Vintage Crimson

Adventures in Restoring Antebellum Houses in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Month: May, 2013

Laying on of Hands

In many religious traditions, “laying on of hands” is an important part of healing rituals and rites of passage.  There is recognition of the capacity of touch to communicate  powerful emotions and energies from one person to another.  This idea is echoed between owner and home in the rituals of “sweat equity.”

Sweat Equity: An interest or increased value in a property earned from labor toward upkeep or restoration. This term is used to describe the value added to real estate by owners who make improvements by their own toil.


This week, I have been toiling.  The first phases of demolition and construction were beyond the scope of my ability.  But, I can paint and clean-up.  My husband, two older sons and I spent the holiday weekend and following week sweeping, wiping, priming and painting on the third floor of our old house.

There is an entire TV network devoted to sweat equity, the idea of “doing it yourself”, as well as a plethora of DIY magazines, blogs and websites.  There is so much information (much of it practical and valuable) out there for homeowners who want to tackle projects themselves.  But, I have yet to find any media outlet that addresses what I believe is the most valuable part of “doing it yourself” – laying hands on your house.  This act bonds you to your home in a very intimate way. Cleaning and painting are great examples because they are activities that require literally laying your hands on every surface of the room.

I love the way the rooms on the third floor look with their fresh coats of paint.  I am pleased with the color and how it looks on the newly patched and primed walls.  I am beginning to feel at home in the space.


Painting is a meditative activity.  It has a rhythm that invites thoughts to stray.  Of course, my thoughts ranged over topics related to houses and the definition of home.  I like to think that my toil in this house is making it into a real ‘home.’  I hope that “laying on” my hands communicates my good wishes to the house and my hopes for all who will call it home.  My wishes for them are best expressed in a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“I wish that life [as it will be lived in this old house] should not be cheap but sacred…the days should be as centuries, loaded and fragrant”

As I touch the old house, I bless it and all who enter in.

A Good Hardware Store

Are you lucky enough to live in a town that still has a good hardware store?  Not a “big-box” store where you can wander for days without finding either the item you needed or an employee, but a full-service local hardware where the staff is knowledgable and make you feel welcome.  Once a staple of every main street, these stores are now a vanishing breed.  I may be one of the few southerners still lucky enough to live near a great hardware store, Little Hardware.

Little Hardware is the kind of place where customers are greeted at the door by staff members whose knowledge is encyclopedic.  I have been trying to stump them for years without success.  I once took in only the charred remnants of a part damaged by fire and was calmly given a replacement.  These guys are amazing.

In addition to the sale of all types of household needs, the staff of Little Hardware provides the type services it is increasingly hard to find anywhere else.  For example, I recently took the old “Sabana Tonic” bottle I found during the demolition phase at my old house and they made it into a neat little lamp. Here is the bottle before its transformation.



And, here it is after.  I was so pleased to find a good use for this old bottle.  I thought it was an interesting artifact and now it can occupy a place of honor in the old house.  It will be a great conversation piece.  To me, this is the soul of historic preservation, taking something old and abandoned and giving it a new, vibrant purpose.  If only I could take my whole house to Little Hardware and pick up after they have fixed everything.  Sadly, I don’t have a big enough box…

Surrender Can Be Sweet


            Before  – Tongue and Groove                                                                                                                                   After – Plaster

Giving up is never easy.  Especially when you are strong-willed or, like me, just plain stubborn.  Nevertheless, I have yielded to the authorities and replaced the front porch ceiling, which was tongue- and -groove planking and is now plaster.  As you may recall, this was done to satisfy requirements from the Alabama State Historical Commission in order to apply for a Historic Preservation Tax Credit.  Applying for the tax credit took an entire weekend of filling out tedious forms.  Much wine was consumed and much paper wasted in this process.  A few choice curse words were also muttered (under my breath since there are always children around).

After all the applications were completed, the only requirement from the commission was to plaster the ceiling.  The original porch ceiling was plaster and, despite my well-reasoned arguments for the change to tongue-and-groove, plaster it had to be.  Following this recommendation was difficult to swallow. The cost of plaster is roughly 4x that of the tongue -and -groove planking.  If you have ever tried to keep a renovation on budget, I’m sure you can empathize!

