We bought our house in January 2003. I started itching to write a blog chronicling our renovation adventures by 2004. Since then, I've bored my co-workers and Facebook friends with details of our follies over the years. It is now 2011 and we finally have our DIY blog up and running. Better late than never, right?

It makes me a little sad that we can't give you real time details of our first projects that we've already completed. Honestly, that is our loss but absolutely your gain, as our projects take FOREVER and now we can recap the interesting bits in a much more efficient manner. Don't worry though, we'll have plenty of other agonizingly long projects to recap. Come to think of it, we're in the middle of two or three as I type this.

The process of blogging about some of our early years' projects is also allowing us to relive some of our fond memories, which is a ton of fun. For instance, last night I said to Wendy, "Can you believe we lived with parchment paper on the stairs and a yellow extension cord running down the stairs for a year?" To which she responded, "I think I hate you." Love is in the air!

Yesterday's post covered our enthusiastic and almost giddy rush into the first several days of homeownership. We were excited and ready to take the world by storm renovating houses. We had three full weeks overlap living in our apartment while also working on our empty house. Our plan was to get as much done as we could, move in, fix it up, enjoy it, and move on. Like most first time DIY homeowners with a wreck of a house, we had absolutely no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

For one, we had made a commitment to strip all of the molding and doors in the house, thinking that would be an easy task. Given the seemingly endless layers of old paint from the last 100+ years, combined with the intricate details of the molding profile, well, it turned out to be a tall task that we are still working on 8+ years later. The picture below shows the profile of the mid-sized molding throughout our house. See the rounded portions and grooves all over the place. Paint just loves to goop and hide there.


Due to the paint stripping, the cracked walls, the need to re-plaster, the pull chain light, other projects, life, and the fact that we tackle many projects at once in spite of our understanding that we really shouldn't, the work on the entry hallway and stairs started in January 2003 and didn't wrap up until January 2005. That's a full 2 years for those of you scoring at home. Technically, if you count the fact that the entry vestibule isn't done, and I have a few items I'd still like to change on the hall, this project has actually taken longer to complete than our blog took to launch.

Once we had the carpet off of the stairs, and the stair treads refinished, we eventually shifted our focus back to the task at hand, and it was time for me to start stripping all of the molding I was talking about. And there sure was a lot of it.

Please note the pull string light, caked up paint job on the inoperable transom window, and the huge amount of work ahead. At least the transom glass was original and wavy. (Something I've yet to share: I heart wavy glass.)


This was our view up the stairs after the baseboards were stripped. You can see the paper on the stairs that I mentioned earlier. Yeah, I think it was actually on there for a full year. Also note the odd lack of molding around the doorway into the dining room. Something about this wide open space, giant doorway, and lack of molding was just plain wrong and boring...so we decided to fix it.


To correct this issue we turned to something that will undoubtedly become a theme on this blog, eBay.com. We found a wonderful leaded wavy glass window for about $30 (+5$ shipping). As you can see from the photo, it was in rough shape. The leading had been painted black at some point, someone had put silicon caulk around the perimeter of the glass for some reason, and the sash was falling apart.


I took it all apart, spent many hours cleaning it up with a razor and steel wool, and the end result was decent and fits nicely with our old house. That is one thing we learned right off the bat, if your work is close to perfect in an old house, it looks out of place. We really don't have a straight line or 90 degree angle in the house, so why start now?


Next up, we made a new piece of jamb to match the thickness and dimension of the old one (I've gotten a lot better at this now).


We then framed up a bit of an actual wall, and the opening for the soon to be installed transom window. This is one of those times where doing it "right" looked wrong. When I installed the transom ledge perfectly level, the leaning stairs made it look horrible. I actually had to lower the left side of the ledge to take it out of level and therefore make it look like it had always been there. Isn't that what they call character?


Here is the test fit of the transom in it's place. The main reason I used this photo was to highlight the infamous extension cord that we all grew to love. You can also see that I installed a door jamb in the doorway to the dining room so that we could put in a door casing so it wouldn't look so out of place.


After this, we focused on fixing all of the cracks and "re-plastering" the walls. I'll get much more into the plastering techniques we've adopted over the years in future posts. It has gone through several iterations, but this was our first attempt at it. Let's just say that there has been a lot of mud, dust, sanding, and swearing along the way.


