used to it.


Meanwhile, I’ve stopped calling this — or thinking of it as — a “low-budget” or “shoestring” renovation. It no longer feels that way; I’ve spent too many G’s already. Nor is it even a renovation — a pre-novation, perhaps. I’m in repair mode, mainly. The on-demand hot water heater I was so excited about turned out to be irrevocably busted and in need of replacement. The windows are done — in the contractor’s words, “a little nightmare.” Twenty-three original single-pane awning windows dating from the 1940s, below, are now planed and re-glazed and re-hung on new galvanized hinges so that they close properly.



For locks, I ended up using the one fancy $24 casement fastener I had bought as a trial sample in the bathroom, below, where there’s a single window, and $4 barrel bolts from the hardware store on all the rest, having realized they do the same thing.



The arborist and his son put in several long days, removing rotting trees in front and back of the house for insurance and safety reasons, but also with the happy effect of making the area around the house feel less oppressive. Right in front of the deck, below, there’s now an open circle, sunny for most of the day.





But what really made the place feel like home was painting the plywood floor in the “front room,” my all-purpose living/sitting/dining room/study — a do-it-myself operation involving two coats of primer and one of white floor paint I had left over from my previous house nearby.


Then I threw down a few area rugs from my extensive collection and moved in whatever furniture I had left after my tenants at that former home took what they could use. I rented that cottage ‘semi-furnished’ last winter, which means they have my sofa, dining table, and other major items, while I have a motley assortment of occasional and leftover pieces. But I’m glad to see them here. “Oh, you Cara-ized the place,” as a friend put it.




The kitchen is coming together. I’m using a Craftsman tool chest bought from the previous owner (for my son, but he hasn’t claimed it yet) as temporary drawers for silverware, linens, etc.


I think I liked the kitchen better, above, before the fridge and stove were delivered, below. I have an IKEA stainless Flytta cart awaiting assembly for the space to the left of the stove. And that’s it; should be a serviceable kitchen.


An architect friend stopped by with some good ideas, especially for the great room. It’s about 400 square feet with high ceilings, French doors on the north side, and two south-facing windows, yet it’s got deep eaves and is quite dark. His idea was to “punch out three lights” [windows] above the French doors (you can see them in photo below), which would not be a structural issue, and “just pop in” fixed planes of glass, like clerestory windows, to bring in light from on high (that’s Phase maybe 4).


The closet in the great room, we agreed, has to go. Demolition: love it. Easy, cheap, and makes a big, sudden difference. But for now, I’ve said goodbye to the carpenter, the plumber, the tree guys. Not the electrician — I still need some light fixtures installed, and outdoor lights as well. But the others have all come to some sort of natural stopping point, and so has my bank account.

What’s next? Well, there’s the garden, about which I’ve done basically nothing. Sometimes I dimly recall a life that was not all about this house. But I’ve got to finish unpacking books and kitchen stuff, measure for window screens, wash the rest of the windows, buy a medicine chest and pot rack, get a proper knob for the front door and another bed or 2 for guests, set up the bathroom, get to work on the floor in the great room… that should keep me busy for a few  days.

Hamptons Reno Inching Forward


MEASURING OUT PROGRESS in coffee spoons here at my low-budget Hamptons reno. Can’t even call it a reno, really; it’s more a matter of making sure I don’t get electrocuted, burgled, or die for lack of water. That’s all I ask at this point: safety, not ultimate convenience, and certainly not luxury. That can wait, for years if need be.

Last week’s biggest mood boost, above: the garden seen from inside the house, without filthy old screens obscuring the view.


The builder who’s re-hanging the awning windows, above, so that they close properly, and doing the bathroom tile work, gave me two days last week. I’m holding out hope for another day this week. He also put Durock (cement board) down on the bathroom floor and started building the shower enclosure wall, below.


Notwthstanding what I said in my last post about being tired of hexagonal bathroom floor tiles, I got them again. I decided it would be more interesting, since the wall tiles for the shower area are 8″ squares.


Today the electrician, back from his vacation, showed up and gave me some good news on the electrical front: I have the “Cadillac of circuit breaker boxes,” it turns out. Also, the outdoor lights — half a dozen path lights and two in the driveway — actually work. I just need to buy new fixtures to replace old corroded ones. This is fancy; I’ve never had outdoor lighting before.

