Beyond the Kitchen — Restoring Dignity

At some point this year, the kitchen will be done (Oh dear God I hope). Once we have reached that point, it will be time to restore some of the dignity which was either stripped away or covered under countless layers of paint over the past 100 years. We also have two unfinished rooms I am anxious to get started on. But the bedroom and bathroom plans will have to wait until my next post.

As noted in my last post, moving into a new space is more complicated for me (us) than for most folks. It is more than simply moving boxes into the apartment, unpacking the contents into existing storage, and calling it home. I don’t just move in, I install myself into the space. I always have. My home has always been a direct reflection on who I am as a person. Not because I want to impress others, but because I want to create a space for myself (and Yoav) to come home to every night.

When we bought our apartment, we were purposely looking for a fixer upper because I love a project. As a child, I had dreams of restoring a Victorian house, which later turned into dreams of restoring an 1860’s Italianate or Second Empire. (I discovered I am much more of an Italianate or Second Empire kinda guy.) Italianates, and Second Empires exist in New York City, but short of my winning the Mega-Millions, I will not be restoring one any time soon. That is why I love our apartment so much. I was thrilled by all of the projects I could see the first time we saw it. It may not be of the style I had dreamed of, but being built during the early 20th Century Beaux Arts period provides plenty to work with. That said, a true full on restoration is also not in the picture, it’s just not realistic for many reasons. But bringing back the dignity of what was once here is very much a part of the plan.

 

The ceiling detail in this bold living room (located in a different building) is nearly identical to what was once in our living room [Source: StreetEasy]

The ceiling detail in this bold living room (located in a different building) is nearly identical to what was once in our living room [Source: StreetEasy]

I’ve always seen myself as a caretaker of whatever old space I lived in. I am but a temporary resident in the life of our apartment. There have been many people before me, and I expect there will be many who live here after I do. As beautiful as our Beaux Arts apartment was when it was completed in 1910, much of the dignity of the apartment is long gone. It was either stripped away completely when our unit was split in two in the middle of the last century, or just buried under dozens of layers of paint. My ultimate hope is to restore a fair amount of the architectural dignity to our space during my time there. Of course, restoring details takes time….

Side Note: During the course of writing on this post it became obvious that it is mostly referring me, myself, and my home. Allow me to clarify that my dear husband Yoav is still very much a part of the process. I may be the one who thinks up and executes the ideas, but nothing is done without his approval (well, mostly). He holds ultimate veto power (nearly always). A power he has used on more than one occasion, and a power which has wielded its own benefits. He is the one who chose Stiffkey Blue from our pallet of blues for the kitchen cabinets (I wanted Drawing Room Blue). When it comes to general decorating, Yoav may not be as particular as I am, but he completely supports my efforts and thoroughly enjoys the rewards of my creating a home for both of us.

OK, back to the point of this post. In what has seemingly turned into “The Year of the Kitchen”, we do envision a day when the kitchen is finished. What a joyous day it will be to have the refrigerator out of the living room, and our art hanging on the walls again. God willing, that will happen before winter. In the pipeline awaiting the completion of the kitchen are two projects intended to restore dignity to our home. Crown molding and door restoration. Both of these projects will have a huge impact on our entire space and are in line with my long term plans formulated two years ago.

 

The ceiling detail in this former living room (now bedroom) located in a different building by Neville and Bagge, the same architects as our building, is exactly the same as what was once in our living room. This would cost about $80-$100 per linear foot to recreate in our place. [<i>Source: <a href="https://streeteasy.com/" target=“blank">StreetEasy</a></i>]

The ceiling detail in this former living room (now bedroom) located in a different building by Neville and Bagge, the same architects as our building, is exactly the same as what was once in our living room. This would cost about $80-$100 per linear foot to recreate in our place. [Source: StreetEasy]

CROWN MOLDING
Top of the list will be crown molding for the living room for a lot of various reasons. Primarily because our apartment originally had lovely coved plaster crown molding in all of the public rooms, bedrooms, and hallways. We still have the simpler plaster cove crown detail in the center hall, bedroom, and kitchen (because it was originally a bedroom), but not in the living room or entry gallery. I want to bring back that level of elegance and grace so sadly stripped away.

