So let me tell you about my tower #11: Window Shopping

During our one week of beautiful spring I painted sashes of windows that didn’t get painted in the fall.   A lot of time has passed since shopping for those windows, and time has given me the opportunity to grade my choices.  Most were right on, unfortunately even those decisions that were made quickly with a foreboding sense of “oh well, most likely this will cause me distress later.”

*

Time also has given me the opportunity to wonder once again why I am continuing to write the Tower saga.  Sometimes it is torture.  What I write seems so dry.  My mind is bubbling with other stories to write:  falling down the steps and dislocating my finger; my cousin’s wedding at the Hotel Pierre; life in the sixties compared to life when you are in your sixties; thoughts on my America.

Then, last night as I struggled with Tower #11, I realized that building this addition with Lee has been anything but dull.  The year has been an incredibly rich, creative and romantic adventure.  We’ve been frustrated together, aggravated with each other, physically and mentally exhausted though not necessarily together, ready to run away from each other.

But we’ve also had an almost sinful amount of fun and have celebrated our happiness over and over.  We’ve made it through a large, long project, one that often severs relationships, and we’ve come out stronger, more committed, more convinced.

The Tower saga has been an exercise that seems to plod along.  Hopefully when completed it will be an interesting read for those who were involved, and perhaps for some who weren’t.  My enthusiasm ebbs and wanes.  I am pleasantly surprised by the evolution of the individual chapters, how often they change course and turn into essays on something else.  That said, at this very moment I just want to get it done – and that applies as much to finishing the house as to writing about it.   Lee has told me that he will suffer the depths of my lows about the house and everything else, as long as he can share the peaks of my highs, which is really quite dear.  My moods are something like New England weather.

*

LittleHouseMy nose always wrinkled whenever I spoke about the look of the cottage.  Its charm was within and the view beyond, but from the outside the house appeared about to explode.  The contrasting color of the simple window frames, even without trim, was too major a statement for such a small house.  It could have been a 3D rendering of houses I drew when little – in fact there is one of my houses next to a giant apple tree painted on the wall under the sanitas in the kitchen of the house where I grew up.

The color of the cottage was wishy washy.  The back of the house reminded me of one of the hastily constructed, non-descript and neglected office buildings I used to see on the train from Boston to New York back when. Try not to miss the car graveyards and the skinny fox slouching through tall weeds and sumac as you imagine the scene.

The addition gave me my chance to make it better.

My plan from the start was to buy Pella windows to match those in the cottage, and to paint both the cottage and the tower to match the color of the windows.    I received lots of “advice.”  Pella is difficult to work with, they are expensive, look at Marvins, look at Andersons, you can paint the trim even though it is vinyl clad, change the color, use a contrasting trim, one color is boring.

I spent too much time trying to discover why everyone wanted me to do something different and got quotes from various companies and suppliers, played with different color schemes, then did what I wanted in the first place. I  like the monochrome look and on its own Pella Tan has character and fits the landscape.

Most of the window choices were straightforward.  The holdups were those around the spiral staircase and on the bridge.

Spiral Window, 2nd Floor, Facing South

Spiral Window, 2nd Floor, Facing South

In the end I decided upon one awning and three fixed squarish windows in the spiral corner.  It is okay, although the original design of two full walls of glass – which I nixed  — was so much more striking.  Perhaps I should have researched commercial storefront windows for a cleaner look in this space, but . . .

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We made several stops at the Door Jamb in Shokan, just a few miles past the Pella showroom, looking for the two front doors, which would face each other under the bridge.  The cottage came with a full windowed front door and I felt very exposed when someone came to call. That door was going to go up on the third floor of the tower as an exit to the deck.

My task was to pick the door and then consider the price.  Two mahogany doors with full stained glass windows were spectacular. They didn’t fit my “master” plan, which was simple and stark.  At this time the addition was my fantasy lookout tower at the top of a mountain.   But they – the doors — were really spectacular, and Lee offered to pay the overage.  Every now and then shimmering prism patterns on the wall delight us.

IMG_0528 cropped moreWhile there we also looked at windows.  We found seven tall, narrow white vinyl clad Anderson double hungs for the bridge.  These would be troublesome, but any decision would put an end to my stressing over what to buy.  The windows lacked certain features, but were “a very good price.”   Really wish they dropped down for cleaning.   Really wish we didn’t have to use small sliding screens until Lee has the time to build full sized ones.  They look great both inside and out and we’re looking forward to filling our greenhouse bridge with plants.

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We also bought quarter rounds at the Door Jamb, again fighting the feeling that I was making a mistake.  They are fixed and the second floor landing where they are needs ventilation.  They were a bear for Lee to tape and mud, and I still am not sure how to paint them, but they provide the spiritual aura to the space that I’ve written about before.

Lee and I “discussed” window trim for months.  I wanted the no-trim look of the windows on the second floor of the cottage, but Lee could only see problems when he looked at them. Wish I had found this post before today.

I’ll have to wait until my next house for trimless windows.  It’s not wise to push your finish man too hard when he is working for free out of the goodness of his heart.

IMG_0773IMG_0775We picked up four ten-pane interior fir doors on craigslist. Two of these became closet doors.

The other two are double doors to the master bath, and provide us a view of the field and the Hudson from the second floor.  Wall space is tight, so we hung one as a slider and one on hinges.  Towel racks provide some privacy, but more is needed for me to feel comfortable.  Lee has fewer inhibitions.

Chinatown Update

No trip to NYC is complete without our last minute shopping spree.  My birthday celebration in the city was no different.  We ventured out from our Mott Street apartment into the daytime bustle of Chinatown.

Pig headsI worry about the endurance of this neighborhood.  Just today I read in the Times “that New York needs to be lofted back into global competitiveness. That the city isn’t modern enough.”  And that the Department of City Planning is “envisioning a taller, denser, shinier future for the neighborhood around Grand Central.”  How soon before the entire city is one tall, dense, shiny complex dotted with gentrified neighborhoods for the super-wealthy and not so-super wealthy?

