Alicia Campbell, husband Todd, and son Devin pose on the front steps of their Greek Revival house in upstate New York.
When my husband, Todd, and I found our dream fixer-upper house in upstate New York, we had to look beyond the overgrown ivy, layers of peeling paint, and 1950s remuddles to glimpse its potential. Beneath all the vegetation and dirt, vestiges of a grand 1830s Greek Revival style house came into view, including four fireplaces, original 6/6 windows, and elaborate moldings. I dreamed of rescuing the house from its nightmare of neglect and filling its rooms with historic wallpaper, restored plaster walls, and period antiques and rugs. We bought the house, and immediately set to work saving it. Fourteen years later, our work still isn’t done, but we’ve grown much wiser about what to do—and what not to do. While we enjoy our house and all the effort we’ve put into it, every day the restoration lessons we’ve learned are helping us proceed more wisely with remaining projects, and they can help others, too.
Be flexible. We couldn’t afford to relocate during the demolition phase, so we had to get creative with living arrangements. Over three years, our bedroom moved to four different rooms, and our kitchen to two. The key to living through the changes was having few furnishings, which meant we could readily rearrange them, and being flexible. If you are flexible enough, anything can seem normal. Tackle messy projects first. Those that have the luxury to live elsewhere can take the whole-house approach to restoration; the rest of us must work on rooms one at a time. We found a sort of happy middle ground by doing the demolition on all common spaces at the same time, then one by one finishing off areas we deemed essential for comfortable living, like the kitchen and a bathroom. We learned to group messy projects together after continually washing plaster dust from dishes, beds, floors, clothing, and trim. Moving the destructive work through the house in sections got the worst parts over all at once and saved cleaning time.
Be patient. In the beginning, we set lofty goals for every project: I even projected the whole house as a two- to three-year restoration. This vision was blown six months after we began, when we were still plastering the kitchen. Every room we tackled presented similar surprises and unanticipated costs, and for every step forward we stumbled back a couple as well. Our kitchen alone took a year and a half to complete. Having the patience to live through the mess, and the willingness to take on extra work to meet goals, made surviving the restoration possible. Take time away. In an effort to finish the project early, it was easy for us to get caught up in a daily routine of working exclusively on the house. A couple of times, we even used vacation days from work to get a little further ahead restoring a room. After a while, though, working on our house wasn’t much fun anymore. We began to feel we would never finish, and we were coming down with restoration burnout. That’s when we learned that spending a weekend or two away from the place could help us forget the pains of ripping down walls, stripping multiple layers of paint, or wiping heavy dust off of tabletops. A couple of days away left us feeling refreshed and ready to continue.
You can learn anything. Finding the right craftspeople to work on our house proved more difficult than we anticipated—especially when we wanted to reproduce a historic appearance. We couldn’t find many people capable of recreating 19th century techniques, and couldn’t afford those who were experts at them. Through The Old-House Journal Guide to Restoration, a three-day class, and lots of practice, we managed to learn plastering. Through other books and professional guidance, we also learned to repair and re-glaze windows, patch and install flooring, put up clapboards, and re-create some moulding profiles. Granted, these projects took us much longer than they would have taken professionals, but we achieved the exact look we wanted, saved lots of money, and gained a great sense of satisfaction by doing them ourselves. Consult professionals (when needed). Inexperienced homeowners just shouldn’t attempt some tasks. We learned this the hard way when trying to plaster our entire new kitchen and pantry, consisting of two separate ceilings and eight walls. Todd, my father, and I had done a decent job on the first coat of plaster. After a Herculean effort of mixing, hauling, and smoothing, it had turned out pretty well—mostly level, completely floated, and ready for a second coat. The mistake we made was taking a break of about a week to focus on another project. When we returned our attention to the kitchen to install the second, or finish, coat, we discovered that our first coat of plaster had cured to a point where applying a second one was impossible. Our attempts to rescue the job were disastrous; almost instantly the finish coat dried into a hard, unworkable blob. Not knowing what else to do, we chiseled off the deformed plaster lumps and called a local restoration expert. He referred us to a professional plasterer, whose years of experience made solving the problem look easy. By thoroughly re-wetting the first coat of plaster with a garden hose, then adding retarder to the finish coat to slow its curing, he finished the entire job in two days, for a cost well worth it.
Be clear with contractors. Several times, we described a project to a contractor, left the house, and returned to results we hadn’t expected, such as several feet of porch trim that just didn’t suit the house, or doorways in the same room that differed in height. In some cases we had to fix the damage ourselves or even start over, which was an added expense to our already extensive costs. While contractors were always happy to consult with us, if we weren’t on the premises they would continue working and use their best judgment to save time and money. Unfortunately, our visions didn’t always agree. In hindsight, we could have avoided these mix-ups with better communication and some drawings, written instructions, pictures from books or magazines, or follow-up throughout the job. Research, research, research. Through local experts, books, and tools like the Internet, a broad range of information is available on just about any repair. When preparing for a new project, we explored as many options as possible, including several different approaches and materials. Comparing methods allowed us to choose a solid plan, and usually saved us money, too. It also helped us ask contractors the right questions, making sure their approach to a project made sense for us.
Pace yourself. After restoring our house for 11 years, we decided to push and finish so we could have time to hike, play tennis, and travel again. But we also wanted an unattached timber-frame barn to replace the 1950s, attached two-car garage that came with the house. So in the middle of finishing up our back woodshed/family room project—and prepping interior walls for paper and painting trimwork—we decided to build the barn sooner rather than later. We began ordering materials, putting on the roof, installing the cornice and trim, repairing old windows, and nailing up all of the clapboards. As with most projects, we hit snags, such as a summer of torrential rain that soaked materials and blew our schedule. The barn was at least three times the work we initially expected. Continually exhausted and stressed, we realized we had taken on too much. As cold weather approached, we decided to finish the barn in the spring or as time permitted, and wrapped up only what had to be done before winter. Being realistic allowed us to maintain our sanity.
Take stock of progress. I should have kept repeating these words several years ago, when Todd and I were stripping paint off of our upstairs trim. Sweat dripped down our faces behind the respirators; thick, smelly chemicals covered our clothes; and the trim seemed to extend for miles. It felt like we would never finish. Day by day, though, we looked at our small accomplishments, like exposing the original detail on a patch of trim. Soon our undertakings added up to a section of a room, then a whole room, and eventually several of them. Throughout the work, we kept the vision of a completed historic house in our heads, and it helped us continue.
Humor is key. This lesson was easier to realize after most of the hard work was done. While renovating our downstairs bathroom, we removed a dropped ceiling only to discover it had been hiding a long, large cast iron waste pipe. Removing the pipe to reroute the plumbing became a job of epic proportions—a classic example of the Mushroom Factor. We decided to break it loose with a large sledgehammer, but realized the falling pipe would damage the soft pine floorboards beneath it. So we resolved to tie the pipe to a heavy object through a hole in the ceiling above, and slowly lower it down. Thus I became the “anchor” for the pipe, with a thick rope tied around my waist and my tensed legs braced against a second-storey wall. As Todd slowly guided the pipe downward, and I gently released sections of rope, I envisioned the pipe falling and sucking me through the hole with it. It wasn’t one of our safest or smartest ideas, but we accomplished the job without killing ourselves or the floor, and I still laugh thinking about it.