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Archive for the ‘Renovation & Rehabilitation’ Category

Serene, Patinaed Fantasy

In Adirondacks, Champlain Valley, Memoir, Renovation & Rehabilitation, What's the story? on September 29, 2011 at 11:41 am
Apartment buildings lining the south side of E...

East 57th Street between First and Sutton (via Wikipedia)

Accustomed to living out of a suitcase, I pendulumed back and forth between Manhattan where Susan was wrapping up a degree in interior design following a decade-long career in video production, and Westport, New York, where both of our parents owned homes and where we’d met a couple of years prior.

Susan had recently refinished a one bedroom apartment in The Galleria, and she was itching to sell it and start a new project. I was intrigued by the prospect of collaborating on a project and plugging my recent Paris experience into a tired but dignified New York apartment, but the Adirondacks were pulling me. After almost half a lifetime living in cities, I yearned to return to the rhythms and pleasures of rural life.

My idealized notion of a country house had its roots in a small farm that my parents had bought in Washington County while still living in New York City in the 1970s. Initially a getaway for my recently married parents trying to balance life and careers in New York City and later, albeit briefly, a full time residence, The Farm underpins my love for countryside and provides my earliest childhood memories.

The perfect place, I explained to Bruce, the friend and realtor who shuttled me from property to property, would be a small, simple farmhouse in the middle of fields with a sturdy barn and some acreage, maybe a stream or a pond or access to a river. Barns, in particular, pulled me. Secluded places with good light and views, forgotten places with stories still vaguely audible if you slowed down long enough to hear the voices. No loud traffic. An old overgrown orchard, perhaps. Asparagus and rhubarb gone feral near the barn. Stone walls, lots of stone walls and maybe an old stone foundation from a building long ago abandoned, the cellar hole full to bursting with day lilies. A couple of old chimneys in the farmhouse with fireplaces. A simple but spacious kitchen. A bedroom with plenty of windows. A room to read and write and collage the walls with notes, lists, photos, drawings and scraps. Someplace I could tinker at myself, gradually restoring the walls and plaster and roof. Timeworn wide plank floorboards of varying widths that I would sand by hand to avoid erasing the footpaths and dings and cupping from a burst pipe years before.

Although I’d painted the picture often enough, my budget and unwillingness to abandon the serene, patinaed fantasy resulted in a few false starts but mostly a very clear idea of what I was not interested in buying. On the upside, I came around and helped Susan select and renovate a coop in a 1926 McKim, Mead and White prewar located on 57th Street just off Sutton Place. An elegant apartment in a handsome building. Great bones, view and sunlight enhanced with a top-to-bottom environmentally responsible, non-toxic renovation. A success!

Though there were occasional fireworks when our aesthetics and convictions clashed, we enjoyed working together and decided to look for a North Country property that would suit both of our interests…

Paris Renovation Bug

In Adirondacks, Champlain Valley, Memoir, Renovation & Rehabilitation on September 27, 2011 at 10:50 pm
Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France,...

Image by Brooklyn Museum via Flickr

Starting in about 2003 I initiated an unfocused real estate hunt for a “fixer-upper” in the AdirondacksChamplain Valley. I’d returned from four years in Europe with enough savings to justify some idle time, a reprieve I hoped to plough into a long languishing novel while tinkering with the vestiges of a web-based business I’d launched in Paris a few years before.

But I couldn’t shake the renovation bug that had bitten me quite unexpectedly while bringing a luxury vacation rental to market in Paris’ Faubourg St. Germaine.

I’d made it into my early thirties without owning a home due to my intentionally peripatetic lifestyle, and despite an aesthete’s appetite for buildings and furnishing and gardens, I hadn’t the least interest in settling down. No biological clock ticking. No nesting instinct. No yen for taxes and maintenance and burst pipes and snow shoveling. No desire whatsoever for the trappings of a settled, domestic life. I understood why it appealed to others, but for me the commitments and encumbrances far outweighed the pride and financial wisdom of home ownership.

Until recently.

Something had changed, and I couldn’t quite figure out how or why.

