The Queen and I, or How to Survive Renovations

Approximately seven years ago, Mr. Vagabond and I went house hunting. This insanity lasted through approximately six months (and three Realtors) until one day… one glorious day, we found her: The Queen.

The Queen is a 123 year old folk Victorian farmhouse on an acre of east Tennessee land, and I love her!

Over the past five years, the hums of miter saws, bangs of hammers and fumes of toxic chemicals have filled the rooms of our abode while we try to live amidst the disrepair without going completely insane.

One day, she'll be as beautiful on the outside as we see her in our minds.


  1. I love your blog! I found that I have a Folk Victorian house, or at least I think so. The siding is ugly white asbestos and I would like to paint or side. Still up in the air on that one as I am checking ideas I have. I like your thought on re-purposing windows. Can you tell me your suggestions for this type of home? We have a place in Pittsburgh, PA cakked Construction Junction.

    I also have 2 dogs that look like your fur kids. Mine are Emily, a 15 year old Chow/Golden Retriever who really things she is a queen. I also have a black lab/husky named Sam the Man with one blue eye. Anyway, you are a wonderful writer. Thank you for the great reading.

    1. Hi Cindy! Sorry I didn't find your post until today. :-)

      I have so many idea about these old folk Victorians! So many things have happened to these houses over the years, all in the name of "upgrades." Unfortunately, what some people considered an upgrade just can't last as long as the original materials.

      First, the wider siding is totally wrong for the period. Clapboard siding is beautiful, and it should be real wood. I prefer cedar because it is disease and moisture-resistant. Vinyl just looks awful, as does this stuff on my house. A lot of people think vinyl is a terrific upgrade, but it won't last half as long as real wood that is maintained. Plus, vinyl comes with a lot of other issues like moisture infiltration and impact damage from storms. That said, there's a Hardie siding that I have my eye on. I've heard a lot of good things about it, and it looks for all the world like wood. The jury is still out about its longevity, though. It hasn't been around long enough to know whether it will stand up to the performance of wood.

      As for the windows, I am also a preservationist. If your house has its original windows, please keep them. If you go to a window manufacturer's website, they'll show you a scary diagram of all the heat lost through windows. You'll lose much more than that through the attic and roof. To me, the benefit (financial and aesthetic) of keeping the original windows outweighs any benefit of vinyl or aluminum replacements. Plus, vinyl and aluminum replacements won't last near as long as wood. The lifespan of an average vinyl window is about 20 years. All the windows in my house are original (over 121 years old), and most of them still have at least some of the original wavy glass. If you have windows that won't open or any with broken ropes in the pulley/weight system, it's a super easy fix. Reglazing panes of glass is very simple, too. I replaced several broken panes by myself, and my husband and I replaced all the ropes in all the windows so that the top sashes lower and the bottom sashes raise. To minimize heat transfer through the windows in winter, just hang heavy drapes. Simple as that.

      Your floors, at least in my opinion, should be stellar. Floors and windows make these old houses. Most of the older homes like yours and mine have at least some salvageable wood floors somewhere. Downstairs in my house was a nightmare. Upstairs, one bedroom had been sanded and finished. The rest had plywood nailed down and vinyl (VINYL!) installed on the plywood. But most of these houses did not have finished floors on the upper levels to begin with, so there should be a lot of wood left to work with. If there was any original floor finish upstairs at all, it was usually paint. But the wood you see upstairs probably isn't like a hardwood floor in a modern house. It's tongue-and-groove, but it's likely pine. You can usually sand and finish it, but it won't stand up to repeated sandings and refinishings. If there are wide gaps between the boards, that's part of the charm. Wood filler will crack and pop out over time. However, you can mix some of the sanding dust with some oil-based polyurethane to make a thick paste, then use that to fill gaps between the boards. It will last longer than wood filler. Scrape the gunk out of the gaps, vacuum them out really well, brush a thin coat of poly into the gaps and then pack in the wood filler. It will need another light sanding afterward.

      For the walls, if you can preserve old plaster, please do! I saved as much as I could, but some of it was beyond hope. They'd nailed furring strips to the plaster, and then hung the ugliest paneling in the history of the world! Ripping down the old plaster and replastering over the existing lath is a very, very tough job, and one that takes a lot of experience to get right. I was a frightened little mouse about trying it, so I did hang drywall in some areas. (continued…)

    2. If you've got drop ceilings, that's a tough one. I don't like drop ceilings, even though three of my bedrooms have them. Most often, they were installed to accommodate ductwork for a heat & air unit, new wiring or to conserve energy (not as much space to heat and cool). A drop ceiling doesn't necessarily mean that the plaster underneath is in bad shape. I've already taken down some and installed a new ceiling, but it's hard work. In my bedroom, I think I am going to install a beadboard ceiling.

      Kitchens and bathrooms are tough when you're trying to preserve or restore a house. There aren't many of us who would really want an authentic 1890s kitchen. My original plan was to go with freestanding cabinets on legs. Unfortunately, I got an offer I couldn't refuse. My boss at the time offered me a set of cherry cabinets that were brand new, and for free. It's hard to walk away from free cherry cabinets. They're beautiful, but ultra-modern. My husband wanted black granite countertops. I wanted plain white 4-inch porcelain tiles. The granite went on sale, and he won. Bummer. My kitchen wound up looking more traditional than modern or Victorian, but it's ok.

      Clearly, I could go on and on about this! LOL! I love old houses. They're one of my favorite things in the world. Other ideas I have are stripping paint off the old woodwork whenever possible, even if you're just going to add more paint. Having 100+ years of paint on a staircase, baseboards and doors eventually starts to hide the beautiful millwork details that were original to the wood. Stripping off the paint gives you a fresh canvas. Don't sand the old paint, though. Most likely, there's lead lurking in those paint layers somewhere. Use a stripper instead. It's messy, but it won't expose you to airborne lead particles. If you're taking down a drop ceiling, be careful. Some of the older ceiling panels (mid-1980s and older) have asbestos. Asbestos is bad ju-ju if it gets airborne. Same goes for your siding. If you reside your house, please let a professional remove the old asbestos siding.

      I probably ought to wrap this up! LOL! Thank you for visiting my blog. I've neglected it lately, but I will be back in full force very soon. You know how life goes. Sometimes things happen and you just have to point your attention elsewhere. For me, it was my hubby getting a new job. He travels a lot, and I went with him. I was actually in Pennsylvania for quite a while this past month! PA and MA are where I fell in love with barn red for my house. That's another blog installment.

      Good luck with your house, and stop by for some chit-chat about it any time! I would love to see photos!

  2. Carole, Gary used Hardie board for some of the exterior siding when we built our house in 1998--and it held up so well, that since then we've replaced any other wood siding we had with more Hardie board. You paint it and forget about it. He says he'd never use anything else, now. Hope that helps! ~Pat