The solution to sag: Structural support

Our story so far: We took steps to be careful as we demoed the interior of the old Methodist church, including hiring a structural engineer to look at the building’s support system and prescribe a fix.

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Tyler and Reroofer with sag
Tyler and Reroofer preparing the space for the new header in the space between the sanctuary and the overflow area.

In the space of about eight hours over two days, Tyler and his help, Reroofer, got the header constructed and put in place, and they reconstructed the choir loft wall (I helped by renting a couple of heavy-duty adjustable floor jack posts and transporting them to the church—I’m handy like that). When they jacked up the floor, the wood gave a great creak and wail, but it cooperated. The second floor was suddenly a lot more level and the opening where the kitchen would be constructed was no longer saggy.

header after
Here’s the space after the new header was installed. You can also see the doorway, above center, where one will exit the second floor onto the to-be-built balcony.

With that task completed, I could put to bed my nightmares of bathing in the upstairs tub—me in my birthday suit relaxing among a cloud of bubbles and a hundred gallons of water—and falling through the ceiling. We were structurally sound now. But we still had to demolish the 20-foot sanctuary ceiling without killing our project foreman.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 15 concludes with a solution to the sanctuary ceiling problem. Read it here.

‘It’s worse than I thought’

Our story so far: After two and half months of waiting to close on a 126-year-old church we intend to turn into our home, we finally get inside and start demolition revealing its odd and interesting wonders.

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Chapter 10

Five days after we closed on the church, the roofer showed up. Securing the bell tower was high on the to-do list after the seller had disclosed the roof was “rooted” and our pre-closing inspection revealed it was indeed rotted. With winter was closing in fast, so was our window of opportunity.

belfry definedAfter a couple of different bids from roofers of various talent, we went with not a steeplejack, but a friend of a friend with a good reputation for flat roofs. For the purposes of clarity, a few definitions might be in order. The bell turret on our church—the ornamental feature above the bell chamber—appeared to be in decent condition and shingled with materials at least as new (or old) as the rest of the church roof. It was the flat roof floor of the bell chamber (beneath the bell) that was falling apart.

The roofer was a young man with a deceivingly slight build and a long reddish beard. He had a name, but in my imagination, I called him Reroofer, sort of the fairytale contractor version of Repunzel: “Reroofer, Reroofer, let down your beard!” Unlike Repunzel, though, he would not have been trapped in any castle towers; Reroofer had the agility of a monkey climbing around the belfry thirty feet off the ground.

Initially, Reroofer thought he could fix the holes in the roof in two days. After he was there a couple of hours, tearing off disintegrating shingles and ancient pieces of wood, Tyler called up to him from the ground and asked him how it was going.

“It’s worse than I thought.”


The bell, it turns out, was three-inch thick cast iron, weighing a thousand pounds, we guessed without the benefit of a scale. Some carpenter in the past had cobbled together a solution to the aging bell supports, and now the old fix was worse for wear.

Working mostly from the inside (which made it more bearable to watch), Reroofer needed to transfer the weight of the bell while replacing the supporting structure, so he did so with an ingenious system of straps and come-alongs (and an equally gymnastic helper on Day Two of repairs). The supports were replaced with new, treated four-by-fours. When he finished, the bell hung a foot higher than before his work.

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Tomorrow: Another definition: kampanaphobia. Click here to read it.

Some assembly required; moat not included

Our story so far: My husband Tyler, an excellent online shopper, found a set of front doors for our church on Craig’s List in exactly the style we had admired at a nearby big-box store.

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So we drove 90 minutes south one Sunday after church to check ’em out.

They were indeed only slightly used and exactly what we were looking for. Tyler the Negotiator wrangled the owner to the ground in a metaphorical wrestling match (“We have cash. And we’ll take them off your hands today”) and claimed a pin; the seller accepted an offer of less than half of what we would have paid for new.

The only challenge was the “we’ll take them off your hands today” part. Remember, these were eight-foot double doors. And they came with the frame. Doing the math, you’ll realize they were larger than any pickup truck bed.

Fortunately, Tyler planned ahead for that.

He’d brought along two-by-fours, a saw (a cordless Skilsaw circular saw, if you must know—another one of Tyler’s many cutting devices), an electric drill and a box of screws. In a matter of minutes, he’d built a frame to carry the doorframe on top of the pickup truck. Then we wrapped the doors in the biggest, most royal furniture blanket you’ll ever see: The 12-foot red velvet curtain that until very recently had been hanging in the front of the church.

A few bungee cords later, and we were off.

