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photo: danielle moss’ chicago apartment 

when i first started searching for apartments, my broker asked me to make a list of the things i wanted. i told him i was sick of living in a 1960s style box with zero charm. i was OH SO OVER fugly parquet floors (helllooo, 1950s) and walls that went straight up to the ceiling with nary a piece of molding in site.

i wanted CHARM CITY, and i wanted it ALL: original hardwoods, crown molding, clawfoot tub…and the real kicker: exposed brick. a true symbol of old new york, of the lives that came before ours.

of course, no one gets it all. not usually, at least. and as of about a month ago, i certainly didn’t. i’d gotten the hardwoods (in relatively good condition, and definitely salvageable in both the bedroom and the living room; the entryway remains up in the air), the molding (you can fake it, just like highlights), and the tub (thank you, clawfoot tub gods!). but the brick was a no go.

as a reminder, here’s what the living room looked like when i bought the grand apartment.

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here’s what it looked like in the beginning of the demo phase (dated picture rail off the walls, new electrical in the process of being run throughout).

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nothing to see here, right? just some white plaster that was sorely in need of a refresh.

but then. BUT THEN. one morning, before i left for a 10 day trip out west, i stopped in to talk to my contractor about what was to happen while i was away. and through a tiny little rectangle of wall that was being cut out to make room for new outlets, i saw something red peeking out.

i bet you can guess what comes next…

“wait a second…is that BRICK?!” 

“oh, yeah, probably.”

(he leans down to take a closer look)

“yes, that’s brick.”

“does that mean it’s BEHIND THAT ENTIRE WALL?!?!”

“probably, yes. do you want us to find out?”

UM, HELLO! DO YOU EVEN HAVE TO ASK?

DO I WANT YOU TO FIND OUT? HELLS YES, I DO.

let me remind you of my dream:

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i nodded eagerly, and told him that if there was brick underneath that whole wall, i wanted it exposed. ALL OF IT.

and then i left, and did a little happy dance in the elevator.

a few days later, i got this:

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by the time i got home from my trip, they’d made quite a bit of progress.

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cut to last week, and an entire wall of plaster had been painstakingly scraped off. my exposed brick wall was free, in all its glory!

it’s a bit surprising, actually, considering that this isn’t an exterior wall (the exterior of the building is indeed brick, but all the other interior walls we’ve torn into are old wood/plaster situations). it’s a wall that’s shared with the apartment directly beside mine.

as you can see below, there are old electrical boxes in the wall – likely where the original tenants had sconces – which means that a) this brick was original to the apartment and b) at some point, someone CHOSE to cover it up.

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why anyone would consciously say to themselves, gee, i’m going to cover this beautiful brick with plain old PLASTER is beyond me…but that’s all in the past, because i have discovered it, and i plan to restore it to its former glory.

the goal is to sand the wall down and seal it, just so it’s not casting dust everywhere. i’m also hoping i can rip out the old fixtures you see above, as they jut pretty far out of the wall. beyond that, i’m keeping it simple: one or two larger art pieces behind the couch (which will go on this back wall), and a large round mirror behind the dining area (to the right of this photo).

since we’re still about a month or so out from decorating, here’s a little eye candy to tide you over. YAY BRICK!

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throughout this entire process, i have waited for the moment where things start to feel real. the moment where a construction zone starts to feel like some semblance of a home. and earlier this week, that moment happened.

my kitchen cabinets were delivered late last week, and my contractor promised that friday or monday, they’d start putting them up. true to form, after meeting him at the apartment on friday morning and reconfirming the layout, they got to work. and by early afternoon, i’d received photos of the cabinets in progress. EXCITING, right?!

i’ll be completely honest: when my contractor told me “had a guy” who “did cabinets” i was a little bit skeptical. that skepticism only grew when i found out the guy worked out of the back of an ACE hardware store in DEEP brooklyn (literally, i took the 2 train all the way to the end of the line). after exiting at nostrand and walking a few blocks past a target and an applebee’s, i came across a defunct meat market advertising “just killed!” chickens.

i almost turned around. surely, i was lost. signs ahead pointed to brooklyn college, but there was barely a soul on the street.

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then i walked one more block, and saw a (small) sign for ace hardware. i stopped, and stared at the chain link fence surrounding the store.

this must be the place, i thought to myself. the place where i get swallowed up into some freaky alternate back in time universe where they kill chickens right in front of you and then ask you if you need semi gloss or eggshell.

there was a small parking lot out front; an old nissan altima was parked diagonally across two spots. beyond that, two double doors opened into a quiet neighborhood hardware store with no kitchen cabinets in sight.

i’d been told to ask for “chew” — but the woman at the checkout desk simply stared blankly back at me when i said his name.

