I have an ongoing informal photo project of documenting the abstract harmony of messes. I'm tickled by the way disparate objects unexpectedly connect physically in a prescribed space, effortlessly telling a story or posing a question. Big messes can contain arrangements of colors, angles and oddities that are striking. Having never been much of a housekeeper, this subject matter constantly renews itself for me. Magic! Dishes were my steadfast muse before the advent of this house project, the Mother Lode of messes.
Contrary to reasonable assumption, the hot, hard, and filthy work of rebuilding this house has been a therapeutic luxury, one I would prescribe as an antidote to a certain strain of fatalism. Making order out of disorder taps a basic human instinct. Literally wading through the disorder to create an ideal order of our own design, we are mimicking life, and the action of the project is cathartic. Every inch of the space has become intimately familiar, representing triumph, challenge, hope, fear, creative tension, or fantasy. Moments of an indirect, tilted kind of beauty arise that have as much to do with the passage of time as their physical presentation.
In the beginning, these visual moments were melancholy, even scary. The wrecked personal treasures of the previous occupants were gaslighting us, taunting the future. Reflections of mortality were sharing space with plans for the Dream Kitchen. Gradually, the aesthetic temper of the space calmed down, and the pockets of chaos gave way to clearer palettes.
Ironically, the hard lines and sparse colors of a construction site are an uncomfortable place for me. The blank canvas is a daunting hurdle. This middle phase is technical. The beauty is more cerebral, by degrees, as in the form of a perfect square angle or a clean path for circuitry. The soft animal side of my nature is relying on scraps for satisfaction, like slim, uneven shims hammered into place that make all the difference. Those "beauty moments", when perfection relies on the chance of imperfection, are a balm.
Tilted Beauty, Passing Time: The Abstract Harmony of Messes
Here she is.
Ready to stretch.
That's a big iron oven on a dolly at the top of the hill.
With winter approaching, it occurred to me that I should shift focus from the spindles to the columns. The seams of the two outer columns had opened up allowing rain to trickle down and settle inside the base. Here the paint came off easily, the wood was soft, and the old rusty nails dug out as easily as if they had been made of pastry.
I popped out the old, failing glue clogging the seams then filled those seams with fresh, modern mega-super-badass wood glue. Gravity was a bit of a nuisance and I'm still fretting about the quality of coverage I achieved. After the glue went in, I used ratchet straps to squeeze the entire assembly back together with gusto.
This was insanely for fun for me. I'm not kidding.
those holes are from the old rusty nails
Super tight ratchet.
The back of the house has a three level sleeping porch that we believe went through a mid-century makeover and possibly a Van Halen era cover up. At some point, it was fully enclosed with wooden walls and sliding windows. The floors broadcast the same fastidious Victorian era craftsmanship of the rest of the house, but blatant care fatigue took over whoever clad the entire structure with an ad hoc layer of 2x4s which were subsequently covered with faux brick siding.
The siding layer is about 1/2" thick. Determinedly hammered into place with thousands of fasteners, it masks the seams and loosely mitered corners of the 2x4 layer. You can almost hear out loud the voice of the creator of this assembly: just board this up, just get it done, just nail this sucker down so tight It never comes off. Ever.
It's an aesthetic abomination. Mercifully, the rusted out, crumbling gutter above it undermined that mechanic's ambition. Years of rain dribbling down, soaking the face of the siding layer have swollen its fibers and pockets of air bulge gently away from the armature of 2x4s. If you pick at the bulges between the nails, crumbling chunks of material come off in your hand revealing ghostly white sacks of spider eggs hidden beneath.
The back porch is screaming for rejuvenation. We plan to overhaul it completely, but In the meantime, the gnarly siding had to go.
Just pops right off
spider eggs ...
Look at that!
But for now, keeping the wild at bay is step 1. We discovered that the side yard was consumed by poison ivy. This was intimidating at first but I'm steeled against it now. I refuse to use the evil roundup products. It's going to be brute force against this gnarly weed. Here's what it was like at the start:
The first hurdle to clear on my porch project is the cement-like attachment of the dull, grey paint that has entombed the spindles. Multiple layers coat the curves of their profile, denying its shape and character expression. Trial and error took me through two kinds of chemical stripper and assorted scraping devices before I finally hit my stride denuding these wooden stalwarts.
