By Kate Christensen
Photography by Cody Barry
A harrowing renovation deepens a writer’s connection to her antique home and her adopted home state.
Late in the summer of 2015, Andrew, the contractor we’d hired to renovate our upstairs apartment in Portland, knocked on our back door. He looked serious and very pale. “I think you need to come up and take a look at something,” he told my husband, Brendan, and me.
We traipsed up the stairs to the apartment’s newly demolished kitchen-dining room, which sits directly above our own recently renovated kitchen-dining room. Andrew led us to a corner and pointed down.
“I’m not sure what’s holding up the back of your house,” he said.
We looked blankly at him. We knew our house was sagging, but when we bought it the inspector told us it had “a normal amount” of settling for its age.
Now Andrew was pacing, clenching his fists, trying to speak calmly. “Whoever put in this kitchen and bathroom, they cut through these joists to lay the pipe for the plumbing. This floor is hanging in midair. It should be tied in to the brick.
“And if you look down through the floor — your kitchen ceiling isn’t being held up by anything either.”
When we rehabbed our downstairs apartment, opening up the wall between the kitchen and dining room to make one big space, our then-contractor assured us the wall wasn’t load-bearing, so he didn’t put in a supporting beam. Since then, the sagging in the back half of the house had noticeably worsened, but we’d sort of thought it was because our house was just. . . old.
But as Andrew had demolished the apartment, its structural integrity had weakened. When we walked, we could feel the floor bouncing underfoot.
Looking back, I now see that this was the moment when we started to become true Mainers.
The state’s housing stock is among the oldest in the nation, and even in Portland, where new buildings go up every year, more than half of all homes are at least 75 years old. So in buying our brick Italianate house in 2011, we were starting down a well-trodden real estate path. Back then, we knew not one soul in this town and had never spent a night here. We embarked on this adventure together on a breezy, quixotic updraft of instinctive faith. We had fallen in love — first with each other, then with Portland, and then with this house.
It needed a lot of work, we could see that right away, but we were seduced by the romantic architecture — high ceilings, plaster medallions, and ornate fireplaces — and the home’s history. It was a former boarding house, boys’ school, and Goodwill House for adults with Down syndrome. It predated the Great Fire of 1866.
We moved in as soon as the deed was in our hands. The following week, we began renovating our half of the house. Then, after the tenants in our upstairs apartment moved out, we hired Andrew to do what we all assumed would be a “cosmetic renovation.” A former social worker, he realized when he first came to look at the job that he’d worked here when it was the Goodwill House. This felt auspicious. His original bid was $15,000, enough for some gussying-up, some paint, some new fixtures. He figured it would take him a month, maybe two.
"We embarked on this adventure together on a breezy, quixotic updraft of instinctive faith. We had fallen in love — first with each other, then with Portland, and then with this house."
Ah, how blithely optimistic we were back then, how naïve. But the first renovation had gone so smoothly — all the cynical trappings of the cycles of real-estate flipping the house had undergone several times in the 80s, 90s, and early oughts, the crappy late-20th-century materials, fall-of-Rome fixtures, cold institutional paint, and ugly dropped ceilings were swapped for pressed-tin ceiling tiles, repurposed wood flooring and wainscoting, and warm, historically accurate wall colors. It had been so satisfying to transform those beautiful rooms, to make them our own in a way that honored and reflected the house’s history.
We’d planned to do the same thing upstairs. But the floor Andrew had just opened revealed a stark truth that brought us all up short.
“I don’t know why this place is still standing,” he was saying now, shaking his head, looking aghast at the damage the prior contractors had wrought. “It was so well built to begin with; I think that’s the only reason it hasn’t fallen down.”
That initial discovery turned out to be the first of many. There was the wheelchair-accessible cast-iron fire escape that had been bolted to the outside wall during the Goodwill House days, which pulled so hard on the brick that the entire façade bowed out. We had the whole fire escape removed and hired a mason to repair and rebuild the exterior wall.
Then there were the generations of squirrels and pigeons that had been living in the crawl space and eaves for what appeared to be centuries, chewing the live knob-and-tube wiring, as well as the beams and rafters. Wearing respirators and gloves, Andrew and Brendan carted out almost 1,000 pounds of carcasses, feathers, eggshells, droppings, and nesting material. Our electrician then removed the knob-and-tube and rewired the entire apartment. After Andrew closed all the exterior gaps, we watched outraged squirrels and forlorn pigeons try to gain reentry to their ancestral home for months before they went off to find somewhere else to live.
Andrew spent the entire first winter “sistering up” the joists and tying them all into the brick. The staircase to the apartment’s third floor was not up to code and was supported solely by Sheetrock, so the whole thing had to be rebuilt. And our roof turned out to be a cobbled-together, many-ton mass of cheap tarpaper and cruddy shingles. A team of roofers removed it all and reconstructed the entire roof from scratch. Then the masons returned to reassemble a falling-apart chimney and repair patches of damaged interior brick wall.
Essentially, over the course of the past three years, the entire top half of our house has been rebuilt. This has cost almost as much as building a whole new house would have. To pay for it, we took out a home equity line of credit, borrowed from family, refinanced our mortgage, accepted every paying job we could get, and scrimped and saved. We don’t travel, rarely eat out, keep the thermostat turned low, and try not to buy anything we don’t absolutely need.
Last week, with the new pine floors in and the new walls and ceilings freshly painted, Andrew started tiling the shower and installing the kitchen cabinets. The apartment is now about a month away from being ready to rent again. It looks stunningly beautiful, airy, and bright. Most importantly, it’s structurally sturdy enough to last at least another 150 years.
As for Brendan and me, we’ve taken on, by dint of necessity, many of the qualities we associate with Maine: thrift and patience, scrappy resilience, do-it-yourself inventiveness, and a wry sense of humor to get through hard times. We have boundless respect and gratitude for Andrew, who could have walked away from a nightmare job, but instead stuck it out, working in cold unheated rooms, worrying that everything might come falling down at any moment, and never giving up.
We were tempted, along the way, to abandon ship. But now that the house is almost done, we have no regrets. We’re in debt to our eyeballs and psychologically wrung out, but we know we wouldn’t feel nearly as connected to our home if we’d bought a perfectly intact place.
We saved this one instead, and in return, we hope it will save us another round of headaches — for a few years anyway.
Kate Christensen is the author of nine books, including The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, How to Cook a Moose, winner of the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir, and The Last Cruise, published earlier this year.