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Sunday, October 07, 2012

This Old Dump

From the Cellar Dept.: Even after the tribulations described below, we still do our own repairs and improvements. This dates from when my wife and I owned a house in Schenectady’s Stockade area, which we would sell in just under two years in order to move to more rural digs. Where, twenty-two years later, I’m just getting to the master bedroom overhaul.


IT WAS A SLOW, drip-by-careful-drip kind of leak, but still the kind of leak that can carve out another Howe's Cavern in a millennium or two. Or so my tenant pointed out.

We noticed it when the ceiling of his kitchen began to bow downward slightly. Just below my bathroom. Directly below the ancient, claw-footed tub.

The old overflow had worked itself loose. That’s the gadget which sends excess water back into a wastepipe; on an old-fashioned bathtub it’s an ornate periscope. “We just have to reseal it,” I said. “And patch your ceiling. This job will be simple.”

I was able to make such a blithe declaration because I’d just taken possession of the place, proud mortgagee of a turn-of-the-century two-family in Schenectady. After so many years as tenant I was now on the Other Side: a Landlord. And the worst kind of landlord: one who performs his own repairs.

There are fanatics who, seized by the rehab craze, will gut an old structure and redesign it into a monstrosity that would send the original builder into a swoon of disgust. But those who truly understand an old house regard the place with the mixture of love and dogged tolerance you’d offer a troublesome teen. It may seem like a headache to you, we argue, but we see the charm.

“Why’d you buy this dump?” my wife’s mother asked with all sincere innocence. We appalled her by removing the aluminum siding from it even as she paid to have strips of vinyl layered upon her own country place.

But back to the bathroom. It turned out that the tub was kind of wrenched into place, crowding the toilet in such a way that the bare knee of the throne-bound got scalded whenever the hot water feed was active. “Can’t we move the tub a little?” my wife wondered.

The Old House Journal, a splendid magazine devoted to the care and upkeep of such places, calls it the “mushroom factor.” It begins with the simplest-seeming job and blossoms into . . . well, here’s how it happened to us.

No accurate appraisal of the leak was possible without cutting a hole in the ceiling below, which meant dropping a quantity of plaster and sawing through its stubborn backing of lathe. Revealing only what we’d gleaned already but adding plaster patching to our list of repair tasks.

Moving the tub opened the door to a few more “while you’re at it”s. Like replacing the charming but cramped corner sink with a slightly more sizeable vanity-based unit. And moving it out of the busy corner.

Which meant that new feed pipes were called for, and that required a portion of floor to be removed. “That’s okay,” said Susan. “We really ought to get rid of this lousy linoleum.”

We expected the bathtub to be heavy, but still we couldn’t really carry it past the hallway, where it was destined to lay for two weeks upon its side, a beached whale of Edwardian ablutionary decor. When the toilet came apart, scattering metal parts and dirty water upon us, we tossed the remaining pieces off the back porch. It would be our only moment of triumph for a while.

“You’re lucky you don’t have to work with copper pipe,” I was told. “Get that flexible plastic stuff. It’s so easy to use.” Without disparaging what I’m sure is an excellent system in the right hands, I realized, after laying in the new system, that I didn’t trust the compression joints, joints that would be sealed in the floor, above the tenant’s kitchen once again. So I measured and cut a system of hard plastic, one that gets glued into place and has a feel of structural integrity.

Perhaps an old house shouldn’t be courted with contemporary goods. Quietly, devilishly my plumbing had its revenge in the form of another slow leak, this one originating in the basement, sending the tiniest trickle into the system even with the street valve closed.

As Susan and I cleaned up to go out to dinner, I took just one more look at the white plastic skeleton of pipes, still doubting that my house would be pleased with plastic.

Oliver Hardy would have been tickled. I barely touched a now-pressurized joint only to have it spring off and squirt a stream of water onto my face. Before the water cascaded – where else? – into the plainly-visible kitchen in the tenant’s apartment below.

We spent the night in a downtown motel, assuring the clerk that our only requirement was a bathroom. The next morning I threw out the plastic and glue and invested in solder, steel wool and a propane torch. And discovered that copper not only isn’t tough to install but also feels very secure.

Doing it yourself isn’t always a matter of pride or ambition. That bathroom job required electrical work to move the lights to flank the new medicine chest. And carpentry to replace the overpainted wainscoting skirting the room. And glazing, to remove paint from the decorative stained-glass border on the bathroom window. The bill for one worker alone would have felled our meager budget.

Happily, the leak is gone. Our tenant is satisfied. But we never did get that tub shifted, so if you’re inclined to toilet-sit while I’m bathing, you’re still going to scald your knee.

Metroland Magazine, May 26, 1988

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