We returned safely and in one piece to the church and, with a little help, carried our new entryway inside, to be installed much later when the weather was warmer and the moat had been filled (just kidding about the moat).

castle doors safely home
Our nearly new castle doors, in storage until they can be installed.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 10 opens. Belfry redux. Read it by clicking here.

Seek and ye shall find

Our story so far: We were in the midst of demolishing the interior of our 126-year-old Methodist church with grand plans to turn it into our home.

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Even though we could have waited, one major purchase we sprung for during demolition was a set of new doors for the entryway to the church. Tyler found a deal on Craig’s List we just couldn’t pass up.

Earlier, while we waited to close on the church, we admired an exterior door on display at Home Depot. As soon as I saw it, I knew Tyler would love it, and when I led him away from the plumbing fixtures to the front door display, I knew I was right.

We exchanged one of those looks like a couple does when they happen upon the perfect name for their first-born and they both know it.

This was it.

It was a rustic knotty pine with an operable speakeasy door behind a grille. It looked like it belonged on a castle, which was perfect, since a man’s home is his castle. And it could be special ordered as a 96-inch-tall pair. The existing entry to the church included two 80-inch-tall doors, and we knew we wanted a footprint at least as large.

Naturally, a special-order set of front doors from a big-box store exacts a king’s ransom. We’d allotted something for the front entryway in the Tequila Budget, but not that much.

But Tyler being Tyler took that as a cue to snoop around architectural salvage joints and online, and wouldn’t you know it, in a couple of weeks, someone in a nearby kingdom placed a listing on Craig’s List for just such a set of doors with the title: “Remodel reject.” Asking price: $1,000 less than new.

“Whaddya think?” Tyler asked.

“They’re perfect,” I said. The Craig’s List doors even had the speakeasy portal, and they were arched. “We should at least go and look.”

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Tomorrow: Chapter 9’s revelations conclude with a description of how we got our doors home again, home again, jiggity jog. Click here to read it.

Dreaming of a stairway to heaven

Our story so far: During demolition, Tyler revealed the choir loft on the second floor of the 126-year-old Methodist church we were converting our home, and he suggested we extend the balcony into the main sanctuary, our future great room.

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But the grand expansion of the second floor wasn’t in the Tequila Budget. We’d be adding square footage that needed to be built, carpeted and railed. We also toyed with the idea of adding a second, more decorative stairway to the second floor. (Technically, we already two stairways to the second floor—an interior enclosed wooden stairway and an exterior metal fire escape. The fire escape, an eyesore not required if the church were residential, would be removed and sold at a future date.)

And naturally, our taste ran toward the expensive.

The next day, Tyler made an early morning stop at a nearby spiral stairway manufacturer. They’d been making custom stairs and rails for nearly seventy years, right in our village, only blocks from the church.

spiral staircase
Spiral stairways on display outside at a nearby manufacturer.

On display, both inside and out, were a number of functioning spiral stairways to show off different spiral widths, spindles, treads and handrails. As you might imagine, a spiral stairway is a custom project that is designed to an exact height. One does not pick a stairway off of a big-box shelf and install with an Allen wrench. Besides the height, one can choose the materials, all the decorative elements and which way the stairs will run, clockwise or counterclockwise. Immediately, our creative juices were flowing. And as long as we’re building a spiral staircase, why not also order a wrought iron balcony railing, right?

Being custom, neither of these design features would come cheap.

Since we were still in the middle of demolition and the spiral staircase manufacturer had been making stairways for the better part of a century, it was safe to take the wait-and-see approach to the staircase and railing. They weren’t going anywhere, and neither were we.

But it was fun to dream.

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Tomorrow: We’re reminded our church was built before the Wright Brothers learned to fly. Read about it here.

Lofty ideas

Our story so far: Under layers of carpeting, paneling and ceiling tiles, we discovered the original finishes of the 126-year-old Methodist church we are demoing in order to turn it into our home.

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But the best thing we discovered during demolition was the choir loft.

The old saying, “Man plans, God laughs” was evident in this church renovation. We had planned to close a week or two after we made an offer on the church, and we all know how that worked out. Now, our plans for the second floor were changing with every swing of the sledge-hammer.

One of the members told us the second floor used to be the choir loft, and as we (“we” being Tyler and his hired man St. Johnny) began pulling down the shelves and closets and walls upstairs, the balcony opened up like sunshine through the clouds. Tyler poked and prodded, and then smashed and crushed, to reveal the original, higher ceiling in the sanctuary and the huge opening into the second floor.

choir loft
Readers will have to use their imagination here. The lighted area above is the choir loft, overlooking the scrap wood pile in the sanctuary of the church.

Tyler was inspired.

