Contractors in Chaos Getting Coffee

Our recent home renovations required a state of controlled chaos for about two months. During this time we saw a lot of contractors and served them a lot of coffee. We ignored the saying, ‘If you feed them, they will never leave,” and sometimes provided donuts. They have all left now, and left us with a safer, more comfortable, lovelier home.

Big changes to a small bathroom
Big changes to a small bathroom

We’ve not always been so fortunate with contractors. Back in PA, we experienced some stereotypical contractor-not-showing-up, contractor-not-calling-back, contractor-leaving-job-unfinished situations. Facing renovations here in Providence and having abundant free time, I resolved to manage the situation better. I asked family members and neighbors for referrals. I looked online for contractors with advanced credentials in their fields. We interviewed the contractors ahead of time rather than hiring them in desperation to fix problems that couldn’t be ignored any longer. Then we selected electrical, plumbing, flooring and painting contractors, and created a timetable for rewiring the house, installing new lighting, painting the living and dining rooms, and remodeling the first-floor powder room.

The contractors we hired were all competent, interested in their work, desirous of doing a good job, pleasant and efficient. There was one exception, a grumpy plumber, but the other workers sent by the same plumbing firm were good-natured.

Being retired, we could hang around the house most of the time while the contractors were working, so we were available for consultation whether they wanted us or not. We got to know some of them pretty well. They all seemed to approach their work with a can-do attitude and a sense of humor, and for the most part, so did we. A little humor – and seeing the funny side of things – helped us all to coexist during the many tiresome days of dusty, dirty, loud work. Here’s a look back at some of the more memorable exchanges.

Me, after hearing many loud sighs from the plumbing boss during his preliminary inspection: “How bad is it?”
Him: “It’s bad. But I’ve seen worse. Maybe a FEW worse.”

Me, after hearing many loud sighs from the head electrician on his crew’s third day of rewiring our house: “How bad is it?”
Him: “This house is in the top twenty of difficult houses that I have worked on since I started this business 15 years ago.”
Me: “You mean the top twenty percent?”
Him: “NO, the top TWENTY!”

Me, to the plumber’s answering service: Many important details about the upcoming installation of fixtures in the powder room.
Answering service to the plumber: “This lady wants you to call her.”

Me: Many helpful tips about how I think the new powder room floor should be installed.
Flooring installer, after listening politely to all of it: “I’ve installed a lot of floors before.” Then he set about laying the tiles with resolute good humor, despite having to contort his 6’4” frame into uncomfortable positions to fit into the very small room.

Me: A very logical explanation of how I want to replace an existing wall-mounted sink with a corner vanity.
Plumber: “You don’t want to do that.” Followed a bit later in the conversation by, “Why do you want to do that?” And still later by, “Do you really want to do that?” And lastly, by that most eloquent of non-verbal communications, “Sigh.”

Me, to the painting crew boss: “How about if you hang the mirror first and then we can see where to position the light above it?”
Him: “Mrs. O’Connell, what would we do without you?” Followed by much laughter from both Jeff and the painting crew.

The plumber: “How do you expect me to install THIS vanity on THIS floor that is NOT AT ALL LEVEL?”
Me: My best, most dramatic, highest-shoulder, with lifted palms and raised eyebrows, shrug.

I also overheard random comments and noises, including:

“Uh oh.” (I learned that it’s best to pretend not to have heard that.)

“Is it on? Is it on now? How about now? NOW?” (yelled about 200 times during rewiring, often accompanied by boots stomping up and down stairs.)

Frequent noise of a drill sounding like a moose with terrible gas, or a middle-schooler learning to play the saxophone.

“We have to cut another hole in the ceiling.” After hearing that, Jeff closed the door to his office and stayed in there for the rest of the day.

(VERY LOUD CRASH) “Ow!” “Are you ok?” “Yeah, I’m ok.” After hearing that, I carefully tiptoed downstairs to investigate. Everyone was ok, but there was collateral damage to an innocent bookcase, which they fixed later.

“Sheila?  Sheila!!  SHEILA!!!”  I ran downstairs expecting to see an electrician lying pale and still on the floor, smoke rising from his electrocuted body. Happily I saw instead a small flood, which I was able to mop up with old towels. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been happy to see a flood in my house!

Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, the work was finished days before our Christmas Eve party, to which we had invited 21 family members and significant others. Everyone fit somehow into our little house, we enjoyed the time together, and I got to show people the new improvements. Among many nice comments about our remodeling was this one: “I love how you put the toilet paper holder above the radiator to keep the toilet paper warm.” We did have a lot of good ideas, but we didn’t think of that; it was pure serendipity. Also there are not many options for arranging things in a tiny 4 X 4 powder room! Or lavette, as they call it here.

More controlled chaos: cousins and friends on Christmas Eve
More controlled chaos: cousins and friends on Christmas Eve

Afterthought: It is distressing to see a bunch of holes cut in your walls and ceilings, as was necessary to replace all of our old knob-and-tube wiring. One morning, up early before any workers arrived, I noticed how some of the exposed cables formed graceful, almost dancer-like bends and loops. I took a few pictures. I felt better.

Dancing on the ceiling. And the walls.
Dancing on the ceiling. And the walls.

Illumination at the Lighting Showroom

Light imitates art.
Light imitates art.

So we bought this old house in Providence, as you know already if you have been reading this blog.  It’s in fairly good shape: quite comfortable inside, has a new kitchen, central air conditioning, and acceptable plumbing.  There is ample opportunity, however, for updating some of the rooms to make them a bit brighter and more appealing.

We have plenty of windows, but could use some better interior lighting.  We thought we’d start by getting a new chandelier for the dining room, and also add some recessed lights and a ceiling fixture to the living room.  This should give us a lovely layering of light throughout the downstairs.  Our electrician agrees, and can install these lights for us, but after inspecting the house he gave us the bad news that he needs to replace our overloaded breaker box and much of our wiring.  Although we had hoped to hear that our wiring is safe, efficient and ready for any kind of demand, the news was not entirely unexpected.  (Kind of like how I always hope my doctor will say, “You are in great shape, and you can eat ice cream more and exercise less.”  And he actually says, “You should get a colonoscopy.”)

Since we have to get that electrical stuff done, we figured we’d go ahead and replace all of the lighting fixtures throughout the house that we don’t like, i.e., most of them.  We went to the lighting showroom with a list of the rooms that we want to transform into clean, well-lighted places.  Our very helpful sales rep, Mark, let us wander around the showroom gazing up at lights for a while.  Then he listened patiently to our rambling and not-always-coinciding descriptions of the types of lighting fixtures we like, explained about LED vs. incandescent lighting, and brought out catalogs for the three of us to page through.

For our foyer, Jeff and I both liked a pendant light from Hinkley called “Mondrian”.  It’s interesting but not too dramatic, a composition of clear and semi-opaque glass rectangles and squares fitted into a metal box frame.  Here’s an advertising photo of a hipster couple lounging under two Mondrian lights.

Extreme coolness
Extreme coolness

I jotted down the name, and we continued looking at other options.  After a while Jeff said, “I think I like that Mandarin light the best.”  I said, “It’s Mondrian.”  Mark said, “Do you want me to look up the model number for the Mandarin light?”  I said, “Yes, but it’s Mondrian, not Mandarin.”  Jeff said, “I thought it was Mandarin.”  Mark said, “Yeah, it’s Mandarin, like the chicken.”  I said, “No, it’s M O N D R I A N, you know, like Piet Mondrian, the artist?”  Blank stares.  “C’mon guys, Mondrian, the painter who did those abstract paintings with colorful rectangles and squares.”  More blank stares.  I searched using my phone and brought up a couple of images to show them.  Jeff said, “Oh yeah, that looks familiar.”  Mark shook his head, and called out to another sales rep, “Hey Billy, come over here and look at this.”  Then, “You ever see anything like this, what’s it, not Mandarin but something else?”  I said, “It’s Mondrian.”  “Nope, never seen anything like that,” Billy replied after looking at the images displayed on my phone.  “But we don’t get out much around here!”

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue
Piet Mondrian: Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue

We had a good laugh, then finished selecting the rest of our lights.  As we were getting ready to leave, Mark said, “You guys are funny.  You should come here more often.  And I learned something about art today!”  As we were driving home, Jeff said, “That Monderan light is going to look great in our foyer.”  And I, ever the straight man, said, “It’s Mondrian.”