At least not yet.

We scurry from one stall to another buying baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, mangoes, cherries, pomelo and whatever else we see that looks good.  The cost is always considerably less than what one would find locally.   But the biggest incentive to shop is that it is so much fun to be part of the activity on the streets.  Lee is a pro and his interactions with the vendors are swift and smooth.  He can’t speak the language but he’s got the brusqueness down pat.

We bring home more produce than we think we could ever eat but always seem to consume it all in one stir-fry and soup after another.

Then we pop into the markets for all kinds of noodles, sesame oil, sauces, and black beans.  Lee has his favorites.

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We go to Kam Man on Canal Street when we need more tea blossoms, a teapot, or other kitchenware.  I’m more at home there.  The store has American structure with check out lines and cash registers, and now New Kam Man has a web presence, but we still pay in cash, which is the norm in Chinatown.  Hank C, the “Perpetually Hungry,” on Yelp says he see more tourists in Kam Man than locals, and that could be. The store is  doing something right, at least for me and the other tourists. Hank recommends the Hong Kong Supermarket and other shops on Elizabeth Street and perhaps we’ll give them a look-see when we are down again next week.

Yee Li

Our last stop was Yee Li for lunch and to stock up on meals to bring back home.  We were delighted to see that our favorite restaurant is freshly painted and has earned its “A.”  The ambiance is still the same however.  We were tickled to see two men carry a large glass canister to one of the tables.  They dumped out a big pile of cash and started to count the bills.  No pretense here.  No fear either.  The waiter smiled when we took our photo.

We learned from Lee’s Chinese family that this was the tip jar.  And of course since they grew up working hard in their family’s restaurant they added, for their enjoyment and ours, a few stories of their childhood in the business.

The future is what it is all about, but when life seems meaningless and we feel lost, these small vibrant connections to our past can help us remember the way home.

You can’t have too many extra virgins

Lee moved into his new man cave in January.  His old cave, which was his studio/office/storage facility/private space while we planned and built the addition on my, now our home, was in our friends’ house around the corner. He moved there in October 2011 so that we didn’t have to go across the river and through the woods to be with each other anymore.

One of Lee's cabinets filled with spices and sauces

One of Lee’s cabinets filled with spices and sauces

When I met Lee three years ago he was in the middle of moving  from his home for over twenty years.  His wife Caroline had died and his son had established his own life.   He no longer wanted to be in a rambling empty house and he had recently  renovated a two-bedroom apartment in a Victorian on a quiet but main street, in walking distance to all one could need — almost.    One gathers lots of stuff in 60 plus years, and a lot of memories.  He had filled his apartment with pottery and art and cool hand made things that he and his wife and son had created or bartered for.  It was a very personal and comfortable space.  We became the old couple who walked their big dogs through town.

Soon he made his second move, to his man cave around the corner.  He minimized again, tossing some more, and moving large items into the barn he had built as the pottery studio at his old home.

*

Like Lee I’ve minimized several times. Even so, my home is still filled with furniture, dinnerware, blankets, and more that belonged to my parents and grandparents.  I lived on the same street as my mother’s family, with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins my own age who were playmates always near. We all spent summers together in a big house at the shore. Last year I broke the flowered pitcher that used to sit on my grandmother’s coffee table and I cried.  I know the story behind every item that came from my family, or at least I once did.

Since my husband Clark was an only child, when his mother died, a moving van brought all of the contents of his parents’ house to our door.  I still have much of it, and value it as a tangible connection for my sons to their father.

My sons Morgan and Alex saw my family and Clark’s family most likely two or three times a year, and once Clark’s folks moved to Florida, and the boys got involved in school and their own friends, perhaps once a year.   We got together with grandparents for holidays and birthdays when they boys were young and the adults were healthy, and gatherings were always warm and fun.  It was a different kind of family experience than mine.

I wear a wedding band from Clark’s family.  I think it belonged to his grandmother – but which one?  Morgan and Alex  don’t know that my mom’s mother embroidered the raggy pillowcases in my linen closet when she was sick with cancer.  They don’t know which dinner set belonged to my mom and which to Clark’s, or that the little scissors in the cup on my desk was the one my father kept in the middle drawer of his dresser, the only scissors in our house we could always find.  They will recognize none of the people in the old photographs in the boxes of albums I have in the closet.   I know so few in the boxes from Clark’s family.  Sometimes my boys tell me stories that I passed on to them about people and things, and I look at them in wonderment.  Did I tell them that?   Is the story true?

*

Now that Lee has moved for a third time, into his new space on the first floor of the tower addition, he has picked through all he owns in the world after 66 years one more time.  I IMG_0721don’t think he is as sentimental as I.  Perhaps he is, but when thinking about it he is definitely more practical and efficient.  He gets through it.  I move on, but am never done.

His new space is a bit crowded and disorganized, and there are lots of unopened boxes and stuff piled under the staircase, but it looks great, is comfortable and cozy, and he’s enjoying it a lot.  It will most likely stay that way until we’ve moved into the upper floors and all of our possessions mingle and spread evenly through the entire house.  Then we’ll put pictures on the walls and sculpture on the shelves.

We did however integrate most of our kitchens. We’ve gone through the pots and pans and the dishes and glasses and mugs and mostly decided what to keep in the kitchen, what to store, and what to toss, although I haven’t yet made the plunge and tossed it.