I’d spent the better part of a year and a half immersed in the acquisition, renovation and marketing of a grand Haussmannian property that promised tourists an opportunity to enjoy Paris à la Parisienne. My business partner and I joked that it was “Versailles in the heart of Paris”, which was a gross exaggeration, but fifteen foot ceilings, 3,200+ square feet of living space including three master suites, a grande salon, a petite salon and a formal dining room invited exaggeration. Magnificent marble fireplaces, intricate plaster moldings, hardwood floors and meticulous finish details exuded Parisian elegance by the time we started booking the accommodation, but it hadn’t always looked so inviting.

The property underwent a top-to-bottom transformation between the day we received the key and the day we shot the photographs for our brochures and website. Half of the property had been gutted and rebuilt from scratch. One bathroom was remodeled and two new bathrooms were created from scratch. Walls were moved, electrical systems were rewired. Carpets were ripped out and herringbone hardwood floors were hand sanded and resealed. Magnificent crown moldings were painstakingly restored, and sconces, chandeliers, and period hardware were refinished.

No architect. No designer. No engineer. Just outsized self confidence and a hepped up learning curve. I scribbled construction drawings on walls and fumbled through French and Portuguese until contractors seemed to understand what I wanted. With the Lebanese contractors I gesticulated, made funny sound effects and scribbled some more. That we completed the project at all was a miracle. That the results were exquisite, a mystery that still awes me. Though I’d grown up assisting my parents with a couple of renovation projects, I’d never before undertaken anything so ambitious or complex. Or so rewarding.

Although our business plan involved duplicating the process in Italy and in Spain, the woman I’d been dating for two years lived in New York City, and after two years of cycling through Paris, Rome and Manhattan on a roughly two week cycle, I opted to trade the business for the woman I loved. I dissolved my interest in the business, packed up my apartments in Paris and Rome, and moved back to the United States.

[To be continued…]

Redacting Rosslyn Redux

In Monologues, Renovation & Rehabilitation, What's Rosslyn?, What's the story? on July 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm
Rosslyn Boathouse in Essex, New York, May 1, 2011

Rosslyn Boathouse in Essex, New York, May 1, 2011

What: Reducting Rosslyn
When: 8:00pm, Wednesday, August 3
Where: The Depot Theatre, Westport, NY

What happens when a storyteller writes a book? When a talker becomes a typer? When the audience’s laughter, sighs, snoring, heckling and applause vanish? When margins and page count provide only the most porous parameters?

I’ll tell you what. Story glut. Plot inflation. Unchecked character sprawl…

For the past year I’ve been writing and revising a memoir about the four years that Susan and I spent renovating the W.D. Ross property in Essex. I’ve discovered that building a book is a bit like rebuilding an old house. No matter how great the bones, how stunning the view, how well preserved the architecture and design, and no matter how clear and enticing the goal, you can’t do it by yourself.

In the case of our home it took the world’s most intelligent, beautiful and stubborn wife plus a vast community of contractors, carpenters, advisors, family and friends to rebuild Rosslyn. In the case of my book it will take your laughter, your sighs, your heckling (and even your prodding and booing and advising) to build Rosslyn Redux.

Please join me at 8:00pm on Wednesday, August 3 at The Depot Theatre in Westport for a solo performance of Redacting Rosslyn, an evening of readings, storytelling and vignettes ranging from a wader-wearing Amazon named Rosslyn to a perennially pickled bathtub yachtsman. I’ll poke fun at the idiosyncrasies (and absurdities) of renovation, marriage and North Country life while plunging you into the creative process. Are you ready to help build a book?

You are invited to a reception in the lobby following the performance. All participants will be entered into a drawing for Essex gift certificates and Rosslyn Redux swag. All proceeds from this performance will be donated to The Depot Theatre. Here’s how to get tickets:

Depot Box Office:
Call: 518-962-4449
Monday, Thursday, and Friday from 10am-10pm
Saturday and Sunday from 12pm-10pm
Tuesday and Wednesday from 10am-5pm

Depot Online Ticket Sales:
http://depottheatre.org/tickets

Thank you. I hope to see you!