Our current chandelier: shabby chic or just shabby?
Our current chandelier: shabby chic or just shabby?

Remodeling Blues

My very blue bathroom
My very blue bathroom

Our ‘new’ old house in Providence RI has a very blue bathroom.  I never planned to have a bathroom with blue fixtures, but the color scheme is familiar.  Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I spent time in blue, green, pink and even red bathrooms at the homes of friends and relatives.  Although my family’s home had beige bathrooms, my mom decorated with cheerful colors in other parts of the house.  I remember orange shag carpeting in our family room, leaf-green trellis patterned wallpaper in the hall, and climbing strawberry vines on the dinette walls and seat cushions.

Fast-forward to 2016, past my previous suburban home in Bethlehem PA with its quiet beige and pale gray bathrooms.  I now own a bathroom with two blue sinks, a large blue corner tub, and blue wallpaper with a tiny red and green flower print.  A merciful previous owner tiled the floor and two of the walls with shiny white ceramic, painted the window, door and baseboards white, and hung white Roman shades.  Other than that, all is blue.

Not just any blue, either.  According to our plumber Angelo, this is “Regency Blue”, a color used by American Standard in the 40’s and 50’s.  Angelo was here last week to solve some plumbing problems, probably the first of many such visits.  When he walked into the bathroom he said, “Wow, look at this!”  He told us the color name, and said that he still sees some of it around the neighborhood.  “You used to be able to get the matching Regency Blue toilet, but unfortunately you can’t get those any more.”  So unfortunate, I thought.

Before moving into the house, Jeff and I commented to each other a few times, “That blue bathroom has to go.”  We continued feeling that way for the first few days we were in the house.  Then we started saying things like, “It’s really kind of quirky.”  And, “The blue is pretty, especially with the white tile and trim.”  And, “That wallpaper actually works in this bathroom.”

I did some research on vintage blue bathrooms.  Here’s an image from a 1957 American Standard catalog showing a Regency Blue bathroom, featuring the unfortunately now-unavailable matching blue toilet in the foreground.

1957 Regency Blue bathroom
1957 Regency Blue bathroom

Five years later, the 1962 American Standard catalog shows Regency Blue fixtures complemented with purple accessories, to prove that it “harmonizes with almost any color!”

1962 Regency Blue bathroom
1962 Regency Blue bathroom

Harmony or discord?  I think I prefer my blue surrounded by clean bright white.

However, the lady shown in the advertisement below is having a lot of fun in her blue Cinderella tub, so maybe yellow and pink are the accessory colors to pick.  Or maybe she’s just happy that the day’s housework is finished and the casserole is in the oven.

Cinderella tub advertisement
Cinderella tub advertisement

I’m not sure yet what the future holds for my blue bathroom.  Its vintage look has charmed me, and my attitude about tearing out and replacing things is changing.  My friend Sandy G told me, “If someone GAVE me a NEW house, for free, I would sell it and buy an old house with character.”  Another friend, Ellen J, who has lived in and renovated many old houses, sums it up nicely, “An old house is like a person.  You don’t necessarily want to impose your will on it.  Let it speak to you.”  Wise words.  I am listening.

Stuff Happens in Providence RI

Empty sunroom before furniture arrives
Empty sunroom, early on our move-in day

We woke early on our move-in day, deflated the inflatable mattress we’d been sleeping on, and waited inside the empty house.   The big orange moving van rumbled up the street a little after 8:00.  Happy to see it, we also felt nervous about whether all of our furniture and boxes would fit into this house.  And the garage.  And the basement.  And the yard, if necessary.

The guys came up the walk after parking the van, with large bearded Wayne in the lead, followed by the even larger Joe and the short, stocky impassive Murphy.  They tramped around the house for a few minutes, noting all the rooms, stairs, passageways, and odd twists and turns.  Then Wayne asked me to call the police.  “The police!”, I thought, wondering if it is a crime to have a doorway that is only six feet high, as is the one at the outer entrance to our kitchen.  “The police?” I said.  Wayne told us that his van had knocked down a low-hanging tree branch a few blocks up our street, and he would rather we report the incident than have the police arrive and arrest him for leaving the scene of a broken branch.