Setting aside considerable anxiety about carcinogens, I initially thought chemical stripper was the way to go. Presumably, the paint would liquefy before my eyes so I could just push off the muck with a painter's 5-in-1. With more than 90 spindles in line for treatment, imagining this outcome helped mute the vividly highlighted skull and crossbones screaming from the side of the can. Anticipating the tactile experience of dissolving the past and digging its weight out of the grooves and corners made my mouth water with desire.
Anyone that has ever undertaken a formidable paint stripping project knows my folly. Chemical stripper is powerful, but the pitiful bubbles and riffly curls of the whisper-thin top layers of paint that peeled away from the spindles left thick decades of impervious shellack behind. The cure of time had hardened the chemical composition and nothing but brute physical force was going to make a dent in this casement. Malcolm had tried to explain this to me but only the failure of my fantasy method was enough to convince me that getting ugly with a scraper was the only real option here.
I now have two sizes of flat scrapers, each with "rough" and "fine" blades. There is no magical dissolution of muck; no short cuts. Decades of dance and yoga are paying dividends as I dig in to the paint hanging upside down over the rail, or crouched on either side, shoulders squared and stretched to the limit seeking leverage against the hardening of time at every angle. The trick is balancing aggressive forward force with deft sensitivity to keep from gouging the wood; action as metaphor for the project itself.
Gouge! It's a bummer when this happens, but I have a plan for fixing the many gouges. To be continued...
Porches take center place in every homestead fantasy I've ever had. To even have a porch after two-plus decades of Manhattan living is a personal triumph. I've already imagined a lifetime's worth of porch action for this porch. My vision is only hampered by my inability to settle on a final color scheme. As you will see, however, I've got a ways to go before having to make that decision.
The porch, warped and weathered, is in dire straits. There are over 90 spindles either encased in dull, cracked paint or missing altogether. Along the stairs leading up to the porch, there is a utilitarian stopgap of a handrail that was installed by the previous owner after a section of the original rotted and fell away. Rusty nails and crumbling wood have a tenuous hold at every juncture.
It would be easy, though expensive, to scrap it all and start fresh, but there is so much to save here, and we didn't buy an old house in order to have a new one! The plan is to restore as many elements of this old porch as is feasible, and bask in the shared history of the people that came before us.
Here is the starting point:
Screaming for repair. Here's the side view:
Splitting columns: I always wondered how columns were made. Seeing ours coming apart at the seams explained a lot.
Every juncture looks like this:
There is no heat or hot anything in our house yet. Last winter, our work was hard labor, hefting literally tons of debris. Cold weather is a bonus when you're slinging 50lb. bags around. Now that the project has hit a more "refined" phase (LOL), the cold weather is something to contend with.
It was freezing in Newburgh last weekend, the first truly cold one of the year. Don't ask me why, but this was a surprise to us. We hadn't tailored our projects to fit the weather. Malcolm was up on the roof repairing the skylight and I was out on the front porch whittling away at ancient spindles. By 3pm, we were numb and miserable.
As it happened, we needed more work lights in the space now that the days are shorter and darker. You can buy construction lights, but they're expensive and why buy what you can make? We had the supplies to make them, so we set up shop in the car, and roasted ourselves back to life with the heater. The aim was a string of lights with bulbs that were 9 feet apart, like big Christmas lights.
We cut about twenty lengths of Romex, each about nine feet long. We stripped both ends of each piece, then connected two ends together with a "pigtail", aka a light socket, in between. Tangled up in Romex in the front seat of the hot car, we clipped, twisted and taped. We drank coffee and listened to music. It was simple work and satisfying. The only pitfall would be to lose track of the ends and close a circle; to make a "circle of lights" that had no plug. That would be ridiculous. We had a good laugh about how silly that would be.
When it was time to test the finished product, we hopped out of the cocoon and dragged the jumbled mass into the house. The stiff, coiled Romex was like a live snake that would not lie down. It was crazy but it would not resolve itself. Where was the end? Where was the other end? "Grab this part, pull that out, scoot over a bit...no, wait, there it is. No..." indeed, we had made not one, but TWO "circles of lights" without plugs. Not our most productive day, but it warm and fun.