The electrician is giving me dedicated circuits in the kitchen, GFI outlets in the bathroom and kitchen, getting rid of Rube Goldberg wiring throughout, and hanging new light fixtures I now have to provide.

And in an effort to get out there and DO something while waiting for workmen to show up, I set up four raised beds in the area where once was a swimming pool. I’m making my own soil by filling them with dead oak leaves, manure, and kitchen scraps. Composting in place, as it were. It’ll take time to become a decent planting medium, but I won’t be planting my vegetable garden this year, anyway. First, a number of tall, sun-blocking trees have to come down — but meanwhile, it’s another place to put some of the leaves I’ve been raking up.


Renovation Frustration


IT WASN’T MY MOST productive week. It started in a blaze of sunny optimism and ended in wind and rain, loneliness and discouragement, with an identity theft nightmare that took a precious day at the bank to sort out, and the realization that things are going to take longer and cost more than this impatient, frugal renovator would like. So what else is new? It’s a renovation.




Propped open all the wood battens along the back wall of the house for the first time. They have no glass, only screens. They seem very much a summer-house-at-the-shore kind of thing, and I’m not sure what to make of them or do with them.

I’m undertaking these improvements cautiously — not because I’m not wholly committed to the house, but because it’s a quirky house, the likes of which I’ve never seen or dealt with. I don’t understand it yet, and I’m not willing to impose stylistic choices on it until I do. But I must make some, if I’m to have a functioning kitchen and bath.


Kitchen sans old appliances

In the past, I’ve played with retro fixtures and glass mosaics and expensive European faucets. Now my watchwords have become “plain, basic, cheap”– as well as “available immediately.” I’ve just come from Cancos Tile in Southampton, where I ordered plain white 6″ square ceramic tiles for a new shower surround, and white 2″x2″ squares for the floor. Octagons seemed like going too in a 1930s direction, and I’m tired of them; I’ve done them so many times before. And choosing any kind of color for the bathroom, when I haven’t chosen color for anything else, seemed premature.


Bathroom sans fixtures

On Monday I waited for the plumber to show up, and my mood plummeted when he didn’t. All the tradespeople are suddenly busy now, all their customers deciding to spiff up their homes for the season. I’ve got dibs on them, too. They like me, this feisty silver-haired lady with the interesting house and weird ideas, and I try to be as charming as possible while foisting money upon them.


Existing kitchen sink top to be recycled

I ran out to the local plumbing supply co. and bought a bathroom sink and faucet, a shower body, and a kitchen faucet (all American Standard, chrome, in stock), just to be able to call the plumber and say, “Charles, I’ve got everything! It’s all here for you!” The bathroom sink is a plain pedestal on sale, below — perfectly nice, but more Deco than I would have liked. I would have liked a wall-hung cast-iron utility sink, but this one came to hand (as soon as I finish this blog post, I’m going to Google the sink I would really like).


I do whatever I can do myself — trash-hauling, leaf-raking — but there’s not much more I can do without water (or building skills). I tried lopping some of the excess saplings that litter the property, but got quickly overwhelmed and indecisive. What if some of these trees have good fall color, or would provide welcome screening? I realized anew the wisdom of living in a place for a year before making landscape decisions. Instead, I sank down on a bench in the sun and mused. I decided that all 23 awning windows must open. They are the articulation on the front of the house. I can’t screw them in place just to save a few bucks on labor and hinges. I went around and opened all of them, to air out the house and see how it looks that way, and I like it.


On Tuesday, Charles showed up, tore out the kitchen  and bathroom fixtures single-handedly,  and got the water pump, above, going (though with nothing for the water to flow into). I don’t have to dig a well, which is cause for celebration. And on Wednesday, Keith the Metal Man came, below, and hauled away what Charles tore out, which made me very happy. Miguel, who’s going to restore the windows and do the necessary building and tile work in bathroom and kitchen, promised to give me two days a week, starting next week.


That other part of the house — the 1960s addition which is the living room or great room, has been forgotten for the moment. I don’t have the resources to plunge in full steam ahead, and that’s OK. Because what I also do not have is an iota of buyer’s remorse.

Deed Done, Work Begins



THE DEED IS DONE! Signed, rather, along with the mortgage and a whole bunch of other papers. The house in Springs (East Hampton), Long Island, N.Y., that I have coveted for almost two years is mine, and I am filled with happy disbelief.