I found the non-emergency police number and called.  A man answered, “Providence Police,” gave his operator number and said “What’s the problem?”  After I explained, he said “You on Everett?”  I said yes, and he said, “Yeah, that was reported at 8:20, and a cable was knocked down too.  National Grid is already out there working on it.”

“Oh no,” I said timidly.  “Is there anything we should do?”  To which he replied, “Nah, stuff happens!”  And then, “Hey, where are you moving from?”

Stuff happens?  Where are you moving from??  Not the response I expected, but a very welcome one.  “Bethlehem PA,” I said.  “Bethlehem,” he replied.  “I was there once, years ago.  What brings you to Rhode Island?”

We chatted a bit, with him filling me in on various Providence and Rhode Island events, including Waterfire, the Seafood Festival, the Kite Festival, the Hot Air Balloon Festival.  “There is so much to do here in the summer,” he said.  “I hope the rest of your move goes well.  Welcome to Providence!”

After I hung up, we all breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no repercussions for the damage sustained to limb.  The rest of the move-in went well.  Murphy even made a joke toward the end, something about a second truck on the way bringing the rest of our things.

Stuff happens, indeed.  It’s good to know that kindness and reasonableness also happen.  By the way, all of our furniture and boxes did fit into the house, garage and basement.  Just barely.

Empty living room
Living room
Empty office upstairs
Upstairs office

Welcome Home

Housewarming gifts
Housewarming gifts

The busiest day of the year for real estate closings is June 30th, and we were lucky to get the last available appointment slot at the title company, 8:00 a.m.  Jeff and I took seats across the table from the seller of the home and her realtor, and the title attorney sat at the head of the table with a stack of papers and a pile of pens.  Our realtor, the always-cheerful David Hasslinger, arrived a few minutes later and sat next to me.  He put his phone and a suspiciously gifty-looking black box on the table.  “Keychain,” I thought, having been through real estate closings before.

We signed and initialed papers for about twenty minutes, then were congratulated by all on purchasing a new home.  Our “new” home is actually a very old house on the East Side of Providence.  The seller’s big smile indicated that she would not miss the joys of owning an old house.  “I love the neighborhood,” was her comment.

David slid the black box over to me and said “Open it.”  I lifted the lid and found something to hold our keys: not a keychain, but a beautiful art glass bowl, created by David himself!  This is Providence, after all, so it’s not surprising that our realtor is also a glass artist.  (A little backstory: David came to RI to get an MFA degree at RISD, married a Rhode Island gal, and stayed, eventually entering a career in real estate).  The bowl is stunning, its delightfully irregular whirled edges forming a container for bronze-colored liquid light.  On the bottom is David’s signature and a little message to us.

Signed by the artist!
Signed by the artist!

We drove to our new house and carried in the essentials that we brought with us for the weekend: an inflatable mattress, four folding chairs and a coffeepot.  We gave Jeff’s parents the all-clear to come over to see the inside of the house for the first time.  It was a beautiful, blue-sky Rhode Island summer morning, so we set the chairs outside and sat on the deck chatting for a bit.  Joan had noticed that the garage floor was covered in leaves and dirt, and said “I want to do something – let me sweep the garage”.  Against our protests, she found a broom and set to work.  Joe found a rake and joined her.  My parents-in-law love to help their kids, and don’t like to sit around when there is work to do – even now at the ages of 85 and 90!  Here is a photo of Joe raking our garage.

Always working!
Always working!

David stopped by a bit later to check on us.  He asked Joe to take a picture of him presenting Jeff and me with the glass bowl, and showed Joe how to use the camera on his iPad.  After much laughter and many retakes, a satisfactory photo was obtained.  With Jeff saying, as he always does, “I AM smiling”.

I hereby present you ...
I hereby present you …

We met our neighbors Amy and Clay that afternoon when they popped across the back yard to say hello and welcome.

Sophie biked over in the evening, and brought us a housewarming gift of two RI-themed mugs from one of my favorite shops, Frog and Toad on Hope Street.

The next morning Jeff walked to Eastside Mart to buy a newspaper.  Paul, the owner of this not-typical convenience store, said “Nothing here is expired; everything is fresh!  Here’s my card.  Welcome to the neighborhood!”

Before heading back to PA for the final round of packing, we sat a few minutes on our folding chairs in the shade, listening to the call and response of a pair of robins in the big oak tree beside our deck.  We felt welcome, and home.

