thrifting victories - chinoiserie lamps

Oh, man.  After yesterday's thrifty score and subsequent marathon of cleaning, my little fingers are scoured to the point of uselessness.  I have dropped an entire bin of tiles all over the floor (and my foot), knocked multiple loose tiles off the back of the storage shelves to clang loudly into the abyss of the back wall, fumbled every piece of hardware I picked up, and almost dropped a large tupperware of loose screws and hinges - all in twenty minutes! I'm currently sitting safely at my desk, and lifting nothing heavier than a fork for the rest of the day.  It's for my own good.

worth it.

worth it.

All this, my pretties, is because I picked up these little beauts from a local thrift store that is sadly going out of business.  Except not that sad, because when they opened three years ago and I tried to buy these very lamps from them, they refused me.  The GALL.  They used them in the store, or some other such practical nonsense.  But now they are mine (MINE!!!), and the mister thinks I am mildly insane.  Quote: "woah.  those are... big."  I appreciate his attempt at tact, but not his doubting heart.  He will see.  They will be glorious.

a revolting before and after.

a revolting before and after.

Sooooo the one thing that is maybe a liiiiittle bit sort of not-great about them, is, as you might have noticed, they are an icky shade of what my friend Mark dubbed 'homeless tooth' yellow.  Mark is quite the wordsmith.  I had assumed that these lamps, stuck high on a shelf in the store and out of my reach until after I had already bought the suckers for $175 for the pair, were made out of yellowed plastic.  These guys are over 3 feet tall, so that was a great price no matter what they were made of.  And they had that aged-plastic-nightlight-from-1987 sheen to them.  No biggie - I planned to paint them a glossy navy, or maybe turquoise.  But then we got them up close and I realized they are ENAMEL.  Whaaaaaat?? This was promising.  One lamp was a bit more yellow than its twin, but I wanted to see what I could achieve with a little water and my friend, the Magic Eraser (the greatest human achievement since agriculture).  And the photo above answers: how much could my Erasers do? SO MUCH.

there's a clean spot on there.  really.

there's a clean spot on there.  really.

Check that bidniz.  I started with the cleaner-looking one, and with a bunch of scrubbing, the yellow came straight off, revealing a lovely bone-white finish that, while I had Magic Erased the original polish down to an indisputable matte, ended up looking nicely authentic as ivory.  Score-town.

five hours with me and the Magic Erasers.  PROGRESS.

five hours with me and the Magic Erasers.  PROGRESS.

Theeeen I tried on the tooth-ier looking one, and it is... not so hot.  The enamel is chipping in a lot of places, and the stain seems a lot more stubborn.  Perhaps the nicotine-cloud that embraced these fellas was a tad thicker on one side of the room? It was closer to the sun? It is, in its lampy little heart, a bitter and more twisted soul? I don't know, but I scrubbed my ass off and it still looks kinda gross.

distinctly toothy, still.

distinctly toothy, still.

Stupid lamp.

Additional mystery: the owner of the store, through the medium of the guy behind the register who had to call her to get the price, informed me that 'the bases light up, you know.'  I could see that the enamel had a paper-backed silk underlay which was clearly translucent, should a light be behind it.  Kitschy or glam? I was excited to find out.  But the thing is, when I plugged it in? No inner-lamp to be seen.  I am still trying to puzzle out how the sucker comes apart - it has two different points where it looks like it maybe splits, but both seem pretty much cemented in place.  I would also very much like to replace the silk, as it is old and faded and significantly grosser now that i've been dripping tooth-yellow water all over it.  Also I sort of Magic Erased a few tears into the surface.  Whoops!  But I can't budge the damn thing apart to see what's inside.

I need the hulk.  Does anyone have his number? Dr. Hulk, I need to see if there's a burnt-out bulb inside my lamps, so please leave your imaginary physics lab and come to my house at your earliest convenience and, I don't know, read about that cattle-rancher guy or something to get yourself properly cheesed.  And maybe we try to steer away from HULK SMASH and more toward HULK FIND THE HIDDEN WING NUTS AND LOOSEN.

That seems like a good use of his time, no?

apartment of yore - dining platform

Ok, so it may seem like a weird choice to take out a platform and put one back in.  But I promise.  it works.  Behold:

please note the air conditioner in the window to the right.  there was a FAMILY OF PIGEONS LIVING IN IT.   IN IT.

please note the air conditioner in the window to the right.  there was a FAMILY OF PIGEONS LIVING IN IT.   IN IT.

Ok so this photo, which is clearly taken while the new platform was being built, shows our window situation pretty well.  As our building was originally a warehouse, the sills are up at 5 feet tall, presumably to allow for stacking a bunch of... stuff.  I don't know, I never researched what this building held.  I had enough insane stories of the former owner to sift through without bringing sacks of grain into the picture.  I'll work on it.

The window height is lovely within the brick, but it's super weird.  It just is.  There's solid brick at eye level, and the windows are a bitch to get open without standing on something.  So while I was thrilled to have most of the floor level, making you aware of how actually large the room is, I was also excited to have some windows that I could open without a step ladder.  Oh, the silliness of loft spaces.

So we redesigned the platform a bit, cutting stairs into it and building a bench along the back wall, which allowed the space to be smaller and still get a dining table up there.  People often forget how much room you need surrounding a table if you want to be able to push back chairs.  So for smaller dining areas, a bench or a banquette is a sexy little solution - no extra floor space, squish-able seating for many guests, a hot place to show off some stolen-fabric-sample-pillows-with-grommets.  All around, a great idea.  My sister rolls her eyes because every single idea I have for her house involves a banquette.

If you will peer beneath all that stuff, you'll see the bench has a nifty shelf behind it.  I didn't design this, but Leo included it so that he could bring the wall outlets, which were doomed to be hidden by the bench, up horizontally onto the face of the shelf.  This has been KILLER for daily use - we play poker up there with friends, and everyone charges their phones and rests drinks on the ledge.  

I sound really cool when I refer to myself playing poker, don't I? I feel really cool saying it.  You know, just our regular poker game.  No biggie.

