Sunday, February 21, 2010

How did we get here?

Today I was in the basement, running romex for more outlets. I barked my knuckles on the floor joists several times in the process, and also managed to scrape my scalp against a wayward nail, sticking down from the joists (which are only about six feet high). The basement of the Delaney House is filled with old cobwebs that are full of dust and dirt, so when you brush against them, they stick in your hair and leave dirty tracks on your face and arms. It was raining and cold, and the water was beginning to pool in the north east corner of the basement - right where I would have to stand to hook the romex up to the electrical service. The basement has a feel to it that can only be described as "dank".

All of a sudden, I started thinking: How did we get here?

Tom and I moved to San Francisco from Northampton in 1979, and lived in an 1883 victorian on Haight Street, between Divisadero and Scott. 858 Haight was a first floor flat, 7 rooms, which we rented for the exorbitant price of $435/month. Our landlord was a deaf man named Don Parodi (I had gotten the apartment for us because of my ability to sign), and he was not exactly the handiest landlord around. His repairs were mostly cheap and shoddy - he had his own victorian in Pacific Heights, and I think he saw the Haight Street house as something to keep together, but not restore.

The house had numerous tumors, mostly benign, but no one was treating the patient. We often woke to find our kitchen floor flooded from the leaking pipes from the upstairs flat. The wiring was iffy, and the windows mostly didn't work. In addition, the ground floor flat faced a busy street with 5 bus lines, and because we were on a hill, the buses frequently sat in front of our house revving their engines, holding the hill while waiting for the light to change. Diesel exhaust blew in through the security gate and coated everything - the house was always full of thick black dust.

We loved it.

But by 1983, we wanted to buy a house of our own. We knew we wanted to be parents, and we thought that the best thing we could do was appear to be stable, so someone would want to give us their baby to adopt.

In 1983, we bought a four room house in Bernal Heights. OUr plan worked: We moved to 79 Wool Street in July 1983, and within two years we brought home our first son, Elliott.

The problem with 79 Wool Street was that it was too small. When we moved, we had 3 dogs, and the 5 of us (plus Ricky, who moved in for the first year) crowded into that tiny house. But we had a plan: underneath the roof, the attic was tall enough to put two bedrooms. Unfortunately, we didn't have the money to hire someone to tear down a wall, build stairs, reinforce the joists, put down a floor, and put up wallboard to make the two rooms. So, following our own maxim that "Poverty is the mother of invention", we decided to figure it out for ourselves.

We had the Reader's Digest Home Improvements Manual ("A Do-it-yourself Guide to Renovating, Modernizing, and Adding Space to Your Home"), and armed with little more than a couple tools and our own determination, we started rebuilding our house.

Over the course of the next 5 years, we restored all the first floor rooms, opened up the wall between the kitchen and dining room, remodeled the kitchen, built stairs, and added two bedrooms up stairs, and even installed a roof window. We learned plumbing, electrical and carpentry.

We made plenty of mistakes, but we realized that any mistakes we made could be corrected - all we had to do was figure it out and try.

In 1988, wanting another child and feeling like we needed more space, we moved to Berkeley. The house on Fulton Street that we bought was definitely a fixer upper. It had asbestos siding, the foundation was bad, the wiring was bad, the roof leaked. The kitchen had been remodeled (hideously) in the 1950s. When we bought the house, you could sit on the second floor toilet and see the kitchen table through the holes in the floor. My father, who came out to see our latest venture, reported back to my mother that "There's nothing wrong with that house that $100,000 and a good contractor couldn't fix"

By 1989, we had 4 dogs, 2 kids (Sabastian arrived the day before the earthquake), and the house restoration was underway. Once again, we did everything: windows, wiring, plumbing, removing walls, fixing plaster, painting, refinishing floors, removing the siding. The project took us 10 years.

AFter that, we were hooked. We had a fully restored house, so we decided to rip off the roof and add a third floor. Elliott was 13 by then, and the prospect of sharing the one full bathroom with two teenage boys inspired us to add a bedroom, bathroom and roof deck to the third floor.

Then in 2003, our next door neighbor, Susan, decided to sell us her house. 2642 was infested with rats. Everything was bad except the roof. Susan's many cats had left their mark on every surface. The two fires in the house had lead to repairs that were done in a shoddy manner.

We bought the house in April, and realized that, in order to be successful, we had to have it ready by August. So we dove in: after tenting the house, we removed 30 dead rats, and while we had foundation done, we rewired the entire house, redid the plumbing, remodeled the kitchen, moved the downstairs bathroom, and refinished every surface in the house. The chimney, which had been the rats main route to get up and down through the house, had to be removed brick by nasty smelling brick. It was exhausting: we both worked full time jobs, then came home and worked every night on the house. Every weekend was spent working on it.

But by August, the house was done, and we rented it to four graduate students. Dale painted the outside after we rebuilt the front and back porches, and the house was again stable and ready for another 100 years.

Then we found the houses on Parker Street. We were drawn to them because, though neglected for years, no one had tampered with them - most of the original fabric was still there. We did all the same work (sans rat removal) and had the unenviable task of stripping the 6 foot high wainscoting and box beamed ceilings in the dining room and back parlor. When we finished the restoration, the results were good enough to win us an award from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) for the interior and exterior restoration.

We found the Delaney house last November, and then learned of the Cheney Cottage the same month. And we came up with our ambitious plan: we would move BOTH houses. The Delaney house is moving back on the lot, and over away from the property line, and getting a new foundation. The Cheney Cottage will go in front, just behind the redwood trees. We realized that we've done many different renovations, but we have never moved a house - and how many people get to move two houses!

Tomorrow, Andus and I are meeting with the City of Berkeley's Planning Director to go over the project and get the City onboard with our plan (Tom is flying to Raleigh for a conference). The Delaney house has been a blighted property for over 20 years, while the Cheney Cottage, a historic structure, is in danger of being demolished. We're hoping that the City will assist us in streamlining the permit process so we can get both houses moved in time.

More to follow - wish us luck.

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