The “makeunder”: inspiration, or bad idea?

If you look very closely, you can see at top left some cracks in the otherwise nicely preserved plaster walls and ceiling of the Manse’s master bedroom. Should we just leave them be?

A couple of weeks ago the Sunday New York Times T Magazine had a photo feature on a “nonrenovation renovation” of an 1850s building in Manhattan‘s East Village by its owner, the designer John Derian. “The Makeunder,” read the headline: “When it comes to renovation, John Derian believes that less is more.” The article – whose text and, more importantly, great photos you can see in a slideshow here – goes on to explain that this style maven has preserved as much as he can of the “patina” of the place, which had a bohemian past. While he spruced up the scary bathroom and kitchen quite a bit, he turned the original sub-floor into the real floor and refused to expunge the colour left on the walls by the smoking habits of former residents. “Think of it as an exquisite, exceedingly subtle face-lift,” writer Lynn Yaeger says, “only instead of jowls and droopy lids, Derian intends to preserve a plank floor that creaks with the wisdom of the ages and patch a tin ceiling contemporaneous with the Tin Woodsman.” Have a look at the photos and see what you think: I find some of it a little off-putting, but much of it quite beautiful.

Could this be a recipe for the Manse? (I already know Raymond’s answer: NO!)

A closer look at those cracks in the plaster in the bedroom. Should we fill them in or leave them there? Do they add to the charm of the room?

But I wonder if a “makeunder light” might be just the ticket. For instance: while my brother John was waxing on during a recent visit about how it would be “fun” to fill in some cracks in the plaster in the Manse’s main bedroom, I was thinking to myself, “That is not my definition of fun.” Now, inspired by John Derian’s place, I’m thinking maybe we want to just leave those cracks be. The plaster in general in that room is in great shape; one could say that the cracks just add a bit of character.

As longtime readers will know, I am very fond of the vintage linoleum mats that adorn the bedroom floors. Yes, they’re a little worn and rough, but perhaps that’s part of the charm. This is a detail of the one on the Manse’s master bedroom. I love the subtle colours and the pattern.

Likewise, while the wooden floors throughout the upstairs would probably look beautiful and shiny and newish with refinishing, is there something to be said for retaining the various paint jobs that have been done on them through the years? Not to mention the linoleum mats dating from the early middle of the 20th century; those mats were what was on those floors in my childhood at the Manse, and they were still there when we peeled off the bad 1970s carpeting several months ago. I have to say I have grown quite attached to that linoleum and would be very sorry to see it go.

The mid-1970s exercise of nailing wooden slats into the plaster ceiling of the kitchen, so that acoustic tiles could in turn be attached to them, caused probably-irreparable damage to the plaster. This is a small section where we pulled off the acoustic tiles.

Unfortunately, though, there are lots of places where the damage caused by the installation of “newer” (we’re talking the mid-1970s here, mind you, so not all that new) finishes, like wood panelling and acoustic-tile ceiling, is severe enough that the original “patina” is going to need some major repairs, if not outright replacement. For instance, we pulled off a few of those ceiling tiles in the kitchen, and it looks like the process of nailing in the wooden slats to which the tiles could be attached has absolutely trashed the original plaster ceiling.

You can see where the chair rail was pulled off the wainscotting (a tragedy) and how the wainscotting is now full of nail holes. “Patina” to be left alone? Or a necessary repair or replacement? (You can also see what rough shape the plaster wall is in.)

The chair rail of the wainscotting in the kitchen was yanked off so wood panelling could be installed, and we would most certainly want to replace that. And the wainscotting itself – not to mention the plaster walls above it – is full of nail holes thanks to that ghastly panelling. (Which, I must add, was installed at the behest of my family; in the early 1970s we were quite thrilled to get wood panelling, which was considered just the thing in those days.)

Anyway, it’s interesting to think about what parts of the Manse could be left alone in the renovation to come, even though they might not look like they belong in Canadian House and Home. Because, let’s face it: tastes change, and sooner or later everything old is new (and stylish) again. Just ask John Derian.

Or, for that matter, Leonard Cohen, who wrote the ultimate tribute to imperfections – and cracks:

“There is a crack, a crack in everything –
That’s how the light gets in.”

Let’s give Leonard a listen, shall we?

13 thoughts on “The “makeunder”: inspiration, or bad idea?

