Do-some-of-it-yourself backyard revamp

It’s been 55 days since I declared the start of Project Back Yard, Take 2. I had hoped to be sipping mojitos out there by June, and you know what? That is exactly what I did last night. So although it was a helluva lot of work and construction has been consuming all my leftover energy, I am calling this project a success. Here’s a look back at an 8-week, low budget revamp of this tiny rowhome “yard.”

Step 1: The fence

Nope nope nope.

This was the most important part of the job, and one I couldn’t pull off myself. I needed a good contractor. My initial round of googling resulted in a guy coming to my house and commenting that he “couldn’t leave his equipment unattended in this neighborhood,” but promising he’d email me a quote. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. He never answered his email or phone again.

Can I rant here for a sec? People. Port Richmond is not dangerous. It’s not trendy, that’s for damn sure, but there’s absolutely no reason I should be hearing “why do you live here??” from so many of my contractors. A) It’s flat-out unprofessional, and B) I’m paying you to install a fence, not review my life decisions. If you have concerns about my neighbors who work as plumbers and coach little league, do us all a favor and keep them to yourself.

I eventually found my contractors on Thumbtack, a site where you post the work you need done and receive bids on the job. I only received one bid, so I can’t vouch for the site being a solution for every situation, but my guys came out next-day and had the fence up within a week.

They made me two cute little gates: one to hide the breezeway where my drain, trashcan and gardening equipment live, and they moved this one — the main one — away from the ideal planting locations. They also rebuilt my stairs for free.

Cost: $1,300

Step 2: Cement

Step 2 was grueling. My existing concrete was level enough, but old and cracked and in all-around rough shape. It quickly became obvious that a patch job wasn’t going to cut it. So I decided to pour new cement over the existing slab.

Did I know what I was doing? Nope. Do I know that this won’t eventually crack again? NOPE. It probably will. But this solution had two clear advantages for the time being: it was inexpensive, and it was DIYable. I went one square at a time, recreating the divisions in the original slab by bounding each square with foam strips until the concrete had cured a bit. Then I rounded any rough edges with a sureform.

A few weeks later, everything was dry enough to give it several coats of concrete stain.

Cost: $165; lots of calories

Step 3: Planting

My original plan was to figure out a way to DIY a big planter box so I’d have a home for some perennials. And as luck would have it, the fence guys left a section of unused fencing that was just screaming for repurposing.


The process was super easy. I basically removed a few planks, sawed the rest of the sucker in half, trimmed off the ends at their cross braces, and used the free planks to build the sides. The boyfriend was here for plating day, so he assisted with installing a false bottom and lining the box with plastic sheeting. Cost: free. Although I did make us dinner.

I wanted my planting choices to be economical: stuff I’d use, stuff that was inexpensive, and stuff that will hopefully come back next year. In the sunniest corner we planted blackberry vines, which should spread out nicely over the trellis we installed.

Also in the box: sage. It’s already attracting butterflies and bees.

The mint is from my father’s garden. The oregano was one of the only things to re-seed itself in my previously-neglected yard.

I wanted a buddleia, too. My mother always had one when we were kids, and I had one little section of trellis left to offer it some support as it grows in.

This corner is a bit of a catchall for whatever else was donated to the back yard makeover effort. The baby lillies are leftover bulbs from my father, again, and the sedum are cuttings from his garden as well.

The succulent is a rescue from my office. I added tiny deer vertebrae because, you know. Why not?

Cost: $145

And there we have it!

After. Panoramas don’t make straight lines.

Total cost: $1,610. Definitely worth it for a whole new usable space; it may be small, but there’s room enough for yoga and reading and dinners outside. I didn’t realize how much I missed having a little privacy back there until the fence went up. No offense, fellow Port Richmonders.

Quick DIY end table

The day before New Year’s Eve I had just finished up the massive baseboard project and I was too pooped to do much, but I poured a Manhattan and fell into rearranging the craft/sewing room. Furniture was moved. Wacky collections of objects were rearranged.

(From Instagram: weeds from Port Richmond railroad land, peacock feathers from my last job, a container of spare buttons, an empty bottle of port from my only trip to California. These are the things I save.)

Sitting in the room was this piece; what I assume is a plant stand gifted to me by my sister, champion houseplant cultivator, as a housewarming present.

