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Sarah Toms

Dining Room
Dining Room Take 1 – A Floor Worth Saving
November 26, 2016 at 6:24 am 1
The main part of our home was built in 1790 in the 2/3 Georgian style, with stone quarried from the land around the house. Around 1900, a two story timber extension was added as an east wing, providing a large room on the first floor, and a bathroom and rear bedroom on the second floor. Later still, it's anyone's guess when, another one-story single room extension was added to the rear of the house, also using timber, and which is where the laundry was located until we moved it to the second floor. reardining-1 reardining-2These pictures were posted on Zillow and were how the rooms on the first floor looked for a long time after we moved in. Actually, these pictures are the CLEANEST and tidiest that these rooms looked because we rapidly turned this area of the house into what a hardware store would look like if it were run by a hoarder - random piles of lumber stacked everywhere, boxes we had yet to unpack, tools, paint brushes, cans of paint and stains, brooms, buckets and an old fridge perfect for keeping our beers cold. Yes, it's an unremarkable, blank canvas with a disgusting linoleum floor. img_5173 But like the rest of this house, I saw so much potential in these rooms, and not because of what was inside the house. For me, it's what lies outside the windows and door that excited me the most; the trees and the beautiful parkland. More about this in a minute. The process of peeling away decades, and in places a century, of bad decorating decisions has revealed troves of buried treasures as we've moved from project to project, and this endeavor would prove no different. One afternoon about a year ago, Ben and I were in the basement doing some cleanup when looking up, I noticed that the floorboards for the extension seemed to be some sort of hardwood. Could there really be a hardwood floor hidden beneath the linoleum? There was only one way to find out, requiring a circular saw, a crow bar and a hammer (and eventually a dumpster and several boxes of bandaids for all the blisters). img_3616 img_3617 img_3775 img_3589 Unfortunately, after closer inspection, we weren't going to get off so easily. Instead of finding one linoleum floor, we found two. These were some odd choices to try to decipher - as we carefully pried up one floor, we found an older linoleum floor and another layer of ply board underneath. Most puzzling of all was that both layers of tacky tile were almost the exact same color. Thank you '70's and '80's! The next disappointment was that large sections of the hardwood floor were not just missing, but had gaps in the floor, providing direct, yet unsafe access to the basement. This left us with hours of googling and youtubling to see if we could cleverly tie in new pieces of boards to the old as we had done in the kitchen. img_3764img_3943Alas, we would make a weird discovery under the layers of ply and tile that gave us some much needed inspiration for how to "fix" the floor. What we think we found is an old hearth, perhaps used by a structure that predated the current extension. We chipped away a few layers of the concrete, more out of curiosity than actually caring about progressing the intended goals of finishing the project, and discovered a brick alter of some sort. We wouldn't be able to keep this as a feature of the room (I know, I know - we tried to!!), but as we didn't want to jeopordize with the integrity of the incredibly old wood floor by trying to tie in new planks, we decided to leave the wood floor the way it is and add a slate floor where the gaps are as a nod to the hearth that was likely there during an early chapter of the home. img_3765 img_3942Once we had removed the layers of ply, two linoleum floors, and several gazillion nails (many century old, square nails that are wonderfully handmade ... all saved in a jar for a rainy day project), we came to our next hurdle. And this is where I discovered Audible, and lost myself in some wonderful novels. For a month's worth of weekends, on hands and knees, I ever so carefully and painstakingly scraped this awful, sticky, stubborn and oh so disgusting tar-paper from the top of the hardwood. It was beyond hard work, but over time this tedious excavation began to show some real promise. img_3772img_3774 img_3595 img_2120The next part of my design goes back to the parkland and beautiful views which in warmer weather, I want to draw people outside to enjoy the amazing setting, and in cooler climates, I want to provide views from inside. We had a solid wooden door between the kitchen and these rooms, and then another wooden door leading to the