He called me (I was fiddling with some sort of paperwork back at the rental property) and said, “I have a great idea, hear me out.” He described extending the balcony floor into the great room and constructing the kitchen underneath it which would create more space for our master bedroom in the overflow area behind it.

It was indeed an inspired concept.

For a number of days, we had been walking around the overflow area looking for ways to incorporate the kitchen, an entry from the to-be-built garage, a guest bath, the master bedroom, the master bathroom, a walk-in closet and a main-floor laundry. It was a lot to ask of 600 square feet.

No matter how I turned it around in my dreaming mind at night or on paper during daylight hours, I couldn’t figure out how to pull it off without sacrificing a shower or a laundry room or a walk-in closet (or all three).

Tyler’s concept would make room for all our creatures comforts, keep the kitchen we wanted and fill up some of the excess space in the great room.

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Tomorrow: Tyler’s inspired idea requires a custom feature. Of course. Click here to read it.

The floor beneath our feet (and layers of carpeting)

Our story so far: The first phase of our church conversion is demolition, and we found a number of interesting items as we cleaned up and tore down.

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Demolition is 5 percent revelation and 95 percent dirty work. In those first few heady days of demolition, we were still in the revelation phase, and it was fun.

pine floors
Tyler scrapes away the carpet glue so we can see what the original sanctuary floor looked like.

As we peeled away layers of carpeting, carpet padding, paneling and ceiling tiles, we discovered the beautiful original finishes of the old Methodist church. That moment in a DIY television show when a flipper discovers hardwood floors and swoons? That’s real. We did a little dance when Tyler pulled back the carpeting in the main sanctuary and found wide pine hardwood; Tyler suspected it might be Douglas fir. If we weren’t so old, we would have done a breakdance when we revealed the oak floors in overflow area, the room we intended to turn into our master suite.

In this image, you can see the original pine floor (front and right) and the oak flooring (left) as well as the beadboard we exposed in the future master bedroom (left) and beadboard that rings the main sanctuary (it’s painted above where the altar area flooring used to be).

Under the 1970s wood paneling, beadboard—the kind that was installed a single board at a time instead of with today’s monolithic sheets—lined the master suite area up to the chair rail (or, at least, where the chair rail used to be). The ceiling in the master bedroom was also narrow-slated wood of some sort. We imagined a fantastic tray ceiling with the wood revealed in the center.

This ceiling in the future master bedroom was hidden behind a suspended ceiling and a layer of fiberboard ceiling tiles.

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Tomorrow: We find an interesting architectural feature we think we can incorporate into our floor plan. Click here to read it.

Stuff you won’t salvage from most houses on the market

Our story so far: After closing on the sale of an old Methodist church, we got to work cleaning it up and demoing the interior.

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Chapter 9

Amusing things one finds in a 126-year-old Methodist church:

Map of Palestine
“Modern” day Palestine, for Sunday school discussion.

—A 1969 map of Palestine with the footnote: “Boundaries do not necessarily carry the approval of the countries involved.” Some things never change.

—A treasure trove of pots and pans abandoned by the olderish church ladies who had no interest in kneeling on the floor and reaching all the way to back of the bottom cupboard in the basement kitchen. We scored some great stuff, including a template for cutting a pie into exactly six equal pieces and a pristine piece of brand-name Tupperware for storing flour or sugar and labeled with a marker “UMC” (United Methodist Church, of course); I pressed this into service as a Chex mix storage device during the holidays. Plus, a top-quality insulated casserole carrier I can only imagine some proud church lady mourned losing for years.

play telephone
Friends urged me to keep it for my granddaughter, but it was just too filthy. And archaic.

—A play telephone with a dial-—who dials a phone anymore?—and a telephone book.

—A stereo and vinyl records to go with it. In the words of Ronco infomercial huckster Ron Popeil, but wait, there’s more! Cassette tapes and CDs.

—Lights, which are not at all surprising. But the switches were befuddling. Hidden behind doors and inside closets. The wiring was strange.

—An ancient looking wooden box labeled TNT. I imagined how it might have found its way to the church: A railroad worker’s wife (our village was once the junction of two major railroad lines) made four delicious apple pies for a church supper and opted to transport them in the handiest sturdy container.

TNT box
This will most certainly be repurposed. But not for carrying pies.

What we didn’t find, or at least didn’t recognize as we threw them into the garbage, was the remote controls for the ceiling fans in the church. Hanging at least ten feet off the ground, it was impossible to simply pull a chain to start them. Consulting the caretaker, we learned the remotes existed, but somehow, we lost them in the flurry of activity of cleaning and organizing the first few days. Tyler had me dig through a couple of garbage bags, but if they were in there, they were hidden by rotten wood and sawdust.