“yo! is there a CHOO that works here?” she called out to the orthodox man working the paint counter in the back, payis dangling down from his hat.

“back here,” he motioned to me. “come back this way.”

suddenly, from the very back of the store, a small man poked his head around a doorway.

“hi sarah!”

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chew! he did exist! in the back of this weird orthodox hardware store in deep brooklyn was an asian man who sold kitchen cabinets.

i spent the next hour with chew going over the type of cabinets i wanted (white shaker), ruminating over what size pantry i needed (18″ would suffice, anything larger was overkill), and discussing the pros and cons of soft-close drawers (i hate them, chew said they were standard these days).

at 7pm, ace hardware closed; by 6:55, i was out the door, waving goodbye to chew, who had, in the past 55 minutes, become my friend. chew understood the look i was going for (“you like the farmhouse style! but not TOO farmhouse!”). he knew i liked to bake and therefore needed space for my cookie sheets (“we’ll give you roll out drawers, two big ones, so they can stack! it’s too heavy otherwise!”). he’d agreed to customize a 16″ deep double cabinet for my island (“you need room for the legs!”), and to figure out a way to make the giant farm sink i wanted from ikea fit (“don’t you worry, sarah, we’ll make it work.”)

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chew was a god among men. a god hidden in the back room of a hardware store in a strange no man’s land between midwood and flatbush.

he was, in other words, exactly the kind of smart, creative, small business kind of guy i hoped i’d be working with when i decided to pinch my pennies and go with the lowest contractor quote i’d received.

i’d budgeted $8k for my cabinets; shmulik had told me that depending on what i wanted, they’d come in between 6 and 8k. a few days after i met with chew, i received a layout, along with a quote: $7370–almost $600 below my max budget, with wiggle room for any additional filler pieces i might need last minute.

would i have loved to be closer to $6? of course. but i also wanted a pantry, and a small breakfast bar, and the two rollout drawers chew had got me all excited about. so i forked over a 50% deposit, and a few weeks later, a giant load of boxes arrived at the grand apartment.

a few days after that, the boxes were unpacked, and the cabinets went up on the wall.

and just like that, i had “the moment” – the one where i saw a home coming together right in front of my very eyes.

 

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welcome to the disaster zone!

yesterday, while “editing” this video (and by that i mean lightening it ever so slightly), it occurred to me that if i really want to do this right, i should hire someone to film a few video shorts of the process. NOT try to do it myself. because as the video below evidences, i am a SHITTY videographer. and my iphone is NOT up to the task. keep your eyes peeled for upcoming videos–which hopefully will be prettier than what’s below–but in the meantime, in the absence of anything better, i thought i’d show you where we stand.

for those who prefer photos over crappy iphone footage, here are a few more in-progress shots. these were taken last friday; this week, they’ll start prepping the electrical work, then sheetrock over the walls to make things flat and pretty, and maybe even lay down the kitchen tile (!!!!). stay tuned, friends, because it’s ABOUT TO GET GOOD.

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standing in the entryway | looking into the living room

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kitchen to the right | that sewage pipe will be turned into a seemingly purposeful pillar, and the breakfast bar will go directly to the right of it

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kitchen scariness | back wall will house the fridge, upper and lower cabinets, and a pantry

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living room into hallway | bedroom to the right, bathroom to the left

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staring into the bathroom | floor will be penny tile, walls will be white subway

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HOLY GARBAGE PILE | living room looking into entryway/kitchen

once the first day of demo was done, things started moving quickly. work kicked off last thursday, and on friday, i stopped by the grand apartment before work to take a look at the progress. i’d gotten so excited at the photos i’d received from my contractor on thursday that he told me i should come by the next morning–so i could “feel like i was part of the process.” it’s like he read my HGTV-saturated mind!

i won’t bore you with the basics, but here’s what you’re going to see below: the living room/entryway, all demo-ed out, with a short description of what’s planned/where they’ll head next. suffice it to say i am THRILLED that things have finally started picking up, and i cannot WAIT for the next step (designing my kitchen, EEK!).

also, if anyone wants to volunteer to stop by and take a slo mo video of me knocking something down, please let me know. i was too embarrassed to ask shmulik to do it.

so, let’s get down to BUSINESS, and look at some pictures of “my dust and debris” (as my boss so lovingly referred to it).

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this is the living room, in its current state. those drawers you see there were part of the old “built ins” in the kitchen. i would have saved them if they were in better shape, but they were literally sloping away from the ceiling/wall, and had about 12 layers of paint on them. alas, my new cabinets will be shiny and pretty and light and bright. sorry, old drawers. also, see that dark line up towards the ceiling? that’s where the picture rails used to be. i had shmulik take them all down, in hopes of installing crown molding throughout once things have been patched up and repainted. he also stripped the floor molding so that we can start fresh down there (and seal it off so that no roaches get in…YUCK).

