Four-Door Beige Ones
The main reason I have been so distracted from blogging, aside from the imminent move to CHNN’s new World headquarters, is that I was busy painting the 1905 bungalow equivalent of a stripped 1972 Chevrolet Impala. I often attempt to recreate in my mind how a house came into being, and this time, I have a pretty plausible scenario. Some guy bought two lots in the soon-to-be quite wealthy, but as yet sparsely developed, neighborhood of Irvington in Northeast Portland.
The program was quite ambitious: six bedrooms, three fireplaces, 7000 square feet over four floors, two staircases, double garage, three bathrooms, and a spacious butler’s pantry connecting the entry, living room, and kitchen. Then the estimate came in, and the guy said, “What can I get for half that?”
Well, you get gigantic, minimally adorned rooms with the thinnest, sloppiest plaster I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. “Three hundred bucks for plaster? My brother-in-law can do it for $85.” You get plain brick fireplaces and hearths with just a wooden lid on them, you get a dining room with five windows, spanning eighteen by twenty four feet, and although it does have a lovely, weighty box beam ceiling, has nary a built-in, and even what looks like a plate rail is too thin to, well, hold plates.
What you also get is exercise. It takes most people a day or so to stop getting lost, personally, but even once you know the lay of the land, you will inevitably spend an inordinate amount of time looking for things, because you simply never run out of places they could be hiding, two or even three floors away.
Worse, the dump was roughly in the condition of the Sigma Nu house. One family that lived there had 15 (!) kids (they belonged to my own Catholic Parish, natch, St. Mary Magdalene, two blocks away; the hooker church), and in the white flight era of the late 1960′s, it even served as some sort of hippie co-op. This joint knows tough love, and worse. The tiny flourish of half-timber over the front porch had even been painted over in white, and the porch a dark green, making the top step not match those below, and needlessly suppressing bounced light into the interior. I fixed both of those things.
The current owner, an architect and family friend, bought it about twenty years ago for a relative song and made a master bath and dressing room out of one surplus bedroom, which was sensible enough because he only had two kids and the “master” was the 20 x 20 box with nothing but two windows near the top of the post. He also remodeled all the bathrooms, and added a powder room on the main floor. I was particularly impressed with a bunch of really cool things he did to brighten the house; opening a closet off the entry to the stairwell below to let light in through a frosted french door, and changing all the bedroom doors to frosted glass in fir frames to match the stairway as well.
Best of all, he tore out the ceiling on the third (above ground) floor, and added structural support to do so, so if you wanted, you could have a basketball court up there. He also remodeled the basement, which has a fireplace and (why not?) another kitchen and bath. A Mormon could have three wives and families in the joint, and keep them conveniently separate.
At the outset, we both decided that I would only work on the two main floors, since I did have to paint (and before that, brutally sand and lavishly putty), every surface in an area with about fifty windows, six french doors, four doors leading outside, and gigantic crown moulding and box beams with eight or so pieces each. Except for the high stuff, all this woodwork looked as though it had been beaten with chains. The bad plaster here and there also had layers of wallpaper over it, and I ended up skim coating it to fool people; I hope it works. They are asking a million dollars.
The colors, as well as the tile and marble on this fireplace, were all chosen by the owner’s Real Estate Lady, who inadvertently supplied endless entertainment for us all, since right down to the costumes, she was a character straight out of The Simpsons. As I finished up today, I kissed the ground that I would, heaven help me, never lay eyes on one of her fabulous outfits, nor her bitchy, pretentious, and occasionally racist text messages ever again.
Although we clashed on many things and I generally just did what she wanted to make her leave sooner, one thing I stood firm on was the stairway, where she wanted the treads to be light but I insisted that they be darkened to match the railings, the last remaining dark woodwork in the house. This wasn’t really a color preference; it was based on the fact that the stairs were not only cheap fir to begin with, but they had been thoroughly perforated with nail holes from carpets long gone, and needed to be glued, nailed, and whatever else was available get rid of their haunted house creakiness. We cut out a wall in the entry closet so my floor guy could crawl under them and bind them together with nails, glue and even pieces of plywood for the split ones. They still make a noise here and there, but it no longer drowns out airplanes flying above.
Those stairs seem to be about the only fancy detail that (barely) survived the original owner’s, well, thriftiness, and they are something else, as you can see. Besides the flashy lights, the paneled newel posts are small at the bottom and subtly bigger at the top, giving them a neat Bugs Bunny quality, and the owner quite cleverly copied them to make a better mantel in the living room.
Throughout the project, I’ve been keeping myself sane, as usual, by listening to Madison, Wisconsin’s progressive talk radio station on I Heart Radio, which endlessly replays a catchy commercial about “choice” in health care. It pretends to be an ad for a used car lot that only has beige, four-door 1972 sedans. “We’ve got beige ones! We’ve got four-door ones! We’ve got FOUR DOOR Beige ones! What color are you looking for? Maybe BEIGE?” My nephew Henry and I, who have spent a lot of not always quality time slaving over this biggest of all four-door beige ones, laugh at it every time it comes on.
Today I all but bade farewell to this project, leaving me a luxurious two weeks to completely remodel my new place, which, thankfully, is about about an eighth the size. I will post pictures of that as they come.