Restoration Drama

by Rebecca Mazur

While the chain link was still up around Peirce Hall, I spent a lot of time sending silent sympathetic thoughts to the folks carrying out the project.

The story behind the renovation of Peirce, and the design details and pieces of history that emerged as we toured the newly finished building, fascinated me. When I was in college, I would spend the occasional weekend picking up some extra money by helping to restore a historic home and store owned by a friend.

While I got into the project for the extra cash, it didn't take long to see that the real value was in what could be learned from poking around in buildings where even the newest bits were still older than I was. Here's what I learned:

1. Before you can restore, you have to tear down—the new, the inaccurate, and the downright dangerous.

2. Before you can tear down, you have to document.

3. It's amazing that anyone survived the nineteenth century. Medicine bottles from the store building extolled the healing virtues of everything from antimony to opium.

4. Handyman culture hasn't changed much. More than once we came across repairs that had clearly been made by grabbing the nearest loose board and hoping it fit.

5. It's possible to have a dozen layers of wallpaper in one room.

6. Newspaper doesn't make such a bad substitute for carpet padding.

7. I can swing an eight-pound sledge hammer without hurting myself. You need one if you plan to take on a cinder block addition.

8. Particle masks are worth the hassle. Lead paint was banned only in 1978, asbestos is still common as dirt, and some of the dust we kicked up was laid down when most of my ancestors were still in Europe.

9. Good boots are a must. Better than just about anything for breaking up drywall and invaluable when that sledge gets dropped on your foot.

10. I'm ambidextrous with a claw hammer.

11. I can indeed stand in an unheated room in February and still be toughing it out six hours later.

12. I can do physical labor all day and feel absolutely invigorated when it's time to go home—and sleep like a rock when I finally get there.

As I continued to come back to the project, eventually working not for cash but in trade for goods or the opportunity to learn a new skill, I learned some more universal truths as well:

13. Dirt isn't really so bad.

14. Three people can move a cast-iron bathtub—but they probably shouldn't.

15. Nothing is quite so cathartic as taking a swing at a wall that shouldn't be there.

16. Just because a rotting floor held you up five minutes ago doesn't mean that it will hold you up now—and it certainly doesn't mean you should carry something heavy over it.

17. Wool socks are a girl's best friend.

18. There's always a surprise behind a bit of paneling—and that surprise isn't always pleasant.

19. When you've worked hard, soup and bread in front of a woodstove is bliss.

Now that I'm dealing with my own home—which doesn't need restoration so much as it needs a little TLC—I haven't had time to help my friend. But some of the little things I learned and the confidence that I can fix some things on my own, whether that involves knocking down a wall or just tightening a light fixture, have ended up helping me.

When it comes down to it, maybe I renovated myself.

Rebecca Mazur is the assistant director of new media at Kenyon. She plans to put her restoration skills to use this spring on her recently purchased home.

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