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so much garbage. the door frames were metal (you can see them sticking out in the middle right of the photo)

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i decided to have shmulik open up the faux arched entrway between the living room and entryway to allow more light to seep into the space. as soon as i saw these photos, i yelped with glee. already, it feels SO much more open. having a nice wide open entryway is really going to make all the difference – especially once the breakfast bar goes in.

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another shot of the entryway, straight on 

so, let’s talk about this angle. what you’re seeing above is living room to the left, entryway to the right. originally, when i discussed the plans with shmulik, i wanted to replace the closet i tore down on the right (to create space for the breakfast bar) with one in the space above (where that junction box thingamjig is hanging). i thought this was the perfect plan: i’d get my breakfast bar (!!) and i’d still get storage (even more of it!).

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where i thought i could build a closet

these dreams were dashed on friday morning, when shmulik and his guy, george, informed me that if i added a closet in the space above, it would have to extend at least 24″ out. add onto that doors and such, and you’re looking at a depth of 28″, minimum. add onto that the depth of the breakfast bar that will be directly across from it, and i am, as shmulik put it, “making space only to close it off again.” effectively, i COULD have a closet in the space above–but it would mean a tight entryway that would diminish the light i’ve created by knocking down the wall, and make for a bit of a squeeze when people actually sit at the breakfast bar.

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i could put a closet here, but then it would be in the living room. and that’s just weird.

BUMMER. like, MAJOR bummer. shmulik offered to build the closet on the short wall to the left of the entryway (aka, IN the living room), but i said no to that. i want to put a dining area there, and a little closet in the back right corner of the living room would be super wonky. design fail.

if only i were carrie bradshaw and i used my oven as storage! alas, no can do. my new plan is to get a REALLY sweet coat rack (if you see one, let me know), and a nice console table with baskets underneath for extra storage.

i am not 100% satisfied with this plan, but i think it’s my best option. also, it wouldn’t kill me to go a little marie kondo before i move.

any thoughts? suggestions? HELP ME FIND STORAGE. HELP ME FIND PEACE. HELP ME FIND THE SERENITY TO THROW OUT (DONATE) HALF OF MY STUFF. PLEASE.

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baseball cap on one, yarmulke on the other. welcome to the lower east side.

guys, i know it’s been a wee bit quiet around these parts, but that’s because for a few weeks, i was waiting on things like permits and board approval and i didn’t want to bore you with the basics. but that’s okay, because i’m back, and WITH A VENGEANCE! that’s right folks, i have FINALLY started construction, and the first phase of that is none other than DEMOLITION, which i have literally been waiting for since i put my offer in on the grand apartment back in january (i know, i know. this shit took so freaking long).

see, as i’ve told you before (and as anyone who knows me even a little bit knows), i am an HGTV addict. like, check me into property brothers rehab, i have a problem, i can’t stop watching drew and jonathan tear down walls and build them back up again. if you, like me, watch property brothers (or really, any other show on HGTV), you know that “demo day” is a BFD (for my older readers, BDF = big fucking deal). demo day is where it all begins. it’s also where HGTV likes to insert scary/sad music jonathan knocks down a wall in the kitchen only to discover that it’s load bearing and the homeowners can’t do the open concept he’s promised. essentially, demo day is where stuff starts, and more importantly, where stuff starts to go wrong. why? well, you can’t know what’s behind a wall until you tear it down. and that’s what demo day is all about.

my first reality check came in the form of a sewage pipe, cleverly disguised behind the wall separating the entry to the kitchen and the closet directly to the right of it.

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giant sewage pipe that literally runs the length of the entire building. of course i bought the unit where the sewage pipe lives. 

last wednesday, i met my contractor, shmulik, at the grand apartment to discuss plans (mostly, to remind him of which walls we were knocking down. thursday morning, he met me outside my current apartment to pick up the keys (which i had stupidly forgotten the morning before). and by thursday afternoon at 3pm, my phone was dinging with the pictures above. demo had officially begun! and with it, bad news had arrived: behind the wall that i intended to (mostly) tear down didn’t just contain the electrical junction box. it was also hiding a gi-NORMOUS sewage pipe that housed ALL THE POO IN THE BUILDING.

if these walls could talk, they’d have some serious potty mouths.

that was the worst joke i’ve ever made. ANYWAY, let’s get into the nitty gritty, shall we?

where the workers are standing used to be a) a set of “built ins” in the kitchen and b) a coat closet. i had shmulik demolish both to create room for an L shaped breakfast bar that will wrap from the kitchen into the space you see above (out into the living room). the goal was to bring more light into the space, open things up (while i can’t do total open concept, i wanted to create a sight line from the kitchen into the living/dining area), and add extra counter space/storage below.