I really liked the lines of it, but I never knew quite how to use it. My house doesn’t get enough light to support plant life in anything but a window. So it had been hanging out unused in the craft room for, errr, five years, waiting for inspiration (and Manhattans) to strike. Finally, they did.

Please excuse my terrifying basement.

From a bit of leftover shelving I cut out a circle to match the diameter of the plant stand. After some sanding and stain…

Instant end table. It’s just the right size for the little corner of the room occupied by my old butterfly chair.

The wardrobe and chair have traded places, which I think makes the room look a little lighter when you first walk in.

The hodgepodge of furniture I own really is insane. Especially in this room, which became a sort of catch-all for things I wanted to save but didn’t know where to put. But I think it kinda works. An area rug would be nice, but meh. I’ll probably get to that in 2020.

Oil wipe Lauren circa 2003 is judging you.

The last time you’ll hear about baseboards

I remember why I put the baseboard project off for so long: baseboards SUCCCKKKKKKK.

The picture above gives you some idea of what I was working with. The living room (left side) had been carpeted straight to the walls–the drywall here was nice and clean, relatively speaking–but the dining room had once sported a few layers of laminate and baseboards installed on top of that, which left some rough-looking walls where it was all ripped out.

And the doorway was a freakshow: here, the original living room baseboards poked out from behind the drywall installed over them. The homeowners before me just covered that mess up with a weird section of purple wall carpet. You know, WALL CARPET. Pretty sure wall carpet is a thing people have in their homes. Yes?

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Every woman should own power tools, I tell you.

I’m exhausted, so I’m going to type less and photo-montage more. In progress, from Instagram:

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It was a slow, tedious job. The house is 93 years old and as you would expect, the floor has settled in its own unique way. This made boards rest at slight angles and caused them to come together strangely at corners. I just did the best I could and kept the wood putty nearby. In my limited experience, that’s the attitude you have to maintain when dealing with old houses.

I used up seven 12′ MDF boards (no real pine here, sorry–I am cheap) and chopped them to size with my favorite tool, the miter saw. I moved around the house in circles, installing the longest wall first and then the next-longest wall I could with the remnants of the last board I had used. This conserved materials in case I miscut and had to do a section over (which luckily, I didn’t. Um. This time, anyway). Total cost was $158.

And now for the payoff:

(Twitter pillow in the last shot courtesy of world-traveler @leek1729. Merci!)

There you have it! It was 4 days of straight-up grief, but I am so happy with the way it polishes the place up. I’d say I should have done it years ago, but I spent all of my previous 4-day vacations on earlier house projects. These things take time, I guess. That’s okay. Right, Lauren? It’s OKAY.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m taking these caulkpants off. They’re more caulk than pants at this point anyway.


Floating bar

So this floating cabinet thing in the dining room came with the house:

And for the longest time, I haven’t really been sure what to do with it. It’s a little bit country. And so am I, I suppose, but not quite this much. I had been using it to hold a set of faux-Delftware dishes that came from my grandmother’s house, but they never saw much use and giving them such prime real estate started feeling a little silly. And it contributed to that slightly-too-much-country-oh-my-god-there’s-probably-art-featuring-a-rooster-in-here-somewhere-isn’t-there feeling.

This project started the way many do: I got out of bed one morning, wandered into a room, and decided that I’d had enough of staring at something that’s been bothering me. Out came the hammer and screwdrivers, out came the dish rack. And in went:

The bar! Because let’s be honest: this is what the dining room gets used for. I mean, I eat here… occasionally. When I have company. Otherwise, food tends to travel around the house. The dining room is really where the cocktails live.

So the basic setup is this: standard ingredients in the bottom right (some whiskey, vermouth, bitters, and GIN), sweet stuff up top. The box is where I stash my tea lights and other candles. The cabinet at the far right holds some lesser-used things: rum, tequila, brandy, some really off-brand triple sec that I don’t want you to know I own but WAIT I have Cointreau, too, I promise. Kahlua. Grenadine. Extra tonic water. We’re out of vodka, sorry.

And in the left cabinet, glasses:

THE ROOSTER! Aw, man. Busted. In my defense, he is awesome and he came from Portugal via a coworker who is lucky enough to travel to such places.

