Author Archives: Jason

The Delbert Meier House in The New York Times

It may be fleeting, but our house was mentioned in The New York Times over the weekend. The article, entitled How to Sell a Frank Lloyd Wright Home, outlines some of the difficulties of selling the architect’s famous (and famously temperamental) houses. And, if I’m honest, the potential resale of our house gave us pause when were considering the purchase. But of course that didn’t stop us from moving forward.

When The Mister first nudged me and said, “Hey, there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright house that’s in our price range,” I scoffed.

“It must need a lot of work,” I replied.

“It doesn’t look like it,” he said, and then immediately sent an email to the real estate agent to inquire about the house’s condition.

We learned from the agent that the house was in great shape with a newer furnace, recent roof and strong structural integrity. It all seemed too good to be true so we made the 4-1/2 hour trek west to see it in person. And that sealed the deal. The moment we walked in and saw the old windows and the spacious living room with the big, brick fireplace, we were hooked. Sale or resale be damned, we knew this had to be our house!

One of the reasons the sale price on our house was so low is that it’s in a rural part of Iowa where home prices have remained low. But perhaps another reason is that people don’t want old houses anymore. In the little town where the Delbert Meier House is located, the big old homes languish on the market while new construction homes get snapped up fairly quickly.

With all of this in mind, we’ve definitely tempered our plans for the house. Before we took possession we had talked about restoring the house back to its original 1917 state. This would require rebuilding the wardrobes that were removed from the bedrooms, gutting the kitchen and removing the carport addition that was added to the house in the 1960s. That last part would require the largest investment. We invited an architectural firm from Mason City to the house to give us an estimate on the work. Sticker shock shortly ensued. Knowing that we likely won’t be able to sell the house for much more than we paid for it, we’re not quite willing to take on those big projects.

Instead, we’re making minor changes that will make the house more livable while also maintaining its original character. We’re trying to preserve what’s left of the house’s original features – the casement windows and original slap dash stucco – while also making it livable in the 21st century.

Because that’s the thing about our house – it must remain livable. Our house will never become a museum or tourist destination (although we do get our fair share of visitors interested in its history). Instead, t must remain a habitable home that can be passed on to another set of passionate owners at some point.

Of course, if we ever came into a giant sum of money, this might all change. So if you’re reading this and you’re a wealthy benefactor interested in investing in architectural history, let’s talk!

 

To Guard or To Suck: How to Fix Our Clogged Gutters?

After complaining about the window box and its persistent flooding flaw, we’ve had few dry weeks during which we’ve been able to enjoy the box and its bounty. I plopped these sunflowers in the box earlier this summer knowing that if it flooded, they’d be goners. Fortunately, we haven’t seen a return of the blustery storms we had at the beginning of the season. And so these sunflowers have been peeking at us through the window. But of course we know this dry box is only going to last so long. And the frustrating thing is that we’ve figured out reason for the flooding – and have even fixed it –  but we’re not able to get to it as often as we need to.

You see, the window box really only floods when the gutter and downspout are clogged. When that happens, rain flows off the roof like a waterfall and dumps the deluge into the window box. We were home during a particularly heavy rainstorm last summer and watched as the window box quickly filled with water. That was when I had a eureka moment. If only there was some way to free the clog in the downspout, we might be able to solve the waterfall issue. I went scavenging in the garage and workshop until I found a long hook – the kind that is used for hanging plants from a pole in the garden. During the heavy the rainstorm I reached out the bedroom window, hook in hand, and scraped the inside of the gutter. Suddenly there was a whoosh, followed by the sound of flowing water. I looked down at the ground and saw that a giant clump of maple leaves (the kind that we’ve always called helicopters for the way they spin through the air when they fall from the tree) had flowed down the spout and emptied onto the grass. The waterfall stopped, the window box stopped filling and I felt like the smartest man on the planet.

But that genius was short lived. By the early fall we were experiencing the same issue with a clogged downspout and soggy window box. As the big, mature trees, the ones we love for shading the house all summer, began shedding their leaves, the gutter and downspout clogged all over again.

When we first bought the house three years ago, I made all sorts of proclamations about not being afraid of climbing on the roof and getting on top of ladders to clean the windows. I’ve always been a bit of monkey and have never shied away from balancing on tops of ladders and other high places. And then I actually climbed a ladder to patch the roof of the belvedere. Standing there on the top of the pitched roof wasn’t so bad. In fact, the birds eye view of the yard was rather refreshing. But then I eased myself down the slope and there, looking out over the gutter and to the ground two stories below, that was when I got nervous. It was then that I knew that climbing on top of the Delbert Meier house was not for me!

So this spring we searched around the area for a gutter cleaning service. At the risk of sounding like my grandfather, you just can’t find people to do that kind of work anymore. Oh, we found quite a few businesses that will replace our gutters or install gutter guards, but we came up empty when I called around in search of someone to simply clean them.

We’ve considered gutter guards but question whether they would block out the walnut leaves. In my experience those flat little leaves that twist their way down from the tree limbs have a way of working themselves into the smallest cracks and crevices. I’m concerned that the gutter guards will not block the leaves and we’ll still end up clogged butters. And with the guards in place we wouldn’t be able to access the gutters to clean them out.

In the meantime, we’ve been waiting around for another strong storm so we can use our hook to unplug the downspout again. The trick only works when there’s a really strong storm. The trick requires the rush of washer to force the clogged leaves down the spout.

And then I saw this video for the Gutter Clutter Buster. It’s basically a long tube that can be connected to a shop vac to vacuum out the gutters without climbing a ladder. In all honesty, I’m dubious about this tool’s effectiveness. In the video above they demonstrate using the tool on a single story house. I’m not convinced that using the tool with the number of attachments that it would take to reach the top of our big, old vintage house would be as effective.