Totally, unabashedly, irreversibly seduced

In Adirondacks, Boathouse, Carriage Barn, Daily Munge, Historic Essex, House, Ice House, Lake Champlain, Renovation & Rehabilitation on July 19, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Today’s question from Al Katkowsky‘s Question of the Day book was the perfect invitation to reflect on Rosslyn Redux, the “big picture”!

What should you definitely not have done that turned out okay anyway?

In the summer of 2006 I definitely should not have purchased a dilapidated, almost two hundred year old house in Essex, New York. Definitely not. Not if I wanted to stay sane, solvent or married. Not if I wanted to do anything else in my life except for renovating, babysitting contractors, and nurturing this handsome old house back to life…

But I was totally, unabashedly, irreversibly seduced by Rosslyn, a sagging-but-still-stately, almost two century year old property on the Adirondack shores of Lake Champlain. My new bride and I swapped Manhattan for North Country bliss.

Our plan? Renovate a home. Grow a garden. Plant an orchard. Raise a dog. Swim, sail, ski, hike, bike and live happily ever after.

Or not…

Over a hundred carpenters, tradesmen and artisans later; over four times our budget and planned timeline later; and over countless marriage-testing misadventures later we finally finished our renovation. In time for the biggest flood in over two centuries to swamp our boathouse and waterfront for two months…

We should definitely not have undertaken this wildly ambitious project. But we did. And it turned out okay anyway. So far!

Check out RosslynRedux.com for a vicarious plunge into the idiosyncrasies (and absurdities) of our renovation, marriage and North Country life.

Ed Pais visits Rosslyn Boathouse

In Boathouse, Daily Munge, Renovation & Rehabilitation, What's Rosslyn?, What's the story? on June 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Edward Pais was a classmate of mine at Deerfield Academy from 1986 to 1990, and he now practices architecture in Burlington, Vermont. Despite being out of touch for more than two decades we recently reconnected via Facebook. Ed joined the Rosslyn Redux Facebook page and he’s offered ongoing feedback about our boathouse during the Lake Champlain flooding. Recently he offered to come over and take a look. Needless to say, I eagerly accepted his offer.

We started out with a delicious lunch at Essex Provisions overlooking the still flooded marinas, then headed back to Rosslyn to take a look at the boathouse. Ed’s reaction was encouraging, and despite pushing him into engineering territory a couple of times, I mostly listened and took mental notes. He reminded me that he’s an architect and not an engineer, but repeatedly expressed his confidence in the work of Engineering Ventures in Burlington. Paul Hobbs who handled most of the structural engineering for the boathouse renovation repeatedly impressed with his keen mind, so Ed’s confidence was not misplaced. That said, I do intend to follow up with Hobbs and/or Jeffords Steel to ascertain whether or not the beams which support the suspended pier were fabricated out of COR-TEN or a similar weather resistant steel.

Ed’s recommendation to quickly and aggressively treat the mold situation was highlighted in a follow-up message after his visit. He suggested that we should remove the baseboards to inspect for mold. He linked me to helpful information “Cleaning Mold on Wood” that confirms that we’ve been remediating the post-flood mold situation appropriately.

The molds seen on lumber are largely a collection of fungal spores on the surface of the wood. Wet wiping and scrubbing the lumber will remove the mold. But simply wiping the wood can release spores into the surrounding air. A better approach is to gently spray or wet down the mold prior to removal.

There are a number of products on the market, ranging from common bleach to commercial mildewcides, which are promoted for cleaning mold from wood. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests using a mild detergent and water for most mold clean up. The EPA recommends wet vacuuming the area, wiping or scrubbing the mold with detergent and water and, after drying, vacuuming with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum.

Common bleach and water can be used for cleaning mold. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using a solution of 10 parts water to one part bleach to clean mold from surfaces. (Western Wood Products Association)

Huge thanks, Ed, for taking the time to coach me through the latest challenge! I really appreciate it.

