Will this be the year that the renovation gets started?

Is that not a handsome Manse? The house looking its best, May 2012.

Is that not a handsome Manse? The house looking its best, May 2012.

Welcome to Meanwhile, at the Manse’s first anniversary!

Growing up at the Manse: Dad (Wendell), Mum (Lorna) and left to right me, Melanie, John and Ken.

Growing up at the Manse: Dad (Wendell), Mum (Lorna) and, from left, me, Melanie, John and Ken, circa 1967.

I began this blog a year ago today, the day that my husband, Raymond, and I became the owners of the former United Church manse in tiny Queensborough, Ont., north of Highway 7 and on the edge of the Canadian Shield. It is the house in which I spent what I consider the formative years of my life – from age 4 to age 15 – because my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, was the minister of the United Church of Canada‘s Queensborough Pastoral Charge and the job came with, well, a manse to live and raise your young family in. You can read my very first post, explaining the whole thing, here.

And if you read the “About” post at the top of this page, you’ll see that Raymond and I had great visions of getting the interior renovation/restoration that the Manse needs under way. One year later, what have we accomplished? Not so much.

Will this be the year?

Raymond with our new clothesline, put in by our friend and neighbour Ed.

Raymond with our new clothesline, put in by our friend and neighbour Ed Couperus.

Mind you, it’s not like we haven’t done any property improvements since January 2012. We have done something that we are very proud of, planted two trees – an elm and a maple. (And in the process removed the huge sad stump that was all that remained of the great big maple that shaded our front yard when I was a kid at the Manse.) We have had the rotted old clothesline post replaced and now have a brand new clothesline.

Newly painted red oil tank and new (to us) red truck.

Newly painted red oil tank (in the background) and matching new (to us) red truck.

We have done a lot of grounds cleanup, with help from our friend and neighbour John Barry. We’ve had the eavestroughs repaired, and installed ice guards on the roof. We have done a little bit of gardening. We have cleaned out the garage. We have pulled up old (dating from my childhood) carpeting. We have painted the oil tank bright red. And we have done battle with the ladybugs (indoors) and the wasps (outdoors and, sometimes, indoors – and Raymond is very allergic).

But we’ve also done a lot of just enjoying our quiet place in Queensborough, sitting out on the front porch in the nice weather and taking in the view and the birdsong. We’ve identified birds. We’ve cooked meals, both for ourselves and for a few visitors. We’ve taken lots of drives along the quiet country roads throughout the area, exploring places both familiar (to me, at least) and new. We’ve met lots of great people, and learned a lot about the history of – and current events in – our little neck of the woods.

We’ve been soaking it all in.

The other day Raymond and I were discussing what might be at the root of our not having got started on the renovation. (Aside, that is, from not having a spare couple of hundred thousand dollars.) The thing seems to be that everything is connected to everything else. For instance: the house needs electrical work: outlets are few, three-prong outlets even fewer, and there are some wonky switches. But it doesn’t make any sense to have an electrician go into the walls until we’ve made a decision on the insulation and the plaster. The insulation is: sawdust. Vintage (very), and funky, and environmentally friendly, and not inefficient. But is it really sufficient? It will have settled since it was installed when the house was built in 1888. Do we top it up with something? Do we remove and replace it? And if we remove and replace it, can we do that without trashing the original plaster walls, which I do not want to do? But are the original plaster walls in good enough shape to keep? Some are; some (now covered with wallpaper or panelling) may not be. But even if they’re not in good shape, should we replaster them or replace them with drywall? And – what was that about the electrical work again?

You see what I mean? It feels like it has to be a whole-house project, one thing at a time, and – very importantly – everything done in the right order. You can’t be going back and replacing insulation after you’ve got final interior wall finishes in place. Or, well, you can, but it’s stupid and it’s costly.

You know what it is? Intimidating.

It’s so much easier to just sit in the sunshine on the front porch watching Queensborough go by…

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?

