Present tense

It has always been my belief that this little outpost is not the place to air my dirty laundry for the world to read. If you don’t have something nice to say … What I tell you here is heavily self-censored.

That said, for many months, I doled out dribs and drabs of things to you here while Owl Manor stood dark, with only me visiting it every few days to chat with the spiders. We halted construction in the spring when everything our insurance company told us about receiving the remaining funds of our settlement turned out to be untrue.  The ensuing months and the battles throughout have been  demoralizing, depressing and downright awful. There were long stretches where I began to believe we would never complete nor live in the house we started trying to purchase nearly five years ago.

Now, just as the winter solstice approaches, we are emerging from the long, dark tunnel.  There are more than glimmers of light.

The light is also showing that mistakes have been made in the rebuild ~ costly ones, too.  But we shall get it all sorted.

There is the musical cacophony of table saws and hammers inside now, with carpenters working on multiple floors simultaneously.

Pinch me. 

With any luck ~ and there’s been precious little of that here ~ the rebuild will be over in a matter of months.  You’ll forgive me if I am skeptical; I’ve developed significant trust issues through this excruciatingly long process.

Carpenters at work in the kitchen

Carpenters at work in the kitchen

For now, I am living in the present, seeing cabinetry installed, doors hung, trim tacked up.  I’ll try to bring you along for the ride. May it be faster and smoother than the earlier legs of this unwanted journey.  Because when all is said and done, all we want is our new “old” home.

Interpretation

As a mom, there are times when you are a translator, picking through what your child is telling you to determine what they’re really trying to say.  Thus it has been putting together the Darling Girl’s bathroom.

A couple of thoughts to orient you:

  1. The original bathroom adjoining her room was the most heavily fire-damaged part of the house.
  2. It was minuscule (actually in violation of code in certain aspects).
  3. The child has been living with the notion of “when we finish The Big House” for almost half of her life. And certainly all of her life that she can remember!
The original bath post-fire

The original bath post-fire from Darling Girl’s room

While it still gives me the willies to look at this, it’s been a long time since I’ve shown you anything from that little lightning-borne event.  So here you have it.  Months later, it looked just as bad as the morning after.  Note the position of the window frame in the very right edge of the picture.

Throughout the as-yet

New footprint inside the framing on the floor

New footprint inside the framing on the floor

endless construction process, Darling Girl has maintained that she wants “a mermaid bathroom.”  I’ve maintained that she was getting a bigger bathroom.  You can see the new footprint in framing on the floor, everything this side of the chimney is now bath space.  The bathroom used to end by the window near the sawhorse leg.  She’s getting a serious space upgrade ~ more than 125%.

Let’s be clear: there’s no way this maman’s going to be putting Ariel and Sebastian on the walls (unless as removable decals) since the girl is going to be

Mermaid mosaic?

Mermaid mosaic?

living with this bath at 8 and 18.  All of this makes the execution all about interpreting “mermaid” the right way ~ and a way that can be enhanced with other decor as she grows up (too fast). At the same time, it’s important to involve her in making at least some choices about the space so she can feel ownership of it.  So I showed her a series of smaller mosaic tiles to see which best captured what was in

Pearl of the sea?

Pearl of the sea?

her head for “mermaid.”  With her very creative mind, I had no clear idea whether she was seeing ocean waves or rainbows or seashells or starfish.

Like her mother, Darling Girl is rather decisive and had no problem letting me know which ones missed the mark entirely.  She couldn’t tell me what she DID want, but she knew what she did NOT want.

Closer - but not quite ...

Closer – but not quite …

Of course!  How could I be so dense ~ it had to have rainbows! She wanted something with some iridescence but didn’t know the words to express that.

“OH!  I can do THAT,” said Mommy, who bounded off to the tile store with fresh intelligence and the knowledge that this time, she was on to something.

And ... the winner!

And … the winner!

Which became this iridescent glass mosaic that settles a pretty seafoam green when it is set.  Beyond that, all I told her her was that it was going to be used with two other white tiles and she would have to see what we did with it when it was done.

In truth, the other grown-ups on the project are responsible for the rest of the good ideas for this, not me.  Once you get into using a wet saw and having to cut perfectly good tile up, I start getting jumpy.

As easy as 1-2-3

As easy as 1-2-3

The octagon tile with the white dot is a pretty traditional and inexpensive choice for a floor.  You see it more often with a black or colored dot than the white.  There is enough subway going on in the house that I wanted to give DG something a bit different with some pattern on the floor.  Then we needed to get a larger plain white tile to to provide a neutral border around it.  What you see here is a color sample of a 12″ x 12″ that had to be cut piece by piece to do its job.