The image above in the former living room (now bedroom) of another building by Neville and Bagge, the architects of our building, offers a glimpse at what the original “swan’s neck” plaster crown moldings looked like when our apartment was built in 1910. The swan’s neck refers to the deep inset curve in the plaster. Several of our neighbors retain theirs (at least in part), but unfortunately for us and many of the apartments in our building, the crown detail was destroyed in the process of splitting the units in two during the middle of the last century. Although not all of the units were split — there are some amazing original interiors scattered throughout the building. Me… Not jealous… At all…

 

Close up of a similar "swans neck" plaster moldings [Source: Unable to determine - via Google]

Close up of a similar “swans neck” plaster moldings [Source: Unable to determine – via Google]

Of course my first inkling was to look into restoring what was originally there. I did a bit of research to see what it would cost to replicate the “swans neck” plaster crown and yikes! Estimates ran about $80-$100 per running foot, which works out to about $6,000-$7,000 for the living room alone. Obviously way out of budget.

I next looked to various types of crown molding which are readily available at the big box stores. It very quickly became obvious that this was not an option either. Not because of cost, but because of scale and proportion. Moldings in the past were much more substantial in their size and variety, and as styles changed and value engineering became a driving factor, moldings became smaller in scale and proportion. The result amounts to the small soul-less trim pieces at the big box.

 

This is the profile of the primary crown molding we plan to use. It is substantial and architecturally appropriate to the period. [<i>Source: <a href="http://www.udecor.com/" target="blank">uDecor.com</a></i>]

This is the profile of the primary crown molding we plan to use. It is substantial and architecturally appropriate to the period. [Source: uDecor.com]

So what are we going to do? I’ll be posting a much more detailed post about it when we get closer to the time of install, but essentially, we are not going to try and recreate the “swan’s neck” detail, but instead will be going for a boxed in look of wood trim, not plaster moldings. This style is quite different from what was there, but it is most definitely keeping in line with what would have been done in 1910.

I will be going deeper into our crown molding plans as we get closer to starting our project, but in a nut shell, I plan to add one large piece of crown with added moldings above and below to create the impression of much more detail. I will also be painting them white, which will reduce the amount of black on the ceiling, which I anticipate will enhance the feeling of space in our living room. Our space won’t look like our neighbors, but it will at least capture in a realistic manner what was once a very dignified element of our home.

 

The mahogany door in this lovely bedroom is a great example of what is lurking below the many layers of paint on our mahogany doors. (The panel molding on the walls is also really nice) [<i>Source: <a href="https://streeteasy.com/" target="blank">StreetEasy</a></i>]

The mahogany door in this lovely bedroom is a great example of what is lurking below the many layers of paint on our mahogany doors. (The panel molding on the walls is also really nice) [Source: StreetEasy]

DOOR RESTORATION
When we came to the open house in April of 2014 and toured our apartment for the first time, the real estate agent told us that all of the doors were original, and that buried under the countless layers of paint was mahogany. They also all had original hardware, including the octagonal cut crystal doorknobs. This was when crystal door knobs were still considered fancy before they became so very ubiquitous in the 1920s.

In all we have nine mahogany doors. Three standard 84” ones, of which one has been permanently removed., two tall French doors with ¼ inch plate glass which (at 99 inches) stand more than eight feet tall, and four closet doors, also more than eight feet tall. The door to the cedar closet (by our front door) is veneered on the inside in cedar and fortunately was never painted. Altogether, these doors would easily cost more than $10,000 to replace as they would all have to be custom made. It was these super tall doors which first grabbed our hearts when we saw the apartment for the first time.

 

The mahogany door in this entry hall is another good example of what was original to our apartment. Only the doors were finished wood. All of the other woodwork was hardwood, but it was finished in a white enamel. (Note the same ceiling plaster details as other units) [<i>Source: <a href="http://streeteasy.com" target="blank">StreetEasy</a></i>]

The mahogany door in this entry hall is another good example of what was original to our apartment. Only the doors were finished wood. All of the other woodwork was hardwood, but it was finished in a white enamel. (Note the same ceiling plaster details as other units) [Source: StreetEasy]

Unfortunately, the doors have suffered a good amount of abuse over the years. Aside from the dozens of coats of paint covering the wood, they have been banged up, scratched, and scraped. Worse, a former paranoid tenant had deadbolt locks installed on several of them, including the French door from the entry hall to the living room.