After De’s departure my parents joined us for dinner. They’ve just returned to the Adirondacks from Chicago for the summer, so grilling and dining al fresco seemed like the perfect way to launch their summer. While showing my mother the recovering boathouse, I asked if she remembered Ed Pais from Deerfield. She did! She recounted a story that I’d never known. My brother, two years younger than I, had come to Deerfield for his admissions interview. Although he already knew his way around because he had visited me frequently, he decided to take the admissions office campus tour anyway. His tour guide was Ed Pais! When we got back to the house I asked my father if he remembered Ed Pais, and he immediately told me the same story! Ed, must have made quite an impression…

Friends, Flooding and Photos

In Boathouse, Daily Munge, Lake Champlain, Renovation & Rehabilitation, What's Rosslyn?, What's the story?, Where's Rosslyn? on June 1, 2011 at 10:49 pm
Stephen Phillips field sketch and notes of Rosslyn shoreline/road condition

Stephen Phillips' field sketch and notes of Rosslyn shoreline and road condition on Friday, May 27, 2011

This afternoon Essex neighbor Stephen Phillips stopped by to help assess the damage to Rosslyn boathouse caused by week after week after week of flooding. Having run a large contracting company for many years, his perspective is valuable and his offer of assistance welcome. In this photo he’s sitting on the stairway down to the boathouse with my bride, waiting for me to don waders and trudge out to the partially submerged boathouse.

Stephen Phillips and Susan Bacot-Davis

Susan Bacot-Davis and Stephen Phillips

He spent the better part of an hour examining the structure, asking questions and advising us on how to proceed. We took plenty of notes! The good news is that the structure remains sound, and damage so far has been minimal. Unfortunately we identified increasing surface mold, especially prevalent on fir bead board that must have received less oil sealer than neighboring planks. Most boards are okay, but several are covered in green, gray and black fuzzy mold!

Beneath the water level inside and outside, everything is covered in slippery, green algae. We hope that this will be easy enough to remove with a pressure washer once the water retreats. At the very least we’ll need to re-seal and repaint all of the surfaces that have been saturated for the better part of two months. And until the water level falls another 18″ or so, we’ll need to continue monitoring the waterfront from large debris, trees, etc. Constant vigilance and quick log wrangling has saved the structure significant damage so far, but Steve was quick to remind us that even one of the large trees afloat in Lake Champlain combined with wind and wave action could devastate the boathouse. As if we needed the reminder!

George Davis in Rosslyn boathouse on May 16, 2011, photo credit Kathryn Cramer

George Davis in Rosslyn boathouse on May 16, 2011. (photo credit Kathryn Cramer)

On the bright side, he explained in impressive detail what is happening with the collapsing road. Have I mentioned this previously? Perhaps only on the Rosslyn Redux Facebook Page… That image at the top of this post is a sketch and notes he prepared last Friday when he came by to speak with the New York State DOT engineers who were preparing to stabilize the badly eroding bank. Actually, it turned out that the erosion was far more severe than he could ascertain, completely eliminating most of the embankment and undermining the road. The pavement began to crack in deep fissures running parallel to the lake as the weight of the road cause it to settle and slough.

The remedy involved 250 tons — approximately ten tandem dump truck loads — of riprap dumped over the side of the road to arrest further erosion and stabilize the road. I’ll share some video footage soon which reveals the current status of the waterfront and road including the riprap “armor”. The DOT is continuing to monitor the road to determine whether or not additional stabilization will be necessary. In the event that the road continues to settle, the next step will be to install a steel sheet pile retaining wall. Steve’s explanation for why this would be advantageous was convincing, but we are hoping against hope that it will not be necessary to mar this historic waterfront with a steel retaining wall.

Steve offered to assist us in deciphering the potentially complex decisions ahead, and suggested that we should consider this an opportunity to permanently address the long term stability and safety of the waterfront. I appreciate his optimistic perspective, and my bride and I have sent  out cosmic “Thank you!” vibes all afternoon.