The other evening we went through the spices and sauces.  After combining jars and containers and throwing away items that had date stamps all the way back to 1998, we found we had:

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  • bottles of apple cider vinegar, as well as rice and balsamic
  • canisters of sea salt, but no kosher or iodized
  • jars of molasses

Three

  • extra virgin olive oils
  • black bean sauces
  • vanilla extracts
  • baking powders

Two

  • crushed red peppers
  • Lea and Perrins
  • IMG_0719oyster sauces
  • Hoisin sauces
  • oreganos
  • whole cloves
  • herbs de province
  • basils
  • sesame seeds
  • mustards
  • cumin
  • black pepper
  • black beans
  • sesame oils

We had singles of lots of common and uncommon treats, the most interesting of which are:

  • Big O’s $787,000,000,000 Stimulus Sauce (contains no pork)
  • Kotterin Mirin – did you know you only have to walk 11 minutes to burn off the 40 calories per serving of this sweet cooking seasoning?  It is for glazes and sukiyaki.  It has only 15 mg of sodium per tablespoon serving, but corn syrup is the first ingredient on the list.    Funny thing – I just tried opening it see what it smelled like.  It is still sealed.  I didn’t open it.  Maybe it’s a toss.

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  • Tiger Lily Buds – which he never has used, but how can one throw out something with such a sweet name.  It may have to go though because I’ve looked at them on line and they are a different color than ours.  Ours may be from Caroline’s mother’s kitchen which would make them at least twenty years old.  Would Lee’s son want shriveled up flower buds from his grandmother’s kitchen, when he can just walk into a shop in Chinatown and buy them fresh?
  • My favorite of all – Red Boat Fish Sauce.  It is 100% First Press Extra Virgin ca cam (black anchovy) and sea salt.

Not wanting to take any responsibility or show any interest in what he considered a no-brainer project, Lee left the decisions of what to keep and what to throw away to me.  We now have three cabinets full of sauces and spices as well as those in the refrigerator.

The only thing he did say as he flew out of the kitchen to hide in his man cave was “You can’t have two many extra virgins.”

So let me tell you about my tower #9: Breakthrough

frontDave is gently ripping apart the second floor landing of the house.  He’s poking around to see how to support the dormer and the bridge that will connect it to the tower.  I had been wondering about the integrity of the sagging roofline since buying the cottage.  Today’s  demolition reveals there is no ridge pole and the old front walls bow out.

I visited my mom today so was not home while Dave was working.  Lee and I had already moved the bookcases out of the hall so Dave had room to work.  I expected the landing would be in chaos upon my return, but. Lee had cleaned up so well that only some sheet rock dust and some stray insulation remained.  He’s wonderful.  But I didn’t expect the closets and laundry room to be emptied into my office/guest room.  It’s crowded.  I can live with it.IMG_0433

I also wasn’t expecting to find the dark somewhat rotting wood of the original 1870 roof.  It makes me so nostalgic for my 1780 barn in New Hampshire. But it’s just nostalgia, not regret, and now I have a new old home to keep alive. 

Drafted pre-May 22, 2012, and unfortunately revised & revised & . . .

 *

The thought of writing about the construction of the addition was with me from the very start of the project.  I knew it wouldn’t be Tracy Kidder’s House, but who wants to do what has been done.  It would be my addition.  It was a start.

Finally I had bonded to the project.  I felt a responsibility and a love towards the old beams and the buckling front wall.  My little cottage had stood through 150 years of pelting rains, heavy snows, and the winds that blow down the Hudson, whistling around the cottage walls year-round, occasionally even driving my “outside” dog Tuck inside.

Pulling this portion up now that it fits into the chronology and anticipating reliving that rush of emotion, I was so let down.  The revised draft began:

Work on the tower has been on hold for a week. It is totally discouraging since I don’t feel I can do anything to speed it up.  I’m at the mercy of the contractors and the weather.

My first rewrite was written when I was down, when the weathermen had been forecasting rain just about every day for three weeks. It hardly rained during that time, but who knew.  Dave wouldn’t break through the roof in case it poured, and it did, but only once or twice.

Lee couldn’t start work on the inside until Nick, our concrete man, came and poured the slab over the radiant heat pipes. Nick wouldn’t schedule the truck for the foundation because he worried the truck would sink into mud if the rain should come. Mud never happened.

20120522_190623Dave said he was going to pull out the sheet rock along the staircase to see if there were any supporting posts, but he wouldn’t do that until he was further along with the other work.  I lived with fears of the worst:  the first floor cabinets torn out, the floors destroyed, and all my careful planning of the addition to keep the integrity of cottage intact having been done in vain.

That high that I expected to find in the writing, the high from discovering the old house, is no longer evident in the writing.  Was it ever there?

A lesson learned.  Don’t discard the old when revising.

*

We were on hold for quite a while, both the house and my writing.  Tower #1 was written on June 29th.  It took about five weeks for me to become inspired again.  I didn’t want to write about my tower while down.

Unfortunately other dates are mushy through this, but I believe the slab was poured and the roof was opened up by the first week of June.  It was gloriously sunny and windy weather.  The winds had come in and lasted for several weeks.  Dave and his crew loved working by the water, but hated working in the wind.  It is a miracle no one was blown away carrying plywood.

They opened the roof, and you can see the bedroom door off the second floor hallway. The third picture in this run, taken after the framing had begun on the dormer, shows how the closet, stairway, and laundry closet line up under the new LVL.  Hopefully you can approximate how low the ceiling was at the top of the stairs, low enough to bump one’s head repeatedly, and why we wanted to bump the ceiling up into a dormer.

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IMG_0714If you need help envisioning how low the ceiling was, imagine two bedroom closets built into the front sloping wall that are sized for children, or maybe men, but definitely not women who wear dresses that cover more than their bums. Definitely nothing longer than mid-thigh.  Now imagine bumping your head when stooping to get something from the closet.   We have the former owners who lived here and orchestrated the 2004 redo of the house to thank for this.  Lee bumps his head probably more than I do. My only consolation is that the former owners must have bumped their heads also.

IMG_0713The ceiling on the landing is now extraordinarily high for such a small room, and with the sun pouring in the round corner windows we installed, and the niche in the wall that Lee built with a leftover window from a house he renovated, I feel as if I am in my personal chapel.

