I’ve learned a lot about refinishing old home radiators this year and thought I’d share some of my hard-won knowledge. Our project involved refinishing original 1899 radiators with ornate details and some replacement radiators added or swapped over the life of the home. In all, we refinished all eight hot water radiators on the first floor this year using a variety of techniques depending on their weight, style, and location.
There were two big goals for 2015: Refinish the floors & trim, and restore the north facade of the house. We decided we’d split them into two phases: floors & trim in the spring, facade in late summer. But as spring arrived, things got more complicated than that. As usual.
If you’re refinishing the floors, that’s the time to refinish the radiators, right? And if we’re making the first floor look great, we might as well do the stairs. And we should probably fix those doors. And the windows. And if you’re hiring a window expert, they better look at those attic windows ASAP, right? Soon, you’re disassembling an entire floor and your projected costs have grown 50%.
I recently read a thoughtful article by an 18-year Detroit resident about the folly of youth moving to a city down on its luck. Much hay has been made of the influx of young people to Detroit lately, and as a 28-year old home buyer (now 31), I fit fairly neatly into that pile. The author shares portions of an idyllic letter he wrote as a 25-year old to then-Mayor Dennis Archer and squirms as he tries to reconcile his present-day perspectives with the ones he brought with him in 1996.
I’m here because, like the author, I wanted to live in a place that wasn’t done being built. I am, at my core, a builder. A place like Detroit is irresistible because it just screams out the opportunities for a builder. And indeed, I quickly found my little corner on which to build. I have a grand vision for my little corner, and on this corner my ideas and efforts are boundless.
That’s what my neighbor Alex replied when I said I was surprised about the attention real estate in Woodbridge is getting now.
Last week, a house in Woodbridge a couple blocks away listed for $9,000 in an apparent foreclosure. It’s a brick facade and fully intact (with original trim) with 5 bedrooms, but needs a kitchen and bathroom gut. It’s 2200 square feet, so a bit smaller than the Sullivan House, and probably needs 30 grand in renovations. No garage or anything else in the backyard. Hell, I’d buy it for $9,000 tonight without even looking at it.
Sometimes I wander around the house and just look at things a little closer. I’ve learned some tremendously interesting things by doing this.
For instance, the “public” areas of the house (main rooms on the first floor) have a style distinct from the “private” areas (kitchen, second floor), right down to the hardware and door patterns. Tonight, my mind focused on the bead pattern that repeats on the main stair case in wood *and* on all the door knobs and plates in the public areas.
I’m working on putting together a photobook of our work on the Sullivan House. It’s gotten to the point now where I have trouble conveying the energy that’s gone into its restoration when giving a tour. I have all of these photos on Facebook and elsewhere and no way to show them to someone who’s physically in the house. Every tour is different because it depends on what I happen to remember at that moment and what the guest is interested in.
Most folks don’t get to decide whether to get a mortgage. If you want a house, you need a mortgage, full stop. My situation was a bit unusual. I managed to buy the house for cash, then used money from friends & family and signature loans to complete most of the repairs. The house means a great deal to me, and many more folks than me have invested their time and money in it. Allowing a bank to put a lien against it, especially after our nightmarish experience with the Beierman Ave house, seemed really risky.
After our New Years’ guests departed, a new unwelcome guest arrived. Michigan was enveloped in the heart of the polar vortex that descended from the north in early January, sending temperatures plunging into the danger zone. With it came more than a foot of snow, dumped over the course of three days. For a week, most of our attention was focused on finding and blocking drafts in the house, and trying to stay warm.
The month of January broke the all-time record for snowfall in Detroit, set in 1908, with over 37 inches records. On February 1st, to celebrate, it dumped another inch. A week later, another foot. Yesterday, it came down again. All the stores are out of shovels and salt, and our snowblower broke last year and cannot be resuscitated. You could sum our experience as: 5 guys, 1 shovel.
He was willing to sell. Then he wasn’t. Now he was again. So with an envelope of cash, I set off to the east side to meet a man named Tony to right a wrong.