outside. We decided to replace both doors with french doors in order to connect the kitchen with this part of the house, and to connect this part of the house with the park. (There's hubby Ben after installing one of the doors - a bona fide stud muffin!) img_2141Next we tackled the walls, which I'll cover in more detail in the next article on this renovation. Sticking with the floors and the refinishing process (aka, operation "sweet bliss"). At this stage, it was obvious we weren't going to finish the dining room in time for Thanksgiving. Working on a home like this means you have to be patient, and let the pieces fall into place as and when they will, which often means letting go of your vision of what a gathering might look like. Heck, Christmas is just around the corner! By this point of the renovation, and with that beast of a sander in hand, I was fighting back tears of joy. Emotional that the floor was close to being saved, and as I moved to a finer and finer grain of sandpaper, the room filled with the sweet smell of pine (and either red pine or heart pine at that!). img_2170 img_2172 There's still a fair bit of work we need to do to finish these rooms, but even at the point where this project is, I couldn't be happier with the results. To uncover this long forgotten piece of the house, and to restore it to the point where the impressions from those who lived in this house, and left their mark on these boards can still be seen today, leaves me brimming with pride. I can't wait to see what these rooms look like a week or two from now! img_2174 img_2173 img_2176 img_2175  
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East Whiteland Township, Exton Park
Aerial Video: House, Exton Park & Surrounding Area
June 1, 2015 at 3:17 am 0
When friends bring their drone to dinner, this happens....
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Kitchen
I feel a country music song coming on …
April 17, 2015 at 1:08 am 1
CountryMusic ... a month into purchasing the Benjamin Jacob's house, if I were being completely honest, most days it was all getting to be a bit much. We were using half the upstairs bathroom as a kitchen, each morning I would awkwardly bump into contractors before I had laid hands on coffee or a bra, and my personal favorite - each week I hauled 6 people's worth of dirty clothes, sheets and towels to a local laundromat and then patiently waited and waited and waited. I posted the above from a laundromat on one such evening. What kept me going? Ah, that most beautiful of events called The World Cup. At this point, the bedrooms were all painted and inhabited, so I was painting the front living rooms. I fondly remember this project above all others, preoccupied, half listening to and half watching the World Cup games while screaming for the underdogs, cursing at the refs for their numerous bad calls - and all in all, embracing the new found distraction with open arms. A couple of weeks later, we did finally have laundry on the second floor (halle-frickin-lujah!!), which meant our contractor could return his efforts to the kitchen. He did a beautiful job tying the new hardwood floors into the old, and getting everything in place. And as the custom cabinets from Joe Giunta's Fine Woodworking got installed with the new appliances, the kitchen really started to feel like it was coming together. And if I can take a second to gloat, the decision to take down the wall was absolutely genius! IMG_1729IMG_1730IMG_1731IMG_1732IMG_1733IMG_1734 The countertops were a particularly difficult decision. In our last house, we had sprung for soapstone, which I had loved, loved, loved. But given the mounting expenses, I had to find a more affordable option. I'm not a huge fan of granite or the more brittle stones, like marble, so decided to hunt for a warmer alternative. After more hours than should have been spent on home improvement websites, I finally found Craft Art in Georgia, who would ship us unfinished black walnut countertops at an amazing price. Joe helped us to create a high-end edge, making the whole look better than I could have imagined. Kitchen_almost2Kitchen_almost1Kitchen_almost4 Even though we still had a ways to go, by this point the kitchen truly felt like the heart of our home. We took the bay window area and made that into a breakfast nook with lots of comfy cushions, and we recreated the paneled finish around the bar area to have the same look as the original paneling that is around the doorway into the kitchen and also around the arch out to the bay.   Kitchen_almost3Kitchen_almost6Kitchen_almost5
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Early Days, Roof
What’s better than one roof?
April 4, 2015 at 3:07 pm 0

Two roofs, of course!