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Coming Tuesday: My favorite discovery. Read it here.

Hairy landscaping requires a trim

Our story so far: Tyler recruits a hired man to help us renovate the 126-year-old Methodist church we intend to turn into our home.

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As if to illustrate His countenance upon us, the first few days we owned the church, the sun shined brightly. The weather was unseasonably warm for the end of November in Wisconsin, so we made hay while the sun shined. Well, brush. We made brush.

We’d had the opportunity to drive by the church a hundred times (or so) while we waited to close on it. Without the keys to get inside, we focused our attention on the exterior, and we came to detest the arborvitae (over)growing near the entryway. They needed more than a trim; an extraction was called for. A chainsaw (one of Tyler’s many saws) was put into service, and down came the overgrown bushes. Tyler’s new hired man Johnny and I scurried around like little ants, hauling the pieces of trunk and greenery to the backyard burn pile.

arborvitae before and after

Tyler then turned his attention to the row of bushes lining the sidewalk (and growing through our exterior staircase to the second floor). Even Tyler (yes, he also has a green thumb) couldn’t determine their species, but we knew we wanted to keep them for aesthetics and privacy, but, oh, they needed a trim.

bushes before and after

At the end of the row, Tyler revealed something he could identify: A lilac bush. Oh, I loved lilac bushes! So fragrant! I distinctly remember the lilac bushes in the alley of the home in which I grew up in Central Minnesota. One May afternoon when I was about 14, I grudgingly performed the chore of taking out the garbage and, to my delight, discovered the aromatic flowers crowding out the scent of potato peels in the garbage can. Being the trash man that day was a gift.

That bush was spared of trimming. Please let it bloom in the spring, I prayed.

When we were done, the brush pile was twenty feet wide and six feet high.

A few days later, Tyler called the fire department and alerted them to an imminent bonfire. The firemen gave him the equivalent of a shrug, and Tyler burned up two years worth growth in a few hours. Our first before-and-after project: Immensely satisfying.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 9 begins with a few revelations. Read it here.

Oodles of tools

Our story so far: Finally (finally!) we closed on the 126-year-old Methodist church we intended to renovate into the home of our dreams.

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The list of “first things to do” at our old church was long.

First, there was demolition.

First, we had to pick up and clean.

First, we had to do some yard work.

First, we needed to address the deteriorating belfry.

But what happened first—really first—was moving in all of Tyler’s tools.

For the regular handy man, this might take a few hours. With Tyler, it took at least three or four days.

First we fished all of his tool boxes from our cargo trailer where they had been stored since January when we moved out of our previous house. Then we transported all the tools that had arrived at our little rental house via the productive guys at UPS and the Postal Service in the time we’d been there; thanks to Amazon Prime, Tyler was on a first-name basis with the UPS guy on Day Two. We retrieved saw horses Tyler had built and stored at his cousin’s house and his mother’s. And then he made a couple of trips to Home Depot for various sheets of plywood, doodads and, of course, locking mechanisms to secure everything.

When he was done (or as done as any man with a penchant for tools who still had money in his pocket), the sanctuary of the church (a 26-by-36-foot space) was filled with tool boxes, plywood work tables, saw horses, saws and duplicates of just about every tool known to man. Or at least known to woman.

screwdriver drawer
This is Tyler’s screwdriver drawer.

Just the array of screwdrivers boggled this woman’s mind.

At one point in the demolition process, Tyler needed a very heavyweight hook. A little bit of digging revealed exactly the hook he needed, a medieval-looking device suitable for hanging a dead knight from the rafters.

“What is that?!”

“It’s a come-along.” (I didn’t ask what a come-along was. I looked that up later: It’s a hand-operated winch.)

“Why do you have that?”

“We needed it for the race car.”

Of course. For the race car.

Yes, the Renaissance Man who was my husband was a bit of a grease monkey, too. A few years before, he and his brother raced stock cars on the dirt racetrack in northern Illinois near our home at the time. Every weekend all summer long, they’d spend their evenings driving a $500 piece of junk around a quarter-mile race track wearing out tires. Invariably, by the end of the night, the vehicle would be inoperable for one reason or another (an encounter with another beat-up race car operated by a competitive wild man will do that), and the hunk of metal would have to be loaded onto a trailer so it could be returned home for repairs. This is why my husband had an enormous, scary-looking come-along.

Please do not ask why he still had an enormous, scary-looking come-along, four years after he quit racing. But the answer to that explains why it took us three or four days to unpack his tools.

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Tomorrow: An angel joins our team. Read it here.