Polishing Up a Craftsman Gem
With creative cost-saving, help from friends, and two years of sweat equity, this homeowner brought a 1910 near-ruin back to life.
It took the homeowner two days to cure the kitchen's raw terra-cotta tiles with linseed oil followed by three coats of hard wax buffed to a high shine. The glossy finish is now low-maintenance enough to withstand muddy paw prints.
"What have I gotten myself into", the question just kept running through my head. It was May, six months since I'd bought the almost century-old bungalow, and here I was camping out in my half-done home, showering in a stall with no door, mopping up after each washing, and wondering when I might actually be able to cook a meal in my still counterless and ovenless kitchen.
I had dreamed of living in the area—Virginia Highland—since I moved to Atlanta 25 years ago, but the neighborhood had always been out of my price range. Then a local turned me on to a 1910 Craftsman that he thought had my name written all over it. It was a total wreck, which fortunately was reflected in the price.
When I went to see the house, I was immediately taken by its old diamond-paned windows and original heart-pine floors. There were no bad additions, and its woodwork wasn't buried in layers of paint. I saw the potential to make the two-story house into a showplace and, more importantly, into a home. It was a gem that just needed polishing up.
I knew that renovating the place would take real elbow grease on my part though. The ceilings were caving in, the plaster was crumbling, and several windows were broken. The exterior shingles were mostly rotted, and—as I would later find out—so were the front door and some joists and flooring. A former owner had waited a little too long to fix the roof after a tree fell in on the study, leaving the interior vulnerable to the elements. Water and gas lines had been shut off so long that local utilities had no record of the place. The whole second floor was an unfinished attic, and the 1,800 square feet of living space downstairs included just two bedrooms and one bath—enough space for the pair of squatters apparently living there before the place was put up for sale.
Still, it was love at first sight.
Bought at a local antiques market, the copper kitchen sink is said to have been handmade in Greece.
In November 2004, I sold my old house and rented temporarily, so I could afford my $300,000 dream. Even I thought this was too much money for such a dump, and people tried to convince me I would be better off tearing it down and building new. But there were so many wonderful things about the house, I just couldn't. In fact, I felt guilty throwing away even materials that were beyond hope—like every inch of plaster.
I spent the better part of the late fall tackling the renovation's biggest project: demolition. I've remodeled other houses, so I was pretty used to the dirty work, which left filth in my nostrils and hair every day for a month. But this time the broken windows and lack of heat had me shivering underneath the layers of dust. Filling the six Dumpsters parked one after another out front didn't make me a favorite on the block either. But one neighbor was kind enough to let me use his garden hose to wash my hands, since the new plumbing had yet to be installed.
Teaming up with Todd Pritchett, a designer I had worked with before, I started to plan how I could keep the integrity of the house while making it more comfortable. I wanted to create guest rooms for family and friends on the second floor, but at the time the only way to get up there was a rickety homemade ladder nailed to rafters in the back of the house. I wasn't sure where to put a new staircase. Todd recommended widening the center hall for the new stairs and putting a powder room underneath them. With his help, I added two more baths upstairs as well as three bedrooms. I also hired an engineer to help me bring the second floor up to code, which meant replacing the existing 2x6 floor joists with 2x10s and 2x12s.
I got behind schedule and had to stay in my interim rental for a few more weeks than I had planned. It couldn't last much longer, though, since I was driving 12 miles each way for my night job, managing a restaurant located just blocks from my new house. So, in May 2005, six months after starting the renovation, I moved in. With only partial use of one bathroom and minimal use of the kitchen, I was stuck brushing my teeth and washing the coffee pot at the same sink and eating dinner at work for another couple of months.
It took three weeks to restore all the diamond-pane windows in the house, installing new hardware and sash ropes and weights.
The most frustrating ordeal was probably the kitchen. Along with those in the master bath, the kitchen's floor joists had to be resupported in order to handle the weight of the terra-cotta floor tile and limestone countertops I planned to put in.
Someone had told me there was a great place to get limestone countertops called Fieldstone Center. When I checked the company out, though, it turned out they specialized in landscape stone. But they said they would cut countertops for me—I just had to have templates made, which I did for about $100.
The supplier offered to deliver the stone for $75, a bargain for not having to deal with transporting the hefty 2 1/2-inch slabs. Unfortunately, when I opened the back of the truck I found that the countertop with the sink hole cutout had broken in half, so I sent everything back. The company would recut the piece at no charge but not redeliver it.
So on June 17—my birthday—I got a couple of 2x4s and built a makeshift rack on the back of my truck so the stones would sit upright. I drove with over 700 pounds in back, worried that each pebble I went over would break one of the three slabs. At home, the eight guys I'd hired to help me were waiting to move the mammoth counters into place. When the last piece was in, I realized that the sink hole had been cut in the wrong place. Needless to say, that was not what I wanted for my birthday. So the supplier had to recut the stone for a second time.
A wall was moved to make way for the permanent staircase to the second floor, which replaced a rickety ladder nailed to the rafters at the back of the house. Salvaged columns frame the opening to the dining room.
While getting the limestone was stressful, the counters look great and were very cheap. I paid $700 for everything, saving about $2,000. The porous stone is not for everyone, though. If you put down a bottle of olive oil or tomato sauce without wiping the bottom first, it'll leave a ring that won't completely come out.
To help with repairs elsewhere in the house, I recruited my friend and self-taught handyman wizard Moran Vered. He helped me replace 95 percent of the cedar shakes on the house and restore most of the windows. We took the interior molding off each window frame, labeling the pieces so we could reuse them. Then we put in new sash weights and ropes and replaced some of the hardware that had been painted shut.
Since the placement of windows in the back of the house needed to be changed to accommodate the new 38-inch-high counters in the kitchen and the wider bed in the master bedroom, we moved some to other parts of the house. I also saved all of the glass from the back windows to replace the small broken panes in some of the windows we salvaged. I love the imperfections of the old glass.
In fact, it's all the imperfections of my home that give it character. I just have so much respect for something that was built by hand a hundred years ago that I wanted to restore it back to its glory days—though I also wanted it to be comfortable for modern life. One of my favorite places has become the study. Its pocket doors, which were salvaged from another home, and old brick fireplace are remnants of another time. And now, new gas logs keep the place nice and toasty against drafts from the large original windows that I love so much.
Helping his handyman friend run the plumbing for the upstairs baths was a two-week trial-and-error learning experience, says the homeowner. In this bath, he made the vanity from an old dresser.
What I Did
Renovated a century-old bungalow, keeping true to its original structure and details while carving out more living space.
Remodeling cost: About $225,000
Time frame: 23 months
Where I saved: Using salvaged materials and buying light fixtures at a going-out-of-business sale.
Where I splurged: The spalike master bath with three showerheads, marble mosaic tile, and a new vent-free firebox.
What I would do differently: Put a skylight in the hallway above the stairwell from the beginning—am planning to do it now.
Biggest challenge: Figuring out how to put in a permanent staircase and configuring the second-floor space.
How I solved it: Moved a wall to widen the hallway.