Well, sort of. The “wrong” was one of the two major wounds inflicted on the historical quality of the Sullivan House before I bought it. One was the floor joists in the carriage house being cut. More on that in a minute. The other: its missing stained glass window. I’d tracked it down and thought I had arranged to buy it, but Tony’s sentimentality for the window made him back out. Some unexpected bills brought him back to the table.
My basement is a fallout shelter. The 1950s yellow and black sign, complete with radiation symbol, points the way down the dank stairs. At the bottom, a short metal door surrounded by crude metal flashing. The walls around you are damaged and irregular. You feel a sense of claustrophobia grow as you descend to and thru the passage.
What you find on the other side is a cross between a serial murderer’s lair and a scene from the television series Hoarders. Walls built of scrap wood and paneling surround you. A confusing circle of doorways, long missing their doors, leads you thru the damp basement across filthy cement floors and under thick cobwebs. Thousands of feet of galvanized pipes and wires run this way and that, the remnants of eleven decades of revised decisions.
Pieces of old musty cabinetry, spare tools, and years of junk surround you. An empty frame here, a frameless mirror there. One room is floor-to-ceiling filled with junk, accentuated by two 1970s porcelain toilets side by side in the middle. Coal and mold stains on the brick foundation walls and columns, creepily illuminated by a few old pull chain light that mysteriously burn out with alarming regularity. Everything seems wet from water seeping thru the walls. Radiator pipes are everywhere and you duck between them, narrowly missing the disintegrating cloth that covers a think layer of asbestos.
This is that basement. The one every horror movie warned you never to enter.
So I decided it’s where we should throw a 4-day party.
On Saturday, Aaron and I attended an all-day workshop presented by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. It was for historic property owners and covered topics like wood window restoration, lead dangers, plaster repair, masonry, and weatherization. They also handed out a Resource Directory of folks who do restoration work in the Detroit area. Man, where was this two years ago!? It was like being casually handed a treasure map. I’ve already emailed a company to get a quote on facade repairs.
I’ve been having more frequent conversations with my nextdoor neighbor, who has shed more light on the history of my house. For instance, the three trees along the street in front of our houses were planted by the previous owner. He’s told me stories of how homes on our street traded hands. And just the other day, he told me about the missing window in my stairwell.
Back when everything went to hell on closing day, I can’t impress the importance of this passage enough:
After some back and forth with my family, it became apparent we had made a grave error. I had many thousands of dollars less available than we thought. My careful plans and budgeting evaporated, buffers transformed into impossible shortfalls.
By “many thousands” I meant “tens of thousands”. It was an epic accounting error that I never truly overcame. One day, I’ll write down my own thoughts on how the middle class is locked out of Detroit. For now, the aforelinked article is great reading. The short version is: how the hell are you supposed to get affordable loans to fix a house when you can’t take out equity against it because it needs repairs? You don’t.
I bought the Sullivan House over a year and a half ago. We’ve renovated the kitchen and bathroom, had chimneys repaired and removed, dug out the foundation, had new rain gutters installed, and painted the entire interior. Hundreds of man hours and tens of thousands of dollars have been poured into this house.
Today, I finally picked the mailbox up off the porch and hung it with two screws.
When the weather finally broke, it did so with conviction. Two weeks of perfect weather announced spring’s overdue arrival. At the Sullivan House, it meant open windows, and open doors. The safety gates I installed at both sets of porch stairs plus a backyard privacy fence means the dogs get free range from the front porch to the backyard in warmer weather.
As plants and weeds started poking out of the ground, we quickly pivoted priorities to landscaping before it could get out of control. Our mantra is low-maintenance. Anyone who visited us frequently in Warren knows how overwhelming that yard was (double lot, huge hedges, huge beds, and a pond). We can tackle projects, but everything falls apart when it’s time for regular maintenance. We all hate mowing the lawn. Overgrown lawns and hedges were hallmarks of our previous home.