Just after we moved in, Ben and I noticed that the roof's surface appeared to have some buckles and waves. Nothing worrisome had shown up on the inspection report other than the need to replace the roof, so we remained hopeful that there wasn't going to be a really expensive problem that would eat up our entire renovation budget. When we pointed this out to our roofer Ivan the day he came over for his initial inspection, he didn't seem overly concerned. We took him up to the 3rd floor so he could inspect the roof through the rafters. After about 10 minutes of him leaning out windows and climbing up ladders to get a closer look, he gave us the diagnosis - the current roof was laid over an even older cedar shingle roof. He estimated that the cedar roof was well over one hundred years old. Because both roofs were in pretty dire shape, Ivan recommended that we remove them both and lay all new board before installing the new roof. Roof_Front4 Roof_Front5 By this point, it was the first week of June and we had only been in the house for a few weeks. The weather forecast for the week ahead was clear skies, so it seemed there was no time like the present to start the roof project. That first day we were woken at 6 am by the sounds of scraping and banging above our heads. We hadn't yet hung any curtains on our bedroom windows, so we laid in bed watching wood and old roof falling from above as we contemplated getting up and tackling our own full day of house chores. Roof_Rear2  Roof_Rear3 Our home's main staircase is quite tight, which made it impossible to move the headboard of our king bed upstairs. We asked Ivan if we could use his equipment to get the headboard to our bedroom. Just off our master bedroom is a second floor balcony, so this approach worked like a charm! Why hadn't we moved ALL the furniture and boxes upstairs this way! Ben_Coming_Up2 Bed_Coming_Up The roofers worked from 6 am until sunset, taking short breaks for food and water. I was amazed by their ability to cling to the side of the roof while making fast work of this huge project. By the end of the first day, most of the old roofs were removed, and by the second day, the new boards were going up. Meanwhile, we were working inside on painting projects with the help of several very kind friends. At dinner time, we grilled burgers and hotdogs and made up plates of food for the workmen. Wanting to squeeze every last second of light from the day, they took their dinners up on the roof - inhaling their meal and then returning to their work. Amazing! Roof_Board1   Roofer_dinner Roofer_dinner2  Rafters Thanks to all of their hard work, the first major project for our home was completed. We still have a number of metal roofs to redo this coming summer, including the lopsided front porch, but at least the main roof was finished. New_Roof
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Kitchen
To Wall or Not to Wall – The Kitchen Debate
April 2, 2015 at 2:24 am 0
On the other side of the kitchen was (notice the past tense) a room with lovely views of the front garden and park through the bay window. As it had a built in nook in the wall that is shared with the kitchen, Ben saw this as being a perfect spot to hang a flat screen TV. Add a couple well placed comfy Lazy Boys and voila! A family room is born. This room is situated on the south facing side of the house, so from sunrise to mid afternoon, it continues to enjoy bright light all day long. Kitchen_Before  Kitchen_Bay_Before The kitchen on the other hand, which sits behind this room and faces north - was dark and unwelcoming. This large yet claustrophobic space was screaming for a gigantic gulp of fresh air. Simply solved: the "TV" wall had to go. Ben resisted, both realtors were unsure, but I remained adamant. The heart of the house would not pump freely until these rooms were united as one! Yes, way dramatic, but hey, I got my way! Kitchen_Before3  Kitchen_Before5 As soon as the barrier began to be removed, you could almost hear the entire house take a gigantic deep breath. In an instant, the kitchen had gone from 2 windows to 6 and the light poured in. Kitchen_Wall_Still_Up  Kitchen_Wall_Coming_Down_1 My evil plan was that there would be a half wall and kitchen bar between the two rooms. This would provide a space for cabinets and the sink, while also making a wonderful place to hang with the kids while they did their homework, or entertain friends while preparing a meal. Best of all, Ben loved how it was shaping up too. Removing so much wall did require a mega beam to be installed, with supports that extend into the basement foundation. Kitchen_Before6 Kitchen_HalfWall_Framing Probably the absolute coolest two finds during this phase of the renovation were the original floor joists - 225 year old tree trunks complete with bark - and also the signature found behind one of the old wall cabinets of the last person to renovate the home's kitchen, Mr. Joe Marsh on Aug 10th 1965. Fifty-four years between kitchen renovations sounds about right! Kitchen_OldTreeTrunks  Kitchen_JoeMarsh We had hoped to find an old hardwood floor under the dated linoleum, but alas, it was a mishmash of God Help Us! Because the floor was so uneven, and we wanted to lay new hardwood to tie in with the now front kitchen (aka "the Honey a TV room is a terrible idea"), we decided to tear up the mess and our contractor lay an all new subfloor. He also sistered up a number of the tree trunk floor joists to provide additional support. Day by day, the transformation of the space was incredible. Just wait until the cabinets and countertops go in! Next time, my friends. I think Mr. Marsh will approve.
