Saturday, October 9, 2010

On not being a fool: Keeping a record

This week the Beloved Partner and I start on a three-year project of remodeling our house. It's a 130-year-old house in a rural farming village in central New York. The house appears to be just another house on the street, but behind it is 5 acres. For the first half of its life, the house was a farmhouse: This was a chicken farm, with big barns and a carriage house out back. Harry Conley, who grew up in this town and who just passed at the age of 82, told BP that he remembered having worked on this farm as a boy, and he remembered the carriage house with a barouche in it. When we first moved here, a new acquaintance told us that during the 1930s, the owner of the house was also the owner of the furniture store in town. When Prohibition came, he installed a still in the basement, a still whose brick floor remains visible in a corner. That still kept him quite happy and also made him quite a piece of money. His exasperated wife, so goes the story, finally told him he had to give up the furniture store or the still. He sold the store.

We bought the house in 1986, two years after we moved up here from West Virginia. We paid $58,000 for it--a huge price for Earlville property in those days, and more than we could actually afford. We spent the summer of 1986 going to auctions, buying bargain furniture so the rooms wouldn't echo. For the first few winters, we didn't heat many of the rooms; we couldn't afford to. We hung on to this house through all sorts of upheaval, including my being in Texas for two years, and now my commuting 50 miles each way to work. Most people would just move--to Texas or closer to Syracuse--but we find ourselves in some peculiar (and wonderful) synergy with this house, a synergy whose rationale I've never unpacked.

About 10 years ago we did some minor remodeling, putting in new sheet rock and new electricity in about half the house. Our fellow Earlvillain Aaron Bigford, a genius at his trade and a very dear man, did all the painting and restored much of the woodwork. It was Aaron's idea to paint the foyer the brilliant, rich orange-yellow that takes everyone's breath away. Aaron is no longer with us and won't be contributing his artistic hand to these new renovations, but we'll all be thinking of him often as we go forward with the remaining renovations, the major ones.

Stage 1 is scheduled for summer 2011: we'll tear down the old barn near the house and put up a new garage.

Our project manager, Scott Ogden, has done a wonderful design for a garage that will be in keeping with the house, and he has determined where to put it so that it doesn't compete with the house but is close enough for an enclosed breezeway between the house and the garage. The garage will have a second floor, and that's where the study and a half bath will be, which will free up a second guest room that's currently being used as the study. (When one lives in a remote location, wants to scale back ye olde travel schedule, and wants to see friends and family regularly, one must have good guest accommodations, dontcha know.)

Stage 1 also involves professional installation of a high varmint-proof fence around our enormous, rambling garden.

Next summer, the South Main Street Deer Diner will go out of business. The turkeys, pheasants, foxes, possums, groundhogs, raccoons, coyotes, and squirrels will also have to patronize other establishments. We'll get to eat our own corn and peas next year.

Stage 2 is scheduled for summer 2012: We'll tear off the terrible additions that have been put on the back of the house, additions that weren't built on a pillared foundation and that therefore now tilt at an unnerving angle.

We'll replace those additions, widening and lengthening them by a few feet, in harmony with the lines of the original house. That will allow for a larger kitchen, a mud room, and a green room for all the seedlings that a serious organic gardener in a Zone 4 climate must start indoors. Stage 2 also involves the renovation of two bathrooms and the addition of a third.

Stage 3 is scheduled for summer 2013: We'll trim the exterior. The front porch, which has never drained properly and thus isn't as habitable as one would like, will be restored to its nineteenth-century design. (Miraculously, we have a photo of the house from the late nineteenth century; some fellow came to our door 20 years ago to sell us a copy for $5. He'd bought a box of photos at an auction, matched them up with the houses they depicted, made copies, and sold the copies to the current owners. Miraculously, too, we have a few samples of the original scrolled skirting that went under the porch, and it can be duplicated on modern machines.) Scott, whose primary occupation is cabinetmaker and designer of custom furniture, will design window framing a little fancier than the straight-board frames we have now--lightly ornamented framing that will comport with the stunning ornamented woodwork below the attic window.

Pretty exciting. Especially given that the preparations for Stage 1 are underway. Scott and his nephew were over here today with a laser transit, taking measurements and elevations, figuring out how to arrange and elevate the garage and driveway so that they drain properly. (Our planned renovations are green, including rainwater retrieval for the garden, but apparently buildings and pavement will nevertheless have a lot of additional, unretrievable runoff.)

We also now have a dumpster as big as Toledo parked by that old barn, and our fall project is to empty the barn of all the accumulated junk in it. (I have discovered, and I will confess it here, that I am a hoarder of plastic flowerpots.) Over the winter we expect the roof of the barn to collapse, so we'll be parking our cars outdoors this winter! In the spring a local crew will tear down the remains, and another crew will build the garage.

We had thought that building a garage adjacent to the house would mean at least one of the old trees would have to come out, but Scott has figured out how to locate the garage so that the trees can remain. (Not only we but many of our friends will sincerely rejoice. Those trees have been photographed over and over; they're just maples, but the branches curve amazingly.)

When you have trees over 150 years old, you just don't take them out on a whim. They were here before we came, and we want them to be here when we leave.

Finally, we'll pave the driveway, replacing what is now a hilarious path of stones collected from the garden, vestiges of antique asphalt, and mud.

You may wonder what I mean by referring to Scott as the "project manager." The Beloved Partner and I are very much a part of this village; we have many friendships and close ties here. This is a poor area, and we'll be sinking a chunk of change into these renovations. We could hire a contractor in Syracuse to do it all. Or we can hire a smart, dependable, knowledgeable person whom we know well, and hire him to take charge of all the design and subcontracting. He'll get the job done as responsibly and expeditiously as possible; the money will go back into the local economy; we won't have to deal with a bunch of separate agents (sheetrocking, paving, painting, etc.); and Scott will care about this house continuing to be a harmonious part of a very small village. He'll also be doing some parts of the work himself--the kitchen cabinets, the outside trim, and some of the plain carpentry. "Project manager" is Scott's suggestion for a term, as the two of us stood in his workshop on an early fall afternoon and agreed that the time we'd been talking about for several years had arrived.

Diligent readers may also be wondering where the not-being-a-fool part comes in. Here it is: After all these years in this house, and with the remodeling project finally getting underway, I would be a fool not to document it. And Schenectady Synecdoche seems the perfect place for it. By making the record public, I commit myself to keeping it going, no matter how pressed I am for time. Plus I get the fun of sharing it with friends. There's no fancy visual rhetoric involved here; just iPhone snapshots posted to pokey old Blogger software. But it's a record, all the same. Labors of love and joy need to be recorded, faithfully.


Unknown said...

Projects long awaited and most deserved! I look forward to more iPhone snapshots of your progress. This is the first time I've posted on your blog but I've been a fan all my life and wish you good luck and great patience with the process.

ChrisG said...

I love it! And I'll be following your progress.

cbd said...

This is awesome, top to bottom, floor to ceiling. The renovation plan itself, saving the trees, restoring the old look of the house, hiring local. And of course blogging it so we can share!

I wish you as few surprises as possible. But be sure to share them, too.

Sandra Jamieson said...

and can we have a hammock on that new front porch? or even two?
so excited!

Rebecca Moore Howard said...

Well, the old picture of the house has a hammock on it. I'm thinking about a swing instead. When we put up the new garden shed, I'm thinking it will have a porch and hammocks.