Ungrouted view from the hall doorway

Ungrouted view from the hall doorway

The only real idea I had was to use the mosaic in a stripe in the shower that would include the built-in niche.  The other grown-ups were far more clever, with something entirely different in mind.  In a perfect world, it would have been so nice if three squares would have provided the right proportion for the accent.  Sigh.  But nothing

Shimmering mermaid tile in the shower

Shimmering mermaid tile in the shower

involving co$t can be easy.  Using a stripe four squares wide made for easier cuts and fitting of the octagon.  It just cost a third more in glass tile.

When it came to grout, in spite of my dislike of light grout, I looked at several colors under natural and incandescent light before settling on Sterling.  In this

Grouted ceiling to floor

Grouted ceiling to floor

bath, we wanted the grout to melt away and not be a design feature, as the tile itself is the story.  I think it manages to do that pretty well. We’ll see whether the claims about PowerGrout not needing the care of other white grouts hold up to be true. If not, I am well-acquainted with the Magic Eraser …

One other trick we used here: off-setting the very inexpensive 4 x 4 tiles on the ceiling in a diamond pattern.  This helps hide any imperfections you might have in a ceiling when you have so many other straight lines and not much margin for error.

The space beyond the tub wall is all new

The space beyond the tub wall is all new

Taking the view slightly wider, you can see the second doorway from the main hall at one end of the tub.  Essentially, the original bathroom only extended as far as this divider wall.  If you scroll back up to the charred photo at the top, you will see the tub was   perpendicular to its new location.  The whole area

Long view from Darling Girl's room

Long view from Darling Girl’s doorway

where the nice deep tub now stands and opposite it, where the large vanity will flank the wall is new to this room.  The window was carefully relocated slightly down the wall, too. (Size and location were complicated because it is on the front elevation of the house and had to work in proportion with  windows on both sides as well as below.)  We were able to achieve all this having “found” space by moving the laundry room across the hall to the one-time maid’s room.

There will be plenty of ways to add mermaid touches to this room that are easily erased in the future.  In the meantime, Darling Girl isn’t the only one who wins.  On the other side of the far bath wall, there are new built-in linen closets, an upgrade a house like Owl Manor certainly needed to have, and where I don’t have to pick out a single tile.

Reconfigured

Down at City Hall, records say Owl Manor has nine bedrooms.  More accurately, had nine bedrooms.  If you could call them all bedrooms.  Some lacked modern-day requirements for egress, etc., necessary to qualify them as such by today’s standards.

The fire and ensuing “renovation” gave us the opportunity to move things around a bit to suit our needs better.  Down the west side of the long second-floor hallway, a tiny guest bath lined up next to an 8 x 10 maid’s room and then the larger cook’s room on the corner.  A bit of social history:  The cook always had the nicer, larger room owing to her importance to the household.  However, neither maid nor cook are in my budget ~ or rather, their jobs have been consolidated into mine and Mr. Owl’s.  So we’ve seized the opportunity to move some walls around to make the rooms suit our needs.

Floor plan of guest bath, laundry and 2nd guest room

Floor plan of guest bath, laundry and 2nd guest room

You can see the old walls represented by broken/dotted lines on the plans.  Starting at the left, the guest bath grew significantly to accommodate a corner shower in its new 10’3″ x 10’2″ space.  The maid’s room shifted right, as did its window, and it borrowed space from the cook’s and maid’s room closets (which were side by side, though  accessed from opposite sides of the dividing wall).  The maid’s room lost some floor space, going from about 8′ x 10′ to 6’6″ x 10′.  That’s plenty of  space for a laundry room (though the appliances are in the wrong order in this drawing. You get the idea.).  The former cook’s room, now the second guest room, got new closets on its east wall.

No way was I moving into a new house without laundry on the same floor as our bedrooms.  No more basement appliances or multi-story trips up and down the stairs for an errant blouse or stray sock.  This room will be bright, with stadium lighting that makes every grease stain tremble in fear.  And there will be whimsy, too, I promise.

Like the other rooms, I started working on this one from the floor up.  No worrying about a “period” look here ~ this room is all about what feels good to

The reconfigured laundry  with tile "planks"

The reconfigured laundry with tile “planks”

me.  I’ll be the one spending hours in it.   I need something easy-care that contrasts with the oak floors everywhere else, and is equally easy on the budget.

I was really taken with this 6 x 24 floor tile at the Big Box Home Improvement Store at a mere $2.29/sf.  It reminds me of birch trees without pretending to be wood.  I like its plank feel.  Sold.