One little snag - when I designed the bench, I specified the seat as 18" deep with a few inches slant on the back - so overall the depth should have been 21".  This is optimal for comfy seating.  If the back is too straight, it feels like a church pew.  Too deep or slanted, and you'll feel like you're lounging in a sofa, not eating dinner.  

Notice it when you go to a restaurant with a booth - is the seat a good height/depth/slant? No, of course it's not.  They never effing are.  They are either incredibly deep so you have to scootch up to the edge to eat and your back gets sore, or so low that you feel like a kid with your elbows hiked up on the table just to use your fork, or they are actual church pews that someone thought it was cute to salvage.  Oh my god, did those people never attend church? I've gone like seven times and my butt is asleep just thinking about it.  Restaurant booths are all horrible, and now you'll notice it forever, like when someone mentions how often you blink and you can't think of anything else.  You're welcome.

all clean! except, you know, for the pigeon coop from hell.  it was bolted in with specialty tools that Leo couldn't even identify, let alone remove.  VOMIT.

all clean!

except, you know, for the pigeon coop from hell.  it was bolted in with specialty tools that Leo couldn't even identify, let alone remove.  VOMIT.

So sadly, Leo made the bottom structure at the original depth, laid in all the wood flooring, and then had his stroke of brilliance about the shelf.  He did not slide the seat forward to account for the difference.  We still have a good slant on the back, but now the seat is about two inches too shallow.  It's not the most comfortable thing in the world.  But it would have involved replacing that whooooole big long seat, and I just got lazy.  I'm always the one sitting over there, and I am soothed by thinking of all the time I did not spend hauling new wood up three flights of stairs.  It's fine.

That's the moral of this story, friends.  Be cautious of your benches, lest you build yourself a permanent and expensive seating unit that feels like church.  Also, get the pigeon ACs out early, or their creepy rattling and cooing will ruin a perfectly good dining nook for months until you get that shit taken out properly.

Ohhhh my god I hate pigeons.

apartment of yore - best laid plans

As renovation progressed, I was, of course, plotting the decoration end of things.  I have a few mood boards put together to give an idea of where my head was.

consultation 120 boerum (1).jpg

First up was the living room.  We of course had the floors, the brick wall, and a lot of white walls as backdrop.  I chose Benjamin Moore's Decorator White, which is a classic soft white that isn't too blue.  My windows are all north-facing, so I didn't want the walls to look cold.

None of the finishes here are precisely what I ended up with, except the gray chairs - those I already owned.  Mine have a skirt on them, but otherwise look the same.  These are the swivel chairs that were in my living room growing up, where my sister and I would wait by the window to see when my dad pulled in the driveway.  I have a serious attachment to those puppies.  The cats have scratched up the arms, which makes me consider turning them into luxurious hats, but so far I have refrained.

consultation 120 boerum (2).jpg

The dining room is closer to what I envisioned from the get-go.  That amazing dragon fabric is from F. Schumacher, and I did the lame thing and ordered two samples from the showroom instead of actually ordering a yard of fabric.  I made pillows out of the samples, despite the big brass grommets that they punch in the fabric to ensure you don't do just that.  My baaaad.

The orange chairs, while not precisely what I own, are a good approximation of the set we scored from a flea market.  Zany orange vinyl, cushy, swively.  I love them.  The dark green is on the cushion on a built-in banquette, and that portrait (while hanging in the living area instead) is of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Virginia McLean.  The peace treaty for the civil war ended in her parlor.  It's super neat.

consultation 120 boerum (3).jpg

The kitchen ended up whiter than planned, partly because when the shelves got installed, Leo painted them before I could request that they stay a nice wood finish as I envisioned.  Eh, it's fine.  Also I ordered a sample of that silver tile from Home Depot, and it was AWFUL in person, so we went with a white subway tile.

consultation 120 boerum (4).jpg

The powder room ended up nothing like this.  I did get a wall-mounted white farm sink, but the green looked bad with the purple-gray of the giant bookshelves, so I did a nice robin-egg blue instead.  

The litter box fits right under the sink! Glamorous.

consultation 120 boerum (5).jpg

Upstairs, the bedroom has gone through a bunch of iterations, none of which were just like this.  The artwork is the same, but I got a great gray stripe coverlet and made myself navy curtains.  I'll post more later about the various wall ideas, but this was the starting point, at least.

consultation 120 boerum (6).jpg

The wall color I had planned for the bedroom ended up being used for to the bathroom walls! I know, I know.  Try not to get too excited.  But it's true.

The hardware ended up pretty close to this, white subway tile on the walls, but I scored a way cooler shower curtain from West Elm.  The floors also ended up a different white tile, which I fell in love with in the store and was convinced would be super pricey.  Turns out? Half the price of my original plan! What whaaaaaaaat.  That's the first and last time that happened.

 

So, best laid plans.  I was so excited at all these ideas, but I discovered that, with the open plan, the mix of colors was too much.  You could see everything all the time, and not all those colors jived.  If I were doing it now (ahem, hinting at new house plans), I would choose an overall whole-house palate and just have each area be a variation on one theme.  Here, I needed to scale it back - as we've lived here, I slowly changed bits and pieces to be more in line with one another, more neutral.  I ended up with a lot more gray and white and navy, which I have come to appreciate over time.  It's airy.  It's what all the designers do.  Get off my case.  Harumph.

stuff i like that is good - creature edition

If you asked my husband what is the one absurd thing he could buy me that would make me endlessly happy, he would answer without hesitating: a pair of ceramic dogs.  I mean, a real dog also, duh, I'm not a robot.  But we've agreed that no matter how majestic a dog's beard is, I cannot have one until we have a house.  I'm too lazy to go up and down 3 flights of stairs all day, beardy dog or no.

look into his eyes.

look into his eyes.

No, my current dream tchotchke is a pair of ceramic dogs.  Really, obnoxiously preppy ones.  Ones that look like they rest on velvet pillows and have their own country club memberships.  If they were real, they would drink evian and eat organic meat prepared by live-in help.  Even while ceramic, they were made to wear a bow tie and a jaunty hat befitting the current holiday season.  Oh, my god, I need them.

via youaremyfave.com.  toy lion spray-painted white.  tiny hat.  GENIUS.

via youaremyfave.com.  toy lion spray-painted white.  tiny hat.  GENIUS.