So my plans to sod our backyard disaster here didn’t ring true. We still had ivy around the perimeter and the south side of the yard was still mostly covered by it, but it was largely crushed by the backhoe and subsequent foot traffic in the central part of the yard. Thistles had come last year in force and it took days to beat them back. Sod seemed the obvious solution, but I felt like that much more lawn would put us back into motored lawnmower territory.
The neighborhood has felt different to me since the boiler started its work this fall. A summer of work on the front porch and with open windows made me feel connected to the neighborhood. I was inundated with neighbors saying hello. I felt like neighborhood crime was an aberration – who could commit theft or assault when the neighborhood was overflowing with concerned citizens?
Our contractor Andy was last here in early November. We started easing off the pedal as the cold descended on us and it was time for my bank account to mend itself over winter. It was very odd to not have him around. It was reassuring to have someone else continuing to push things forward even while we were occupied by other work.
An incomprehensible amount changed in the year and a day since everything went to Hell. I fell in love. I became a Detroiter. I own a toolbox now, am a mean hand with a drill, and can coat a wall in drywall mud like a pro. I’ve painted walls 35 different colors, met dozens of new people, and vaulted over fences to answer cries for help. I have a contractor, an electrician, a boiler specialist, an attorney, a mason, and a hundred volunteers. We bought a stake in the city and brought a house back to life. Everything is different, and so, so good.
The last unfinished area in the living space of the house was the dining room. I’ve taken to calling it “the pub,” and its full name (courtesy of its five sponsors) is the “Mighty Worriers Mead Hall.” I really like its position at the rear south corner of the house, out of the normal traffic flow between the front and rear doors. It has very heavy wood trim and crown molding (including wood beams across the ceiling) that immediately made me want to style it on a classic British pub.
These days, when I get the frequent “How’s the house going?” question, my answer is that our remaining big-ticket items are the rain gutters, siding, and carriage house. I have a contractor hired for the gutters, the siding is on tap for summer 2013, but the carriage house is a story unto itself that I only tell if they really want details.
If I recite the carriage house’s litany of problems and recommended repairs (a long list of structural reinforcements), the inevitable next question is, “Have you thought about just tearing it down?”
Our final trip to the Warren house was this past weekend, knowing full well it would be our final opportunity to get inside. It turns out my decision to force the issue of what day to move was especially keen. Three days after we returned the truck, an eviction notice appeared on the door of the Warren house. The court date was set for one week later – today.
I’ve been living in Detroit for a week now. In that time I have:
- Eaten in Mexicantown twice
- Shopped at Eastern Market
- Walked my dog around the neighborhood every day
- Walked to Midtown
- Gone to the “Dlectricity” special event in Midtown
- Rescued a neighbor’s dog
- Met 3 new neighbors
- Been awoken by a midnight street party next door
- Watched as the only favorably-viewed city official, Police Chief Godbee, resigns amid scandal
It was Monday morning and I was working in the office at the Sullivan House. I heard a very bad noise – something like high-pitched yelling mixed with dog screeching. I walked out on the back porch where I found Brian and Nicole looking with concern toward our neighbor’s house two doors down. Joe was in his yard next door looking in the same direction and asked loudly, “Do you need help?” The reply was a mixture of more horrible noises but I caught the word ‘help’ in there.
Brian, Nicole, and Joe all started a fast walk to the front of the houses. I looked at the two privacy fences separating us and thought, “Sure why not,” and off I went. I jumped from the porch onto the first fence, eyeing Joe’s large dog Misty. “Hope she’s as friendly as I think!” I thought as I jumped into Joe’s yard and ran across it. Misty just watched. I jumped and grabbed the top of the next privacy fence and vaulted over the top. As I hit the top, I saw a woman restraining a pit bull to keep it away from a small beagle. She was frantic and yelling barely coherently. “Well, hope I don’t get mauled!” I thought without pausing and into the yard I plunged.
We moved into Detroit on Saturday, the 29th of September, 2012. I forced the issue by scheduling the moving van because the dual-house utility bill situation was untenable. We made two trips with the moving van and got nearly everything. As of today, there’s still a car load or two of things in the Warren garage plus a few electrical fixtures we need to retrieve. It was an exhausting, 12-hour day that was only possible because of the help of our awesome friends.
