Saving Etta: Chapter 20 – Just Like Me
This is the true story about a house built in 1900 that is in serious disrepair. It’s also the story about my journey toward becoming a general contractor and my attempt to save a home from being bulldozed. I hope you’ll follow along as I embark on a journey into the unknown perils and rewards of flipping a home in downtown Raleigh, NC.
If you are just joining the story, you may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters for more of the back story.
A special thank you to all the brands that are helping to save Etta!
Turning left, I stepped into the north parlor and marveled at the open space and airy feeling from the exposed ten foot ceilings. The closet behind the door had been removed and in the void was more vintage wallpaper. I looked up toward the ceiling and saw something that explained why the walls had been covered up. A gray swirling pattern on one wall was evidence of a long ago fire that must have left significant smoke damage.
An opening in the lathe and plaster the size of a door stood out from the rest of the gray walls. A doorway to the kitchen? Perhaps this was the original pathway to the kitchen from the parlor. It felt like Etta was letting me look back in time and see into her past.
I could not wait to get the wood floors cleaned off and sanded down. I knew they would look amazing with the tall ceilings, but first we had to get past the mold remediation. I prayed that the flooring under the MDF mold filled boards were in decent shape. But, I knew it was more likely there would be significant damage. Either way, I’d have to wait and see.
Later the same day, my husband Mike and I met at the house to do some much needed yard maintenance. My oldest son, Nathan, came along to mow the lawn (the one task I told him I’d pay him for at the house.) I unlocked the front door and invited them inside to see the changes that had been made since the asbestos abatement. Mike didn’t seem as enamored with the vintage wallpaper as I was. Continuing around the house, we stepped gingerly onto the scrap boards strategically placed over the floor joists in the kitchen. The bare earth of the crawlspace was a mere 12 inches or less below us. White PEX plumbing lines snaked beneath us like alligators in a swamp.
Mike said, “Whoa, was the floor supposed to come up?”
“Yes, I knew they’d have to do that,” I said. “But, I had no idea how close the floor joists were to the ground. There isn’t much of a crawlspace here.”
Next we walked into one of the bedrooms where I pointed out the bead board I had uncovered.
“I’m hoping to salvage as much as I can before demolition,” I explained.
Mike asked if I had salvaged any of the baseboards from the parlors. To answer him, I opened the last bedroom door and pointed to the myriad of doors, baseboard moulding, and fixtures I was storing for potential reuse.
Heading back to the front door, Mike and Nathan decided to get to work on the yard. I pulled down the attic stairs to prepare for an ascent into the attic.
“I’ll be up here measuring the height and pitch of the roof,” I told Mike. “Hopefully I’ll be back down in 10 minutes or less.”
While Mike and Nathan left to get the mower out of the truck, I suited up in Tyvek coveralls, gloves, and a dust mask. I decided to skip the goggles this time, knowing that I wouldn’t be disturbing much and the goggles would fog up instantly from the heat and humidity. Grabbing the floodlight and a scrap board, I headed up into the hot attic. I stood on the ceiling joists in the space over the back bedrooms. Aiming my flashlight toward the front of the house, I planned my route. Accessing the space over the front parlors was going to be a challenge. There was a small hole through the original roof, but it was about 4 feet above the joists I stood on. First I stretched forward laying on top of the giant foil HVAC ducts. Next, I shimmied through a hole in the roof and carefully dragged my body over the duct until I could crouch on top of the ceiling joists. The air was thick and motionless.
While in the attic, I needed to figure out the roof pitch, but first I wanted to explore the small section over the kitchen. I made my way over the attic joists and noticed all the live knob and tube wiring. This type of wiring had long been outlawed due to its high risk of starting a fire. I hoped and prayed the one hundred year old wiring would last a few more weeks until it could be safely removed.
Crawling to the opposite side of the attic, I carefully placed a hand and knee on joists before moving forward. Soon I was staring into the opening of the attic space over the kitchen. Loose insulation stretched across the joists like a thick blanket of dirty snow. Several spots were devoid of insulation, and I could tell this is where the original lathe and plaster ceiling had fallen onto the drywall ceiling below. To my left, I spotted a wadded up piece of newspaper and reached for it. The paper was brown and very brittle and began to fall apart in my hands. Instead of trying to carry it with me (where it would surely disintegrate) I tossed the paper through one of the open plaster holes to the parlor below where I could retrieve it after leaving the attic.
Turning around, I began to make my way back into the attic space over the two parlors. When I reached the center of the attic, I carefully placed the scrap board beneath the peak of the roof. Balancing both feet onto the board, I slowly stood up to full height. The rafters and ridge beam were still several inches over my head.
“Wow, this is a tall attic,” I thought to myself.
I carefully extracted the tape measure from inside the tyvek suit and measured the distance between the joists and the ridge beam.
“81 inches. Not quite 7 feet,” I said aloud.
The ceiling joists beneath my feet were true 2×4 inch lumber (none of the current 1.5″ x 3.5″ lumber). They were definitely undersized for current building code, but were remarkably strong.
