“OH, I’M SORRY TO hear that,” my cousin Melissa says when I tell her that I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to take out all of the walls in the house to expose the old wiring and plumbing. “Yeah,” I think, “I’m sorry too.” I tried to imagine several possibilities for reworking the walls in the house, but ultimately it just seemed to make the most sense to tear everything out and start from scratch. That’s what we did in the house on Beech Street in Farmville in the late 1990s, and it was a monstrous job. The contractors carried the old lath and plaster out bucket by bucket.
When I started tearing out the bathroom upstairs and then the bedroom, I saw that the walls were sheetrocked with boards that are somewhat thinner than what I had seen in new construction, using very small short nails. That made me think the whole house would have sheetrock, but when I got downstairs and chiseled away some of the wall to see how badly it had been damaged by the leak that had left a stain, I saw that the outer walls were plastered. That was the case for the living room, dining room, and the front bedroom downstairs, as well as most of the ceilings. Removing a small section revealed that there is no insulation in the outer walls of the house.
Doing a bit of reading about wall construction, I’ve found that plaster and lath (small boards nailed to the studs and covered with a coating of what seems sort of like cement) was used regularly on interior walls until the 1950s. That surprised me; I thought of it as a much older construction technique. I know that my 1950 house in Atlanta has sheetrock walls, for example.
On the first day of working downstairs, my cousin Cindy, my brother David, and our friend Ken stopped by to help for a couple of hours. With the four of us working, we made some real progress quickly. We started in the dining room, which had beadboard wainscoting with wallpaper above. I had already been working on the beadboard, trying to remove it in large pieces so that I could easily put it back together later. It was a real chore because the original floors have been covered with newer oak flooring, which meant the bottom of the beadboard was below the surface of the floor. I had to pry and wiggle the pieces loose and try not to break them. I wasn’t always successful, but I saved enough pieces to do something with at some point.
Ken worked on banging the plaster off the fireplace, which wasn’t easy, and Cindy started pulling off the plaster. The next day my helper, James, and I tore out the ceiling. That’s when things really got messy. The ceilings in the downstairs had two layers of drywall and then “insulation” between the drywall and the floor above. The insulation rains down all over the floor. The picture here shows what the rooms look like after the ceiling is taken down. We filled lots of contractors’ bags, after scraping it up with a snow shovel. It’s light, but seriously dusty. The thin boards sticking out of the insulation are the laths from the ceiling.
It takes most of a day’s work to get one room torn out (at the pace we’re working). For each room we’ve done the walls first and then moved to the ceiling. As of this afternoon (July 14, 2016), there are only two ceilings on the first floor and the ceiling in the upstairs hallway left to remove. My cousin Melissa’s son Nathan spent the day tearing out the ceiling in the downstairs hallway and living room. Here are a few “before and after” photographs of the front bedroom on the first floor. I’m calling it the “pink” room, for obvious reasons. There are moments when this project feels overwhelming, but when I look at how much has been accomplished in the three weeks I’ve been here working, I’m heartened.