On the Level (aka New Jack City)

So, contrary to our assumptions, getting the house shored (leveled) turned out to affordable — if painful. Although not in our budget, we decided this is one of those things that is just ‘the right thing to do’ and that this was the right time to do it. Once we install tile in the bathroom there is no going back and leveling the house.

On Wednesday, the crew from Davie Shoring showed up. The amazing thing about watching this team work is the fact that what they did is so elementary. That is not to say it is easy or doesn’t take skill. It is just that everything about what they did was straight out of a 7th grade physics text book. The art and finesse came in as they worked their way through the nuances of this particular house and its unique challenges.

What they were facing: The weight of this two story house is carried by the piers around the outside of the house (front, back, and two sides) as well as by a line of piers down the center of the building. The house has two chimneys  (two stories and double sided) which have settled — but have settled less than the two sides of the house. At first blush, what needed to happen was obvious: the left and right side of the house needed to be raised back to level. A closer look, however, revealed that the front of the house was actually the high point. But, we couldn’t raise the sides up to the level of the front of the house because the chimneys were about 2″ lower than the front of the house. Raising the chimneys while possible was off the table for our budget and would damage the roof and . . . .

We discussed leaving the front of the house where it is (it has a chain wall which might be best left alone) and level the sides to the level of the chimneys.

Doug, the supervisor on the job, wasn’t too happy with that idea. He was hired to level the house and he wanted it level. So he decided to have the crew do some exploration under the front of the house. If he could sneak the front of the house down near the level of the chimneys, then he could get everything else to work out.

Within a couple minutes, the team had jacks under the front of the house and were removing coursing of brick. They were able to drop the front of the house about an inch and a half. At that point they knew they could make the rest of the numbers work and were ready to work on the sides. Because of the size of the house, they used two bottle jacks between each set of piers.

Daylight is visible as the house hovers above the piers

When they were ready to lift the house, each man worked two jacks and they counted the pumps as they raised the house to ensure an even lift and to minimize damage to the interior finishes. Watching this was my favorite part of the operation. They knew to a fairly accurate degree how many pumps it would take to move the house 5/8″ or 1-1/8″.

leveling historic home with bottle jacks

Working in unison to raise Ursulines house.

As they worked their way around the house, they checked their progress with a digital version of a water level. By the end of the day, the house was once again level (mostly — there were certain compromises that one has to make with old houses that are set in their ways). The crew shimmed and pinned the house so they could return in the morning and rebuild the piers and chain wall.

The old sill floats above the pier during the jacking

One coursing of brick removed while the house is leveled

Before the work started, I was afraid that I we would spend the money for the leveling and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Once they started working and the house began creaking and moaning and plaster began to crack I wanted to stop them and send everyone home. But by the end of the day I could not have been happier.

Remember the window that started it all? The one that was so out of plumb that we couldn’t repair the sash without ruining it?

The proof is in the pudding:

Level on window after the shoring

Level in the front window after the shoring of the house

It is a bit hard to see in the image above, but if you look closely at the apron of the window you will see a diagonal pencil line. That was the line that the carpenter put there using a level before the house was shored. That is how far off of level this window was. Seeing that little bubble nestled in between the two lines of that glass tube confirmed that we made the right decision and that we had a damn good team working with us. Thanks guys!



Not much happened on the renovation today. Carpenters are on hold until the shoring company comes to level the house — scheduled for next Wednesday. And the electricians appear to be off on another job.

K & I decided to invite a few folks over for a beer in honor of Saint Arnold’s Day. Any excuse to sit on the porch and drink a beer. The evening was going swimmingly until Stanley (our slightly crazy dog) decided to engage in a stand-off with an equally crazy cat under the house. At first I thought Stanley had trapped the cat and attempted — while crawling under the house in the dark — to provide cover for the cat to escape. Then I determined that the cat was holding Stanley hostage and attempted to toss various pieces of detritus at the cat to distract him so Stanley could make his escape. Turns out Stanley and the Cat were two crazy souls who had found each other and neither had any interest in escaping. They were locked in some weird under-the-house cage match and were determined to take each other down. K later referred to them as Sid and Nancy — which I think is the best description.

Finally, with the help of Rob, Ben, and Susan, we were able to coax Stanley away from the cat and out from under the house — where he proceeded to act as if nothing had happened.

While not much happened today, it appears that tomorrow could be a big day for the old house.

Plumbing Pipe waiting to be installed


Mouse Shit by the Pound

First off, I realize that I have a category for posts called ‘kitchen sink’ — but this post is literally about the kitchen sink. In this case, the demolition of the wall surrounding the kitchen sink.

Yes, this past weekend contained Independence Day. And while this is traditionally a time of relaxing around a grill with a cold beer in one’s hand, K and I decided that we would work on the renovation. Actually, that isn’t quite true. We decided that we would work a bit and then relax a bit — perhaps take a day off and go float in a river on the North Shore — but we started working and we never quite got around to the relaxing on the river part of the plan.

For those of you who read the title of this post and are thinking, “Mouse shit by the pound?  Get to the point,” I will keep you guessing no longer: This is not a rhetorical flourish. Just a statement of fact.

