Only Three Ceilings, Yes?

Time flies and blog posts don’t happen when you finally start a renovation project.  The only reason I’m writing now is because it’s 7 am and too early to be at the house, banging on the pink plaster meringue in the living room with a sledge hammer. Three weeks ago this Tuesday we became the proud owners of 112 and right away, the demolition on the ceilings began.  By that Wednesday night, the drop ceilings in the kitchen were history, the basement was cleaned out and Jeff and I were covered with dirt from head toe.  The next thing we knew, our trusty crew arrived and started tearing away at the layers of acoustic tiles, tin, plaster and lath.

In our bedroom upstairs, the peaks of ceiling plaster and faux beams came out and the guy you see in the photo, below, groaned when he saw what was behind it: tin over plaster.

The ceiling goes

In the boys’ room next door, an acoustic drop ceiling hid old plaster and lath – all to come down.  In the photo below, their ceiling is now gone (no tin here thank goodness) and you can see the roof of the house above the ceiling joists.  As old as it is, we were thrilled to discover it to be in excellent condition with little to no water or bug damage.  We joked our house has a great foundation and roof – it’s all the stuff in between that needs replaced.

The other thing you might notice in the ceiling above is the complete lack of any insulation.  That’s not beacause we took it out – there wasn’t any to begin with.  None.  Not in any of the walls or ceilings. It’s one of the main reasons we’re doing all this so the house will be snug and stay cool in summer and warm in winter.

So two and a half weeks in, our amazingly good natured contractor’s favorite line is now, “So only three ceilings, yes?” followed by a smile and a chuckle.  Our ‘quick’ redo of just the bedroom and living room ceilings has morphed into something MUCH larger, but then we kind of knew it would and so did he.  Three ceilings became all the walls, new electrical throughout, 21st century cable and data lines in each room (no more painted over stuff running everywhere across walls and moldings = a happy Jeff), a new bathroom and now, as of this week, leveling the floors in the downstairs which in the kitchen alone, involved tearing out six glued down, nailed together layers chronicling 150 years of flooring fashion.

Up comes the old kitchen subfloor, and the joists will next be leveled

We estimate the weight of the extra walls and floors taken out to be in the tons and imagine the house breathing a huge bariatric sigh of relief as it sheds the excess pounds.  Today, the old sub floor started to come up and we’re eager to right the sag that in some places measures 2-3″ and to not having to ‘climb’ the kitchen floor instead of cross it to get something out of the frig.  Although it may sound extreme, it’s not so unexpected.  After all, if you think about it, you’d be sagging a bit in the middle too if you were born in 1865.


The counter Jeff set up on the blog is counting down the hours, days and minutes until we are the owners of 112.  Last night I couldn’t sleep, thinking about all the things to do between now and Tuesday, after Tuesday, and into infinity.  Sheep were not an option.  The next thing I knew, this TV commercial was going through my head and I had to laugh.


We have an ongoing debate, Jeff and I, about what ketchup to have around the house.  I buy only organic, he buys only Heinz – me because of pesticides, he because he fancies there’s a family connection.  Amazingly, Heinz introduced an organic ketchup, and they now have it in our small urban grocery store, saving us the potential conflict of a dual ketchup household when we move into 112.  Jeff takes his ketchup VERY seriously, right up there with not eating Dunkin Donuts because it’s not Donut Pub (he and the kids hold their breath any time they walk by one).  He occasionally has mid-life fantasies (unrealized) about getting a tattoo but can’t decide what he wants.  How about this one Jeff?

Sign ‘O’ Our Times

It’s been 23 years since Prince released  Sign ‘O’ the Times - a double sided album featuring multiple musical styles and messages.  And, as I walk through our soon to be new neighborhood, that title song rings in my head.  It could be something as literal as “the signs” or it could be the urban vibe of his music or just the dated graffiti (note, we cannot play the song in this post because last week Prince announced that the Internet is “completely over”).

So, be that as it may, below are some “signs” of what our neighborhood was, is and could be,  a block East over towards the Gowanus Canal (which has it’s own storied history).

The next sign to appear in the ‘nabe?  How about “Home Sweet Home”.