Our first mission was the kitchen. That’s the one room in the house that, as of last night, was basically finished. Everything is where it goes, and oh man, what a great room. There is tremendous amounts of storage space, plenty of counter room, and the coffee / microwave table from the Warren house has been repurposed as an island. It came with casters and side pot-hanging racks that I’d just stored in the basement the last four years. Well, they’re attached now, and what a transformation. It’s probably the most fantastic repurposing of a piece of furniture I’ve ever seen.
The city inspection was… enlightening. After all my panicking over details, the inspector was completely relaxed and complimented the work we’d done. “A lot of these places are terrifying. This is a lot better than I expected,” he said after we’d completed the first floor.
When I asked about the criteria for passing, he basically indicated we weren’t anywhere near passing, saying, “Man, everyone fails. New buildings fail. They think they have paint on the walls but it’s just primer,” and so on. He probably checked even more boxes than the first inspection. Some of them weren’t even accurate, but it seems a moot point for now based on the rest of our conversation.
It was difficult to pick up the phone. It was time to deal with the thing that’s been weighing on me for nine months and it felt like the edge of the high dive. In the end, I had to drive downtown anyway to fill out the form to get a new city inspection. My destination was the Wayne County Building, the site of my closing day existential crisis. But this time, everything was different.
Tuesday was the first day of autumn in Detroit. Technically the Autumnal Equinox is Saturday, but Tuesday was the day the weather changed from shorts to pants. It was the day that hot tea mid-afternoon became a brilliant idea to ward off the chill. Down at the Sullivan House, the warmth coming from the now-functional back loop (half) of the radiator system felt wonderful on my cold hands.
With the cold came a powerful recollection of the numbness of last winter when we were focusing on bare necessities and worried for our safety. It’s amazing the difference that light, heat, and solid doors make on your perception of a place.
When I got to the house Saturday morning, I was ready to start tearing the roof off the carriage house. Our friend Ryan drove into town from Wisconsin to help, and a dumpster had been delivered for depositing the carnage. But you know the day is going to have a twist when Andy, our contractor, greets you with “You want the good news or the bad news? The good news is it’s a sunny day.”
When Andy had climbed the ladder to the carriage house roof, the entire building shifted. Further review of the structure inside made him believe the entire building was listing to one side and might possibly be ready to tip over. Our plans for the day were immediately scrapped and reorganized, and we made some calls to get a second opinion on the carriage house’s condition. I did my best to remain calm.
I’ve been a massive ball of stress lately. We don’t know when eviction might come at the Warren house, and we don’t know how much notice we’ll get. The uncertainty creates massive anxiety for all of us, because there are a lot of steps to be taken before we can safely move in to the Sullivan House.
I didn’t really see how tightly I was wound though until I left town for the fourth annual Icrontic Rennfaire event in Maryland. Despite having no time to relax, the Rennfaire is, to me, non-optional. It’s the only time I get to visit my awesome friends Anne & Eli in Alexandria, VA each year, and I’ve never missed one. So, off I went. And when I came back, everything was different.
We’ve been working our tails off to get moved into the Sullivan House by the end of the month. It’s a breakneck pace, and it’s wearing us down pretty fast. I arrived at the house before 8am today to have the kitchen floor measured. Today was special because several key things came together.
First, we now have wifi. Internet means I can do my job (for Vanilla Forums) from the house. Second, we have a water filter installed and a microwave. That means… hot tea!
I sat out on the porch for the first half of my day, the morning summer sun rising. Joggers, deliverymen, neighbors walking dogs, flier hangers, and the postwoman all passed by. A neighbor moved in. I waved to a lot of people. And worked. It was a perfect peaceful morning and I got a ton done.
As I sipped on my tea to keep warm, it hit me: this is my new morning commute. After all this moving crap is done… I get to sit on the porch of our new castle to do what I love while the neighborhood hums quietly around me.