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Planning for Uncontrolled Chaos
Early Days, Exton Park
Planning for Uncontrolled Chaos
March 31, 2015 at 1:16 am 1
Between putting in the offer and closing on May 19th, we only had 2 months to make a plan. It wasn’t buyer’s remorse that Ben and I were feeling, but there was definitely some palpable anxiety about how we would juggle our busy work and family schedules while taking on a mammoth full-home renovation. “The Plan” (in very scary quotes) was pretty simple: no kitchen meant a lot of grilling and takeout; no laundry meant using the laundromat; and one working bathroom for a family of 6 could mean only one thing - no privacy for anyone, whatsoever, for the foreseeable future – no complaints! A simple plan is a genius plan, and this one seemed simple enough. Strangely, not everyone in the family was as ecstatic about what lay ahead. The teenage folk, sulky and unexcited about the idea of moving, were going to need lots more convincing. But we didn’t have time for coddling the youth! So while doing our best to avoid the doom and gloom death stares from those not paying any bills, we also made moves on the practical plans that would bring our new home back to life and functional once again. We enlisted local cabinetmaker, Joe Guinta to build a custom kitchen and Frank Imperial, a general contractor who has been renovating homes for over 30 years. With Frank came Ivan, a seasoned roofer who has also been in the business for decades. The pre-stages of our pretty insane strategy were starting to shape up beautifully. White_Vans Besides planning the actual move and dealing with the selling and buying of our homes, I whiled away many hours of my spare time on Houzz – the perfect place to dream of your future self, living a magazine staged lifestyle, surrounded by the right combinations of throw cushions, light fixtures and calming hues of grey. In other words, I had buried my head completely in the sand and was enjoying myself thoroughly. I see it now, almost a year later, that this was exactly the right mindset to have in order to build up the vast energy reserves for what lay ahead. When the long awaited move in date finally arrived, that beautiful spring day was a perfect compliment to our spirits - bright, warm and alit with blossoms. We dragged our mattresses and some select boxes out of the PODS into the front two living rooms, forming the family dormitory. This arrangement was really going to make the teenagers happy! We knew we had one evening of peace before the onslaught of contractor white vans would arrive with chaos and sawdust in their wake. This was our time to take it all in and enjoy the moment. Park_path The_Bridge   Ben took me for a walk down our new garden to one of the Exton Park paths that begins just off our property. He wanted to show me the stone ruins of the springhouse that he found that used to serve the residence. It is located about 300 yards from the main house, down an incline and past a stand of trees; some mature enough to have witnessed those who made this same trip when the house was first occupied. Once we arrived at the springhouse, I stood still for a while, taking in what remains and trying to imagine what it must have looked like when in use. The spring still runs under the ruins, but the floorboards and roof are long gone. Big_Tree      Benjamin_Jacobs_Spring_House After spending months worrying about how I would make meals for my family, here stood the home’s original refrigerator. How did they do it? To keep your food stored, safe from animals and rot, and all the while making sure you had enough to support the household, season in and season out. My mind boggled. For me, a hot meal was a quick drive or phone call away, with barely a second thought. If I was on board with “The Plan” before, it was nowhere near the commitment I felt at that moment. This incredible place, timeless and in so many ways still untouched by the centuries, was now our home - passed safely into our hands from those who had come before us, it was our turn to make our life here.