I had it laid horizontally across our long narrow space.  Doing this visually makes the space appear wider.  The effect will be more pronounced when

In the shadow of the spacer bucket hides an ingenious drain

In the shadow of the spacer bucket hides an ingenious drain

the right wall is lined with appliances and cabinetry.

To those who say you’d never put a laundry on an upper floor for fear of inevitable water leaks, one of the advantages of a whole-house gut was our ability to install a nifty drain in the floor under the washer, and to pitch the floor toward that drain.  The drain ties in with the water outflow to the basement level, so should something go awry, we will not have a soggy ceiling below to contend with.

Testing grout colors in natural light

Testing GRAY grout colors in natural light

I was slightly surprised that the tile read a little more brown and a little less gray on installation.  (This may be because my project manager purchased it from a different store than the one I told him I went to – just like yarn, tile has lots.  Although he has assured me it was the same lot, I’m not buying that entirely.  It’s a small thing, but still …)  The color issue was significant enough that the gray grout I intended to use just didn’t play right.  Of the ones that did, it was the dark chocolate brown that

Grouted in "light pewter"

Grouted in “light pewter”

was the best match.  I didn’t want the floor trending any farther brown, so you don’t even see that one here.  I tried to wrest it back to the gray side of the scale, using “light pewter” instead.  I know the grout will darken a bit over time but at least it won’t be turning cocoa brown.

That notwithstanding, I’m very pleased with how it came out.  Now if I could just wave a wand, click my heels and have the rest of it magically installed in a blizzard of white appliances and cabinetry.  Gotta work on that trick in my off-hours.

Framed

Sometimes it isn’t the finishes but the execution that makes or breaks a room.

Today, we’re going back to the “slumber party bathroom” up on the third floor.

Notes no one can lose

Notes no one can lose

You’ll see hieroglyphics like these scrawled on the walls all over the house.  They’re our working shorthand notes for what goes at what height along the walls ~ and they are the only notes on the job site that can’t get lost.  In this instance, they’re marking out the pattern for the trim at the top of the subway tile walls.

With its period black-and-white theme and very traditional flower hex floor, I wanted to mix things up just a hair.  Also, this bath is an unusual shape with a lot of wall to tile, so I chose a slightly more contemporary dimension for the subway, opting to go with a 4 x 12.  Fewer tiles to affix, at the very least.

Mocking it up to avoid mucking it up

Mocking it up to avoid mucking it up

The plan for this room seemed so simple ~ until it wasn’t.  We would put a glossy black pencil line under the last course of subway, then a glossy black chair rail on top to finish it off.  The problem had to do with where to “die” the pencil line when the wall tile met the shower.  We figured the top rail would make a nice sharp 90º turn and line the subway to the ceiling,  But what to do with the pencil?  How to terminate it?  We futzed and fiddled.

The pencil line wasn’t beefy enough to continue on its own around the tub surround, and it had the controls to contend with there.  It would have looked lost and just plain silly.  And there was the matter of the continuous line of subway tile coming around the wall through the shower area.  We didn’t exactly want an ugly jog there, either.

A solution emerges

A solution emerges

And that’s where working with a really good tile-setter comes in.  His solution was not the easy one, but it was the right one.

He trimmed the top course of subway between the black trims so that the total depth of the thin pencil and subway together would equal the 4 x 12 it was dying into in the shower stall.  See

Lines that match up

Lines that match up

how the grout line at the base of the pencil continues straight along?

To do this, he had to cut every single tile in the top course all of the way back to the doorway.

Boy, does it ever look good.

I’m delighted with both the outsized subway tiles and

Taking shape quite nicely

Taking shape quite nicely

the charcoal grout.  Now, for the first time, I can also see the back wall of the shower stall finished out.  It will get a piece of stone for a shelf at the back for toiletries to sit on where you see tools perched now.  That wall also provides the break to access a small closet under the pitched roof behind the stall.  Extra storage is always a welcome bonus anywhere I can tuck it in.

Maybe next time you’ll get to see the whole thing ~ both wall tile and the (now protected) perky floor.  I have the paint color all picked out, which might be somewhat surprising since I’ve painted this bath in my head at least a couple hundred times.  That’s down the road, though, with a few more baths to go in the meantime.

Choices

Understatement

Understatement

I am often told how much fun it must be to be able to do so much shopping for a new house.

“Well … have you ever redone a bathroom, gutted to the studs?  Take that, and multiply it by six.  And then add all the other rooms, halls, closets and surfaces that make up a house. ”

Owl Manor can be a little overwhelming if I let it.  I’m really fortunate though: I am decisive.  Give me the information I need to make a decision and I’ll make it and move on.  I won’t drive the crew crazy hemming and hawing over whether it was the right thing.  I will ask their input often, make a choice and then it is done.  If I second-guessed half of my choices, I would go stark raving mad based on the sheer volume of decisions I have to make any given day, much less on the project as a whole.