Dave found a very non-intrusive way to add posts on either side of the staircase to support the new LVL that became the major support of the cottage and all the new weight it was to bear.  That only required redirecting a few water pipes in the basement.

My office was a disaster until two weeks ago when we  finally decided we wouldn’t be making that much dust for awhile.  We put stuff back into the closets, at least temporarily, and moved some of the furniture over to the second floor of the tower. Yes, I did survive the clutter, but very grumpily.

I should let you know too that Lee has moved into his man cave two weeks ago.  It looks like a squirrel house to me.

Christmas 2012

One night mid-December dinner was meatballs and spaghetti a la Otto’s. My noodle man Lee had been looking for meatballs to satisfy my craving at our favorite grocers. I can’t remember where the craving came from.  We have been watching a lot of Fellini.  Does Marcello’s father eat spaghetti and meatballs in La Dolce Vita?  Lee’s noodles are so good that I often tell him he should open Lo Fan’s Noodle House and finally bring a great Chinese restaurant to the Hudson Valley.  But “meatballs and spaghetti” is not really his thing.  He was also a little turned off because he had just read an article on the unsanitary – disgusting is a better word — conditions surrounding our meatballs on their way to the grocer’s meat counter – any grocer’s meat counter, not Otto’s in particular.  We still ate the meatballs but he has given up his search for tasty ones.  Maybe the craving will come back and I’ll start trying to concoct that meatball of my dreams.

My office is so crammed with stuff we piled into it because of the construction going on at our house, that I moved gift wrapping downstairs to the living room.  After dinner I picked up where I had left off the evening before.

Lee was at the piano and he sounded good.  He was playing Maria – and I realized he had discovered how to separate his two hands and play a single note in the right and accompaniment in the left – something he has been trying to accomplish for a while.  Lee is a self-taught piano player – he needs to reinvent piano theory on his own in order to understand it.  It takes time, but he does it.  While at first it frustrated me, I now admire him for his persistence and success.

The boys and I were celebrating Christmas/Chanukah on the ninth night of Chanukah.  The date is never as important to us as is the occasion.

But it was Christmas that was on my mind as I wrapped presents.  Our Ch/Ch (pronounced chichi) gathering, was also the negative tenth day of Christmas.  Usually wrapping presents brings on conflict of a sort.  I enjoy wrapping presents, although, as my father used to say, not too much: it goes on too long, or there’s not enough scotch tape, or I worry if I’ve overdone, favored one son, or . . .

This year though something was different.  I was having fun wrapping; there was a little scenario unfolding.   I always use posters saved from our children’s bookstore for wrapping paper.  It is getting harder and hard to cut up these posters as I am getting further and further into the collection and pretty soon only my very, very favorites and the signed ones will be left.  I selected the posters so that each package had a full picture on the front – that was something new.

IMG_0704The leftover gift-wrap paper from the store which reads “the most important twenty minutes of your day” is always my choice for wrapping books.   We read together every morning from when my children were babies until they went to school, and then every evening before going to bed.  This year I actually stretched and chose books and other gifts for them on my own, not from their wish list.  This made me feel good about myself as I must be feeling more confident.  I think they liked them, although they are much too kind to their mother to ever say “What were you ever thinking, mom?”  They always choose books for me in return.

I used red rosin paper left over from laying the floors in the addition.  The paper folds so beautifully.  It was a delight to work with, so my pleasure was not only emotional and intellectual, it was also physical

IMG_0701All the gifts to girls had angel tags, and all those to the boys had stars. (Oh my goodness.  Did I really say girls and boys and not women and men?!)   The tags were also left over from the “Giving Tree” that we used to have in the store.  In the past I chose my tags according to color, or if the presents were from Santa, or Mrs. Claus (she always gave the clothes — a tradition carried on from Nanny), or from Mom and Dad, or just one of us, or by how many words I could fit on them, or – you really don’t want to hear any more.  But I’d love to tell you the story about the snowman bags.

I had already been wrapping presents for three nights.  No rushing, everything was well paced.

Being at ease in the living room was a new sensation.  The room had never worked for me.  At Thanksgiving Morgan and I repositioned some of the furniture and that helped. The fireplace always smelled, and above the fireplace is an empty cabinet built for a large flat-screen TV.  That’s another story, which I will spare you, at least for now.  It’s no matter because once television became hi-tech and the news became gossip, TV failed to interest me any more.  And TV is something I always watched in bed, not with guests in the living room.

The fireplace is gas and an ugly one at that.  It was necessary to turn the gas and the fans on full blast to avoid the stench, which meant that it was only on during power outages.  The man where we bought our little gas stove for the tower suggested I take the whole fireplace apart and clean it well.  That helped too.  He also wanted me to remove the firebox completely and get the dust out from behind, but enough is enough.

The living room is starting to be a good space.

IMG_0695Our Ch/Ch gathering was very warm and we didn’t leave until much too late.  Alex and Morgan’s new girlfriends were there and I hoped we did not overwhelm them, or even worse, frighten them away.  When Morgan wrote and told me that he thought “the Ch/Ch that Alex and Sam hosted was wonderful,” I decided we had all done good.

Lee and I went out to a romantic early dinner at Ship to Shore in Kingston two nights before Christmas.  When the food is good (it doesn’t have to even be great) and I can use my fingers to eat, the restaurant is quiet, it has a bit of elegance without pomp, the waiters are polished, personal and yet keep their distance, and we are happy, I consider the dinner romantic.  The waiter asked us if we were all done with our Christmas shopping.  (Perhaps we looked as relaxed as we were.)  There are gifts that the elves didn’t finish on time and there are two in the freezer that I forgot when loading up our sleigh to Brooklyn.  But we were not only done with our shopping, we were done with Christmas and all I had were happy memories.

