By Randy Fletcher
Old homes require a lot of attention, and like Audrey II, the ever-ravenous Venus flytrap in “Little Shop of Horrors,” they constantly cry out, “Feed me, Seymour (or fill in your name here)!” Though they don’t feast on human flesh, there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into the never-ending projects that we undertake to keep an older home looking beautiful.
Six months ago, I woke up from a deep slumber and found something teetering on the tip of my nose — I was one snore away from inhaling a Pringle-sized paint chip! I knew then that it was time to tackle painting the bedroom, which I had put off for years; I’d been spending what felt like every waking minute feeding the many other projects screaming for my attention. I blithely jumped in, thinking that this one would take no longer than a month to complete.
This small job has turned into a major restoration project, and today, I’m probably little more than half-way finished. There have been a lot of starts and stops, and for much of the summer, it was too hot to climb up the scaffold to finish the work. However, we removed the silk wall covering, patched and smoothed the walls and stripped the radiators, and I’m almost ready to start painting. But I haven’t finished the ceiling. Every time I walk past our bedroom, I look up and see that last untouched 3-foot section of molding, pleading with me to liberate it from the old flaking paint that clings on.
The bedroom ceiling has been a daunting endeavor from the start and has proven to be the hardest part of this project. It looked good from below, but when I touched the decorative plaster, flakes of paint fell off as if I had opened up a bag of chips and let them rain down onto the floor. I tested several of the many products available for removing old paint, but I didn’t like any of them. They were all messy, and I was afraid they would damage the plaster.
Then one night, I woke up with a great idea. I would try duct tape! I got some and pressed it onto small sections of the plaster. Success! When I peeled off the tape, almost all of the paint came off with it. No dust, no goop, no mess ― and more importantly, no damage to the plaster. But this approach takes patience and lots of time. An entire day of pressing on and tearing off only rewarded me with a relatively small area of virgin plaster. It was discouraging, but I kept at it for a couple months — until my arms and back became numb from reaching over my head. Audrey II and I went through over 20 rolls of duct tape. I was exhausted.
I’ve learned that seemingly simple projects in older homes can become large and complicated. Each one comes with a set of issues, which can lead to more issues, which can lead to frustration, anger and a sense of helplessness.
These things I know to be true: Tenacity is key; patience is key; organization is key. I now realize that it’s probably best to hire a professional for a big project — and may ensure that it will be completed in your lifetime. Because the bedroom renovation would have been too expensive, I had to do it myself (with the help of my fair wife). I’ve also learned that Audrey II will always be there wanting to be fed, and sometimes you have to tell her to just pipe down. There will always be another project waiting in the wings — and several others clamoring to be completed.
But I swear, when the weather cools off enough, you’ll know where to find me ― I’ll be up on the scaffold, gently pulling duct tape and paint chips off of my beautiful plaster.
Addendum: It’s imperative to follow proper protocols when working with chemicals and tools used for stripping old paint. Follow instructions closely. Learn about proper procedures online and from the National Park Service Preservation Briefs at www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs.htm.
The Hyattsville Preservation Association seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city. www.preservehyattsville.org