Inspiration when we needed it, coming all the way from Manitoba

Incoming inspiration: This is the “before” of the house our friend and colleague Anthony Kost and his wife, Shawn, moved, gutted and renovated in the late ’90s. Wait till you see the “after” shots! (Photo courtesy of Anthony Kost)

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I’ve been feeling stressed out by how big (and expensive) the renovation of the Manse is going to be. It has been helpful to have received some encouraging comments from people who have been there, done that, and come out the other side – happily.

One of those was my friend and Postmedia colleague Anthony Kost, of Winnipeg, who late this week sent me some stunning before-and-after photos of a project he and his wife, Shawn Tester, carried out in the late 1990s. I’ll let Anthony explain:

“… we were really interested in quality mission era antiques, along with homes with hardwoods and big window and door trims. Our family was growing and we needed a bigger place, and one with a basement. Rather than doing the sane thing like buying a new house or building a new custom home, we decided to pursue this wacky idea of moving a lovely old farm house.” That move is, of course, what you see in the photo above. It took place after, AK says, he and a hired helper “had to manually remove ALL of the stucco, AND chop the roof off! Completely insane considering I really had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully the movers did!”

(I like that part about “I had no idea what I was doing.” That’s where I come in on the Manse reno, AK!)

What the interior of Anthony and Shawn’s house looked like, 13 big truckloads of unsalvageable plaster and lath off to the dump later. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Kost)

He explains that they had hoped to preserve the plaster, putting new wiring and ductwork behind it – which is our hope too for the Manse. But in the end that proved impracticable, and besides, the move had shaken a fair bit of the plaster loose. He had a friend with a one-ton truck, and they took 13 loads of plaster and lath to the dump. Argh! I can only imagine what a hard and messy job it must have been to take all that out. The rear end of plaster is a dusty, messy business.

Anyway, here’s the really good stuff, the after photos. First, the exterior. AK explains that the original house was about 1100 square feet and they put on an addition of 1200 square feet. See if you can figure out from this photo of the finished exterior which is the original part of the house. I’d say the addition is pretty seamless:

The finished product of Anthony and Shawn’s house, exterior. Note the beautiful landscaping, which is Shawn’s specialty. The back yard, complete with pond and beach, is to die for. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Kost)

And the interiors, which are stunning. Here is the kitchen:

The very definition of “bright and beautiful kitchen,” in Anthony and Shawn’s renovated house. I absolutely love it, right down to the drawer pulls. (A post on that subject another time.) (Photo courtesy of Anthony Kost)

The pantry off the main kitchen at the Kost/Tester house. I think this looks a lot like what the “after” shot will be at the Manse’s pantry. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Kost)

And this, which I find interesting. It’s the original kitchen from the old farmhouse, and Anthony and Shawn turned it into a pantry off the new real kitchen. The layout looks very similar to what we have at the Manse, with a small pantry off a large kitchen. The current state of both (at the Manse, I mean) is pretty desultory, but everything looks so nice in these photos from Anthony that I feel instantly hopeful about our own project. And the brightness quotient at the Manse seems pretty similar to what AK and Shawn were lucky enough to be dealing with.

I’m going to show one more of the photos that AK sent, because I just love it. It’s clearly the music room in their house; Anthony is a musician, and I believe (though am not certain) that Shawn is too.

What a gorgeous room! Love the fireplace, love the musical instruments, love the warm, deep colours. Stunning. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Kost)

AK didn’t tell me this, but somehow I’m guessing this was one of their favourite rooms. What I haven’t told you yet is that they made what he calls the heartbreaking decision to sell the house in 2005; it was a little too far away from the city and their work and whatnot. I envy the folks who were able to buy it!

And now, inspired by people who are musicians, for your listening enjoyment is a song from a CD that Raymond happened to slap on while I was writing this. I love it when I am reminded of a truly great song that I haven’t heard in a long time. It’s Allison Moorer singing Patti Smith’s awesome Dancing Barefoot. As it was playing in the background, I had images of dancing to it – barefoot – in the beautiful bright kitchen at the Manse. Or maybe on the back lawn, with candles all around, when we have a party!

The colour of the kitchen walls, c. 1964: It is inviting.