(click on the pictures to enlarge)

Dead end before canal
No dumping means no dumping

Gowanus Canal tranquility
Graffiti boats

A tree grows in Brooklyn
Urban art complete with a plaque

Before the After: The During

Everyone loves a good ‘before and after’ story.  Entire home improvement networks have sprung up as a result, luring us with the promise of the ‘reveal’ after the commercial break.  One thing I’ve always loved about renovating is looking past the ‘before’ and imagining the ‘after’.  But the part I especially enjoy is precisely what makes a lot of people squeamish – the DURING.  It’s not too surprising  the words enduring and during are related; both come from the Latin, indurare, which means to ‘make hard’.  Renovating a home is an endurance test to be sure and a guaranteed problem solving challenge.  No matter how experienced you are it can be a humbling process.  I have to give a lot of credit to my parents – without their renovators blood in me, I wouldn’t be considering such a crazy project, and to Jeff, who seems like a pretty good sort, for taking on the challenge together.  At each turn, we keep asking each other, “You still in?” and the answer (so far!) is always, “Yes.”

So for those of you out there who think we’re nuts (and to remind myself I have done this three times before and may survive another and hopefully last one) here are some ‘before & after’ pics of the place I live in now.  It’s a five story brownstone in the same neighborhood as our new house and the apartment is on the second floor on what used to be the master bedroom level.  The room that is now the kitchen/living room would have originally been the master bedroom for the home, with grand, 12ft ceilings ornamented with plaster cornices.  When I bought it, it had last been renovated in the early eighties in a patched together way over an earlier 1960′s job that covered up some 1930′s work that was probably the original conversion from rear bedroom and front sitting room to single floor apartment.  First is a picture of the kitchen from when I first bought the apartment.

The next picture is of the bedroom on the left. Look close, and you can see the only way to fit the bed in was up against the wall on one side with the head right next to the radiator.  Nice.  The kitchen window to the right looked out over an asphalt roof littered with broken bottles.  The ceilings are dropped to 8 ft in this photo and the windows are 5 ft tall with bars over them.  The overall dimension of the room was 16′ x 16′ with a wall down the middle creating two eight foot wide rooms,  the kitchen on the right and the bedroom on the left.

Bedroom Next to Kitchen, Before
Kitchen Window, Before

The next photos are of the demolition process.  This is the part where things can start to get hairy.  In this case, when the crew started to tear down the sheetrock on the ceiling, they discovered that a previous job on the 3rd floor had used the three foot space between my ceiling and their floor above to dump all of the demolition debris from their renovation.  Hundreds of pounds of extra plaster, wood, old food containers and trash had to be carted away as the ceilings were carefully pulled down.

The Demolition

Kitchen Corner by the Window (after demo)

The entire renovation, including the bathroom, laundry room, two front bedrooms, new hardwood floors, and central air conditioning was completed at a breakneck speed in only six weeks.  We had a day crew and in the evening the sheet rock and plaster crew would come.  During the last week there were four crews working at once.

Sketch for the new space
Almost done: back of house showing the new window and door

This picture above is a view of the back of the house showing the new window to the left and door to the right that leads out to the new deck built over the kitchen extension of the apartment below.  The deck cost $15K and added $70K in value to the apt which goes to show you just how precious outdoor space is in NYC!

So that was the BEFORE & DURING, now for the AFTER.After: New Kitchen

New Back Wall with Terrace View
Computer Desk Nook
Living Room (computer nook is to the left)

The two separate rooms in the back are now one open kitchen/living room/office and the formerly eight foot ceilings are now eleven feet and the whole room is open to the Southern exposure and new terrace.

So what are we in for with the new house? Who knows – could be anything. The things we don’t know vastly outnumber the ones we do. Maybe we will find that bag of money in a wall. Perhaps we’ll discover termites outnumber us ten thousand to one. We live in Brownstone Brooklyn – anything is possible.

Our stove at 112: 'Lights with a Match'

It’s not what’s on the outside that matters…

…its what’s on the inside that counts.  This adage may apply to people, but when it comes to one’s home, I’m not so sure it’s true – or is it?

The Kitchen...Complete with faux brick, faux paneling, faux countertops and faux stove.

Our new place is like a time capsule from 1972 housed inside a structure from a hundred years ago, with very little done to it in modern times that doesn’t need to be completely torn out and replaced.

Ty-D-Bol Blue Toilet

Layers of linoleum.  Meringue ceilings that make popcorn look puny, and yes a couple rooms with dropped acoustic tiles hiding old tin ornament behind them.  Lead paint, asbestos tile, termite ridden floor joists, pitching floors that make the furniture bounce when you jump on them – oh joy!

“Why put in copper pipe to fix that leak in the bathroom when I can glue up some pvc from the hardware store?” one can picture Mr. Nazario saying.  “I’m not going to patch the plaster anymore – it’s a waste of my time when they sell perfectly good paneling you can nail over top it in a day.”

