A House, a Dream, and 38 Doorknobs

When a writer began fixing up her historic home, she learned to a) stock plenty of bourbon and b) avoid homemade dynamite

Writer's
?The author's home, near Woodstock, N.Y., was a disaster before she and her husband stripped away many of the furnishings, cleaned up the mold, and got rid of the bright pink paint.

Credit: ?Michel Leroy

The poor house in upstate New York had been empty for a year. Before that, it was home to four enormous dogs whose owners managed to defile it so thoroughly, our real estate agent nearly wept when we stepped inside. She had reason to cry. She once owned the house herself.

The dog people had attacked the interior with paintbrushes: The master bedroom was Pepto-Bismol with grape jelly trim, the living area a two-tone khaki. The back room, overlooking Plattekill Creek, had orange trim and yellow walls haphazardly adorned with great big orange-and-yellow foam placemats shaped like flowers. The tan carpeting in the upstairs bedroom smelled as if the dogs rarely ventured outside. The rugs were moldy. Large swaths of the walls and ceiling were moldy, too. The gutters had not been cleaned in seven years, the roof was missing shingles everywhere, and poison ivy grew up one entire side of the house. Oh, it was pretty!

So, of course, we bought it. How could we not? The property featured a swimming hole and more than three acres bordered by bluestone cliffs and 100-foot-tall white pines. So what if the old house needed some work?

Now the poor thing was ours: a turn-of-the-20th-century, two-room brick box with a stacked bluestone foundation, thrice renovated in its hundred-odd years into a 2,000-square-foot, mostly clapboard, malodorous, hideously painted, horribly neglected home.

The renovations had wrought some lovely changes. When rooms were added to both the front and back of the original house, the exterior brick walls were left exposed, as were window frames and ceiling beams. The fireplace had a simple wood mantel and a bluestone hearth. Before selling the house eight years before, our real estate agent had installed a lovely wrought-iron railing on the balcony landing. She also designed a cool, industrial-looking, curved metal kitchen peninsula and built the balcony and staircase of wide pine boards with a custom handrail of beautifully tarnished copper. (She's got great taste.)

Unfortunately, before she could finish her renovations, she ran out of money. And though we wanted to blame the dog people (blessedly absent at the closing), it was our beloved agent who had resorted to the flimsy light fixtures, bargain-warehouse bathroom sinks, and modern wood doors with tacky, brassy, Home Depot doorknobs. After our agent attended a ceremonial tearing-down of the foam floral placemats, our work officially began.

 Trying to restore your old house? Learn how to look for clues about its history, and find resources for architectural antiques here

Our mission: to use as much salvaged material as possible. That's both an ethical and an aesthetic choice. We like old stuff. Rather, I like old stuff. My husband, Jay, also a writer, is mainly devoted to quality, to things made to last. I was initially adamant about replacing every 21st-century, factory-milled door in the house with a reclaimed door, but a few dizzying trips through the salvage warehouses of the Hudson Valley got me over that. The thousands of doors, unmeasured and unmarked, stacked like dominos, weren't exactly cheap. Jay convinced me that the doors we had were, if not old, at least made of solid wood, and that simply replacing the hardware would be a lot more economical and sensible.

Thus began The Great Vintage Doorknob Quest. Old doors and new doors are two different species, and to make a new door work with old hardware takes some special-order parts and a bit of ingenuity, which, thank goodness, Jay's got. Our new doors had predrilled holes about two inches in diameter and modern latch mechanisms. We'd collected gorgeous old porcelain doorknobs off eBay—swirling tiger's-eye, white filigree with cracks like decaying lace, bruised black that cleaned up shiny as patent leather—but their connecting spindles didn't fit the newfangled mechanisms. Then there was the predrilled hole problem: We had doorknobs, spindles, and latches, but nothing to hold the knobs in place in those gaping holes.