Perhaps I had none of my usual Christmas angst because there are now so many people speaking out:  we are not a Christian country; there should be real separation between church and state; God does not belong in school, on the dollar bill, or in party platforms.  It was such a breath of fresh air to learn that the Democrats left God out, and such a disappointment to see God put in.  There is even a growing movement ridiculing the so-called War On Christmas.

Last night, Christmas Eve, I worried a little.  Were Morgan and Alex enjoying Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?  Did they and I over-react to my last year’s rant by hardly mentioning the word?  I hope they are enjoying themselves with friends and that we can look forward to many more Merry Christmases together in the future.

So let me tell you about my tower #7: The Foundation & the Stories it Dug Up

Looking up the slope and over the shed.

It is fitting that my first tower post after Sandy is about its foundation. The house is perched 20? feet above the Hudson River.  I’ve always worried about the slope giving way.  Now I can also worry about the Hudson rising and sweeping the house down to the city.

Some say the world will end in fire
Others say in ice. . .

Water will also suffice.

Please, please, please:  may all those who admonish me for worrying about “worst-possibles” be the smart ones, and let me be the dummy.

*

Dave started to dig, but I didn’t watch.  Probably petrified.  Up until now the project could be put in a box and stored in the lower yard shed.

I had done that before – designed a new home and then put it in a box that now actually does sit in the lower yard shed.  It was a very happy time for me, one of those times when I was glowing.  Clark and I were starting a new chapter in our lives.

Building a new home was not even a fleeting thought until our neighbor told us he was selling his lot across the stream behind our house.  We lived in a small town with two dairy farms, on a quiet street near a pond with a stream that separated us from a beautiful large lot that belonged to the Davises.  We loved where we lived.

Every now and then the bridge over the stream would cave in and we were at the end of a dead end – that was best.  The boys in the neighborhood (and there were many) used to climb down to the stream and do good old fashioned outside play.

The lot intrigued us.  We were thinking of closing Book Nooks & Krannies.   Morgan and Alex were growing out of children’s books, Clark had actually gone back to high tech so that we could have health care, and without the family all involved, the store was not as much fun for me.  I would be able to devote my time and energy to the house.

The lot begged for a barn. We agreed on a price for the lot, and went up to spend a night at the Yankee Barn show home in Grantham, New Hampshire.  The boys were still sleeping and Clark and I were downstairs in the kitchen having our coffee and talking about how much we liked the casual, comfortable look and feel of the barn home.  All of a sudden a moose walked by.  It’s amazing what influences my decisions.

We spent several months designing our home, studying the sun and views and the slopes and the wetlands.

The timing was unbelievable.  We had already closed the store and were going to pass papers on the land in a day or two, right after the perc test.  But during all this, unbeknownst to me, Clark was dealing with another issue.  His father had just died, and he must have been thinking about his own mortality, because the week before the perc test he went to the doctor to have a swelling checked out.  He had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  We decided not to do the house.

It was a very sad time for me and a terrifying one for Clark.  We had already closed the store, and I actually had taken a new job – librarian at Lowell National Historical Park. In fact, I started the job the day he received his diagnosis.  I cried a lot in private and in public.  It was Rosh Hashanah and the boys and I always met our neighbors at the temple.  Tears ran down my checks the entire service.

Life went on.

*

The front yard of my home slopes down from the street.  Dave thought if we went with the foundation as originally planned we would need to put in a retaining wall.  He asked if we wanted to raise the foundation slightly.  It would require a step at the door, but that rise would be offset elsewhere.  I can’t remember the details, but it seemed logical.

Nick came and built the forms and poured the foundation and then Sean laid sleeves between the cottage and the tower for the plumbing and heating, and Dave did the same for the electricity. When connecting the waste water pipes from the tower to those of the house we hit a snag.

Besides my obsession about the slope giving way, I also have a thing about septic systems.  This constant worry grew from having to build a new leach field when Clark and I were selling the house mentioned above because ours failed Title 5 in Massachusetts.

Considering all the hassle and money Clark and I spent to replace that leach field I never felt comfortable with the fact that no one could provide me with a plan of the septic system when I was buying my current house.  The county health department needed the date the work was done.   My realtor looked at me funny when I asked who did septic inspections. All I learned was that the septic tank was under the stone that pointed north in the walkway leading to the house.

If one worries long enough about something happening, it will happen.

Sean was connecting the waste water pipes from the tower to those that led to the septic tank and found a mess.  We had pumped the tank about a month before we started construction, so when we now found it full we knew there was a problem.  The 3-inch pipe that led out from the tank ran uphill.   Sean put in a bigger pipe, adjusted the pitch, and now I know all I want to know about the septic system.

A load of stone for the foundation arrived on May sixteenth.   Lee and Derrick spread that and laid insulation, and then Sean came in to lay the tubing for the radiant heat. We weren’t home when Sean was doing this work, but he told us later that our neighbor came down on his tractor to tell him that he was uncoiling the tubing on his land.  About a week later this neighbor installed a green plastic fence at the property line.

Then we had to decide if we wanted a polished concrete or painted concrete floor on the first floor, or did we not want a concrete floor at all.  Research on the subject proved inconsistent,  but it seemed like a cumbersome, expensive process, with lots of possibilities for disaster.

We unfortunately had lots of time to decide.  For the next month or more, rain was forecast at least every other day.  Nick, our excavator, was wary of having the cement mixer sink into a muddy front yard, so he held off until sunny skies were the norm.

We chose to forgo the smooth, slick look of concrete.  It wasn’t until we actually were going to buy flooring that we learned that outside of carpet or laminate there were very few “affordable” options.  We did, however, find a very good looking and well made laminate, and are happy.

By early June the slab was poured and we could move about on the first floor. In the meantime Dave had been building the tower and pondering the bridge.

So let me tell you about my tower #6: Permits and Credits

Lee and I brought our plans to the town building inspector on February 1, 2012.  Our fingers were crossed, at least mine were.