Plaster Meringue Arches

And so it must have gone.  It’s a house repaired over forty years of weekends, decorated as needed on the cheap.  Thing is, even though their taste is not ours, you can feel the love as soon as you walk in the front door.  It will take us a lot of work to peel back the layers, revealing the wide pine plank floors and plaster underneath, but it won’t take us any time at all to feel at home.

A Taxing Time

As we continue on our journey of moving forward, there is an uncontrollable urge to look back – back in time as to how things were in a previous era.  Even though we don’t have a time machine yet in this modern age, we do have access to photographs that the city government (not Google) took of all properties for tax purposes.  Here is a brief description of that act from the New York City Department of Records:


Between 1939 and 1941, and again in the mid-1980s, the city photographed every house and building in the five boroughs. Photographic prints of these unique images are now available for purchase.

Sample 1040s Tax PhotographHISTORY OF THIS COLLECTION:

During the 1930s, local governments began to use photography as a tool for appraising real property for taxation purposes. New York City was the largest municipality to adopt this technology. The result was 720,000 35mm black-and-white pictures of every building in the five boroughs. By the time the Municipal Archives accessioned the collection, the original nitrate negatives had begun to deteriorate and exhibit signs of “redox” blemishes (which look like giant snowflakes). With grant funds from federal, state, and private sources, the Archives duplicated the original negatives so that new prints can be produced and copied them to microfilm so that patrons can easily and safely view the entire collection.

So, being tax-paying citizens, we obtained our proof for “461 – 31 BK”

I love the kid sitting on the curb.  He must be at least 75 years old by now.  Does he still live on the block?  Wonder if he was looking back or forward?

40+ years into the future, I think this might be the mid-1980′s photo:

Ahhh, “Those were the days.”

Finding Home

Today, I was thinking about all the things that go into building a house: wood, stone, mortar, drywall, insulation, wire, plumbing, along with the steady process of planning and overseeing it.  And then, my thoughts turned to how much more than materials goes into making a house a home: love, laughter, sharing, good food, family, friends and time.

So we’re buying a house.  Other than posting a bunch of photos of what it looks like now, which is nothing like how it will look when it’s done, there’s not a lot to say until we get started. That’s what made me think about what brought us to this point, Jeff and me, and how, while it may seem like we got here pretty quickly – after all, we only met a little over a year ago – in reality, a lot transpired to bring us together. So, I was thinking, maybe the first thing to share isn’t what’s new, but how we got here in the first place.

Ask us how we met and Jeff with his love of all things media and on-line will say enthusiastically, ‘On Match!’. That’s where we both were, profiles posted, in January 2009. I actually noticed him first – on page 35 of 50 pages of recommended matches. He was wearing a purple striped shirt and I thought he looked like a ‘player’.  He thought I looked a little cranky, but liked that I knew how to hang a door, had won a jalapeno pepper eating contest and could make a mean fish taco and margarita.  Something about his profile made me smile. He said there was a ‘soundtrack to his life’ and that he was looking for a ‘short term relationship or a long term friendship’. The second sentence made no sense at all and made me laugh. He said to ‘wink’ if I liked what I saw so I ‘winked’ and then waited. He wrote right back – he’d die if I posted what he wrote (and so would I – but that’s how these things start – you get silly like you’re 12 all over again and just realized that boys/girls are not as gross as you’d thought when you were 9).  We had a date. A really nice date that involved talking four hours straight over tapas until they closed the place down.  We walked to catch cabs and our teeth chattered  (and it wasn’t because of the cold).

Over the next few weeks we spent a lot of time together and learned the stuff about each other that you do when you meet at 43 and 45 and have a whole lot of catching up to do. One thing became clear – we’d lived in all the same places, often at the same time. There was so much we had in common and places we’d both lived that we marveled how come we hadn’t met sooner. The conclusion was, it wasn’t the right time but that the universe was trying to bring us together.  States and cities we have in common are: CA, NY, PA, IN, OH – NYC, LA, PHX. My brother went to ASU and was the same major as Jeff but a couple years apart. We were both at Cirque du Soleil in Battery Park City on the same night in 1998 and sat near each other. My brother and his wife live in Mesa, AZ where much of his family live. Our parents were raised just hours apart from each other. His doctor’s office is on the same floor of a building on 21st Street as one of my best friends who I often visit. After 9/11 he lived over a restaurant right near my office and on the way to work.