This, however, is the tip of the iceberg.  Basically, anything in the shape of a whimsical animal fills me with the kind of glee usually reserved for children hopped up on birthday cake.  The Mister refers to them all under a blanket term of 'creatures', and knows when I gasp audibly that either an actual, beardy dog is nearby, or else there's some kind of insane statue of a lion with his paw on a brass ball, or a taxidermied beast looking like he needs a pair of spectacles.  Honestly, it might all hinge on the promise of accessories.

this is from 1st dibs, so don't even bother with the price.  assume it's a year's tuition and be done with it.

this is from 1st dibs, so don't even bother with the price.  assume it's a year's tuition and be done with it.

Oh, Foo dogs, how I love you.  Jonathan Adler is a big proponent of Foo dogs.  He advises that wherever you are, whenever you see a pair, you must buy it.  They will reward you later.  And I agree.  Just look at those insane, googly eyes and the giant grin.  Yes, please.

$50 from Melabo Wed on Etsy.  many, many other wonderful animals as well.

$50 from Melabo Wed on Etsy.  many, many other wonderful animals as well.

When we got married this summer, I spent hours on this delightful Etsy site, hemming and hawing over which animals I wanted us to be on our cake.  The issue is that years ago, on the first birthday I celebrated with my eventual ball-and-chain, I made him a deranged cake.  I had decided (inspired by a Juicyfruit ad that was running at the time where a man and a llama fed one another candy) that he looked a lot like a llama in glasses.  This was a very high compliment in my book, and I made a cake in the shape of a llama, complete with a little pair of glasses that matched the real-life version.

i showed up at a bar with this thing.

i showed up at a bar with this thing.

The best part was it was red velvet, so when you cut it open... well, we've all seen Steel Magnolias.  Let's not pretend I'm original.

the bar was really dark, but you get the idea.  people got pretty excited over which section they wanted to munch on.  the butt was a very mature and popular choice.

the bar was really dark, but you get the idea.  people got pretty excited over which section they wanted to munch on.  the butt was a very mature and popular choice.

So without a llama option for the cake topper, I ended up hemming and hawing myself into not doing squat for a topper, and instead just dream of someday making a paper mache llama head for him alongside a mouse for me (old family nickname), and hanging them over our eventual fire place like hunting trophies.

$155 from Nickey Kehoe

$155 from Nickey Kehoe

WELL HELLO.  You might do instead.  Yes, yes, you might do just fine.  And until then, I will continue to pine over the greyhounds that began the whole thing - found on 1st dibs by my last boss, and installed in a client's zany fabulous home.  Just look at those things.

Eli Dweck Designs.  HOW GOOD IS THAT??

Eli Dweck Designs.  HOW GOOD IS THAT??

SWOON.

the renovation makes progress

Back to business.  Demo was finished, the gross old floors were out, and we had some exciting sections of wall down.

it looks a lot less impressive in the photo than it was.  remember garbage mountain?

it looks a lot less impressive in the photo than it was.  remember garbage mountain?

It was amazing how huge the whole place felt now that you weren't moving around through little artificial hallways between the platform and the walls.  The kitchen felt like it was twice its size.  The ceilings seemed enormous.  I was thrilled.

At this point, the process began of building things back in.  Again, 85% of the work was just taking out the gross things, so this was minimal.  The gist of it was:

  • Build a platform back up for the dining area, so we had windows at a normal height somewhere in here, and also the back of the dining area wall was going to be the perfect spot for the TV in the living area.
  • Close off the remaining loft from the kitchen and part of the living area, so we still had some hidden storage.
  • Build a giant, swanky new library wall.  HOTNESS.
another stellar iPhone shot.  you can see the wall got extended up - it is hiding the loft storage area.

another stellar iPhone shot.  you can see the wall got extended up - it is hiding the loft storage area.

When we first began this process, I annoyed my husband (side note: he was just my boyfriend then, technically, but it feels weird to downgrade him now) greatly by making him play my reindeer games that I use for clients who don't know what they want.  For people who don't live and die by House Beautiful, it can be a little confusing to try to identify what they might like best in a Matrix-like world of endless possibilities of architecture.  They probably have paid very little attention to architecture, as a whole.  Me, I have bulleted lists, but I'm special.  

So I have a few stock questions to help, based on things most people have spent years developing preferences for: shopping and media.  For example: is there a store whose aesthetic you would live in? (if they answer Anthropologie, for instance, you'll do a very different room than if they say Apple) Can you think of any movies whose aesthetic really appeals to you? (Hello, Wes Anderson) How about any favorite album covers?

So I got The Mister to write out a bunch of things a dream house of his might have if money and laws of physics were no object.  This is a great exercise, because while it is unlikely I will ever have a Swiss Family Robinson tree house (number one on my own list), it gives a designer some really good insights into what makes you feel at home.  To be useful, I wrote a list, too, and then we compared.

We both had 'an English-style library room' on our lists.  Well, that I could work with.  We had to stick it into a loft space, but we had a giant dramatic blank wall that suddenly seemed to be whispering softly to me "Come on, girl, give me a big-ass floor-to-ceiling shelves.  Built in desk.  Yeeeah.  Paint me dark.  You know you want it."  And Barry-White-fantasy-wall was right.  I did.

hey, Leo! what up?

hey, Leo! what up?

Here she is in progress.  I chose to have it made in a paint-grade, which is less expensive.  Basically, If you want to see stained wood, you'll have a wide variety of rather expensive options, depending on what variety and grain and color you want.  If, however, you are using paint, it will be made out of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard), which is a compressed board made out of the sawdust from lumber mills.  It is very heavy, very smooth, and very reliable.  It's not particleboard, which is the ikea crap.  Trust.  It takes paint very well, it never warps with temperature like wood does, and it's marginally less expensive.  MDF was my jam.

You can also see that there are a number of fixed shelves, for stability, and then the large spaces had adjustable shelves made to fit.  The large center section behind Leo there is an open area for a desk, and the bottom has doors for closed storage.  My cats spend a lot of time trying to paw their way inside those doors now.  But they lack thumbs, and so I still win.  Always, cats.  I will always win with thumbs.

oooh, floors are in.

oooh, floors are in.