When we first moved in, I had fantasies of taking the doors down, one at a time, stripping them and restoring them to their original glory. Now that we have been here for two years, I have come to realize how much of a fantasy it was. The limitations of doing this work by myself is truly unrealistic at best. This is because living in a one bedroom apartment has its limitations. Any kind of work I do, must be done within the confines of our apartment. Since I have no spare room or a basement, a garage or any other space to do all of the work, I am left with the living room. And if I did take this on, it would literally mean months of stripping and chemicals, and mess, and toxic fumes, and major disruption.

 

Before and after examples of the dip-strip process of removing paint from old doors. [<i>Source: <a href="https://lansdownerevisited.com/2015/10/25/door-renovations/" target="blank">Lansdowne Revisited (UK)</a></i>]

Before and after examples of the dip-strip process of removing paint from old doors. [Source: Lansdowne Revisited (UK)]

Enter Dip-Strip! What is dip-strip? It is essentially the process of taking your doors offsite, suspending them in a tank of toxic chemicals to dissolve the old paint, and then having them returned to you as bare wood. Although very common in the United Kingdom (of course it is) it is relatively obscure here. We are going to explore having all of our doors dip-stripped and also repaired and restored. A bit of initial research brings up a couple of places which do this in the area, so we will get quotes. We will also look at getting quotes on having the door moldings (and maybe the window moldings) stripped on site as well. While nowhere near the cost of renovating a kitchen, it will not be cheap, but we have given a lot of thought to it, and we both feel the benefits will be worth it. Restoring our doors back to finished mahogany will make such a huge difference in the feel of our home. It will also add value should we ever choose to sell. Best of all, the original mahogany doors will be one of the things that will make our home special and of course they will be so beautiful!

 

The stripping process with chemical bath. You can see the paint almost falling off of the door. [<i>Source: <a href="http://www.tillotsontrading.com/hotdipstripping.htm" target="blank">Tillotson Trading in Vermont</a></i>]

The stripping process with chemical bath. You can see the paint almost falling off of the door. [Source: Tillotson Trading in Vermont]

Our plans beyond the crown molding include recreating the multi-layered wood panel moldings in the living room, and more crown molding and base boards for the entry gallery, but those projects are a lot further down the line (as in a few years). Installing crown molding in the living room and restoring our doors will go a long ways towards recapturing the dignity our home once had.

Next post will be another Beyond the Kitchen post and the focus will be on the two unfinished rooms which I am aching to finally work on. I will explain more next week, but I have been planning the bedroom and bathroom for quite a long time. I have also been acquiring furniture and accessories over the past six months and can’t wait to put them to use.

8 Comments
  • Alice
    August 31, 2016

    We’re moving into a (tiny) condo in the first quarter of next year and, basically, it wants to look like your place when it grows up. All the moulding I’ve found hasn’t been right-for all the reasons you listed-so it was great to be directed to that resource–I just ordered half a dozen samples.

    Your doors will be gorgeous! Well worth the cost and effort. I always joke with my wife that everything is better in England. Love your blog and look forward to seeing what you two do next.

    • Devyn
      August 31, 2016

      Thanks Alice! Glad to be able to guide you to a resource for the moldings. I have ordered samples twice now and I think we finally have the ones we want to use. (I’ll cop to watching a few too many how-to videos with Eric Rosenfeld.)

      The doors will be amazing, the cost maybe not so much, but in five years we won’t care about the cost when we look at how beautiful our doors are. We are exceptionally fortunate to have retained all of them given their age.

      As for British style, they do have more than their fair share of schlocky things, but they also have some really amazing goods based on simple old school styles which still look modern and fresh. I just wish it was easier to get their stuff here.

      • Alice
        August 31, 2016

        Eric is pretty dishy! Postage everywhere, but especially in the UK, is so frustrating.

        I don’t mean to spam you with comments but I am going through your blog from the start and I can’t leave comments on some of the older entries. I wonder what you thought of doing the plaster of paris treatment you used on the ceiling rose (http://halfclassicsix.com/oh-yes-we-did-the-big-black-reveal-part-2/) on the mouldings? I’m a little worried they’ll read as plastic even when painted, although that might be irrational since they’ll be 3′-4′ above my head. Just wanted to get your thoughts. Many thanks.

        • Devyn
          September 1, 2016

          Excellent point about the moldings looking too new. I absolutely have concerns about it looking too “perfect”, even at nearly ten feet up. I have considered that the level of detail automatically dictates that they are not plaster. Fortunately, painted wood crown was used during that time and I did some research to make sure I selected a style appropriate for that period.