Which is precisely why I started working on the bathrooms months ahead of when tile would actually need to be purchased and installed.

Master bath tile samples

Master bath tile samples

You go to the tile store and see all these itty bitty samples, or these heavy and unwieldy boards with samples and try to figure out what will go together in the look you’re trying to achieve.  But wait, there’s more than what they look like! There are issues of the thicknesses of the tile, matte finishes versus glossy.  And more than anything, there is the matter of lighting: if you hear nothing else I’m saying ~ you must see everything in real daylight.

To start somewhere, let’s talk about the master bath.  In each bath, I had some inspiration to begin with.  For the master, it was a basketweave marble mosaic floor.  I’ve always loved this floor ~ it’s appropriate to the period, and when it’s done in marble, it doesn’t have that total vertigo-inspiring Escher effect found in a flat black and white.  I also wanted it in a honed (matte) finish, and I was really pleased to find the sample on the right.  The dark gray striations you see are called fluid Carrara, and I knew it would add depth and richness.

long view of master bath during rough-in, taken from corner of shower

Long view of master bath during rough-in, taken from corner of shower

The master is long and somewhat narrow, at roughly 8 x 18 1/2, and it has three enormous windows providing east and south light.  For the walls, plain classic white subway tile would be just fine.

But with a modern rectangular tub with clean lines at one end, and a glass shower box at the other, how to choose a tub surround and then top the subway with something to pull the whole space together?

Such pretty trims!

Such pretty trims!

That’s where the whole process gets dicey, as far as I’m concerned.  The possibilities become somewhat endless ~ and they are so very pretty.  There are listellos (or is it listelli?) and chair rails, mosaics and pencil lines.  They are thick and thin, some will match your subway and some won’t.  (Bearing in mind that there

Caps and ledges and more

Caps and ledges and more

are roughly 247 versions of subway tile sold in the US today, each of varying thickness, tolerance, shade and so forth, not to mention finish, texture and more …) How plain?  How fancy?  How fussy? How pricey?

It is enough to make my hair hurt.  And that is why I don’t do this entirely alone.  I am fortunate to have C., a friend who is a professional designer, who agreed to come on board and help me not mess this up.

Ungrouted flooring

Ungrouted flooring

First things first, here is the honed fluid Carrara floor ~ ungrouted ~ as seen from the tub looking toward the pony wall at the shower enclosure.  I had, for a brief moment, worried that it might be too dark in the space.  But as C. wisely pointed out, there is so very much light bouncing around the room, the floor never gets a chance to darken anything.  And if anything, the striations sort of go “dappled” on the larger floor field.  The basketweave is much lighter than I thought it would be in situ, which is a good thing as far as I am concerned.

In fact, the next important decision is the grout color.  Which, as it turns it, is one of the easier choices. to make.  I have seen this pattern with a light grout many times.

Grout samples

Grout samples

I loathe light grout.  I understand that the new Mapei Power Grout contains wonderful new properties that keep it from turning dark and mildewy and outright icky.  Having spent enough of my life with a toothbrush and various chemicals cleaning grout, I’d rather go dark and skip the whole thing.  Good thing to know, though: grout comes out darker than it looks in samples, and it will darken some over time.  Given that knowledge, and not wanting the dark marble squares to disappear entirely, I chose the lighter sample on the left.

BINGO!

BINGO!

When applied to the large field of the floor, it made the whole thing POP like nobody’s business.  This is exactly what was in my head.  No small feat to achieve it.  But there it is, in all its basketweave glory.

But wait, you say, what about the tub surround?  And the rest of the walls?

Oh, those.  I failed to mention that during this process, you’re going to make more than two trips to the tile store.  You might make five or more for ONE bathroom.  (Then do the “Owl Manor multiplier” …)  I did pick out a tub surround, a rather streamlined solid gray I really liked.  However, it was really expen$ive, and after we had a bad experience with the same manufacturer in another room, I decided to go back to the drawing board (and tile store).  New

You'll see this chair rail again

You’ll see this chair rail again

products are coming in all the time, and our tile-setter has plenty else to work on in the meantime.  But I will tell you that C., who is every bit the talented genius I knew she was, came up with a fab treatment for the walls using the Arctic white chair rail here in some unexpected ways.

I also have a few treasured

Original porcelain soap dish c. 1914

Original porcelain soap dish c. 1914

pieces of original porcelain bath fixtures that are original to the house that will be worked into the walls around the tub.  The master bath is still a work in progress, but when it’s finished, it will be done right.