At the end of the day, I have a lovely porch with a ceiling true to its original 1838 construction.  I plan to spend a lot of time on this porch with a rocking chair and a cool drink.  And, when I look up at the ‘Haint Blue’ ceiling, I will try to see the lessons I have learned from its transformation.  I have learned that it’s OK to make mistakes, and that most of our mistakes can be remedied if we are willing to acknowledge them and accept the costs of their remedy.  I have also learned that anger and resentment are best-let go. I am going to let those bad emotions drift right up into that blue expanse until they disappear entirely.

“Render Unto Caesar”

Caesar: 5. Any temporal ruler; the civil authority (Matt. 22:21)

Render: 16. Building Trades. A material made of aggregate, a binder, and water, used as a coating for walls and ceilings and as a sculptural and artistic material in architecture. Render may be used to cover less visually appealing construction materials.

The Porch Ceiling Transformation, Thus Far


There are times when I have arrived at a crossroads in life, a point where a decision had to be made without any certainty regarding the correct course. At these times, I have looked around in surprise and wondered, “How did I get here?” I expect this is a common experience, and distressing to all. I am at just such a point in my renovation of the old house.

The decision which must be made regards my front porch ‘ceiling.’ The ceiling has been newly refurbished with tongue planking and painted traditional “Haint Blue.” I think it is lovely. It was originally a plaster ceiling, but water had seeped behind it and the plaster was disintegrating. My contractor informed me that the ceiling could not be patched, but must be replaced in its entirety.

Before replacing it, I did some homework. First, I collected pricing and found that plasterers are few, and plaster is very expensive. Second, I consulted my local Historic Commissioner, who approved the choice of more economical tongue and groove planking as the ceiling material. This approval was based on a survey of homes of similar age in our Historic District, such as the Searcy House ca. 1832, seen below. Keep in mind that this is my first attempt at historic preservation. I am well-intentioned.


Now the plot thickens. I naively assumed that the local and State Historic Preservation Offices were part of the same hierarchy and would operate in harmony with one another.

I was disabused of this notion when the Alabama State Historic Preservation Office turned down the tongue and groove planking option. It seems I must replace the ceiling (again) with the original material – plaster, which is also known as ‘render’ in the building trades. I can exercise my freedom as a property owner and keep the ceiling as is, but that decision would mean giving up the possibility of the (much-needed) tax credit for historic preservation. After all, with two children at university next year, every penny will be precious. However, I must pay the substantial plasterer’s bill now in hopes of future reimbursement. And, that is particularly painful. Finally, even replacing the ceiling does not equal a guaranteed tax credit, it simply increases my chances of receipt.

I am prostrate at the feet of bureaucracy. A decision must be made soon – but my way forward is unclear.

Singing Dem Doggone Demo Blues

The old house had suffered long years of abuse and neglect when I first came to visit.    I felt an immediate connection between us.  Abandoned and ill-treated, it called out for a loving restoration.  And, I committed myself to provide it with the highest level of care.


Now, six weeks into the restoration process, I am at a real low point.  Everything is a mess.  And, as Dorothy Parker noted, “It’s not the tragedies that kill us; it’s the messes.”


The yard is rutted, the concrete patio has been destroyed, the walls and ceilings are riddled with jagged cuts, and there are piles of trash everywhere.

I am overwhelmed an saddened by the destruction.  This is not what I envisioned.


My contractor assures me that this is all quite necessary and a normal part of the renovation process.  But, I can’t help but wish that it could be a cleaner, gentler process.  Even as a child, I craved quiet and order.  Mostly, I found it in books, but this is real life – distressingly real.




Patching should begin next week.  Until it does, I am stuck singing ‘dem doggone demo blues.

Was this all a mistake?  I can’t think so.  I am too far into this journey to turn back.  I have invested too much of everything: time, sweat, money, dreams, sleepless nights, and general stress.  My cortisol levels have reached new highs.

I have to see the process to its end, no matter what chaos reigns at the moment.  I am not letting this mess turn into a tragedy.

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