There was no reason the project should be denied.  We decided to go for the permit on our own – no architect and no builder. The inspector was alone in his office when we arrived.   In fact it seemed like the three of us were the only ones in the building, in the world, that night.  It felt like the Twilight Zone.  We ventured in.

The inspector looked the plans over, asked questions mainly about set backs and size, and who was going to do the work.   I must have started talking too much because at one point Lee gave me a look. It’s hard for me not to gush about the house.  The inspector made a few comments on the design and that the project was small compared to most that he reviews, explained the inspection process, figured up our fee, took my  money, and sent us on our way.  We crossed this hurdle easily. The inspector has been prompt and professional with all our dealings and inspections.  Thumbs up.

It was time to start.

We had already chosen our builder – Dave Wilt from Kerhonksen.  We first showed him the plans in November 2011 before the engineer beefed them up for gale force winds.  We knew Dave.  He is a friend of Robin who did house painting for Lee.  We have several of her paintings hanging in our home – two florals and one of a young lad with the most brooding eyes. Those eyes would stare at me when I awoke and went to sleep and finally I had to move him out of his prominent spot in the bedroom because he was giving me the willies.  Dave was a builder highly recommended by several contractors who had worked with Lee.  It is small world.

Emily watching Dave during a break

Dave has been great to work with.  He plans ahead if he thinks something is going to be troublesome.  He says he is always reading construction, talking construction, thinking construction.  He probably dreams it too.  He’s reliable, shows up with a good team and works hard and long hours.  Some of Lee’s construction buddies say they won’t work with Dave because he works them so hard.  But they all respect him and encouraged us  to give him a call.   He doesn’t seem to fluster – does very well with my questions and my difficulty with decision-making.  The most colorful of his crew so far has been Reuben, a hispanic chef who shared seder recipes with us.  Robin’s daughter Emily came and worked with Dave for a few weeks.  She doesn’t realize how much she is going to appreciate having had the opportunity just yet.

Al Dancy — a big guy from Kingston — took down two trees in the way.  He does outdoor work for Lee and built the steps to my “lower back forty”.

Lawn Ornaments

We needed an excavator and someone to pour the foundation.  We got estimates from two fellows Lee had worked with from the other side of the river, and from on my side also, as I wanted to support the workers in my community.  In the end Dave dug the foundation and Nick DeLaura from Stone Ridge poured the foundation and slab.   For a few months I was living in a Fisher Price construction site, a few too many months, because spring rains and fears of getting the concrete truck stuck in muddy ground delayed this part of the job.

Then we had to choose a plumber.  Again all fingers pointed to one person – Sean Lamkin of High Falls – who also works for Lee.  He brought his son with him during summer vacation and had him working.  In addition to all the work on the house, he also got one of my burners on my stove to light again.  He will definitely get a thumbs up at the end.  Plumbers are very expensive.  I’ve told Sean that already.

We were happy to learn that none of the work had to be done by licensed contractors, so Lee could do the wiring as well as act as general contractor.  The electrical inspector complimented him on his work at the first inspection.  He had a frustrating period when he couldn’t figure out which wires went where, but thankfully that is over.  He’s feeling quite competent now and he wakes up with a smile.

Lee and his chief everything man, Derrick Moore (and  brother Darryl), of All Home Services in Coxscakie, have been working hard on sheet-rock, flooring, painting, you name it.  They’ll be with us until completion, and then some.

Who else have I been writing checks to?   I contracted Hudson Valley Green Insulation from Rhinebeck, and Paul Groll of Hudson to grind up the tree stumps, and Scott Ziegler of Kingston helped with taping and is now designing and building the stairs to the observation deck.

Lee and I have been almost daily customers at Williams Lumber in both Rhinebeck and Red Hook. and have happily run to find things we need at the new Germantown Variety.  I bought lighting at Wolfberg Electrical Supply in Albany, and an antique red glass lamp at White Whale Limited on Warren Street in Hudson.  I bought paint from Sherwin Williams in Catskill, windows from Pella in Kingston and doors and windows from the Door Jamb in Shokan, more doors from a local scavenger on craigslist, flooring from the Carpet Store in Rosendale, stone from Quality Landscaping in Germantown.

Halibut Point State Park, Rockport, Massachusetts

We did have to go out of state for a few items.  We took a mini-vacation on Cape Ann when we picked up our gas stove at The Stove Shoppe, in Windham, NH.  We ordered our spiral staircase from Stair-Pak Products in Pine Grove, PA.  I bought a wild ceiling fan from Kennedy-Webster Electric in Downers Grove, Illinois which I found on ebay.

Of course we did rely on Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Amazon but only when it was totally crazy not to.

While corporations are hoarding profits and laying off workers, and banks are protecting their interests and making home owners jump through hoops to get loans, and the government is being strangled so that it has no money to hire a corps to rebuild our infrastructure, I have been recklessly pouring the remains of my decimated rainy day fund  into what sometimes seems to me to be single-handedly keeping the local economy alive.  My credits may not read like those in Architectural Digest but they are just as legitimate and I am proud of them.  I encourage you to get in touch if you need a good contractor in the mid-Hudson Valley.

I deserve a tax credit for job creation this year.

So let me tell you about my tower #5: It’s not on an island

Mom might like it better if I wore my pearls —

It’s been hard to write about the tower these few weeks. For one, I’m actually working on the house – painting, not very well but hoping to improve with time.  Yesterday I was up on scaffolding – and I was moving it around and pouring paint out of a five-gallon can.  My mother wouldn’t approve and the way my back hurts right now, I might agree.

Two, I feel guilty every time I sit down at the computer knowing Lee is hard at work. Third, my mind is focused more on the present stage of the tower than on a year ago when we were studying drawings.

