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Bidness As Unusual

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by Paul Flemming

Rehabilitate ... isn't that what we try to do to criminals we incarcerate?

OK, let's shorten it and thereby sweeten: rehab. That doesn't work either. Images are conjured of the Betty Ford Clinic and dangerous self-abuse.

Not that these analogies are inappropriate. Rehabbing a house has, in many ways, imprisoned me to work, and I've suffered severe withdrawal from my social life. Don't get me wrong, the work has been rewarding (to local building supply retailers) and fun (or at least amusing to onlooking friends).

We closed July 2 on a north Springfield home built in 1886.

That's 1886, as in the year Geronimo surrendered to authorities in what would 26 years hence become Arizona.

Grover Cleveland was president, serving his first term. Queen Victoria was in the final third of her reign over the British Empire, and thus its construction date makes our house truly Victorian, as opposed to only styled that way.

When Jeanne and I decided to enter the market for a house, we agreed, among other stuff, that we did not want to take on a project. We did not desire to devote our lives to making a house livable. The phrase "fixer-upper" was not on our wish list.

We were willing to dab a little paint here, perhaps even hammer a bit of construction there on the way to make someone else's house our own home.

And at first blush, in our innocence, that is what we found.

The home's previous owners had done a fine job refurbishing what I then naively considered the big jobs.

New thermal-pane windows were installed throughout. Steel siding that complemented the house was put on. The entire place was rewired. Central heat and cooling ducts coursed through two stories, and the required equipment was newish.

Perennials, fruit trees and lawn were all tricked out to maximum curb-appeal advantage.

The interior, though sound, exhibited a certain retro sensibility. But the sense it exhibited harkened not back to the 19th century, rather to the early '70s.

Approximately 3.68 acres of brown carpet covered every square inch of horizontal surface below knee level. Textured wallpaper (here and there accented with borders, mainly featuring horses) covered all the walls. Blinds and draperies succeeded in blotting out every wave of sunlight. In the dining room you could have loaded film without exposing a frame.

This was not to our taste. And given the strong foundation, literally and figuratively, of the house, with its exterior complete and the new mechanical systems, we allowed ourselves to be delusional.

This is a piece of cake, we figured. Scrape some wallpaper. Slap on some paint. Pull out the carpets and sand up the beautiful hardwood floors. Rip off those window treatments and let the light shine in on our handiwork.

We had a full month four long weeks between possession and when we had to begin living in the house. That was two months ago.

The folly was soon apparent. Horrible wallpaper begat horrible wallpaper in layers below, in some cases up to five strata. There was wallpaper on the ceiling. It had been painted over.

Getting the wallpaper off revealed the true state of the lath-and-plaster walls. There was some patching to be done a statement akin to saying there is some sand in the desert.

The carpet came up with relative ease, if only because the aged backing and fibrous padding was so deteriorated that it ripped right off the staples that held it in place. The carpet had been installed by a maniacal obsessive-compulsive who lived by the adage, "Why staple but once when you can staple 10, nay, a dozen times."

Each riser on the staircase contained at least 25 staples, exceeded only by the minimum three dozen shot into each tread.

These tales of woe are not news flashes to those who have undertaken rehab projects of their own. And I can see the knowing nods and appreciative grins of readers who are veterans of the plaster wars.

Those expressions are self-satisfied, because people who have done it before are now mostly finished. (I've already realized that this home will never be complete.)

It is the blessing of the remodeling industry that hope and imagination spring eternal in the hearts of home buyers. The mind's eye squeezes out reason when you can envision the finished product. All the truth of the dust-breathing, neck-craning, knuckle-scraping work ahead is lost on folks with a dream of the final product.

And even now, with the hindsight of an ever-more complete project, I would undertake this journey again.

The process, I've found, is as rewarding as the results.

Working on your own home provides an intimacy with your surroundings. I am familiar with more of this house than I otherwise would have been.

I know about that nail in the baseboard in the parlor. I remember what is behind the paint on the north wall of the study. We don't just live in this house; we are at home with it and love it because we know its greatest weaknesses and its most attractive strengths.

It's also been something of an archaeological mystery doing this work. What was the original layout of the house? When was the arched opening added between the dining room and parlor? Where was that long-ago interior staircase to the cellar?

And who (and for goodness' sake why?) cobbled together that closet in the entryway with some precursor of wallboard that amounted to little more than pressed cardboard?

The help and hard labor of family and friends has been a blessing. Friends arrive on time when asked to scrape wallpaper. Acquaintances say they'll be there and then don't show up.

And family members who subject themselves to all of this day after day are sent straight from the heavens. Working beside someone in a 110-year-old house bonds more than new joint compound to old plaster.

Yes, I'd do it again. In fact, I'll continue to work on the home. But I hope I'll have my eyes more open and my heart more realistic.

Anyway, how hard could it be to knock out that wall upstairs between the bedroom and bathroom? It would open up so well, and make a great master suite. ...

INSET CAPTION:

Working beside someone in a 110-year-old house bonds more than new joint compound to old plaster.

PHOTO CAPTION:

John and Jeanne Forkner accrue dust equity in Jeanne's north Springfield home during its refurbishment.[[In-content Ad]]

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