There's the plastic up for the spraying, which was how it got painted.  Fancytown.  I will save the big reveal for a later post, because I am withholding.  But it's good.  It's goooood.

house hunt - on being a vulture

Ok, so while I reminisce about the old renovation, I am clearly stalking real estate today.  I am on Trulia about three times a day.  That's normal, right?

creepster be creepin

creepster be creepin

Current obsession: the little Windsor Terrace house that belongs to a kindly old lady up the street from my inlaws, who is in the process of moving into a retirement community.  There is a very sweet back story about The Mister's family connection to her.  His Grandmother, who lives on the block, is church friends with this woman, and when I say church friends, I mean they are the kind of legit Catholics who attend mass together every single day.  Daily mass! As a godless heathen, I find this dedication impressive.  It also makes me that much more grateful that she doesn't ever bring up my godless ways, despite what I must assume is her private horror that I have gotten my secular clutches on her lovely boy.  She's the nicest, is what i'm saying.  ANYWAY.

When the owner of this adorable little house injured her leg about a year ago, apparently Kathleen (the lovely Grandmother) began bringing communion back with her from church every day and dropping it off.  I mean, come on.  The best.  So when word on the block got out that the leg issue was not resolving and needed hospital care, and the house would soon be put on the market, I immediately began scheming to use this heartwarming and sincere connection to my real estate advantage.

In my defense, the whole family was in on it.  I was getting phone calls left and right.  I think of them fondly as the Irish Brooklyn real estate mafia, with their ears to the ground and connections everywhere.  Both my in-laws grew up in the area, as did their parents and all their friends, and did I mention that everyone lives within a 4 block radius of one another? In Brooklyn, because of how densely populated each block is, this is more akin to just living in the same town as your family in a normal state.  It's not insane.  But it is awesome.  And I want in.

So I wrote a note and stuck it in the mailbox of this cute little house.  It was all about how much we would love to be so close to the family, and how we are a young couple hoping to start a family in the neighborhood, etc.  This is how at least 3 people I know got their houses in Brooklyn.  Anything to get an edge, man.  (Also, secretly, I am a giant cheeseball and it was all true)

Kathleen also made a number of calls for us, and my mother-in-law has put the word out on the block (a formidable method of wielding power in this hood, I assure you.  God, I love this town).  We have been told through this grapevine that the nieces of the woman, who are in charge of her affairs now, will let us come see the house before they list it.  They want to wait until she's settled, however, so she doesn't feel like her home is being sold out from beneath her.  Very reasonable.  Uuuuuuugh.

So now, we wait.  We wait to see when they will begin the process, while I make secret longing drive-bys in my car and hope none of the 15 people who live on the block who know both me and my car will go out to walk the dog while I do it.  "Oh, are you guys coming over for dinner tonight?" No, no, I am cruising past the empty house of a nice Catholic lady who is in the hospital, lurking to see if the mail has been picked up.  But how are you? How did Kevin do on that math test?

the renovation begins

So with Al on board, and Leo taking the reins, we were ready to begin.  If memory serves, we began demo in mid January.

y'all ready for this? na na naa NA na naa na na naa naa NA na naa na na naa naa...

y'all ready for this? na na naa NA na naa na na naa naa NA na naa na na naa naa...

For those who are not familiar with renovation, here's the breakdown of your team.  You will have a head contractor, who owns the business and holds the insurance and organizes everything, whom you rarely ever see.  He is not actually wielding tools on a regular basis.  He is out drumming up business and focusing on the office side of things.  That was Al.  He used to be a foreman, one can assume, but has moved up in the world.  He earned his chops.

Then you have the foreman, who is on-site every day, and will be both managing the workers and doing a lot of the work himself.  He has lots of experience, has come up through the ranks via years of work, and (hopefully) has been chosen to manage because he shows skill in problem solving.  This man should be able to look at a light switch that needs installing, and - without detailed schematics and nautical coordinates, etc. - be able to choose a location for it that a human might conceivably find in the dark.  Should.  You'd be surprised.  Luckily, Leo was just such a foreman, and his light switches were all in logical locations.  He was great at problem solving in general, actually.

The trades people are subcontractors, meaning that the head contractor hires them and pays them, but they technically have their own businesses.  This is the plumber and the electrician, and sometimes the painters or wallpaper guys.  They come very few times to the site.  Your foreman will save up lots and lots of tiny stupid little jobs that look like they're being ignored for no reason, so that the trades people can just show up once and do all the work at the same time.  They are absurdly grumpy if they have to come back.  I don't get this, but it is true on every jobsite I've ever seen.

Lastly, you have the work crew, who answer to the foreman and are there most days.  They will speak the foreman's first language, but maybe not yours.  My guys spoke Spanish, and I never revealed to them that I understood a fair amount of it, hoping I would have some kind of hilarious interaction where they thought they were making jokes I couldn't understand and then BAM! I responded wittily in Spanish and everyone was amazed.  That never happened.  Mostly when I was around they were either asking one another for tools or discussing lunch.  They were nice dudes.

So! Demo is the first stage.  This is where all the ugly comes out, in giant piles and mountains.  It is very satisfying, in the manner of huge mounds of snow or a really big puddle to splash in.  For us, this consisted of the platform, portions of the walls, old tile, and the biggie: the flooring.

the garbage monster from Fraggle Rock probably lives in here.

the garbage monster from Fraggle Rock probably lives in here.

The floors were one thing I had thought about salvaging from the old place.  I thought it would be cost-effective to just refinish the existing wood.  Luckily, Leo talked me out of it.  The wood was cheap, very thin oak slats in lousy shape.  There were a lot of places where the platform was nailed into, which wouldn't finish nicely.  And the cost of stripping and restaining the wood was so close to the cost of new wood, it seemed nuts.  Leo's advice: if you do everything nice around it, it will make the old floor look that much worse.  Truth teller.