There are a few recipe books and bartender’s guides, as well. Plus this awesome thing:

Nature AND booze AND typography, y’all. I couldn’t not own it.

And of course, there’s art:

Photograph of City Hall by John Ingram (taken back in high school, Jesus), who has always kept a wicked awesome liquor cabinet and who kindly provided me a list of things one should always have in stock. Cheers, Ingram.

Blueprint frame

Last week Anna of THE house blog Door Sixteen blogged about this great idea for dealing with posters that are just too big to frame: binder clips and simple strips of pine wood.

And while I don’t have any wall-sized pictures of Morrissey to frame*, I do have a giant blueprint!

I’ve talked about this thing before, but for the unfamiliar it’s drawing of the Fisher Fine Art Library, which is an awesome Frank Furness building on Penn’s campus. This is not a Frank Furness drawing. It was yanked out of the trash years ago by an old boss of mine when the architects who shared office space near us vacated. I think my boss, too, was flummoxed by the framing question — the blueprint is 45″ wide and in pretty lousy condition, so Anna’s quote of $1000+ to have a professional tackle a mounting and framing project is probably similar to what my boss would have faced.

So she didn’t mind passing it along to me. Hooray!

I’ve had it hanging with some bulldog clips for years, but the addition of the wood strips helps make this cheap display solution look more polished. And for this piece, which was probably stored rolled-up for a good long while, it also helps keep the edges for curling.

You can find your wood (hush) in the molding section of your local hardware store. I got two 7′ sections of pine for about $12, and I have enough left over to “frame” the cocktail poster if I feel like it.


While I was puttering around in the craft room today, I also threw Frida into a frame:

Things are really starting to look less like a pile of collected randomness and more like a home around here, I do declare.


*Honestly, my tolerance for Morrissey’s voice is rather low. I know. I know. I’m a bad person. The Smiths are amazing. But you know how occasionally he does that thing where he just oscillates between two notes, for, like, impossibly long periods of time and it evokes in you this deep, powerful anger and suddenly you’re screaming at the radio JUST GET TO ANOTHER NOTE ANY OTHER NOTE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY I BEG YOU PLEASE? Yeah.

Living Room Time Lapse

I had mentioned in my last entry that I was curious about creating an animation of my living room over time. So I went back through Flickr and pulled every picture I took from the front of the house looking towards the rear. I lined up that arched dining room doorway in each shot, and this is what I got:

So many memories. I love the jump from blue walls/brown ceiling to gray and white. And the jump from purple carpet to no carpet to wood to cowskin. Ah, the moment the shelving unit goes up! And then the media unit.

But really, I could just watch that crappy black lamp roam around the room, like a game of Where’s Waldo if Waldo were a hopelessly conspicuous hunk of cheap black powder-coated metal attempting to hide in a space bounded by pale walls — only to get replaced by something sleeker in the very last shot — all day.

Housiverary: Year Four

Well, it’s happened again: I’ve squandered another perfectly good year living in the little house way, way north of all the trendy neighborhoods you’ve heard of.

(Oh, house. I don’t really mean that.)

At some point during this year of — I’m going to disinfect it and package it up neatly and label it “change” — I fell in love with this quirky place in which I live. Part of it is just exposure; I’ve been home more this year than I ever have before. Part of it is progress; for the first time every room in the house is functioning (which I concede is different from being finished, but still).

Part of it is that, during this year in which loneliness has had such an exasperatingly persistent grip on me, I’ve had more company than ever. Old friends, new friends, friends I hadn’t seen in years all dropped by and toured the house. And it’s been fascinating to hear their thoughts on the place — from the baffling “It looks as though no one lives here” to the somewhat-true “You have kind of a death thing going on in here, don’t you?” to the coveted “I would buy this” to the pleasantly surprising “I think you’ve been talking this place down. It’s way nicer than you let on.”

Thanks for visiting, everyone. I’ve enjoyed sharing my home with you. And for those who haven’t made it to the funny house in that neighborhood north of everything, here’s my yearly visual tour.


I always start here, although nothing much changes anymore. There’s a new faucet, of course.

Through a complicated family situation, I somehow inherited an entire set of Le Cresuet cookware this year. I know. I know. They’re amazing.

Dining room:

The liquor assortment has expanded again, which is good. Lack of a rug is still bad.