There are obvious disadvantages to not having floors on a construction site. Extreme care is an imperative. The route from points A to B is roundabout, and in some cases, point B isn't accessible at all. But, after we cleared out the No Mans Land on 3, there was a nice dividend. Once again, we had literally tons of debris, a high pile of heavy bags that needed to find their way down to the ground floor and out of our way until the arrival of Dumpster Day #3.
Here is the solution:
Crispy beams sailing down
It was a delicate operation that I wrote about in my last post, Jenga on 3, but we've done it. We built temporary support walls on 2 that kept the world from crashing down and we reclaimed the third floor "No Mans Land". The support walls threw angles, light and abstract beauty around the second floor.
Putting up support walls:
We reclaimed wood from other areas to build the support.
View up from 2 to 3:
Support walls in place, Malcolm cuts out the deadweight heater:
Third floor, all clear !
Next: peeling back the crumbly floor so we can get ready to repair it all:
With the old floor out, we can get to the charcoal joists that need replacement.
Looking up from 2 before all the floor was out:
As I mentioned in "From another angle", some Bad Guys broke into this house at some point and set it on fire. A column of flame shot through the ceiling of the first floor. From there, it rose straight up and fanned out across the ceiling of the second floor roasting the floor joists like tinder until a gaping hole to the third floor broke open. The firemen gained control, but on a section of three, only charred sagging remnants of the floor remain; crispy carbon beams tethered together by a spaghetti tangle of old BX cable. These lilted downward toward the open hole through which you could now see straight through to the first floor. Heaps of debris, a fallen door, and an old gas heater lay atop this tenuous support in a precarious jumble.
I've written about the nearly twenty tons of debris that we've removed from this house over the past nine months, but I haven't mentioned that none of it was from this special purgatory on the third floor that threatened collapse if its delicate balance was upset. It felt like a giant game of jenga. The floor sagged heavily under the weight of the debris and the iron heater sat cockeyed at the precipice of the opening. Looking up from the second floor, you could identify the weakest spots, so we hugged the perimeter and gingerly began clearing it, piece by piece. For the far reaches, we used a garden hoe to scrape the rubble towards the safe zone. The plan was to remove the dangerous deadweight on three so that we could wedge temporary support walls under the charred beams without risk of it all falling on our heads.
Here's what it looked like:
From the other side...
Looking up from 2:
How solid are they?
Views of the hole:
Picking up the sad thread of my last post, all of our Project Tools were stolen out of the back of the car in the middle of the night. Hand tools; cordless power tools; a laser that I did not understand but that was awesome; the chunky lithium blocks of pure potential that powered us through a dark winter: all were gone, spirited away in our laundry bag by a mean thief who exploded our clean laundry throughout the car as added insult. Pierced by this rude awakening on a sunny Saturday morning, we stewed all the way to the house and strategized how to make the work day count without the tools.
To be clear, this happened on a fairly posh block of MANHATTAN, not in Newburgh, an important distinction to us. We love Newburgh. With its rough reputation it's oft maligned, so Malcolm and I are compelled to defend it against any undue criticism. Newburgh has its challenges for sure, but it also has vibrant, positive energy flowing through its veins.
Geographically and historically, Newburgh is a jackpot. It served as the headquarters of the continental army during the American Revolution. General George Washington's home during that period still stands today (you can tour it!). The city is perched on the banks of the Hudson River with mountains and nature preserves at its back. It's connected to Beacon by both a bridge and a ferry, and it's only an hour and change from NYC. Storm King and Dia Beacon with a boat marina in between; snowboarding within 20 minutes; how is this alchemy even possible?
For generations, Newburgh thrived as an important port city on the Hudson River. Beautiful Victorian homes evidence it's golden years. But, like so many great industrial era cities in America, loss of industry and jobs in the late twentieth century created a scary vacuum of unemployment, crime, mismanagement and suffering.