For the new flooring, I chose a 5" wide maple (slightly wider and richer-looking than the average 3"-4" slats, but not as expensive as those gorgeous 7" super wide planks you see in magazines) that had a hand-scraped look.  This is a finish that has a slightly uneven surface, which looks like a Shaker personally planed it for you in his rustic barn in Pennsylvania, plank by plank.  It's actually from a machine, but whatevs.  I loved the look of super dark glossy wood, but I own two sheddy cats and hate dusting.  Mid-tone stain it was.

I also went with a pre-engineered wood, which is a true hard wood plank (able to be sanded, refinished, etc) that has been pre-bonded to a substrate, and has 4 benefits: it is easier to install (less expensive for labor); it comes with the stain already done, so as soon as it's down you can walk on it (instead of waiting for a week for many layers of stain and poly); the substrate is a built-in pad and slight sound-proofer; and the substrate is less prone to warping due to temperature, as most wood usually does.

But I digress.  Demo.  So much demo.

the arch removed.  please note the attractive phantom sprinkler pipe on the left.

the arch removed.  please note the attractive phantom sprinkler pipe on the left.

The team worked for about a week and a half, creating impossibly high garbage mountains, bagging them up, and hand-carrying them down three flights to vans, where they hauled them to a dump.  Our building or the city or someone would not allow Al to park a dumpster outside the building for any amount of time, so imagine what a pain in the ass that was.  Renovations in NYC, man.  The worst.

the before

the before

Layout-wise, the main changes were:

  • Removing the closet, wall, and arch from the entry way.  Light abounded.  The apartment suddenly looked huge.
  • Removing the big platform entirely.  We rebuilt a platform for the dining area, but the old one was structurally crap.  This left us a lovely large living area that felt like it was part of the entry and kitchen, but left the windows at a normal height in the new dining area.
  • Removing about half the loft area.  With only 5' tall ceilings, I couldn't use it for anything decent, anyway.  We took it out over the kitchen, and extended the wall above the intercom up to the ceiling so it provided some hidden storage area up in the remaining loft.  End goal achieved: the kitchen ceilings were now the full 13' tall!
  • Removing about 3' of wall between the kitchen and the entry, to make the counter there into a breakfast bar.  The base cabinets there are extra-narrow, so we could get a stool on both sides.  MAJOR benefit in keeping the tiny kitchen (7'x10') from feeling closed in.  We sit at that breakfast bar every single day.
  • Remove the weirdo-tub in the bathroom, and using the drain there for a full-size washer and dryer.  This, in NYC, is like owning a unicorn and casually leaving it around for your friends to find.
ceiling-be-gone. you can see the outline on the floor where the walls came out for the breakfast bar, also.

ceiling-be-gone. you can see the outline on the floor where the walls came out for the breakfast bar, also.

the remaining loft, before being closed up.

the remaining loft, before being closed up.

Upstairs, it was simpler: remove weird crap.  Just remove it.  Platform, round wall, John Hughes villain coffee area, etc.  Gone.  Leaving a nice, normal, flat room.  I don't have photos of the upstairs, but trust: it was glorious.  I heart demo.

hiring a contractor, or how not to cry endlessly

Should anyone be staring down the barrel of an impending renovation, here are my tips for the bidding process, as learned through my experience and watching clients' over the years:

  • Before calling anyone, write out in as much detail as you can what you want done.  This will clearly depend on how much you know about renovation, but try to think in detail.  Do you want to have all the trim (baseboards, door frames, etc) replaced, or refinished, or left alone? Do you need a lot of new light switches put in? Are you moving any plumbing? Writing it out room-by-room in a bulleted list will help get your quotes as accurate as possible.  Give this to whoever you have submit a bid.  There are templates online to help you out.
  • Get recommendations from friends.  Lots of them.  Angie's list is apparently great, too.
  • Specify who is providing what materials in a written list.  If you've got a guy for tile or lighting, fine.  No decent contractor will have an issue with you providing some of your materials, but it might be worth having him price it out for you as well.  Cost benefits aside, when the contractor is in charge of ordering, he is also making sure everything arrives on time for his workers.  If you're going to buy something major on your own, you should coordinate closely with him, or else you'll end up one of two situations: a huge pile of materials delivered way too early, requiring the workers to move it every time they need to get something done (kill me), or else the project is stalled waiting for your crap to show up.  Most contractors are happiest when you tell them what you want, and they go get it.  The price will not be drastically more this way, either. 
  • Get three quotes, at least.  But more than five is excessive.  No one needs that many.  3-5 different companies will give you a decent spread on prices, but don't always go with the lowest.  Actually, the middle might be your best bet - often the low-end guy does crappy work.  There's not a huge margin of profit in construction, despite whatever you've heard.
  • Everyone must have all the insurance.  I'm not kidding, don't mess with the randos unless your job is small and uncomplicated.  You flirt with disaster, sir.
  • See if you can check out their work.  You'd be surprised how many former clients are willing to either speak to you or even let you into their houses to see.  I happily spoke at length to someone about Leo, my foreman.  I sang his praises.  Anyone else wanna talk to me about Leo? I totally will.
  • Check with your building if they have any requirements.  After-the-fact surprises suck.
  • Do you need to file permits? First off, if your building requires them, end of story.  But if you are simply replacing finishes at their current locations (e.g. new tile, new appliances, new flooring, new drywall, etc), then you only need a permit if your building is mean.  Simple updating without a permit is totally legal.  Also any walls that are not load-bearing are cool.  The easiest question is: are you moving plumbing? If not, you're probably fine.  
  • If you are moving plumbing or load-bearing walls, however...woe to you.  Plan for a few grand and at least two months waiting time if you have to file with the NYC Buildings Department.  In the most Italian-sounding thing I've ever heard, you seriously cannot get your drawings approved in this city without an expediter.  This is a person whose job it is to take your money to make sure all your paperwork is filled out correctly (actually helpful), and then to expedite the process of waiting for the department to look at it (total bullshit).  I assume this is nonsense on the part of the city, not the expediters, because the permits should be looked at according to when they were submitted, end of story.  And yet.  What the hell does expediting even mean? It is immensely vague and will cost you a few months' rent.  That is some Rome-style shenanigans right there.  Out in a Jersey Shore town my clients owned in, the wait was one week.  And the contractor was bitching about it! I laughed in his face! Then I apologized, because that was unkind.
  • Once you have picked a company, request a detailed list outlining exactly what work is included.  When they don't bother, insist on one.  Do not sign a contract without it.  I got burned a little in this.  Extra Item one was a legit add-on due to some absurd extra plumbing work that he could not possibly have known about until we opened the walls - ok, that's extra work I should pay extra for.  Fine.  But when they removed my lovely platforms, the baseboard radiators were still attached to the wall in cracked-out z-shaped lines that followed flooring that no longer existed.  I had very, very, very clearly said in our initial scope that I wanted those replaced, but it was all verbal.  Al insisted that he hadn't known I would want that done.  Bullshit.  It looked INSANE.  But I didn't have it in writing, so I had to pay extra for it.  This was the only time I was annoyed with Al, so I forgave him.  But still.  