Let’s hop upstairs for a bit. You’ve seen the office recently, so no need to rehash that:

I’m sitting at that desk right now. It is already considerably less tidy. Somewhere behind me is a bookshelf, but you know this.

And you’ve seen a bit of the craft room, too:

Also needs a rug. So expensive.

The bathroom:

I’ve done the least in this room. I think the only thing that changed this year is that I added the plant and managed not to neglect it. Low-light plants are this house’s friend.

The bedroom:

A year an a half removed from the long, tedious, expensive process of renovating this room fully, and I’m so, so glad I (well, we — this was a team effort) did it. It was worth every dollar. Whenever I come home tired, cranky, sweaty and thirsty, collapsing here immediately puts me at ease. If I anticipate a long day, I’ll often make the bed, turn a corner of the sheets down, leave a glass of water by the bedside table and a nightlight on. And when I come home, I feel…cared for. Caring for yourself is important.

That grey fuzzy sheepskin finally went on sale at IKEA. I was so excited I almost bought two.

I continue to thrift All The Clothes.

And now my favorite room, the room that makes me smile every time I turn the key in the front door:

I hope to do a time-lapse animation of the living room over the past four years. The change continues to astound me. And I did most of the work.

Pipe shelving unit: still holding up. Gecko: still hiding from the daylight.

Probably time to get rid of the birthday balloons…?

Art: still collecting.

So that’s everything! House, I’m proud of how far we’ve come together. Thank you for being a comforting place for me, and for not throwing any major curve balls this year. Everyone else: come visit and we’ll mix drinks sometime?

Make it work

For a long time after last year’s bedroom renovation — far longer than I care to admit — this was the general state of affairs in my home office.

Part storage area, part shamefully neglected mess. The kind of room I closed the door on whenever I was expecting company.

A few months ago, out of a desire to sit down at the computer and actually get some work done, I attempted to make it usable again. But it certainly wasn’t pretty:

The office was the only room in the house that wasn’t a completely obnoxious color when I bought it, so it was the only room that I had not felt the need to immediately attack with an arsenal of brushes and rollers. Instead I tolerated four years of this wimpy pale blue semigloss stuff. But it was time for a change. And there were other minor details that needed sorting out, of course:

Yeah. This house is the ultimate “just drill a hole straight through the wall, whatever!” house.

Bam! Let me fix that for you! (Let me mostly fix that for you, because I sure as hell don’t want to go fishing the coax through the wall to a more convenient place, but whatever, good enough.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Over Memorial Day weekend I tackled this, the last untackled room, and here are the results:

The main project on my office to-do list was the bookshelf. I had been using a shelving system from Ikea that I hacked to fit in this alcove and it worked okay… but just okay. I knew proper custom shelves would maximize my storage space. So out came the miter saw. I love how I can tuck my paper shredder away, now.

Letterpress prints by my typography classmates and myself, with lots of help from Marianne at Huldra Press.

I got brave and installed this funky light fixture myself, replacing your standard Home Depot nipple light. I also installed a dimmer switch. And I’m proud of all that, really, except that these bulbs are not dimable.

My new lighting choice may be a little underpowered for the space, quite honestly. I’ll live with it for a while and see how it goes, but I have a feeling my electrical tape and wire strippers will come out again at some point. For the moment I’m just glad that I’ve learned to do simple jobs like this without setting anything on fire. Thanks, Dad!

And my workspace. (Yes, I have a PC. No, I don’t want to hear it.) The paint color is Behr’s Puddle, which is maybe a touch darker than what I was aiming for? But it’s growing on me. It’s very subtly purple gray.

The poster, The Pictoral Map and Walking Guide to Philadelphia, is by New York Times designer Bill Marsh.

Elsewhere in the room I did a lot of cord wrangling, art placing and lighting improvements — little things that help immensely when you’re trying to make a space feel homey. On the radiator cover is one of my most interesting possessions: a scan of Constantin Brancusi’s college roster from 1898. Brancusi has always been my favorite sculptor, and when I mentioned this to a woman who worked at the college he attended in Romania, she surprised me by emailing me this record from their archives. I kept it on my desk at my last job. I should really frame it up fancier, because holy cow, Brancusi.

