Boston Brownstone

South End Brownstone

by Richard Connolly

Globe Correspondent

Who would ever marry, have a new baby, and undertake an extensive remodeling project all within a year? Not too many people to be sure, but a South End couple recently did so with spectacular results.

Marriage has been wonderful, the baby healthy, handsome, and growing, and the project a major success. The couple completely renovated the first two floors of their four story, 100 year-old, brown stone home, which had once been part of a boarding house.

At some point years ago, their side of the building was converted into two separate units. The work had been done practically, cheaply, and with little sensibility.

The challenge the homeowners faced was to create out of a dismal, weary, and beaten space an open and inviting atmosphere. Radical surgery would be required – along with temporary housing for the next six months.

Most of the project’s heavy work took place on the first floor, which was below street level. A lean to kitchen in the rear of the building was demolished to allow for the installation of a new deck, city garden, and parking space.

This latter decision was especially wise. For a cost of only several thousand dollars, the parking space added more than $20,000 to the value of the house because Boston is place where available parking is tighter than bark on a tree.

The homeowners left in place one wall of the kitchen because a neighbor had attached to it her own lean to. A new fence eliminated any unsightliness. With the help of a Chinese interpreter this Solomon like decision was made.

The painted outline of the kitchen left on the rear brick wall by the demo was sandblasted to a soft finish, and the bricks were repointed.

A mullion window in the same wall was removed and its opening reframed and re-bricked to accommodate a large exterior door with a full glass panel and side light. The new door opened onto the deck.

In the space left by the removal of a door to the lean to kitchen, a window was installed. Its lintel was raised to match the one over the new exterior door. Sunlight streamed through the new openings.

The gutting of the first floor confirmed a suspicion about the brick walls: they had par-tially disintegrated in several strategic locations.

Because they were supporting the floor joists above, the bricks needed substantial repair. Once completed, the new brickwork sealed off the pathways that several undesirables used to get from one abutter’s house to another.

The cost was expected – and not a hair raiser – but did delay the construction for two weeks. Similar work in the basement had been done by the present homeowner several years ago. From a structural standpoint, the house was now completely sound but remained out of level by two inches from the front to the back.

The entire first floor was reframed – but with very few inside walls – in order to create an open effect. The kitchen was relocated to the center. The counters would help define the new family room in the rear and the dining room in the front of the apartment.

As a means of remaining within budget, the homeowners opted for a less expensive – but very attractive – cabinet than had been previously planned. They also installed a more affordable laminated countertop.

In the basement, the original state of the wiring was, according to the electrician, “frightening.” Wires had melted together and were arching, and several were feeding the house next door. Still more led to the second apartment above.

A complete service upgrade was done, and the two apartments were placed on separate meters. The cost of this work was anticipated.

Each apartment was also placed on separate heating systems. A new, zero clearance, forced warm air, gas system with a humidifier and electronic filter was installed in the first floor apartment. Air conditioning was later added once some outside site work was completed.

The existing steam system by oil was reworked to heat only the second floor.
An unexpected chimney liner and manifold needed to be installed but were allowed for in a contingency budget, which was set at 5% of the total project cost of $65,000.

The plumbing required replacement with PVC of the heavy, cast iron soil pipe that ran the length of the basement and a new stack to the second floor bathroom, piping for the basement laundry and the first floor kitchen, and a water heater for the home owners.

The stack running through the kitchen was hidden by soffits over the cabinets. Gas lines were installed for the new heating system, clothes dryer, and kitchen range. The fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom were replaced along with the vanity.

With a new baby, the homeowners did not want to take any chances with the lead paint they knew covered the second floor. The lead paint abatement cost of $3,700 was partly offset by the reduction in the cabinets and counter tops and some site and foundation work that did not need to be done.

The de-leading was destructive to the woodwork and resulted in an additional delay of three weeks because no other contractors could work during that time.

Once insulated, the walls were sheet rocked and then skim coated. Ceramic tile was in-stalled on the kitchen and bathroom floors and as a backsplash. Tropical fish provided the perfect accent tiles and a touch of whimsy.

The carpentry posed some exceptional challenges, especially in the stairwell. There, the homeowners installed a curved railing which followed the contours of the skirt boards.

The railing consisted of eight routered pieces that were laminated together to form a single piece. The thin laminations allowed the carpenter to bend and nail them in place to the plywood that had been installed behind the new sheetrock.

Under the railing, the carpenter used standard moldings to create curved shadow boxes that also conformed to the skirts. The overall effect is elegant and demonstrates the home owners’ appreciation for the house as it once must have been.

A wide baseboard and band molding had to be back-cut at regular intervals and steamed into place along the curved front wall of the apartment. The curved windows required similar treatment.

All the interior finish consisted of 1 x 4, flat stock with a 1 1/2 in., overlaid standard molding applied in place. False beams were installed to delineate the kitchen, hallway, and family room from each other and were dressed in 1 x 10 clear pine.

Everywhere the walls or beams met the ceiling, a 3 1/2 in. crown molding was installed and was the source of some very colorful language from the carpenter.

The walls, ceilings, and woodwork were each prime coated with one coat of latex paint. Nail holes were sealed with glazing compound, and all the spaces between the interior finish and the walls were filled with acrylic latex caulking.

Half a can of glazing and six tubes of caulking were used before a finish coat was applied to the walls and two more coats to the wood work. The home owners chose semi gloss, ivory linen latex paint for the walls and off white for the interior finish.

The work done on the second floor hall and bedrooms included stripping wallpaper, patching and repairing walls, wallpapering, and painting to match the first floor. There was no evidence that the de-leading had even been done.

Lastly, a commercial grade wall to wall carpet was installed to tie everything together on the first and second floors. In the end, the home owners had a new beginning in a house that was now not only livable and inviting but safe as well.

Their goals for the project were met, and – with some adjustment – so was the budget.

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