We also imagined what it would have been like if we’d met in our twenties. First of all, we would have looked like this:

To be honest, we’re not sure we we would have liked each other if we’d met in college.  I was an art major and categorically loathed fraternities and sororities – he was president of his fraternity.  I liked artsy, leather jacket wearing, intellectual types – he wasn’t sure of his type of girl, was a business/marketing major and is convinced he would have been intimidated by me.  Wild card is, we  liked a lot of the same music then and now.

We both got married to other people, had two kids each – and then our marriages didn’t work out.  We both wondered if it was possible to ever meet someone we’d really be happy with.  And then we did.

So this is the two of us, but that’s not all – now there are six of us.  That brings us to how we came to buy a house.  Four kids + two adults = house.  No matter how you add it up in NYC, we need space if we want to bring it all together.  Jeff had fantasies he’d win the lottery and we would buy the place next door to him.  A mansion sized fixer upper listed at a mere 2 million.  He’d talk about what we’d do with all the space, how we’d lay out the rooms – dreaming.  Then one day, the for sale sign came down while he was away in Texas.  When he came home and realized, he looked it up on line just to see if it was sold and it was.  Curious, he looked at all the other listings the agent had – one of them happened to be 112 2nd Street.  “Hey Elizabeth, look at this one.”  We went to the open house that Sunday and made an offer the next week on the house.

Our kids are beside themselves with excitement.  We all are.  They each have their little ways of being happy about it.  Two year-old Ava just loves when we’re all together and one day, while playing with her Lego’s, she started to name each of us, Lego by Lego, “Baba Jeff, Ma-EE, ME-ya, Ju-yen, Ay-fa and Matz.”

Got hay?

Here we are, third carriage house on the right.  Sounds romantic, “We just bought a carriage house in Brooklyn.”  Conjures up images of a bygone era of parasols, and spats,  buggies and broughams.  Up a few blocks in Cobble Hill or Brooklyn Heights where the carriage houses are built of brick and quarried stone that may have been the case, but down by the Gowanus, carriage houses were built of more humble stuff – like green lumber – as if they knew the era of horse drawn transport wouldn’t live to see much more than the first few years of the next century.  Still, it’s managed to last into the first part of the century after that so it can’t be all bad.

We learned the home was once a carriage house from a friend who lives on the block who in turn was told by a ninety year-old resident nearby.  We  asked the seller about it who said excitedly, “Oh yes, it was!  And when we moved in (in 1972) the stable was still in the back but we took it down.”  And, if it were still there we could have ‘grandfathered’ in a small building out back for a studio or home office.  Ah well…

So gauging from the very basic construction of the building, it’s unlikely it ever housed a Park Phaeton.  More likely it was a market wagon of some kind or a hauling or trade vehicle and the horses out back were not likely very sleek.  Still, it’s a romantic idea and one that sparked our imaginations when we learned it.  And whatever it may not have in the way of structure above ground, it makes up for it in the sturdiness of the foundation – the foundation for our new home.

Robert Wood is in the house!

J:  So, to my surprise this painting is the basement of our new house (just as it was in the living room when I was growing up).  What can I say.  Just had to buy it.  :)

E:  In the game of ‘nothing happens by chance’,  finding the same painting on the wall of a home you are buying that hung in the house you grew up in is no small coincidence (even if they did make a million prints of it).  Like he said, we had to buy it!

Robert Wood

“In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Robert W. Wood maintained a home in the art colony of Woodstock, New York. He seems to have discovered the Catskill mountains hamlet early in the century, and had began painting there by 1930. In the years after World War II Wood purchased a home there. By some accounts he and his second wife Tula lived in Woodstock together, but according to the dealer Larry Kronquist, who knew him during that time, there was another relationship – possibly a brief marriage – to a woman named Rose, who ultimately followed him back to Laguna Beach, where she was still living in the early 1980s.”

“It was during this period that Wood began having his most famous works published, working with companies who printed inexpensive color reproductions of works by both contemporary artists and the Old Masters. It was Wood’s paintings of the changing seasons around Woodstock that seem to have captivated the public, and his reproductions were immediately popular. The most successful of Robert Woods’ Catskill scenes, “October Morn,” sold more than one million copies in less than two years for the Donald Art Company. Across America, homes, offices and motel rooms were decorated with his reproductions. These inexpensive paper prints made Robert Wood the most famous American landscape painter of his era.”

“Wood’s rustic studio in Woodstock was located out in the forest, surrounded by maples and elms and a quiet brook. He immortalized this rustic setting in hundreds of paintings, especially ones that depicted the bold colors of autumn. In his artistic oeuvre there are also many depictions of the Catskill Mountains’ landscape enveloped in snow, as well as spring compositions with lilacs and blooming apple trees.”

- Exerpted from