We'd been haunting the Historic Albany Foundation's Architectural Parts Warehouse in search of everything from light fixtures to window sash locks, but this time we went looking for old door plates to hold the knobs in place. Nineteen interior doors necessitated 38 plates, and I think we did find one actual pair. Otherwise we got big and small, painted and unpainted, plus one that even had a double keyhole. Jay spent days mounting them all, fitting hardware meant for Victorians and Colonials into doors milled more than a century later. There are, of course, no holes in the doors behind the escutcheons, and no keys to fit those cutouts. So lest we leave potential keyhole-peepers without something to peep at, Jay culled a stack of old Playboys, cut out a number of teeny tiny ladies in various states of undress, and placed them behind the plates. All you have to do is to crouch down to see them.

Throughout our restoration, Craigslist proved invaluable and got me driving up and down the Hudson Valley, discovering downtrodden industrial towns, ramshackle wonders, and fascinating people. In Amsterdam, N.Y., a man in full camouflage loaded a $50, Humvee-weight pedestal sink into our hatchback like it was Styrofoam. In Red Hook, we traded a bottle of Wild Turkey for a cast-iron kitchen sink and also got a fairly terrifying tour in the bargain—of the wine cellar/fallout shelter that the sink owner's neighbor and his "blind friend" were blasting out with homemade dynamite. In the hamlet of Phoenecia, an incredible carpenter, resting between cancer surgeries, built us a wall of bookshelves out of some massive barn wood—pine planks 12 feet long and three inches thick—that a guy in Delmar had pulled from his parents' demolished barn. He also threw in six carved porch columns, one of which Jay incorporated into a stunning desk, using a glass IKEA tabletop and leftover barn wood scraps.

Craigslist also led us to the marvelous couple restoring their own 1865 brick row house in Poughkeepsie. When they discovered seven layers of flooring in the living room, they put a slew of the floorboards up for sale, cheap. We purchased 300 square feet of wide hardwood boards for a dollar a square foot, half of which we stripped and sanded and turned into the floor of our small room upstairs, gloriously mottled and streaked in gold, honey, tobacco, and mahogany.

Our downstairs floors are a patchwork of two-inch-wide oak, save for the back room, where the three-inch strawberry-blond planks look so sweet and buttery, it's kind of tempting to lick them. The laundry nook off the kitchen has wide heart-pine boards, just like the staircase and the balcony. Our bedroom upstairs has Douglas fir, 400 square feet of which we bought from the bargain/clearance/just-get-it-the-heck-out-of-here section of Antique and Vintage Woods of America (a small stadium of a warehouse with everything from hand-hewn 19th-century floorboards to chunks of an ancient Chinese temple). Those Doug-fir floors have thousands of holes from at least a half-dozen different-sized nails, in curious patterns and configurations, the largest ones bleeding black at the edges like gunshot wounds. I stare at the knots in this wood as if they were crystals, gazing at their fractured concentric rings and splintering fissures. They're like sunbursts amid the nail-hole stars and stain-streaked comets of our bedroom floor galaxy. We had just enough planks to cover the floor, so if you go snooping in our closets, you'll see that the floors there, hidden from view, are Lowe's Home Improvement pine.

Of course we'll do more work in the years to come, as we can afford it. The tiled bathrooms are fine, but I dream of wood floors, clawfoot tubs, old glass towel bars É We're planning on building a dining room table from the rest of the barn wood, and some benches too, and we bought a set of beautiful French doors (with crystal knobs) that are standing in the basement, waiting to replace the mass-produced ones that lead from our bedroom out onto the first-floor roof. Someday, hopefully, we'll build a screened porch out there, with rocking chairs, an old standing metal fan, maybe a fainting couch.

It'll probably take us a lifetime to turn this house into the home it might have been a century ago. But we're trying to take it one day at a time. Sometimes we can even manage a bit of gratitude to the dog people: Were it not for them, someone else would have snapped this place up for a lot more than we spent. We'd have found an old farmhouse somewhere with original doors, but then we'd have matching doorknobs with actual keyholes behind the escutcheons, and what would be the fun in that? I mean, an original old farm sink's lovely, but a sink for which you've traded a bottle of Kentucky straight bourbon and risked your life in the underground lair of an amateur pyrotechnician? That's the sink for a couple like us.

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