I have also been totally distracted by the ugliness in the air:  the blatant disregard of truth, equality, ethics, science and suffering by so many of those in control in our country.   It didn’t seem right that I should write about my happiness.  It seemed disrespectful to those without a place to live, without food on the table, a job, health, without hope.

But Michelle made it okay.  She said it all last night at the Convention.  Rather than read my rant, hear her speak of the America I know and I want for my children.    Michelle said it better than I could and it is okay for me to think and write of other things.

*

We still held some hope to get the addition up and closed in before the winter.  Actually only 36 days passed between the “please rethink” email and the “love the tower” email of August 21, 2011, but it was a long 36 days.

From the south

Duke came to visit with the new model (which now looks a bit battered in the photos) and a set of drawings.  It looked fantastic and had “wow” appeal.  He incorporated many of my wants into the tower.  It had a greenhouse bridge over the doors to the two structures and the entrance to the house was not visible from the street.  He angled the house so that we captured the best view from the observation deck and maximized the footprint while taking into consideration the 10 foot-septic tank setback.

Street side

He topped off an 11 x 11 observation floor with a wide shallow roof that would enable me to keep windows open at least on the third floor during the rain, and provide shade (although not enough shade I discovered and grumbled about for a few miserable days after it actually was up).   And he lined up the first floor windows so that you could see green grass and sky through the addition from the living room.  It wasn’t the angle I had envisioned, but it worked just as well.

We talked a lot about the window walls that framed the spiral staircase corner.  They were visually striking and would allow lots of light into the space.

View during today’s morning coffee

Duke left and we played with the design.  Lee didn’t say much but I knew what he was thinking.  It was an expensive little addition compared with our original idea.  We had started simply:  one story plus a loft in a square shed roof structure with a balcony for morning coffee overlooking the river.

My thoughts were along the same line as Lee’s.  All those angles and windows and that large deck were going to bump the costs up, but we started calling the addition our tower.

First I cut windows.  It was easy to take away the transoms.   It was also easy to eliminate the two picture windows on the third floor.  One faced a brutal winter north wind, the other side faced neighbors, and we also wanted wall space to hang our art.

North side

We didn’t need five little windows in the second floor landing of the cottage.   Three more deleted.

We knew we didn’t need or want all that outdoor deck, which actually grew even bigger in subsequent drawings.  The tower is to be our private space, not for entertaining.  We decided to limit the deck to the area adjacent to the tower.  I don’t know what we will do with all that deck we still have.  The roomiest side looks over our neighbors’ yards and outbuildings – not the nicest view and definitely none of my business.  We may eventually put up a trellis and perhaps a clothesline or make a container garden in that area.  We’re thinking of getting IPE decking tiles for the deck, and we’ll add them a section at a time.

River side

The window walls around the spiral were the biggest problem.  Everyone – including me – loved the look.  However these windows didn’t face the water, they faced the street and our neighbors.  Lee and I sometimes thought of our tower as our cozy nest in a tree house.  Living with those windows would be like living in a fishbowl.

I obsessed for months on how to preserve the excitement of the window walls yet add privacy.  What was the point of all those windows if they had to be covered up?   The spiral stair made it troublesome, if not impossible, to reach to open and close curtains, let alone windows.  I didn’t want windows I couldn’t open or clean.   Even so, I checked into shades and blinds and tinted glazes and sheets.

My visit to Hunter Douglas was surreal.  Anything the saleswoman showed me that might work cost as much as the windows, if not more.   Lowe’s and Home Depot weren’t much better, nor was the web.

Dave, our builder, said we could wait to order windows until after the building was up.  That helped and I eventually settled on four large square fixed windows, letting the privacy issue rest.  I have used my mom’s old tablecloths, flat bed sheets, and rolls of woven toweling from Lowell National Historical Park for curtains.   Certainly I will find the right piece of material squirreled away amongst my treasures and hang it strategically.

We actually were able to place one awning window in the spiral wall and get some air circulating in that corner.  I didn’t have to compromise totally on the “no-windows-that-don’t-open” rule.

It wasn’t until we were actually ready to start building that I discovered a major omission in the drawings.  The original cottage had a dormer riverside, but not to the front.  If you were short to average size you could stand tall at the top of the stairs, but it was still a bit precarious to cross the second floor landing to get from one room to the other.  If you were tall, you bumped your head.  Even before planning this addition, I would fantasize popping out the roof and making that landing a livable space.  That was on my original wish list.

From the top before the dormer went in and oops, the roof is on crooked —

Somehow we all overlooked it.  When the architect added it back in I thought we were making it easier to put the pieces together.   Dave told me otherwise!  All of a sudden the original cottage had to support not only the bridge but also an entire new room.

Dave had another surprise.   Because Lee and I had told Duke numerous times that there were very strong winds coming down the Hudson which often blew for days with gusts of 40 – 60 plus miles per hour, he passed the plans to an engineer to make sure that the tower and especially its roof would be able to withstand this abuse.  The engineer added LVLs and Simpson ties and lots more lumber and. . .   We’ll get to that later.

The tower is standing.  It’s wonderful.  There have been frustrations and compromises, but in the grand scheme of things they are minor.  Lee reminds me each time that I will come up with a solution and that we will be very happy.  I pout, but he is right.

So let me tell you about my tower #3: The Architect

Choosing the architect turned out to be very straightforward and satisfying.

Three of my neighbors had recently made additions to their homes.  I liked the end product of all.  Two of them recommended their architect, the third didn’t.  It was a start.

Within a week after pulling together my initial wish list for the addition, Lee and I met with the first architect.  He had designed a sunroom for my friend’s farmhouse — a very well proportioned and complementary sunroom.  It wasn’t much to go on, but it was well conceived.  He listened and looked, gave us some ideas, and explained his fee schedule.

The second architect had designed a very comfortable, roomy, attractive home from a neighbor’s existing cottage. His website showed some of his commercial, retail and residential projects.  Nothing looked particularly small and cozy, but that could just mean that none of his clients had that vision.