Our prime mission at the Manse this week was to find out what was behind and under various surface coverings: the old wood panelling, linoleum and ceiling tiles. Fortunately much of the interior hasn’t been covered by anything more than paint or wallpaper or easily-pulled-up broadloom; the original plaster walls, for instance, are there and in pretty good shape in many places. Same with the plaster ceilings in some rooms.

But the surfaces in the kitchen, the largest and (to Raymond and me) the most important room, had been covered extensively. And for that, the Sedgwicks have no one to blame but ourselves: it all started while we lived there. The turquoise-and-white floor linoleum was covered with a new vinyl floor; the plaster ceiling was covered with acoustic tiles; and the walls, including the plaster above and the wooden wainscotting below – and don’t get me started on how brilliant and beautiful I now consider wainscotting to be – were covered with hideous (to a 2012 eye) “wood” panelling. Panelling that had, sometime between our family moving away in 1975 and now, been painted an off-white colour, I assume because at some point both the resident minister and the Manse Committee realized that wood panelling was not exactly fashionable (or even tolerable) any more.

So we had to get behind it to see what remained. My brother John, forewarning us with something along the lines of “Renovation has to begin with a bit of destruction” went after the first panel in the wall – right behind where the woodbox for our old wood stove had been – with a hammer, a miniature crowbar (doubtless that tool has a technical name, but I don’t know what it is), and a vengeance.

It took a while, but as you can see from the video, he got it. And as you can hear from the video, I was thrilled when the plaster wall that was there when we moved in in 1964, when I was four years old, was suddenly revealed – for the first time in more than 40 years. Full of nail holes from the panelling installation, but salvageable. And what a funky colour! And the wainscotting was there too, though the chair rail that was at the top of it had been yanked off so that the panelling could be installed. Happily, John tells me it won’t be a big deal to replace it.

The following morning, Raymond and I were in the Rashotte Home Building Centre in Tweed – highly recommended; excellent stuff and excellent staff – and I gravitated over to the paint chips, looking for something close to the colour of Queensborough Manse Kitchen Wall Circa 1964. I picked out three, and when we got back to the Manse we tried them out. One was remarkably close. It’s called “Sea Inspired” and its adjective on the paint chip is “inviting.” Nice! And if Home Hardware (are you listening, Home Hardware?) didn’t insist that its paint-colours download be in Microsoft Windows (which my sleek and lovely Mac does not like), I could show it to you. Suffice to say it’s kind of a sea-foam colour. Or, as they said back in the day, turquoise.

Here’s my mother, Lorna, circa 1969, wishing aloud for fashionable wood panelling in the Manse kitchen:

“I hate turquoise.”

Can we save the plaster walls?

This is the stairway in the front hall of the Manse. Isn't it lovely? (Okay, except for the carpeting.) And behind and under, vintage plaster wall and mouldings.

In one of my earliest posts I mentioned the benign neglect that the Manse has been on the receiving end of for probably most of its 124 years. One of the benefits of that is the fact that the original plaster-and-lath walls are still there. In the kitchen and in the bedroom that my brothers, John and Ken, shared, there is classic (I don’t mean that in a good way) early-1970s “wood” panelling; we have yet to find out what’s behind that, but I expect it’s the plaster – though who knows in what condition. Otherwise, the plaster walls seem good, though in most rooms (not all, I believe) it’s been wallpapered over, probably many times. And it’s uneven, but that’s what you get with plaster, right?

Anyway, our first thought was that we’d have to rip the plaster out to put proper insulation in (we don’t know this for sure yet, but chances are good that there’s not much in the way of insulation there at the moment – certainly not behind the original plaster walls), and then replace the plaster with drywall.

But the plaster is so beautiful! And it’s original.

So now the plan is to do everything we can to preserve it. Which would mean a) removing more than a century’s worth of various Manse Committees’ and ministers’ wives’ choices in wallpaper patterns; but more importantly, b) figuring out if there is insulation technology that will allow us to get insulation behind the plaster.

My brother John, who is the Renovation King (he’s done one house after another in Toronto and Kingston) and also the manager of a Rona store where much contractor knowledge is exchanged, is looking into the options and seems hopeful. Meanwhile, if any readers out there know anything about insulation and plaster, please share!