Thanks also are due another friend and Champlain Valley writer/editor/blogger, Kathryn Cramer (@KathrynC), who has been doing an outstanding job of documenting Lake Champlain’s aquatic antics over the last couple of months. Full stop. Kathryn Cramer has done an outstanding job of documenting Lake Champlain for the last couple of years! That goofy picture of yours truly standing inside the boathouse in the earlier days of the flood was taken during her first visit to our soggy waterfront. She’s been back at least once, and even helped pull some driftwood up from the lake.

Kathryn’s support and understanding in recent weeks has been a big morale booster, and he exhaustive coverage of the 2011 Lake Champlain floods is simply unparalleled. I hope she’ll curate her many photos into an exhibition once we’ve all recovered from the damage. It would make for a fascinating chronicle!

Rosslyn boathouse transcending Lake Champlain floodwaters. (photo credit, Jill Piper)

Rosslyn boathouse transcending Lake Champlain floodwaters. (photo credit Jill Piper)

Although most photographs of Lake Champlain flooding in general and of Rosslyn‘s flooded waterfront in particular emphasize the dire and depressing, a spectacular counterpoint was recently shared by Jill Piper, the creative eye and lens behind www.pickapiperpic.com. Her photograph of our boathouse wading up to her knees in Lake Champlain was published on Facebook with the following caption:

…and the sun sets on another day under… fingers and toes crossed for a hot sunny week!!!

Ah, yes, another day under water, but optimism flowed easily after viewing her handsome image. In fact, unless you look closely at the lower left border (or recognize the submerged Old Dock Restaurant, visible in the distance), you might not even notice that the boathouse is flooded. A trick of the eye, but soon, I hope, the floorboards will be visible once again. And then we can set to work with pressure washer and paint brushes to restore her to her former glory. Thank you, Jill, for reminding us to smile, and for reminding us that being underwater (or not) is just a matter of cropping!

Did I mention that Steve Phillips told us all of the electrical system, outlets, fixtures, etc. would need to be opened up and inspected? Sigh…

Re-roofing and Flood Proofing

In Boathouse, Daily Munge, Lake Champlain, Renovation & Rehabilitation, What's Rosslyn?, What's the story?, Where's Rosslyn? on May 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Rosslyn boathouse when re-roofing was 50% complete in the summer of 2010

Rosslyn boathouse when re-roofing was 50% complete in the summer of 2010

Last summer (June-July 2010) our biggest concern with Rosslyn’s boathouse was restoring the roof. It’s hard to imagine that a year later our biggest concern is saving the building, pier and waterfront from finally-receding-but-increasingly-rough Lake Champlain flood waters! What better way to distract our anxieties than to look back on drier times?

The cedar shingle was suffering from many years of neglect. Covered with moss and rotted completely through in many areas, it was possible to watch clouds passing overhead (and fireworks) by standing in the second story and looking through the rot spots in the roof! Friend and former neighbor Michael Leslie headed up the project of stripping the expired shingles, rebuilding the rotted beams, sub-roof and related trim including the window overlooking the lake. The following comes from a blog post last July as we rounded the halfway mark.

The hardest part of re-shingling Rosslyn dock house is now behind us. Special thanks to Michael Leslie, Jerry Spooner and Jim Spooner for their progress so far.

In a bizarre twist, David Hislop asked me yesterday, “What’s the story with the dock house?” Hmmm… The story? Well, that’s what I’m writing: Rosslyn Redux. Coming soon to a digital download near you. 😉 Turns out he was referring to the roof. “People are asking why you’re re-roofing it AGAIN.” Again? Apparently a half dozen people have asked him this question. Easy answer. We’re not. It hasn’t been re-shingled since the early/mid 1980’s, but after a quarter century of rain, snow, ice, sun and wind, many of the shingles have rotted through and the roof is leaking, especially the southern exposure. We’d known that we would eventually have to strip the old shingles, but we had delayed as long as practical. Let’s hope the new roof lasts as long as the old one!