Side wall and current entry gate, an area that will become a side garden when the main entry and parking area are moved to the center of the property so the house can be approached from the front. The out-of-control English ivy on that wall got a crewcut, revealing Medieval-looking iron trim along the top (one of several decorative quirks) and the whole area a much-needed raking.

This is a house many would consider a teardown — a strange and unique 1940s fishing cabin (or so I was told), later expanded into an L-shaped, one-story structure with a bank of awning windows that don’t close, two non-functioning bathrooms, a kitchen with dated, unsalvageable appliances, below, not an iota of insulation, no central heating system, and a half-acre of neglected landscape. I adore it. I can see being here (in the warmer months, at any rate) for the rest of my life.


I’m planning to keep the hand-made pine upper cabinets.

What it’s all about, essentially, though the unusual architecture of the house itself is an enormous draw for me, is what’s at the end of the road, below: a wide sandy bay beach, one of the East End’s best-kept secrets.


Some might be overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead, the manifold looming decisions. Me, I enjoy this sort of thing. (Actually, I did feel a bit overwhelmed on Day 1, but I got over it.) The past three days of crisp air and blue skies, since a quick and trouble-free closing last Wednesday, have been days of major accomplishment. There’s nothing like those first steps in a new/old house for a tangible sense of achievement. There’s no question of setting priorities, almost, in the very beginning: anything you do is a quantum leap forward, and the satisfaction is immense.


Above: a wood bedroom floor, drip-painted in possible homage to local icon Jackson Pollock. Keeper!


Vintage bathroom sink drain destined to become an object for the mantel or garden ornament. instagram.com/exphotographer

The following items have already been checked off my list in these first few days, thanks largely to a friend with pick-up truck, chainsaw, and most of all, enthusiasm for the tasks at hand.

  • Cleared out the previous owner’s leftover belongings. The place was left far from ‘broom clean,’ as stipulated in the contract, but I knew that would be the case. The seller had called me several days prior to the closing, wanting to postpone it because he hadn’t yet finished clearing out his stuff. It was my choice to go ahead and deal with what remained. A lot of garbage remained; nothing of value. Trips to the dump so far: at least five.
  • Mended stockade fencing, below, replacing missing or rotted 8’ panels (heavy!) in several places, so that the property is now safe from maurading deer. But it’s more than that; it’s the sense of serenity and enclosure a fence provides. Many of the panels had been compromised by my old nemesis, wisteria. Yes, it’s déjà vu all over again on one side of the property, where six-inch thick wisteria vine cries out for an application of undiluted Round-up.


  • Demolished a plywood hearth wall in the dining room (for lack of a better word; it’s also a sitting room/office/den) to expose a cinderblock wall beneath. There are piles of stones on the property which I may use to create a decorative masonry wall there instead.


  • Raked leaves off paths and into piles to expose as much moss as possible, which I want to encourage and train as a ground cover/lawn, to the complete exclusion of turf grass. I can’t deal with the mowing thing. Uncovering the existing paths, below, worn by use, was revelatory; even though I’ll be shifting them, I can see the beginnings of a landscape plan.


  • My friend (aka wasband) fired up the chainsaw and cut a couple of major fallen trees into firewood for the future fireplaces. Then he climbed up on the roof and hacked back years of invasive English ivy, below, that was towering in mid-air several feet above a side parapet wall.


  • Tore up nasty black carpeting to expose clean plywood subfloor in that dining/family/sitting room, below, which gets wonderful east light and will be my morning-coffee/work space. I’m going carpet-shopping next week. Maybe sisal, maybe… linoleum? Maybe paint the plywood floor for now and use area rugs? In the middle of the night, I even thought: stained concrete! I’m keeping an open mind. Money is an object. Laying a new wood floor is not an option; anyway, there’s already plenty of wood in the house.


  • Mused upon how to make the great room/living room, below, as inviting as that dining/family/sitting room, above (yes, need better nomenclature). It has a high beamed ceiling and gets afternoon light, but not enough. The previous owner left a double French door, exterior thickness, he never got around to installing. I’m thinking of cutting open an east-facing windowless wall in that room (that’s the short wall straight ahead in the photo below) and using the French door there. It would look out on a side yard that could become a sort of Japanese-inspired viewing garden with pretty plantings. I’m envisioning this room, with its large tiled fireplace, as the cocktail hour/evening entertaining area.