apartment of yore - the hunt for the right contractor

So, with the party finished, I began looking for a contractor.  I had three come look at the place, with my floor plans all printed up.  Because OBVIOUSLY it went into CAD the moment I considered buying it, to see how I could fix it up.  Thus with floorplans in hand, my potential contractors looked it over.

this is pretty darn close to what we ended up with.  for that, i am proud.

this is pretty darn close to what we ended up with.  for that, i am proud.

The first was Al, who lives down the street from my in-laws and had come highly recommended.  He was very nice, clearly experienced, and had done a kick-ass job on his own house, which I envied regularly when we went over for family dinners.  I was rooting for him from the start, because hiring a contractor seemed terrifying, based largely on massive amounts of money, ignorance, and blind trust, and I knew he had worked with people I knew and did not screw them over.  Al was good.  He looked it all over, jotted a lot of notes on my fancy plans, and sent me a pretty reasonable quote.

The second guy was a disconcertingly attractive man who I hoped was gay, because otherwise I was gonna waste a lot of time during the renovation hanging around hoping he would lift something heavy.  I managed to make it through the meeting without laughing like a character in Gone With the Wind, but just barely.  I was relieved when his bid came in exactly the same as Al's, and I didn't have to hire him and spend the renovation acting like a 7th grader.  Hubby is probably relieved too, as he reads this.  Hi, love.  Sorry.  My bad.

The third guy didn't even come in the building, I think - I had tried to check with everyone in advance that they had all the necessary insurances, which is a big deal when hiring someone.  I didn't know if my building required it (many condos do), but I sure as hell required it.  Should something hideous happen to my new floor that turned into something hideous on my new neighbor's ceiling, I wanted all the insurances.  Every kind.  Plus workers' comp.  But third guy showed up and then mentioned that he had zero of that, which meant he had a loose organization of random, probably-skilled but definitely-uninsured workers who did not file proper permits and had no accountability should something go wrong.  Nooooo, thank you, third guy.  Don't let the Skytrack hit you on the way out.

plans 120 boerum - 2nd fl after.jpg

So Al DellaFerra became my man.  He assigned me a foreman, Leo, who I would hire for the next 50 years again and again.  Leo can heal the sick and multiply loaves, as far as I'm concerned.  Although I had a few irritating moments with these gentlemen, I can tell you now, after 3 years of arguing with contractors for a living on behalf of other people, it was a LOT less headache than most.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

apartment of yore - a very 80s New Year

So, I had closed on my first apartment.  It was an insane, sad, former-coke-palace-looking affair with no functioning appliances and the electricity hadn't been turned on in 6 years.  Clearly we needed to throw a party.

Since the closing didn't happen until mid-December and contractors wouldn't be able to begin work until after the holidays, we took advantage of the weird open space and hosted an 80s New Year.  ConEd had only turned on the electricity that morning, and I had no idea what did or did not work.  Armed with a huge bag of xmas lights and crossing every digit I own, I plugged the strings in and... nothing.  PANIC.  35 friends were coming in 6 hours, dressed in their thrift-store best, and it was maybe/probably going to be pitch black.  I wanted to call up the hoarder guy and borrow his lantern.

But, Jose to the rescue!!! Jose is my wonderful Super, who I regularly choose to chat with for 15 minutes or so in passing instead of being on time for work.  This says a lot about my timeliness, yes, but also, Jose is a delight.  We chuckle over his cute grandkids in Cali, I exclaim (quite sincerely) over his tricked out muscle cars, he occasionally gossips about the other tenants in whispers with me.  I love Jose.  And on New Years' Eve 2010, upon our first meeting, Jose saved my ass by suggesting we check to see if the breaker in the basement had been flipped when ConEd turned the power back on.  Bam.  Xmas lights galore.  And a surprise.

good things come in faux-deco packages.

good things come in faux-deco packages.

Remember this bad-boy? That handsome arch harbored a secret.  When the breaker was flipped, we discovered that it LIT UP.

There was a cove built into the top of the whole soffit for ambient up-lighting, which I can tell you sent me into a total rapture at the idea of it being lit during the 80s party.  It promptly burned out.  To be fair, those were 20 year old bulbs.  They did their time.  Pour one out for the bulbs.

my purty entrance.  at christmas, there are garlands.

my purty entrance.  at christmas, there are garlands.

The best reason to have a New Years' party in this apartment is the roof.  Yes, we had a roof deck, but its view is not in the right direction for the annual fireworks; the real treat is the Skytrack.  Is that not the most 80s' name for a building ever? Boy George would have named his building the Skytrack.  The Skytrack would be where Tom Hanks' character bought his apartment in BIG.  The Skytrack might be where Falcor landed should the Story ever end.  Oh, man, I could keep going with that a lot longer than you want me to. 

But as you see with the healthy little jogging logo man up there on my building's entrance, that's what she be named.  Back in 1982, when this building was first converted into condos from the original 1901 warehouse shell it had been, this neighborhood was, how you say... bad.  My friend Sebastian grew up a few blocks away, on a street that his parents said was used at that time as the burial ground for the carcasses of stolen cars that had been stripped of their sale-able parts and needed to be burned out to avoid identification.  I later learned that was, like, every street.  Brooklyn, y'all! 

skytrack 2.jpg

So the building, converted with yuppies in mind who were beginning to gentrify the neighborhood, included a big blue metal jogging track that wrapped around the roof of this building, the one next door, and a third that touched it on the back sides but has its actual entrance around the corner.  All three properties were developed at the same time by the stellar-morals-and-building-practices idiot who owned them (more on him later), and the swingin' pads sold here thus provided joggers with a place to run without getting mugged by the locals, who knew better than to run for fun.  Running is nonsense.  