We corresponded and made an appointment for March 20th.   When we met he appeared confident, not at all arrogant, and he seemed flexible, both in his approach to the project and on his pricing.  His most memorable questions at this interview were about money.  He didn’t want to start something that we could not afford to finish.  And he was right to be concerned!  We wanted a tall house on a small footprint attached to a cottage by a bridge on the second floor that looked like a squirrel would live in it.  How much money would anyone in her right mind want to spend on that?   But I’ve never been very smart when it comes to my money.  With the addition the house may actually be worth its purchase price in 2007

Duke Beeson is a New York City architect who owned a second home in the town next to mine.  Before this meeting I thought it a long shot that he would take this project.  But by the middle of our conversation I was hoping that he might want to expand his business upstate, or he might be intrigued with the cottage, the location or the idea.  Lee and I pulled together the plot plan, my concept, and whatever drawings we had of the cottage and exchanged them for a business card.

It didn’t take me long to realize I had no idea of how to interview or choose an architect.  It is a little embarrassing to admit that I may have chosen Duke because he is tall and handsome and the idea of having a city architect had a bit of appeal.

By April 3rd we had a proposal in hand, Duke had checked out the code to see if we did have enough square footage and setbacks to build, and we took some time to think very hard if we were serious.   On May 16th Duke and his assistant came for measurements and I gave him a check for the down payment.

There was no anxiety because there was still plenty of time to have second thoughts.

Lee and I waited patiently, still getting used to the idea that we were making a commitment to live with each other, let alone build an addition together.

Finally Duke told us he was ready to bring over the design.  He entered our home on June 25th with a cake box from Dean and Deluca’s.  He opened the box and voila – there was a white board model of a house we didn’t recognize.  He had hand drawn plans of that addition and one a bit smaller.  Even the smaller addition had more square footage than the original cottage.  It provided us with lots of space and great views.  We talked, we were overwhelmed.  He left.

Over the next week I became more and more distressed as I compared the new house to my original concept.  The house he designed was a wonderful house, practical, and resale-able. But no matter how we wiggled and jiggled it, it had no whimsey.

It wasn’t until two weeks later, July 16th, that I wrote to Duke:

 After being dazzled by your detailed drawings and model, it took us                     quite a while to realize that what you provided was not what we asked for . . .

After a few more back and forths, I sent a diagram Lee and I had drawn up and Duke wrote back:

The concern I have about your diagram of the addition is that it will truly look like it dropped from outer space into the front yard.

Is that your idea to have two unrelated structures connected by a bridge?

I answered YES with enthusiasm, and knew that somehow we had chosen the right architect for the job.

So let me tell you about my tower #2: The How

Both Lee and I have experience with design and construction.  He has converted three lofts, in San Francisco, Manhattan and Brooklyn, into residential/studio spaces, and has renovated rental properties.

Our first home in needlepoint by me 1981. I never tried needlepoint again.

My late husband and I had picked up someone else’s crazy half-finished expansion of a cottage and turned it into our first home.  We later built  the home where our children grew up.  Our last adventure was to gut and redo the three-bedroom owner’s quarters of our 1790 bed and breakfast.

Hopefully the maxim “practice makes perfect” will prove to be true.

Entrance to the owner’s quarters, 2005

Lee and I were prepared for the work but had to work out some very important issues. Who would pay for what?  Whose house would this be?  Who would do what?

After much discussion, we agreed that it would be my financial responsibility and remain totally my house.  My sons do like the house and Lee, and we didn’t want feelings for him to have any sway over their decision-making when/if the house should become theirs.  Lee is a generous man and he is always taking chances.  I don’t have to worry and the boys don’t have to worry about him loving me for my house.

Lee is doing a lot of the work on the house: carpentry, wiring, taping, trim, tile, floors.  He has started grimacing about his shoulder, sometimes one and sometimes the other, and falls asleep during movies.  Hopefully he won’t become an  achy old man during this project. He will be bringing in help with the sheet rock and flooring and I’ve just set him up for a massage.

It made sense to divide the work so that the design is my responsibility and the construction is his.  It’s easier said than done.  There is a lot of interplay between the two.

I chose to hire an architect, even though Lee thought we could do it ourselves and wanted to save my money for materials and labor.

Our second home where we were a family, painted by my father, 1990

My husband and I designed our second home, and while we did pretty well, after living in it a few months, we realized we were not as smart as we thought we were.  We hired an architect for our owner’s quarters redo, mainly because we were stuck.  He got it perfectly, and we learned that working with an architect doesn’t mean one has failed.  (Clark was a do-it-yourself-er in theory and practice, and so is Lee, and so am I).  An architect is well worth the additional cost.

An architect would transform my squirrel house vision into an actual livable structure.  Having professionally drawn up plans I would be less likely to step on the contractors’ and Lee’s toes.   An architect’s advice and expertise would boost my confidence about the project and provide peace of mind.

There were practical considerations also.  What was code?  Could we actually put more structure on the little lot?  How much would it cost?   Where would Lee live until the addition was completed?

I read the town code and thought we could do it, and was hoping our architect would agree.

Lee and I picked a figure we would like to spend, a figure based on nothing in particular.  We’ve already gone over the first figure; we knew it was unrealistic.  We are hoping we come in close to what we chose for the second.

Jackson

Lee moved in with his clothing, his dog, some art, and a lot of his kitchen in October 2011:  we didn’t want to commute across the river  another winter.  He found a space nearby for his office and man space.  I get a little romantic buzz walking from our home to his office for a cup of tea in the afternoon.

There were more difficult soul-searching questions.  Would our relationship make it through this project? Would I be able to complete the house if for some reason Lee couldn’t or wouldn’t finish it with me?  What would I do with this larger house if I were once again on my own?

We’ve touched on these questions but they are mostly floating in my subconscious.  Hopefully they will not have to be answered.