Our New Home in Providence

I mentioned in my last post that we bought a house during a weekend visit to Providence.  It sounds more impulsive than it actually was.  I had tracked the Providence East Side housing market for a while, comparing listing prices to sale prices, noting how many days an appealing home tended to stay on the market, trying to determine whether we could afford to buy a home that would meet most of our needs without requiring substantial renovations or upgrades.

We contacted realtor David Hasslinger who had helped Jeff’s sister Debbie to sell her home, and gave him a list of eight homes that we wanted to see.  He arranged a very efficient Saturday of home touring for us, even finding a slice of time in the middle of the day for lunch.  We saw all the homes, ranging from major fixer-uppers to lovely completed renovations.  None felt just right, however, so we figured to make a few more weekend house hunting trips during the spring and summer.  Dave told us about one more house that we should see, coming on the market the next day with an open house.  Jeff and Sophie and I arrived at the start of the open house on Sunday, walked in, looked at each other and said “wow”.  The wow feeling continued unabated as we walked slowly through the house and yard.  So much light!  Such pretty floors!  A modern kitchen!  We smiled at the funky blue fixtures in the upstairs bathroom, said “oh, well” about the odd feather pattern wallpaper on the stairs, and started imagining new wall colors and furniture placements.

Technically, our new home meets a lot of our stated criteria: three blocks from the running and bike paths of Blackstone Boulevard, a short walk to other things (like The Butcher Shop Cafe and Deli!), about 2300 square feet of living space, a lovely small yard, a nice kitchen, a garage, move-in ready condition.  It flunked on other measures: only one full bathroom, laundry in the basement, no bedroom on the first floor.

But our glass is much more than half full.  When I climb the stairs to the bedroom I will pause halfway to enjoy the pretty view from the big window on the landing. I will put some comfortable seating in the basement laundry area where I can read or listen to podcasts while I wait for the laundry to finish.  And I’ll enjoy figuring out where to put a new second bathroom!

The Big Idea to Move to Lil’ Rhody

The year began with lunch.  And a walk, during which we discussed what we REALLY want to do now that we are retired.  There were further discussions, more walks, some glasses of wine, some more glasses of wine, and a test balloon of an idea at the end: Maybe we could move to Providence RI.  

We know Providence well; Jeff grew up in the area and his extended family is mostly there, we both went to Brown, and our beloved daughter Sophie lives on the East Side and works in Cranston.  (Our beloved son Jeffrey and his adorable girlfriend Jenny will probably move around a bit before they settle, so they dodged the parents-moving-to-their-town bullet.)  We love visiting Providence because it is fun, friendly, colorful, quirky, artsy and hip, with residents who are engaged and involved in their communities.  The surrounding area has abundant natural beauty, with the state of RI claiming over 400 miles of coastline.  As an added bonus, Boston is easily accessible by inexpensive daily commuter rail service.

However, it might be crazy for us to move to Providence because:

  1. It’s colder there in the winter than where we live now, Bethlehem PA.
  2. We’d like to live on the East Side, which means we’d have to buy an old house.
  3. That old house that we would buy would probably not offer one-level living (at least, not in our price range!)
  4. It’s colder there in the winter and sometimes they get a lot of snow.
  5. They have a car tax. Ok, that reason is a bit petty, but a car tax is annoying!
  6. Did I mention that the winters are COLD in Providence?

Taking all of the above pros and cons into consideration, we made a trip in April to do some exploratory house hunting, purely for investigational purposes of course, to get a better feel for the market, see what kinds of homes were available in our price range, start the process, etc.  And that weekend WE BOUGHT A HOUSE!  and IT’S OLD!!  and IT HAS STAIRS!!!  But it is also lovely, charming and filled with sunlight, has a pretty little back yard, and is within walking distance of all sorts of things that we like to do.

We rushed back home to Bethlehem and worked hard for several weeks getting our house ready to sell.  It sold four days after we listed it!  We are grateful to our friend and realtor Barbara Fraust and to the staff of Carol C. Dorey Real Estate, Inc. for their excellent advice and service.  Here’s a picture of our house in Bethlehem:

front of house 1

Things are happening fast.  We will move in July, and begin our new adventure.