Cat’s Cradle

Although the days are getting slightly shorter, the long weeks of summer have settled in. It’s not quite so light in the mornings when Deshawn and I commute into the city. But, the sky is still bright at bedtime and falling to sleep has the restless feel of childhood’s summer. It seems so odd to sleep without the covers.

Carole spent most of the holiday weekend in Chester with us. I credit her with all of my emotional intelligence and most of the good ideas I’ve had in the last 5 years. While showing her the progress on the upstairs this past Sunday, she asked a single, simple question that resulted in one of the most significant changes in my remodeling strategy.

DeShawn with the only square structure at 118 Henry Street

The upper floor at 118 Henry Street consists of 2 other rooms in addition to the (used-to-be eventually) study. There’s the large bathroom, previously mentioned, with huge clawfoot tube and historically original toilet, sink and light fixture. There’s also another bedroom, the mirror image of the (used-to-be eventually) study. By the looks of the paint colors, the (used-to-be eventually) study on the west side of the house was originally a boy’s bedroom. The bedroom on the east side of the house was originally a girl’s bedroom. When I met Marion Hucks, son of J.B. and Thetis, he confirmed that the (used-to-be eventually) study was his bedroom the whole time he lived on Henry Street.

Both of the main rooms have their share of wear, but the more prominent and widespread damage is to the plaster ceiling in this second room. The chimney for the fireplace downstairs comes up thru this room on the way to the roof. Based on the extent and amount of damaged plaster, the previous owners neglected water leaks around the chimney for several years. The small wall shared by the bedroom and the bathroom closet was completely destroyed and approximately 1/4 of the ceiling was affected.

East bedroom ceiling damage around the chimney

It must have seemed the right decision at the time, but rather than having chimney flashing installed to fix the leak and restoring the wall/ceiling, the previous owners covered the damage on the wall with painted paneling and covered the damage on the ceiling by hanging ceiling tiles. Besides allowing the water’s destructive action to continue, the visual effect of these “re-muddlings” was to lower the ceiling relative to the other 2 rooms upstairs.

When I had the chimney flashing installed, the roofer asked me if there had EVER been flashing in place. All I could do was groan “Don’t know” as I made out the check.

Last summer, after we moved our bedroom downstairs, I destructed the paneling and the tiles to reveal the original but harmed surfaces. It was obvious at the time that the little shared wall had to be re-plastered. The ceiling didn’t look too bad until I started removing the wood furring strips that had anchored the tiles. The action of nailing the wooden strips had created hundreds (maybe thousands) of invisible cracks in the plaster. Pulling on the strips mobilized and enlarged these cracks to completely destroy the surface underneath. In some cases, pulling the wood down created 2 foot square holes in the ceiling that exposed the lathing underneath. It got so bad, I stopped destructing the ceiling after only a few strips were removed.

For several demoralizing days, the decision about what to do about the ceilings wouldn’t materialize. Finishing a ceiling is the epotime of the plasterer’s art and finding someone to do a wall would be hard enough. And then there’s the cost. Overlaying the ceiling with sheetrock to avoid continued destruction would require lowering the ceilings in the other rooms to create the same room height. What about the texture differences between plaster and sheetrock? The needle on the progess-o-meter swung violently to the “-” side during this time.

Ultimately, the ceiling dilemma contributed significantly to my current restoration paradigm. The decision to overlay the ceilings was the compromise I chose. Rather than using furring strips and 1/2″ sheetrock, securing 1/4″ drywall directly to the ceiling with screws into the ceiling joists affects the ceiling height the least. As well as preserving more of the original house materials, this will also retain the uneven and unlevel ceiling surface so characteristic of this old house. Texturing the final paint with sand should help even out the visual differences between the new ceilings and the old walls.

With all the windows assembled in the (used-to-be eventually) study, the next milestone is to sheetrock the ceiling using this method. With that work in sight, this past weekend, we moved the large oak table I use for a workbench and most of the tools from the (used-to-be eventually) study into the other room. Both rooms looked much better after the cleanup and transfer but the (used-to-be eventually) study was especially striking with its spacious windows all bright with sunlight and the floor wide open from wall to wall. The apogee of its transformation from what-had-been to what-will-be is well behind us now.

I yelled downstairs, “hollered” as they say in the hills, for Carole to come upstairs and see the difference. Her face brightened as we toured the (used-to-be eventually) study. While looking at the changes made to the other room, she asked, “Which room is going to be our bedroom?” This room, I replied, indicating the bedroom with the plaster damaged ceiling, because its connected by door to the bathroom. She then asked the question that affected me so.

“Which room is going to be DeShawn’s bedroom?”

DeShawn has been with me since this past fall, now 7 months. I’ve been resident at 118 Henry Street for almost 2 years. Soon after moving to Chester and before any real restoration work started, I decided on the functions for the various rooms of the house. The decision to make one of the upstairs bedrooms into a study was made at this time.

Carole’s smirk betrayed her deliberate irony in asking the question, she knew what she was doing.

As far as decorating changes go in the (now to be known as) west bedroom, there shouldn’t be any changes to the paint scheme or window dressing. There will still be an extra large oriental style rug on the floor when the room is done and the ceiling fan is still on order. But, scratch one bookcase and add one single bed. Also, the study table by the front window will be child sized. Once more, this will be a little boy’s room.