And so the question remains: guard or suck? Which will be the solution to our clogged gutter problem?

Our Love/Hate Relationship with the Window Box

Window Box - American System Built Home

We have a love/hate relationship with the window box on our American System Built Home. We love it as a design feature. Filled with plants in the summer and evergreen branches in the winter, the window box creates a natural landscape right outside our living room window. But we hate the fact that the window box takes on more water than the Titanic. And did I mention that the box doesn’t have a drain or even a rudimentary hole that allows the water to escape? Yeah, so frequently the window box is more akin to a reflecting pool than a flower box. (The sunlight reflecting on the collected water does make beautiful patterns on the living room ceiling!)

Over the years of house ownership I’ve learned some important lessons about the window box. The first – and perhaps the most important – lesson is do not fill the box with dirt and plants. Yes, that does seem like an obvious lesson that perhaps didn’t need to be learned the hard way. And yet learn it the hard way I did! Our first spring in the house, I overzealously filled the window box with soil, grasses and beautiful green plants. And within a few weeks I was scooping out a flood of mud and dead, slimy plant carcasses. Since that first disastrous (and messy!) experience, we’ve been placing containers of plants in the window box.

The next lesson came the following year. We were still using a bucket to bail the water out of the flooded window box. Every time the box would flood we would have to stand on ladder to reach into the box and use a bucket to slowly empty it. It was messy, it was time consuming and it was literally a pain the back. And then one day when I was facing the laborious task of bailing out the window box I thought to myself, there must be a better way. And there is!

Perhaps if we were boaters we would’ve come up with the solution sooner. The electric water pump has made short work of draining the box. Simply stick one hose in the box, one house leading out to the yard, plug in the pump and let it do all the work. Game. Changer.

Which bring us to lesson number three. While placing containers in the window box has helped the plants survive, we’ve also had to learn which plants can handle the situation. You see, it’s feast or famine in the window box. It’s either Noah’s Ark level flooding or Sahara desert dry. We tried geraniums in the box one year and they survived the extreme wet/dry conditions. And then last year we spent $300 on ornamental grasses for the window box. Two weeks later they were all dried up and dead. (Although the good news it that I planted their roots balls in the ground and they did come back this year.) I had always envisioned grasses in the box. As you can see in the photo above, shot the day we put the grasses in the box, they do a great job of creating a privacy screen. Alas, the grasses are not meant to be.

We were recently invited to lunch at another American System Built Home and learned that the owners had installed a drain system to their window box. This is definitely part of our future plans. But for now we’ll take all the lessons learned and continue loving and hating the window box.

 

The Easy $13 DIY Laundry Shelf

Easy $13 DIY Shelf from This American House

Following up on the upcycled vintage hooks, I wrapped up another easy DIY project that had been sitting on the back burner for a number of months. We needed a simple shelf to hold laundry supplies at the city apartment and having worked with plumbing pipes and cheap wood once before, I knew it would be an effective solution for this problem spot too. And that’s how I created the $13 DIY shelf.

As you can see in the image above, this shelf came together with just a few supplies. Here’s what I used:

1 piece of wood, stained – I found a two by four in our garage and cut it down to size before staining it.
2 – 1/2″ plumbing pipes – I used 6″ long pipes
2 – 1/2″ pipe flanges
2 – 1/2″ pipe end caps
8 black screws

First, I cut the piece of wood down to size. The wall where I wanted to install the shelf is 24″ wide so I cut the wood down to 18″ in length. Once it was cut, I used the same wood stain that I had used on the backing for the vintage hooks.

(Sidebar: Can I tell you how excited I am that I’m starting to collect things like spare pieces of wood? All our years as city dwellers have meant that we haven’t had any sort of storage where it would make sense to hang on to things like pieces of wood. Now, with a big old house, basement, garage AND carriage house, I find myself collecting every little piece of wood and loose screw I come across. It’s a slippery slope from here to being a full on hoarder.)

DIY Pipe and Wood Shelf on This American House

With the wood cut and stained, it was simply a matter of hanging the shelf. First, I assembled the end cap, pipe and flange. Then, I measured and marked where I wanted to place the shelf. Next, I measured and marked where the flanges would need to be placed on the wall. Since this is a chalkboard wall, I was able to mark the wall with a piece of chalk and then use a ruler and a level to make sure my placement was straight.

Once the flanges had been secured to the wall, I basically had shelf brackets! The final step was to place the piece of wood on top of the pipe. Well, actually, the final step was to place laundry supplies in big jars and then draw all over the wall. But the final step in creating the shelving was placing the wood on top of the pipes.

Preserving Packaging: How I Made These Vintage Hooks Functional While Restoring Their Charm

Vintage Hook DIY Project from This American House

From the moment I saw these vintage utility hooks – with their kitschy packaging still intact! – I knew that I would have to somehow upcycle the whole thing. I mean, you can’t find something that’s over 50 years old and still includes the packaging and not try to save it, right?

I don’t know when this “Hold All” All Purpose Utility Hanger was made. Judging by the drawings on the packaging, I’m assuming the early 1960’s. And I don’t know why the price is marked as $69. Surely this little metal track with sliding hooks didn’t cost $69 back in the ’60s! I only paid a couple bucks for it, an amount that I can’t imagine is much more than its value when it was new.

At any rate, I love that kitschy packaging. “Teach Junior how to hang things in place,” it says next to a drawing of a boy lining up his rather dapper wardrobe on the back of a door. “Use it throughout your home and garage,” it suggests alongside images of kitchen utensils and bathroom items. And don’t even get me started on the color palette. Brown and yellow – oh yes!

After sitting on the workshop table for months, I finally concocted a way to use the hooks and the packaging while still keeping the hooks’ functionality.

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