I pulled out my smart phone and opened the new clinometer app the architect had recommended. Holding the phone against the underside of the dusty roof rafters I read the display: 48 degrees. I jotted down the dimensions in my notes, being careful not to lean over and lose my balance on the small scrap of wood. I knew all too well what would happen, as I remembered a moment from my childhood when my parents were adding onto our family home.
My parents didn’t have much money when they decided to build out and up onto our tiny two bedroom house. Inviting friends over and paying them with beer and pizza was the only way they were able to build a house big enough for a family of five and a golden retriever. Friends would show up on the weekend and start to work on framing out the addition. Two new bedrooms were to be built on top of the detached one car garage.
The roof had been removed in preparation for building the second floor. The ceiling joists were spaced evenly over the original cinderblock walls, but the subfloor had not been laid yet. At the time, scrap lumber was laid in snaking walk ways on the ceiling joists during construction.
I was about 5 years old, but still remember standing in the garage and hearing my Mom scream. I turned around to see what had startled her. One of my parent’s friends had accidentally stepped between the ceiling joists and had fallen through the ceiling. Luckily an interior door beneath him was half opened. One leg dangled on one side of the door, and his other leg was on top of the door, stopping him from falling completely through the ceiling.
Growing up in a house under construction was never dull. There were always little moments reminding us that an ER trip was only a step away. These experiences taught me to proceed with caution on the job site, but they also gave me a sense of fearlessness. Today my risk taking is reined in by the thought of how something happening to me would affect my children.
I took a few pictures, then unzipped the Tyvek suit for a minute to tuck my phone and tape measure back into my pockets. For a second, the air felt good on my exposed skin, but I quickly zipped back up to protect myself from the insulation. By now I was sweating through every inch of my clothing under the hot tyvek suit. Retracing my steps, I carefully wriggled backwards blindly into the space over the bedroom. I breathed a sigh of relief as my foot settled on firm footing at the top of the attic pull-down steps. Sweat dripped down the small of my back as I made my way down the ladder and back into the living area of the house. Quickly stripping out of the tyvek suit, the air hit my skin and began to cool the sweat on my body. I could only imagine how hot the attic would be on a sunny day. The cloudy day had been a good opportunity to explore up there. I wadded up the suit and put it in a trash bag hoping to never have to put it on again.
Going in search of the old newspaper, I found it crumpled on the floor. As I gingerly pulled apart the layers, I spotted a 1972 date in one corner. It was exactly 45 years ago to the day! What are the chances of that? Using two hands, I carefully carried the paper out to the truck and set it on the back seat. If you saw me, you would have thought I was carrying an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.
The yard was neatly mowed and looked much better than it had before. Mike was pushing the mower to the truck with a hot and sweaty Nathan lumbering next to him. Nathan seemed to be exhausted and struggling to catch his breath. He asked if he could wait for us inside while we finished up. We agreed and watched him suddenly sprint into the house. Mike and I laughed at the change in his energy level. Looking around the backyard, I marveled again at its size.
“This property is going to sell this house,” I said. “It’s such a rarity in a downtown location.”
“Yes, if we remove some of the trees and clean up the shrubby weeds, it will look amazing,” Mike said.
We headed to the truck to put the mower into the bed. Then I walked inside the house to find Nathan and lock the doors before leaving. As I called for Nathan, I barely heard a soft muffled reply.
“Where are you?” I asked.
He responded, “Up here.”
I could hear his voice coming from the attic. I’d forgotten to raise the attic stair again! Looking up into the dark, I saw Nathan perched on the joists, shoes kicked off, happily wiping insulation, dirt, (and who knows what else) off the plywood spanning a few ceiling joists. I was horrified to see he had no tyvek suit, no gloves, and no respirator on. I urgently told him to come down and explained he couldn’t go up there without my permission. And that he would have to wear safety gear before he did. His face fell and he angrily stomped out of the house. I watched him leave and my heart tightened. I knew how he felt. He didn’t like being told he couldn’t do something. That sense of determination and fearlessness would take him far some day (as it had me.)
This adventure of trying to Save Etta would be a catalyst to something new, I could feel it in my bones. I just had to survive all the road blocks she had in store for me.
Dear Saving Etta Fans,
This will be the last Saving Etta chapter for now. It’s been difficult to keep up with writing the chapters, while also working on Etta (and keeping PrettyHandyGirl.com running.) I appreciate your patience between chapters, but it’s not fair for you to have to wait so long.
If you liked these chapters, I’d love to know if you would be interested in reading the rest of the story at a later date. I am entertaining the idea of writing a book about the whole process after Etta has been saved. Would this be something you’d be interested in reading in a published format?
In the interim, I’ll try to get you caught up on construction updates via tutorials and updates on the blog. You can always find updates by following me on Instagram and especially on Facebook as I try to share weekly videos and posts on those social platforms. Thank you all for your patience during this busy season in my life.
Brittany Bailey, aka
If you are just joining the story, you may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.