  1. let me be the first to weigh in here… let’s not listen to Leonard. In just the same way you can say ‘no’ to conforming to the HGTV /Holmes on Homes mantra that says ‘rip it out and put in all new stuff that meets code’ – because that’s what you’re supposed to think is good, you can say; ‘here’s a writer that should not ever stand in front of a band and sing’. Just go back to the Chelsea and write some more stuff but don’t release any more records. Leave that to Axl.
    But that wasn’t actually my point. You’re on to something here. History will judge us as the ones who removed all the good stuff from our homes because we couldn’t bear the thought of not saving 57 dollars per year on our heating bill. Reminds me of the guy at work boasting about stripping the finish off a 50’s Stratocaster and putting on a nice new coat of paint that wasn’t all cracked. All the nail holes are badges of honour.
    Anyway, make the wiring so it won’t burn down, the kitchen so you can cook and savour the rest.

    • Hahahahahaha!
      Let’s quote some appropriate Axl, shall we?
      You know where you are, Kath? ‘You’re in the jungle, baby!’ :

      ‘Welcome to the jungle, we got fun ‘n’ games
      We got everything you want, honey we know the names
      We are the people that you find, whatever you may need
      If you got the money, honey we got your disease…

      Welcome to the jungle we take it day by day
      If you want it you’re gonna bleed but it’s the price you pay…’

      Axl was thinking about old house renovations when he wrote this. True story.

    • You are awfully hard on Leonard! Geez, how would you feel if you had to go out on the road at the age of 80 because all your money had been disappeared by a bad manager? Maybe he doesn’t like being up there in front of that band any more than you like seeing him there, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do to keep body and soul together. And he has written some great songs. But thank you for the support on maybe leaving well enough, imperfect though it may be, alone when it comes to the Manse. While some things will obviously have to be replaced, I think it will be my mantra to retain whatever can be retained. No wood-panelling-type tragedies this decade. Lesson learned.

      That is a total horror story about the Stratocaster!

  2. Well said, John. Interesting, though, what qualifies as “authentic” after a while. . . the era with the aesthetic we prefer, I suppose. Anyway, what I truly hated–er, reacted to strongly–was being in a beautiful old house that had been redone with faux finishes on the floor, duly scuffed in an effort to replicate what the relatively not-so-well-off original inhabitants would have done. That is, the wealthy owners had recreated something that was done by their predecessors out of necessity. What you’re talking about seems to be a combination of respect and warmth. The other way is just…icky.

  3. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
    It all depends in what state the plaster is underneath. If the keys between the lath are broken and it is starting to sag you have to repair. If the wall seems solid leave it as is until it starts to fall down.
    You could also, (Oh horrors), wallpaper it to hold it together.

    • Too funny, Dave! I suspect quite a bit of wallpapering in the Manse has already been done to hold the plaster together – and I do worry about what we will find when all those layers of wallpaper finally come off. Which they will, come hell or high water.

  4. Enough already! You are again talking to the expert. We have 50 years experience living in a Money Pit. We covered hanging plaster with paneling, removing a chair rail in the process. Then later we tore off the paneling and drywalled throughout.. The when prosperity set in (at about your age), we began restoring the whole damn place. Yep, we put the chair rail back. At some point when you are here for a bit, we’d like to show you through the Money Pit, located at Dire Straits Farm….G

  5. Again, you are talking to the expert. Restore it to its former state!! After 50 years of renovating, renewing,refinancing and refinishing, we have The Money Pit almost the way we want it. Woops, sorry, I forgot that The Manager has decreed that our 50 year old cupboards need replacing. My advice; go for it all! We covered everything with paneling to keep plaster off our heads, then took off a chair rail and drywalled. Then when prosperity set in, (at about your age Kathy), we put the chair rail back, stripped floors and have enjoyed every minute of our voyage aboard The Money Pit. At some point when you guys are at The Manse for a bit, we’d love to have you and Raymond see the results of our efforts at what has come to be known as Dire Straits Farm….G

    • We would love to see The Money Pit, Grant and Gayle – I’m sure it is absolutely beautiful! And we would be very interested in your renovation tales, which I know would be instructive and frequently (knowing your storytelling abilities) hilarious. But that “Money Pit” notion does worry me. I kind of think the Manse may have “Money Pit” written all over it …

  6. Ok I’m confused. I thought we were going with period 60’s. By definition doesn’t this require that any sense of “Patina” go out the window? We’re talking Bakelite and Linoleum, Mactac and Polyester. Vinyl is hot, ceiling tiles are the way to go baby. Just cover it up. Wasn’t the 60’s defined by ripping out wainscotting and painting everything paisley? Who cares if white was good enough for the last century of appliances – get rid of the clawfoot bathtub and bring on the avacado built in with the fake tile pressboard surround.
    I’m not saying that’s what you should do but you can bet that those smarmy Mad Men wouldn’t be caught dead in anything actually authentic.

    • I’m kind of thinking the era just before all that ripping out and covering up, Bruce. Maybe more late 1950s. But I think we pretty much have to have something avocado green in the place, just as a little memento of what once was. You know, “one brief shining moment” and all that …

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