As for the discarded Ikea bookshelves:

I hate to chuck something that I’ve put time and effort into, so I was super pleased when I set my shelves in the craft room just to get them out of the way and ended up really liking them there. I removed the door to this bedroom a long time ago to let the window light filter through the second story, but it had the unfortunate side effect of putting what was a mostly blank wall on display to anyone passing through. Now the bookshelf creates a great focal point.

Also, a girl needs somewhere to display her giant blackbear skull, right?


Well, I did it! I kept my pre-New Year’s resolution to finish the baseboard along my staircase and hallway. But to show you where this project started we actually have to flash back — WAY back, I’m embarrassed to admit, to last January…

…when the aforementioned baseboard was covered in something that resembled Barney the Dinosaur’s cuddly purple hide.

Worse than that, the baseboard wasn’t even one board:

^This is a mess that was clearly never meant to see the light of day.

My options were to rip it all out or try to unify it. And honestly, neither option seemed practical — unification was never going to be perfect, but how would I ever cut another baseboard to match the grooves of my 91 year-old staircase? In the interest of not making a bad situation worse, I decided to make the best of what I was given and leave the boards in place.

I armed myself with a putty knife and got to work. And what do you know — I made amazing progress! At first. Then my hallway rug was delivered and I hastily slapped a coat of primer on this thing, and abandoned the project. Whoops.

It took about two solid days of very dull, repetitive work to finally finish what I had started 11 months ago. After a lot more patching and sanding, the unification plan was (again) going pretty well. I added a bit of molding to make my Frankenboard look a little more purposefully designed:

Then came even more sanding, caulking, and top-coat painting, after which I very carefully peeled away the vintage January ’11 painter’s tape and neatened up my paint lines by scraping the stairs with various pointy objects.

Each side took about an hour and a half to clean up. Just to clean up! SO TEDIOUS. I listened to EIGHT HOURS of Radiolab alone in two days working on these damn stairs.

But it was worth it. Behold:

Frankenboard lives!

It’s not perfect, of course — it has its share of waves and lumps — but considering the original condition of the thing, I think it came out pretty well.

I also managed to get smaller baseboards (that match the ones in my bedroom) added to the other side of the hallway.

I still have a little finishing work to do on those, but it can wait another 11 months.


I think.

Speaking of 2012, I thought I’d do a quick wrap-up of my greatest accomplishments of the year for new readers. I think this was actually a pretty good year, house-wise. The rest of it was terrible, awful, no good and very bad, but within these narrow walls things did, in fact, improve. In 2011, I:

Thanks, everyone, for your supportive tweets and comments throughout it all. I appreciate it. You help keep me going when I’m on spackle round six of some nutso project, my muscles are sore, my nose is itchy and I’m running on repeat podcasts.

And now, a prix fixe menu is calling my name. Happy New Year, everyone!

One window at a time…

Ohhhhh, dining room…

And dining room window, where curtains from my first dorm room are still in active use. Like that pair of too-short pants hanging around in your closet that you know you should get rid of, but dammit your paid money for those. Seven years ago.

It was time for the curtains to go. This pair was an awkward size for the window, but I’ve found that curtains in general don’t seem to play well in my little, sunlight challenged house. I’ve committed to the minimalist solution and am installing simple white IKEA ENJE blinds instead.

No bulk, no clutter, just a little diffuse light. And if you walk by quickly enough, you can pretend that the hideous air conditioner — and the battalion of angry pigeons currently occupying the breezeway behind it — isn’t even there.

At $20-to-$40-ish per blind, I haven’t managed to march into IKEA and buy as many as I need. Instead, I’ve been picking up a blind or two whenever I happen to be there. So expect to see window posts for another 6 months. Yay?

Hey, a girl has to reserve a little money to build her collection of shiny objects! On the left, it’s my new $10 piece of student pottery purchased from UPenn’s semi-annual ceramics program fundraiser (<3). On the right, my bowl of Jersey shore seashells finally found a home! Next to the…half-full jar of wine corks!*

Half-full? Pshaw. I can do better than this. I’m off to “work on decorating the house.” Enjoy the rest of your weekend, everyone!

*I don’t know, I probably saw it on Pinterest. Is it too silly?

P.S. Does anyone want those curtains? I’m popping them in the washing machine and when they’re done I will gladly throw them in a box and send them to you for postage money. Fair warning: they do have a really subtle floral pattern.