Mouse Shit in the wall

One of our tasks for the weekend was to prepare the kitchen walls for painting. If you have read earlier posts on the renovation, you know that I have been fighting with the kitchen floor for several weeks to remove the old sticky tile, luan sub-flooring, and tar paper.  (Side Note: I discovered this week that if you need to remove stubborn tar paper from an old wood floor, soak the tar paper with a 1:3 solution of vinegar and water. I wasn’t sure why this was working until I mentioned it to my friend Rob who pointed out that Vinegar is a mild acid —  so that is probably what is loosening the bond of the tar paper to the floor. However, I don’t believe I have mentioned that the walls were in pretty bad shape from the removal of the cabinets and suffered from the same general coating of yuckiness as the cabinets themselves. So we determined that the best solution was to rip out the sheet rock, install new rock, and float the walls.

When we began ripping out the old sheet rock, we discovered the treasure trove of mouse shit and dead cockroaches pictured above. I had a similar discovery in the last house I renovated but still, it is pretty nasty to see up close and personal — the pictures don’t seem to capture the revulsion you feel at thinking, “what if I hadn’t opened that wall and had just moved in here. I’d be eating my wheaties  right next to that and not know it.” Yuck.

The other discovery we made was more fun: some old wallpaper on the plaster that was covered up by sheet rock at some point.

Old Wallpaper in Kitchen

In the end, we did get the old sheet rock down and the walls opened up and cleared of debris.

Wall of kitchen with sheet rock removed

Before hanging the new sheet rock, I decided to leave a note on the old plaster wall for the next renovators of the house.

Note to future renovators

After that we installed the new sheet rock! This was the first additive thing we have done to the house. Everything up to this point has been removal or demolition. It felt great to take that first small step of rebuilding.

Installation of new sheet rock


Scraping By

Renovating after working the day gig is always tricky for me. I need to recharge a bit after the workday — but too much relaxing and I loose lose momentum. And Friday happy hour is right out.

Tonight it was back to the kitchen floor. K and I made good, if slow, progress. Feeling like we are 95% done and almost ready to start sanding.

When we called it quits we took Stanley and T-Bone for a walk around the Bayou. Ran into Ian and Antonia on their bikes headed downtown with some friends. Stopped into Pal’s for two beers in go cups to help with the summer heat. The warm night air just humid enough to ensure we knew we are in New Orleans.

Almost forgot to mention dinner: paprika chicken with three sides: potato salad, dirty rice, and macaroni & cheese from the corner store next to the house. $6.99. Fed both of us and we still have lunch for tomorrow.

How lucky we are to have fallen in love in this city and with this city.


Small Steps

Time moves so slowly in the hot New Orleans sun but the hours slip into days and I haven’t posted any notes on the renovation.

Each day of the weekend was a new undertaking. But I started and ended in the same place. The back corner of the yard.

Two things converge in the back corner of the yard: the old cat hospital and a plant called a vitex. Neither of these is a good thing in my opinion but the vitex may redeem itself one day.

out-of-control vitex plant

Our house has been vacant since 2005: Not for the reasons many who know what 2005 means in New Orleans would suspect — but that is another story. The important point here is that during the last 5 years, this Vitex plant / weed / tree has been having a great time in the back yard. I don’t even know what a vitex plant is — but that is what a friend told me it is called. They also explained that it is actually a cool plant. So I decided I just needed to trim it up and get it back to looking like a proper tree and not like an invasive weed on steroids.

Friday evening, while K went for mandatory cocktails with her graduate studies cohort, I attacked the vitex with the only weapon I had: a saws-all.

My problem was not that the vitex was a tough opponent. Each branch I touched was clearly not a “real” branch and deserved to be cut back. The problem was that none of the branches appeared to be real branches. Down at the base there were some substantial trunks that made you think “tree” — but above that everything seemed wimpy and ripe for removal. There was no there there. In the end I finally got tired and just gave up, afraid that if I continued cutting K would show up on Saturday morning and find a stump.

The vitex after trimming

Astute observers will note the saws-all in the foreground.

Saturday I decided to move back inside. The plumber was coming on Monday to see about running a new vent stack and had requested that the walls be open in both the downstairs and upstairs bathrooms. I prepared for battle.

ready for the demo of the upstairs bathroom

I enjoy doing demo in these old houses. Perhaps it is the academic romanticizing manual labor. Perhaps it is because lacking trade skills I have trouble with finish work. Be that as it may, there is also a process of discovery and a connecting with unknown craftspeople who have worked in the same place. At times it is the hack handyman whose idea of a repair was to cover over the problem. But more often it is the work of someone who solved problems in a skillful and innovative manner; work that makes you step back and question your own ability to fully engage the physical world.

At the end of the day had I succeeded in removing a portion of the wall. But the end result was meager compared to the energy expended. If playing music allows me to feel much younger than my actual years, demolition in June in New Orleans allows me to feel every one of those years.

removal of plaster and lathe from upstairs bathroom

Now, back to the cat hospital.

As the story goes, the former owner of the house loved cats. And by that I mean that the mother-in-law apartment had something like 20 cats residing in it and the back yard was protected by a double fence to keep the neighborhood dogs away from the 40+ cats hanging out back there. When cats weren’t feeling well, they were put into a lean-to chicken wire structure that had been added to the original 1903 servant quarters. This all sounds quite “crazy cat lady” except that Rosemary was apparently in touch with the SPCA and was designated as a cat rescue location complete with veterinarian visits.

But Rosemary is no longer here and it was time for the cat hospital to go away. K and I decided to divide and conquer. She headed home to retrieve the wheelbarrow and I started whacking at the cat hospital.

debris in back yard

By the time the noon sun was beating us senseless, the cat hospital and all the detritus from the vitex tree / bush / weed had been deposited in the construction dumpster out front.

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