          My current plan is to do a couple of test samples with some scrap trim. I want to try the plaster of paris technique, but doing it on a large scale may be challenging. Fortunately perfection is not what I am going for. Once I figure out the best “finish”, I want to paint them in a semigloss white to match the walls with the hopes that the semigloss will highlight the imperfections on the surface without highlighting the inevitable seams (of which there will be one seam on each wall).

          BTW… Best of luck on the new place. I know all about tiny space living.

          As for the comments being closed…. Unfortunately, I have had to set the comments to close after 90 days to prevent evil spam.

          • Alice
            September 3, 2016

            Totally understandable about spam. Thanks for your thoughts. We were told we could do the first walkthrough after Labor Day–fingers crossed that still holds!

  • Chad
    September 28, 2016

    This is really great. I have a couple comments.

    I stripped all my doors myself because I didn’t want to pay $200 a door to have the salvage yard where I got them do it, and it took about 100 hours and then read that someone in the UK spent 30 pounds a door having hers dipped. I spent more than that on materials alone! (I used SoyGel.)

    And for the crown molding, I’ll start with my most (or only) sensible of 3 ideas. I think you can build up the crown molding you showed right there using off-the shelf molding and boards (if you have a router) as seen here. http://www.taguelumber.com/moulding-combinations/tl-3161/ Since your walls are definitely not flat, your corners are definitely not square, and everything is solid soft masonry, building it up like that would probably make it easier to install.

    You’ll go half insane getting blocking up on the wall, and then once it’s up everything else can nail on. It took me like 2 months to get baseboards on my solid brick walls. In the end I gave up on nails, glued them on, and used barbell weights to hold them sorta tight to the wall while the glue took 2 weeks to cure in a cold house. But I think if you try to put a massive, fancy 1 piece crown up it’ll be pure hell getting it installed and (if neither of you wants a divorce afterward) you’ll have like quarter-inch gaps that will take several weeks to fill and caulk over and over again.

    Same lumber company makes a gooseneck crown molding in wood that’s probably frighteningly expensive. And it can’t really look like plaster. The one you’re going for is actually supposed to be wood. But I’m still curious about what this looks like. http://www.taguelumber.com/mouldings/tl-719/

    And, craziest but most fun thing, a guy in Philly (in one of the garden blocks like in The Sixth Sense – I’m very jealous) made his own cast-in-place crown molding out of 20 minute setting compound. Here’s the first of several posts about that process on his blog. https://madisonsquarehome.com/2015/01/10/a-new-challenge-recreating-plaster-moldings/

    • Devyn
      October 1, 2016

      Chad, thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. Glad to have you stop by.

      I wish it was only $200 per door to dip-srip here in NYC. Unfortunately we don’t have many options, nor the space within our place to take on such a task for all nine doors. Several of them also need repair and I want to leave that to hands more skilled than mine when it comes to detailing the mahogany veneers.

      On my crown molding plans… Our ceilings are plaster on concrete and the walls being plaster on gypsum block, both are pretty challenging to attach things to. The crown I plan to use is fairly forgiving. It is lightweight, it can be installed with adhesive, and it is flexible enough to manage the un-evenness of the walls. Best of all it isn’t a fortune. Also, I haven’t gone into details, but I am totally planning to “build-out” the install with additional moldings both on the ceiling and the wall to give it a bigger look, more in line with the original moldings.

      I’ve had pretty good luck at attaching beadboard to our plaster over brick walls using 3 3/4” Tapcon screws and a hammer drill in our kitchen, but I will likely resort to using some sort of combo of adhesive and anchors in our living room when I finally get to re-creating our 18” tall baseboards.

      Also, love the two piece gooseneck moldings. It would be great to try and recreate what was once here, but as you said, too expensive.

      • Chad
        October 3, 2016

        Well you can always bring your doors down here if it saves enough money – it’s an hour and a half by car. And Philadelphia Salvage is up in Germantown where there are lots of run-down Italianates to ogle over. Also my friend’s parents had all their shutters dipped and then they had to have them reglued. You could wind up with a lot more than spot repairs to your mahogany veneers.

        It sounds like your walls aren’t quite as soft as mine, which are bricks that seemed to have turned halfway back into clay dust and lime-based mortar.