Also, according to an amazing archived article from the NY Times that my friend Marli found, this building used to have a hot tub on the roof that could fit upwards of 17 people.  WHERE IS THAT, CONDO BOARD??? I feel equal parts envious and skeeved out by that news.  17 people is a lot of STD opportunity.  It's so gross it's impressive.

i just found this on streeteasy, archived from when it was originally listed.  trust me, it never ever looked this nice when i was inside it.  did they take photos and THEN begin throwing trash around?

i just found this on streeteasy, archived from when it was originally listed.  trust me, it never ever looked this nice when i was inside it.  did they take photos and THEN begin throwing trash around?

So, at the end of 2010, the party happened.  I have no photos from it, but about half the guests bothered with the dress-up theme.  I had one friend show up in these elaborate-framed gold wire glasses with octagonal lenses, which no fewer than three guests told him were a hilarious costume, only to be told curtly that these were not a costume but his brand-new (expensive) prescription glasses.  He had recently moved to Williamsburg, and I think it got away from him.

My favorite moment of the evening was when someone picked up my phone when my dad called to wish me a happy New Year (presumably thinking it was their phone and their dad calling) and drunkenly spoke to him for two minutes before hanging up abruptly, again presumably when they realized it was a different dad.  He still thinks it was me.  Please, Dad.  I know better than to pick up the phone while drunk.

again with the fraudulent cleanliness.

again with the fraudulent cleanliness.

apartment of yore - the original 2nd floor

To recap: this is what my now-beloved apartment looked like when we first found it: spiffed-up by 1989's finest decor and then never touched again.  See this post for the first floor.  Spoiler alert: it had a lot of mirrors.  So many mirrors.

well, that resolution quality is a nightmare.  but LOOK HOW ROUND THE WALL.

well, that resolution quality is a nightmare.  but LOOK HOW ROUND THE WALL.

Onward!! Upstairs, the fun continued with a bathroom identical to the first, down to the artificially low ceilings.  When we did construction, we discovered that they had been dropped 18" to hide a single pipe.  This, in an apartment where one of the main legit design elements was exposed pipes.  Same barf tiles, same sink for children.  It's not even worth reposting the photo.

this is where the magic happens.

this is where the magic happens.

The bedroom area suggested strongly that you invest in a heart-shaped bed.  To echo the platform downstairs, the bed area had also been built up.  But since the ceilings here were normal height, it could only be 12" up.  So, one and a half steps.  Round wall with crenellations, however? Check!

i feel like this is where the cool-guy villain from a john hughes movie had his morning coffee while his one-night-stand slunk off to the shower, consumed with self-loathing.  i had a very rich backstory for that bench.

i feel like this is where the cool-guy villain from a john hughes movie had his morning coffee while his one-night-stand slunk off to the shower, consumed with self-loathing.  i had a very rich backstory for that bench.

The bed platform put the window almost on the floor, since the window was installed at a normal height for its normal ceilings. 

And the edge of this bed-pit we had another U-shaped built-in banquette for a table.  Not a space for a dresser or a chair, mind you - a breakfast table.  Or… a poker table? I was unclear.  The walk-in closet had been built out with another rounded wall, but of course it did not touch the ceiling.   

lest you be fooled, that fencing only went 1/3 of the way around the deck.  juuuuust enough for the realtor's photo.

lest you be fooled, that fencing only went 1/3 of the way around the deck.  juuuuust enough for the realtor's photo.

The roof deck was the one thing that was relatively normal, since it was just a deck.  The wood was old, but the building was in charge of replacing it.  It looked great when it was done, and we got to keep the big-ass, very nice grill that was obviously too heavy to ever ever ever move off the roof.  The owner insisted on my giving her an $80 check for it at the closing.  I really should have called her bluff and said 'No, no, please.  It's yours.  Take it over the railing and down the 4 flights of steps!' It was just so silly - after all those hundreds of thousands of dollars for the sale of a home, to insist on an $80 check.  But it was a little bit funny, and hey, $80 grill. 

We also inherited the 45 broken flower pots, many of which were in a lovely rotten-fake-wine-barrel style, with a bizarrely high plastic-bits-of-broken-unidentified-things soil content, which this $80 was supposed to ensure were removed.  Whatever.  Grill!

 

So this, friends, was my love.  Closed in mid-December, demo started in mid-January, and we moved in on April 15th.  Before that, however, we had a killer 80s New Years party, lit by christmas lights that had only begun working that morning, when I managed to get ConEd to turn the electricity back on. 

The check made out to ConEd from the closing was $18,000 in unpaid bills from the previous owner.  BONKERS.

Next up: the renovation.

apartment of yore - the original 1st floor

So, down to brass tacks.  This was the bizarre layout before:

yikes. 

yikes

Lest you happen not to be an expert in reading the insane architectural language of 1989, let me walk you through it.  

arch to nowhere.

arch to nowhere.

mmmm, mauve laminate.

mmmm, mauve laminate.

When you first walked in (in the SSE corner), there was the spiral staircase on your right and a built-in pink laminate storage unit to your left.  You couldn't see them very well, however, because the whole area was closed in by a closet and a fake arch.  Sunlight was mostly rumor.

arch on the right, sofa back on the left.  the stuff of dreams.

arch on the right, sofa back on the left.  the stuff of dreams.

Walk yourself through the fake columns, and you were… smack up against a wall.  The whole building's windows are built very high into the exterior wall (sills begin at 5'), because the original building was a 1903 warehouse.  The idea - not terrible in theory, mind you - was to build a platform for the living area that brought the windows to normal height, so the leftover space was a walkway that allowed you to access the strange coat closet and shuttle you along to the kitchen and bathroom, with the living area above you.  Trouble was, the living area had a built-in sofa, and room for not much else.  So you could sit on the groovy seat and stare at the wall.

hope you're short.

hope you're short.