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another angle of the pipe. it’s enormous. 

that plan was all well and good until they started knocking things down and discovered that the “wall” between the kitchen entry and the closet was there for a reason. a very large, brown metal reason that starts with “sew” and ends with “age pipe.” GROSS. i asked shmulik if it could explode and rain poop all over my pretty new home and to his credit, he didn’t laugh, but instead, assured me that no sewage would be exiting the pipe and entering my new space. HALLELUJAH.

so, what does it mean? thankfully, my breakfast bar can still happen. but the “tiny little pillar” i intended to construct to house the electrical panel (you can’t really see it above, but it’s there) will need to be about a foot wide to house the sewage pipe too. it’s not ideal, but it’s also not the worst thing ever. so my tiny little pillar becomes a rather large column. so long as it hides the poop chamber, i’m satisfied. and if we can make it look cute (maybe some crown molding up top? some art on the wall?), all the better. renovation = compromise, and so long as i still have a place for two people to sit their booties down and swing their legs while they happily sip wine and chow down on pasta, i’m happy.

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there was a time in my life when i thought i was destined to be the next fiona apple, when i played “open mics” (if you could even call them that) and sang songs about sea glass and other weird emo things at my hometown’s local coffee house.

if this video is ANY indication of my straight up awkwardness onscreen, it’s a good thing that those dreams died quickly and quietly. because let me be clear: i am NOT meant to be on camera. behind the camera, sure. the written word? yes. but projecting myself on the big screen in all my awkward, bumbling glory? hells to the N-O.

that being said, after work yesterday, i biked across grand street over to my new home, introduced myself to the security guard, and let myself in to my new home. and i stood there, all alone, just me, and i felt like that moment deserved some commemorating. i thought about how i’ll feel five, ten, forty years from now, and how i will look back on this time in my life and be proud of what i accomplished. i’ll remember how bright eyed and bushy tailed i was, how convinced i was that i could create something beautiful from something ugly. i thought about how i might want to show my children my first home.

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walking into the grand apartment as a homeowner for the very first time

and so i made a video. because that moment – this moment – is a big one. and i want to remember it. if you can get past my awkward intro, you’ll get to see a walkthrough of the grand apartment–the terrible before–and hear a little bit about what i envision for the after. enjoy! and try not to wince. also, the volume seems to have recorded REALLY low. so turn that baby UP UP UP. 

 

 

 

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the hardwoods as they stand now. they’ll be sanded down, then either stained darker or kept as is.

now that things are finally starting to move along (sort of) in the grand apartment, i’m struck by just how many design decisions i have to make over the next few months. this weekend, i’m hoping to nail down all of my kitchen appliances (BO-RING, and yet also so exciting because i LOVE TO COOK), and maybe even purchase them (heeyyy july 4th sales!). but in the meantime, i’ve got flooring on the brain. specifically, hardwood floors, and what color mine should be.

up until very recently, i had it in my head that i was going to go ebony. you know, go all TNT on this bitch and be like, HEYY, MY FLOORS KNOW DRAMA. but then my mother kindly pointed out that there’s beautiful perimeter details around the original floors (which no, you cannot see above, sorry for the crappy iphone shot), and if i stain them darker, that detail will blend into the background. point taken, mama.

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the goldilocks of floors. dark, but not TOO dark.

my big issue with keeping the floors as they are (sanding them down will lighten them a bit, but not that much) is that i want to bring some other wood pieces into the space to warm it up (all white stuff = too ikea-ish, an issue i have in my current place), and i’m worried about how the various wood tones will play together. that’s something a real designer would know how to handle, but a real designer i am not. i’m an amateur in the HGTV sandbox, a domino addict who doesn’t know her burl wood from her tiger wood (and i don’t mean the tiger woods). i’m scared that if i go too light, any dark piece will clash, and anything lighter will look like i’m trying to match.

what’s a girl to do when she can’t decide? turn to pinterest, pull some pretty, and TALK IT OUT.

the light:

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the dark:

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it’s obvious that the darker floors can make the space feel darker – but given that i’m going for white walls and i have a white couch, i don’t think i’m in danger of a caveman style home. that being said, darker floors/darker colors = a space that seems smaller, while lighter tones (and light in general) open up the space.

so where does that leave me? i think in all likelihood, somewhere in the middle. the first step? sanding down my current floors, and seeing where that leaves me. from there, i’ll either go natural, or swatch out some ebony and see how i feel. that being said, i welcome any and ALL advice.