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Why Exton?
Exton
Why Exton?
March 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm 6
I've lived in Pennsylvania's Chester and Montgomery counties since the mid 1990's, and to be honest, the Exton area never spoke to me. For one, there's no quaint town center like so many boroughs in this area to draw you in and make you want to explore the shops and neighborhoods. The busy routes 100 and 30, which transect Exton, are uninspired corridors of stop and go traffic lined with same-same chain stores and restaurants. It really could be Anywhere, USA. So when my husband Ben and I started looking for a home close to a train station and near our children's charter school, we reluctantly decided to take a second look at this area. The Benjamin Jacobs House was the first home for sale that we looked at online and based on the pictures and description, it seemed to be exactly what we were looking for. Large enough for our big family and situated in a peaceful park setting, Ben and I were excited to see it in person. We also liked that this home has a really interesting past that is connected to the founding of our country (Benjamin Jacobs' father, John Jacobs, was Speaker of the House when the Constitution was signed, and Benjamin not only helped to fund the Revolutionary War but was also a signer of Continental Currency - stay tuned for more history!). BenjaminJacobsHome_Winter Front_Zillow Our first viewing was in March, 2014 and I have to say my first impression as I pulled in and parked in the home's parking lot (yes, it has a 15 car parking lot) was Addams Family, here I come! Half of the front porch had fallen down and was lying next to the house, all the exterior paint was flaking off, and there are no shrubs or gardens, so the huge white structure felt stark and at odds with its setting. The house sits a little way back from Ship Road, but given the unwritten rule that everyone must exceed the speed limit by at least 20 mph, I didn't feel too keen about living on this busy road. When I looked to Ben to gauge his first impressions, I was amazed to see my beloved beaming from ear to ear. My English husband had finally found his country estate, and where I saw years of renovations ahead of us, he saw vast potential in this dilapidated gem. Our realtor Terry, who with his wife Lois, has helped us to sell and buy previous homes, let out a chuckle - he seemed to already know that this place would be right up the alley of his quirky clients. Inside, Tom - the realtor for the property's current owner the Church Farm School - gave us a warm welcome, and basically left us on our own to explore. The stone structure of the home was built in 1790 and is two-thirds Georgian, and then in the early 1900's, a wooden two story extension was added off the side of the house. At the same time, a two story bay was added in the front of the home. As we started to explore, everywhere we looked were doors leading to outside porches, even on the second floor, and the view from every window was of mature trees and the rolling fields of Exton Park- it was simply beautiful! Front_Sunrise  Back Yard As Ben and I walked around and took in room after room, despite the disrepair, we started to fall in love with the home's character and potential - four original marble fireplaces, lots of large windows, high ceilings, wooden floors and a maze of rooms that all served to spark our imaginations.  When we arrived back downstairs, we met up with Tom to talk through some of our questions and concerns. We liked how transparent and frank he was with his responses - we'd need a new roof, there was bounce in the floor that we hadn't even noticed, there was an underground oil drum that needed to be removed - point by point, he openly took us through things we should consider if we were interested in purchasing the house. But he also shared our belief that all this home was missing was someone to give it some much needed TLC. Even the more recent history was very cool. He told us that at one point it had been the Strawbridge's summer home, but most recently it had been the residence for students and teachers of Church Farm School. That night Ben and I sat down - glass of wine in hand - and weighed it all out: there wasn't a single room that wouldn't need significant work, there was no working kitchen, and the ancient septic system and all the unknown problems that were likely to rear their head scared us quite a lot. But in the end - and we couldn't quite put our finger on why - something about this house felt right. The home we owned was already on the market and had sold in less than a day, so there was nothing holding us back - we put in an offer on the Benjamin Jacobs House the next day. And what do you know, the Church Farm accepted!
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