We opted for a somewhat substantial crown molding for the hallway, and a matching but slightly smaller profile for the upstairs hall. The first floor ceilings are 10', so a heftier crown just looked more at home. Also in this photo, you can see the hinges we used for the transom. To this day, the side hinged transom frustrates me. This was back when we were noobs, and we were following the lead of another transom in the house with incorrectly placed hinges. At some point, I'll change this.


We searched and searched for a light fixture for this hall, and I had it in my head that we HAD to have a glass bell hundi lantern. I wanted an antique one so badly, but they are quite expensive, and were way out of our price range. This was also well before they were popular in mail order catalogs, so we just kept our eyes open. We spent our first anniversary in St. Michaels, Maryland, and Wendy spotted an etched glass hanging bell candle holder in a store window. It was not a lamp and wasn't electrified, but she looked at me with her knowing glance and said, "Can you make that into a light for us?" I cannibalized the old, hideous, brass lamp from the hall, added a little spray paint and some new wires. The end result, for under $200, is what you see below.


The light is honestly one of my favorite things in the house, and something we will absolutely be taking with us if we ever move. We also added a small plaster veneer ceiling medallion for good measure.

With the light hung, molding stripped, and the walls crack free and smooth as can be, we turned our attention to painting the hall. With the diamond shaped etched glass hanging lamp casting little diamond shadows on the wall, and the diamond like shapes in the new transom, Wendy thought it appropriate to do a two-tone diamond harlequin pattern. She felt it would give the entry that wow factor right when you walked into the house. Here Wendy is working on completing the pattern. We'll cover exactly how you can achieve something similar in a future post.


With the light hung, transom installed, new door casing, and walls painted, the hall was taking shape. The photo below gives you a decent side by side before and after. The dates listed are 100% accurate (before photo is of the previous owner's lovely decor) and are part of the reason why my wife has a perfectly reasonable excuse to loathe me long projects. Our end result is my chance at redemption.


We still had a ways to go until the new handrail on the stairs completed the project, but I'll cover that one in my next post.

So there you have it. My long winded detailed summary of a project that we started on day one. It may have taken way longer than expected, but I hope you'll agree that the end results were worth the blood, sweat and tears.


Now that I've come clean with our (first) never ending project, why don't you share some of your stories? Who has a partner than easily exceeds their time estimates by 10x, or constantly says it'll be done in 2 more weeks?

Comments 11


4/29/2011 at 1:40 PM
Those are some mad painting skillz, although I'm sad to say that I don't remember it from my last visit. Are the diamonds still there?
Yep, the diamonds are still there, and probably still get the most comments of just about anything we've done on the house. Most people can't believe it isn't wallpaper.
Susan Aster Sawyer
5/18/2011 at 2:26 AM
Love your new Blog
Old Town Home
5/18/2011 at 2:26 AM
Great! We're glad you're enjoying it. Be sure to spread the word :-)
11/13/2011 at 5:36 AM
Omgeez. I'm in Alexandria too (north of Old Town, though). Question on the hall light redo. Is it 'easy' to turn a pull string light into a light fixture. I have one in my basement and am wondering if I really need to call an electrician or if it's basically the same as changing an existing ceiling fixture.
It is not the hardest thing in the world. We were lucky, there was a switch location on the wall that had a live wire running to it, just no wire between the wall switch and the light with the pull chain. In our case, we used an Insteon receiver from smarthome.com/ and a transmitter. Basically, you just need to install the receiver in the electrical box above the light (similar to changing out a fixture), then install the transmitter at the wall, then tell the transmitter to control the light. No need for wires between the two locations. If you need to run a wire, that is obviously way more involved.
1/10/2012 at 2:10 PM
Unbelievably gorgeous transformation. Love it. WELL DONE!
Aww, shucks. ;-) Thanks Amy!
2/5/2012 at 2:56 AM
Wow. We just moved into a 1922 home and are in the midst of stripping our risers after carpet removal now. I was using a heat gun and am now worried I am deformed. I'll have to get some peel away 7. It looks amazing! What was the parchment paper for?

I LOVE transoms! Unfortunately, our ceilings are only 8."

We anticipate taking much longer than you to do some similar things, because TA DUM...we have a toddler. :(

Choosing the "right" light fixtures is keeping me up at night.
2/5/2012 at 2:57 AM
P.S. Love the use of corbels (?) for the mirror in the hall. Smart and beautiful!
Thanks so much!
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