All this is just the beginning. My goal is to get the house livable by May 1, which means a functioning kitchen and bathroom (later there will be a second bathroom and outdoor shower); windows that close properly, lock, and have screens (there are some 24 windows in the house and right now I’m repairing, not replacing); some kind of new flooring in the two major rooms — oh, and an electrical upgrade. The electrical service coming into the house seems fairly modern, with a circuit breaker panel, but once inside, there are few outlets and most of them don’t work. Meanwhile, I have the use of a friend’s lovely cottage nearby.


Eight or ten windows along a hallway at the back of the house are lacking glass and/or screens. They’re covered with what I’ve been calling wood ‘hurricane battens’ that lift and could be secured under the eaves of the house, to be lowered when closing up the house for the season. Of course I have to install some kind of windows in all those probably-odd-size openings.

Call me crazy, but there is nothing this blogger would rather be doing right now.


The Big Reveal: Inside My Beach-House-to-Be

THE WAITING GAME continues. I’ve officially “gone to contract” on the Long Island beach house deal I’ve been patiently coddling for almost two years now. The seller has signed the contract of sale, my down payment has been delivered, the survey is completed; so is the title search. What remains before we can set a closing date: an amended Certificate of Occupancy for a 14’x18′ outbuilding — a future pool house, studio, guest cottage, workshop — with a good wood floor, skylights, a plumbed sink, and electricity. I want that building to be legal, and it’s the seller’s responsibility to make it so — a matter of closing out some paperwork, as the structure itself was built to code, with proper permits. So I wait to be informed when that is done, and have no idea how long that may take. Meanwhile, I linger in limbo while the weather here in downstate New York turns cold. The house is neither heated nor insulated, and there won’t be much I can do there through the winter months.

What I can do now is dream. I have been poring over back issues of Elle Decor, House Beautiful, and Country Home, seeking inspiration but not really finding it. That’s because the house — a long, narrow cracker-box built in the 1940s, then appended in the 1960s with a shorter wing set perpendicular to the first — has a modernist air in its simplicity, but a set of French doors added later confuses the issue. It’s not a cottage. It’s not a cabin. It’s not a ranch. It’s neither traditional nor modern. It doesn’t appear to have been designed by an architect; it just kind of happened. Soon it’s going to happen to me, and I finally feel confident enough of that to publish a few photos of the interior taken during a recent inspection with a trusted contractor. It’s still chock full of the seller’s belongings, but you’ll get the idea.

Let me clear up one misconception friends seem to have about me and this house: yes, it needs a load of work, but no, I’m not planning to “renovate.” Not right away, anyhow. I’m planning to live in it — camp in it, even — in a state of Bohemian funkiness for at least the first year [I just checked the definition of ‘funky’ to make sure it means what I want it to mean: modern and stylish in an unconventional or striking way, according to Merriam Webster. Exactly!] Primarily because I won’t have the money to do much else, but also because I just want to relax into being there before making any big plans. I’m looking forward to cleaning and painting immediately, and replacing appliances if need be, but things like a heating system and all new windows (the house will eventually need more than 20 of them) and a new deck and outdoor shower will have to wait. As for a new pool (the original vinyl one is merely a hole in the ground), that will have to wait a long time — five years, perhaps. Meanwhile, Gardiner’s Bay is a few hundred yards down the road.

Assuming the water runs and the lights go on, which they should, the first call I’m going to make is to an arborist. The half-acre has an excessive number of tall oak trees, and I want to open up the property and let in light — maybe even enough for a vegetable garden. Hopefully, much of that clearing can be accomplished this winter while the trees are bare.

In my low-budget decorating dreams I’m seeing a whitewash, sisal carpets, and a few pieces of mid-century furniture. What are you seeing? Dwell-magazine minimalism, or kilims and color? Thanks for your thoughts, however stray or unformed; they’ll go right into my mental files.

Above: The 14’x30′ living room in the short section of the L-shaped house has a working fireplace.

The larger of two bedrooms, above

One of two bathrooms, both needing work

The kitchen is open to…

A second living room, essentially — or dining/family room, with another working fireplace at the end of the long leg of the L (covered at present with plywood)

The outbuilding that’s causing the current delay