Today, however, the renaissance underway in Newburgh is palpable. Boarded up historic buildings cry out for resurrection and people are answering the cry. With New York City continues its evolution to an overpriced strip mall, pricing out creativity, nesting and diversity, Newburgh feels like community, inspiration, and opportunity. So, when our petty, rude, no-good, speck of a man/woman thief came to call, we wanted everyone to know that it was NOT in Newburgh! Crime happens everywhere, but this crime did not happen here.
The first few days after the Great Tool Heist were melancholy. It was tempting to blame the victim, aka Us, which is never a happy conversation... Dwelling on the lost resources was a slippery slope of pessimism and our shiny project now felt hamstrung in a way we had not anticipated. Worse, the Project Tools' very existence had been intertwined with the sanctity of the project as a whole, and their absence, with the ugly vibrations of the crime, touched our hallowed ground in a dispiriting way. For days, the blue streak ran through our creative energy coloring it with doubt.
Of course, the blues were all in our head so when the motherload of DIY projects kept giving, that noise dimmed. There is no salve like hard work with your body and hands. For every task in limbo until a tool could be replaced, two new tasks presented themselves. Inconveniences and work-arounds smoothed over. We lugged, hefted, tugged, whacked, scraped and demanded progress. Finally, about two weeks after The Heist, Malcolm found the power cord to the radio that until then had only worked with the special, expensive (stolen) batteries. Suddenly, the music was back on and the hiccup of the tools was behind us.
It was a Dutch farmhouse with an expansive view of the river.
Not a bad end to the commute:
The ferry lets you off next to the riverfront bars and restaurants.
And we just discovered that all of our tools were stolen out of the back of our car last night. Speechless. Except to say that this happened in MANHATTAN not Newburgh.
Fetish: "A course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment." I was compelled to look up the word 'fetish' in the run up to the watershed moment when the electricity arrived because the urge to vacuum the space was so acute that it invaded my dreams. I have always been able to tolerate substantial disorder for a cause even when the cause is nothing more than ignoring the dishes to prolong the evening or even just the morning coffee hour. Why kill those golden moments? But here, the thick dunes of dirt, dust and ground up paint that have filled every seam and corner are making me drool with the anticipation of sucking them up.
I have known fastidious people that can not abide a mess for any amount of time. Those people would not enjoy this project. A dear aunt of mine responded to my first photographs of the house at its absolute worst by adding us to the "prayer list" at her church. The mess really was extraordinary and in some ways frightening. But two dumpsters and nearly 20 tons of garbage later, we are starting to resemble a normal construction site.
is it irrational to vacuum a construction site? Knowing the scraping, sanding, and sawing that is teed up for the immediate future, it probably is. Certainly, it is adding work. Every vacuumed surface would have to be vacuumed again almost immediately. But the allure of the task was emotional not rational and I could hardly wait to get started.
We have a monster of a vacuum and the only impediment to pure satisfaction was the 2" diameter of the hose. Errant screws and quarter sized paint chips would lodge in the middle and cause a backlog like a cat hair ball that had to be worked out through the nozzle. Despite those hiccups, I filled a giant premium HEPA filter-excalibur-rocketship of a vacuum bag to its limit. This made me very happy.
For the last seven months, part of our program has been charging and conserving the power of four Dewalt construction batteries. Charged offsite, these batteries were our sole source of power outside the sun itself. They powered everything from LED flashlights to screw guns, saws, drills and a radio (apparently they even power an espresso maker but sadly, we never found that mythical tool.)
In the mornings, flush with three bars per battery, light and music filled the space and the wealth of the new day was manifest by the clunky jumble of spare lithium blocks on the floor at the ready; pure potential. The boards came off the windows, daylight poured in and the flashlights illuminated the far reaches. As we wore through the day and the batteries pushing our massive rock up the hill, the beams of the flashlights gradually traded places with the waning sun as our critical light.
Blinking flashlights were the cue to wrap it up lest you find yourself boarding up the windows by hand in the dark. The radio was shut off. Sheer exhaustion synced with the dying batteries and we meted out every last joule with care.
Oh, but those days are over!! We have a box, and outlets! And extension cords, and power strips!! And work lights!! We strung those lights through the space like crepe streamers for a prom. The Dumpster Days were pivotal moments in this project, but this was the first major milestone.
We have power!