Although the re-roofing project took considerably longer than anticipated (this formula has become the rule rather than the exception during the process of renovating Rosslyn), it was worth every second when the beautiful work was complete. And doubly so last winter when snowstorms battered the little structure and again this spring when rain lashed at the roof. For the first time since buying this property in the summer of 2006 my bride and I could stop worrying about the boathouse that seduced us half a decade ago! The foundation had been restored. The structure had been restored. And now the roof had been restored. Life was good…

Perhaps we were too pleased? Perhaps hubris slipped into our homeowner psyche’s? Perhaps. Or perhaps nature’s far more powerful and far more fickle and unpredictable than we can possibly imagine. I’ve commented elsewhere that nature is a formidable foe and a loyal friend. I genuinely believe this, and yet this spring has reminded me that a boathouse built on a pier in the waters of a lake is not natural. It is a valuable architectural artifact. It is an indulgence. But it is not natural. And despite my resolve to balance my lifestyle with healthy stewardship of the natural environment, I never before stopped to contemplate how unnatural this structure really is. Although I’d likely discourage construction of a new albeit similar structure in fragile habitat like Lake Champlain, I never once stopped to consider Rosslyn’s beautiful boathouse a violation of nature because it already existed. It’s part of the architectural heritage of Essex, NY. In fact, we felt a responsibility to restore the boathouse. Indeed I still do, despite my newfound recognition that it contradicts my conventional bias.

Life is complex, and contradictions are everywhere. I don’t pretend to know all the right answers, nor even very many of them. But I’m beginning to suspect that the silver lining of Lake Champlain’s destructive flooding this spring is that I’ve been forced me to recognize and grapple with the contradiction in preserving Rosslyn’s boathouse despite the potentially adverse environmental impact. It has reminded me that conviction is handy but not infallible, that conviction must be balanced with questioning and humility.

So, I’m finally flood proofing my optimism! I’m still soggy and still anxious about the waves rolling through the interior of the boathouse and crashing against the rapidly eroding bank supporting Route 22, but I’m beginning to see that the glass is half full after all. And Lake Champlain? It’s still overfull!

Rosslyn’s Redneck Yacht Club

In Boathouse, Carriage Barn, Daily Munge, House, Ice House, Renovation & Rehabilitation, What's Rosslyn?, What's the story? on April 25, 2011 at 7:28 am

I challenge any red blooded American who’s spent a little time in the country to dislike Redneck Yacht Club from Craig Morgan‘s 2005 album My Kind of Livin.

Can’t do it! Redneck, city slicker, suburbanite, exurbanite, whatever… If you give this energetic summer anthem a second or two you’ll be hooked. Scoff if you need to. Turn up your nose if your tastes are too refined for the Redneck Yacht Club. But I’m gambling that the next time you hear it pumping out the window of a slow-passing pickup truck you’ll smile. And hum the chorus. And admit to yourself that it’s a pretty catchy tune.

Here’s a little taste of the chorus. Try to read it without singing/humming the melody. Just try!

Basstrackers, Bayliners and a party barge,
strung together like a floating trailer park,
anchored out and gettin loud.
All summer long, side by side,
there’s five houseboat, front porches astroturf,
lawn chairs and tiki torches,
regular Joes rocking the boat. That’s us,
the redneck yacht club.
(CowboyLyrics.com)

See what I mean? So, your Chris Craft tastes don’t feel comfy with a song about Bayliners and party barges… So what? Stop judging and start bobbing your head!

I did.

You see, for the first year (or two?) that my bride and I were renovating/rehabilitating Rosslyn, Redneck Yacht Club played on always-on WOKO again and again. I don’t remember for sure, but I may have scoffed outwardly (and hummed inwardly) the first time I heard the song. But not the second. I laughed. I sang along. I went out and bought the album! Several years later, WOKO is no longer the default radio channel at Rosslyn, but I still hear the song from time to time. And when I do, it transports me instantly to the days of demolition, of surprises (mold, rot, bad electric, bad plumbing) and a mushrooming scope of work. It also takes me back to a house full of laughing contractors, rambling stories, off-color jokes and meals shared on sawhorses and upturned compound buckets.

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