Standing in your little rabbit warren in front of the elegant tiny arch, the kitchen was to your left.  It had a ceiling height of about 7', and an amazingly unnecessary single-unit oven/microwave/cooktop thing which looked like it came from Darth Vader's line from QVC.  The sink was positioned juuuust right so that if you wanted to put down a hot pan or, I don't know, have some ingredients near your cooking surface, they would be inside the sink.  No, no, you can't go behind you - that's where the too-deep fridge lives.  Note also the convenient sprinkler pipe in the middle of the wall.  Nothing worked.

Across from the kitchen was a built-in spot for a groovy round table with a banquette, which gave us our majestic round stepped wall.  This table was not a bad idea, again, but the wall was, for some reason, over a foot deep.  There were some odd shelves built into the back of it, so maybe that accounted for the depth, but I'm not sure what you can put on a convex shelf.  There were, of course, custom cut round mirrors on the tops of every wall step.  I like to think that was a thoughtful touch for those of your guests who might have fallen over, but still wanted to do a discreet line of coke.  Very considerate, this designer.

go wash up, it's time for pancakes and amphetamines!

go wash up, it's time for pancakes and amphetamines!

you can just see the round wall there on the left, for orientation.  so, basically, this is shoved in a corner.

you can just see the round wall there on the left, for orientation.  so, basically, this is shoved in a corner.

who wouldn't want to get clean in here?

who wouldn't want to get clean in here?

The bathroom was a reasonably inoffensive bathroom, except that it had a tub and shower, which seemed sort of odd when there was only one bedroom, on a different floor, which had its own full bath with an identical shower.  There was no room for a guest bed downstairs.  Who, precisely, did we imagine was using this shower? MIght you decide, in a fit of pique, that you had become overworked going up and down the steps to the sofa and needed to shower off immediately, on THIS floor? Were you inviting friends over to take bubble baths while you fired up the old microvenstove?

At any rate, the brown raku-glazed tiles looked for all the world like someone had been sick on them, and the sink was at the correct height for a child.  I mean that seriously - there are special child-height vanities.  Neato-skeeto.  They had a legitimately great linen closet by the bathroom, and a coat closet across from it that housed a washer/dryer unit which was 6" too deep for the spot.  You could just barely open the bathroom door around it.

those shelves seem to have a very specific purpose.  but a secret one.

those shelves seem to have a very specific purpose.  but a secret one.

The whole upper living area was… well, confusing.  It was long and narrow, and you couldn't really fit decent furniture up there.  So you had this great 800 sq. ft. room with a giant exposed brick wall and 13' ceilings and cool loft feel, and you could fit, like, one sofa and a small table in it.  It made me sad.  

But also, schemey.  It made my fingers do the Mr. Burns thing.  Yesssss.  Spaaaace planning.  Very Gooooood.

old - loft.jpg
there's a password to get in.

there's a password to get in.

Then came the loft.  There was an actual loft, which accounted for the lilliputian kitchen ceiling.  The bathroom had this terrible ceiling height, too, because the loft stretched 13' long.  It was, however, only 5' tall.  I can't stand up in it, and I am a very average 5'5".  So you had a loft stretching for a quarter of the apartment that could basically only function as a storage area that you still had to look at all the time. 

You accessed the loft by a ladder, which had its own nifty little bookshelf nook surrounding it.  I kind of liked the nook, actually.  It increased the feeling that the loft was actually a panic room, and the ladder was your drawbridge that you could draw up behind you when your coked-up guests got rowdy because the shower line was too long.



Fun side note: when we did the viewing, the loft was stuffed with the collections of the hoarder who the owner was letting squat in the apartment with his battery-powered lantern.  Remember - no electricity for 6 years.  Cozy!!  The selling agent said she was regularly scheduling showings of the supposedly-vacant place and surprising this gentleman - comfortably in his 40s and looking like a totally normal person except for, you know, the hoarding and lantern and stuff - reading neighbors' magazines he had salvaged from the recycling bin.  I imagined him working in a really normal office and none of his coworkers having any idea that he went 'home' to a furniture-less apartment and a stack of month-old L.L.Beans in a former coke palace.  Ugh, that sounds incredibly sad.  Poor hoarder guy.  I hope he gets his own L.L.Beans now.  He earned them.

old - stairs.jpg

Sadness aside, at least we had a cool stair case.  I have learned in the intervening years that spiral stairs are better in theory than in practice, as carrying laundry baskets up them is the worst.  The worst.  But also because our ceilings are so tall, our stair is extra-tall.  it goes for a full turn more than your average one.  BOOO.  But it goes upstairs, and so shall we.  On to the next post!

apartment of yore - love at first sight

This apartment and I were meant to be.  My dear friend Sebastian, a year earlier, knew that I trolled real estate websites as a soothing pastime when I was getting ready for bed (also while I was at work, and while watching TV, and sometimes after waking up).  He sent me the listing, which had only two confusing photos of the space which made it look tiny, and insisted in shouty caps that I HAD TO GO SEE THIS PLACE AND BUY IT.  He lived nearby and was in love with the space, but couldn't afford it himself.  It was wildly overpriced for its condition, and had no garden like I dreamt of.  I told him he was insane.

Cut to a year later, and I was actually looking to buy a one-bedroom fixer-upper.  My lovely friend Emily, who happens to be a kick-ass real estate agent, had set up a few viewings for me on my birthday, which was just about the best present I could think of.  She had picked two very lovely apartments with roof decks in great areas, neither of which really needed any work.  I wasn't hooked.  On our third stop of the day, we walked up three flights and opened the door to this coke-fever-dream:

mmmm.  trash.

mmmm.  trash.

Emily looked around, bewildered and kinda grossed out, and turned to see my face lit up with wonder and joy.  Surrounded by fake columns and munchkin ceilings and bathroom tiles that looked like actual, literal barf, I whispered 'oh, little apartment, I can make you so pretty.' 

 

Two months, many legal shenanigans, and a FOUR hour closing later, she was mine.

make more...

... art.  
... storage space at home.  
... home cooked dinners.

just make something.

my studio

my studio