Three full and two half-baths to go …

Lock stock

I live in the Hardware City.  Owl Manor was built by a tool magnate.  I am drowning in hardware.

This is the result of a very dark time eighteen months ago.  You will recall that in our absence, the house was mistreated and we lost much of what we had

Hardware city, indeed

Hardware city, indeed

preserved, including scores of original mahogany doors.  As Mr. Owl and I regrouped and went about the process of finding a new construction company, I spent the unbearably hot summer days doing the only thing I could physically do myself, removing every piece of door hardware I could salvage.  Now it was time to go through all those forensically collected bagged and tagged screws, locks and knobs to figure out what I have, what I need, what I can use and what I can’t.

The reality is that until pending legal action is resolved, we could not afford to replace the doors with exactly what we had.  The originals were almost all 1 3/4 inch-thick, solid core doors. Your everyday interior door nowadays is 1 3/8 inches, usually hollow.  You know the difference when you close them or ~ perish the thought ~ slam them.  We’re talking the difference between something builder-grade like Masonite versus Karona or Rogue Valley.  There’s simply no comparison.  But given all the other priorities in the house, I carefully chose the places where we’d put thick doors and conventional.  We compiled a spreadsheet of every door in the house.  Then after the doors were ordered, it was time to match up the hardware and the doors, starting with locks and latches.

See, conventional wisdom would be to order all new pieces and the specialty hardware to accommodate all of my antique knobs.  (More on those later.)  But if

A proud name lost to time

A proud name lost to time

we’re talking about cost, that’s easily $50 or more for each door, when I had dozens of perfectly good hundred-year-old locks and strike plates in my possession.  Corbin is one of the most storied lock companies in this country; men in this city died making them by hand.  I harvested these one at a time and most of them function perfectly.  They are brass and they are heavy.  Call me crazy, but with so little left that is original to Owl Manor, it seemed silly to buy something new when I owned something original and worthy.

This is also about the time my hair started to hurt.  You see, with right-hinged locks and left, passage locks and privacy locks and different-sized mortise boxes, my head started spinning.  Time for reinforcements:  I called in Mr. Owl for problem-solving.  Together, we classified our inventory, then coded and labeled every lock by size.  Some were too thick to go in thinner, modern doors.  Other places we didn’t haven enough of a certain type of latch and I needed to break down and buy some.  While I’m really good at taking things apart and putting them back together, these handmade objects didn’t always want to flip and operate the other direction.  Still, when all was said and done, we had more than two dozen originals to put back in the house where they belonged.

Before that could happen, they’d have to be cleaned up for a field trip to the place where our door slabs were being bored.  More on that next …

Blooming

One of the disadvantages to going through a lengthy short-sale process followed by an unanticipated two-year reconstruction is having too much time to think about what you want the place to look like.  Put more simply: I’ve repainted every room in Owl Manor 146 times in my head.

Fortunately, there are a few finishes I always envisioned as belonging in the house, which makes some of the infinite available choices that much easier.

I’ll be talking a lot about bathrooms in upcoming posts, starting up on the third floor in what I think of as “the slumber party bathroom” adjacent to the playroom and my studio.  In all likelihood, this may be the least used of the loos, so staying budget-conscious was rather important.  Fortunately, the period calls for classic finishes that are easy on the wallet.

Who doesn't like flowers?

Who doesn’t like flowers?

I started with these matte black hex flowers as the inspiration around which this bathroom will revolve.  Like crocus in spring here, I find this pattern to be irrepressibly cheerful.

Interestingly, this version with multiple repeats per square foot is a little harder to find than the one with fewer flowers ~ and cobalt

Designed around the dormer

Designed around the dormer

is more common than black.  But it turned up online at a Big Box Home Improvement Store at $5.95/sf and within a few days it was waiting for pick-up just down the road.

Although Owl Manor has all new subflooring, it still has old bones, which means that in places, the floors have a bit of gentle roll.  In a perfect world, feathering in a bit of self-leveler would have prevented a couple of uneven seams.  (Such are the trials of living with a level in your head.  Sigh.)  Here, you get a sense of how I laid the bath out around the dormer and existing support beams.

Grouted and good to go

Grouted and good to go

There was no question in my mind that Dark Charcoal was the right color of Power Grout to use for this installation.  The dark grout lines are just right on the floor and will accent the less traditional 4 x 12 subway tile on the wall and tub enclosure that will be highlighted with black trim.

Frankly, every time I see this floor it just makes me smile.  Kind of like getting flowers that never fade.