Truth be told, I always figured my friend Steve Loranz would stay in the city. It was where he seemed to belong: in a lightless loft alongside the Lake Street el tracks or a bulky brick condo somewhere on the North Side, his living room window overlooking cars and people and neighborhood commotion.
Steve has always lived within steps of a greasy diner, a good Thai food joint, a local tavern and a clattering train. He strolls the city’s sidewalks hatless in January, and I’ve never seen a scrappier, more stubborn debater when it comes to hashing out who was first in line, whether the other guy had the right-of-way at a stop sign, or if he’d gotten everything he’d paid for and been promised. Nobody takes advantage of Steve, and his tender tough-guy demeanor reminded some of our college friends of The Equalizer.
Well this spring, the Equalizer is moving to the suburbs”just as soon as he can get his house, quite literally, in order. Married for more than three years to a former urban planner who loves the city as much as he does, Steve has two little girls and a home-on-the-make on the 500 block of South Clarence in Oak Park. Since the day he closed the sale back in January, Steve’s been pouring money and time and more than a little sweat into his new 90-year-old house. New ceilings, new wiring, new windows, new oak and maple trim, re-plastered walls, sandblasted antique vent covers, and decade after decade of paint scraped and stripped away.
“The place is like a smelly onion,” Steve told me a few days before giving me a tour. “I keep peeling off layer after layer, and with each layer I find myself saying, ‘What asshole did that?’ or ‘Who thought up this craptacular idea?’ Mostly I’ve been tearing things apart and then hiring people to put it back together.”
The downside of fixing up
Steve knew the place needed fixing when he bought it. The woodwork had been painted over in every room except the dining room”even the handsome brick fireplace got a whitewashing”and some of the windows were smothered shut with paint. Whole ceilings consisted of nothing more than ugly pressed cardboard tiles, and when Steve and his wife, Christina, ripped them away, long rows of unplastered one-by-twos gaped back at them. The basement abounded with old wires that went nowhere, and carpeting on the stairs hid a broken step. Kitchen and bathroom fixtures had been slapped together, too: cabinet doors didn’t line up properly and towel racks were coming loose. Steve suspected the paint on the porch walls of containing lead. The building inspector told him the roof’s worn shingles would need replacing.
“I thought this place was going to be a lot of work, but for some reason I thought it could be done in a month and a half,” said Steve, who keeps a sleeping bag in the upstairs study for nights when he’s too tired to trudge home. He hasn’t set a moving day yet, but he’s hoping for the end of the month.
“It’s a few really big things with this place, but mostly it’s little things, like somebody couldn’t take time to do it right,” Steve said. “When you work on your house, you can do it two ways: you can disassemble everything and keep or replace what needs it, or you can just slap new stuff on top of what’s there. Which sometimes you can get away with, but especially with the interiors, whatever is underneath will eventually fail. It’ll crack or peel or deteriorate. And then you have to do it all over again.”
More than anything else, the living room is what Steve is talking about. Some decades ago”who knows how many”the house’s owners decided to slather a coat of paint overtop of the room’s original wallpaper. And then another, and another and another. By the time Steve and Christina began peeling it all away, the wallpaper had turned to dust. In addition, a cable cord had obviously run along the edge of the room”its outline is clearly visible”but the owners didn’t move it before revarnishing the hardwood floor. Now a discolored ring snakes its way around the room. Meanwhile, in the dining room Steve removed a pair of fake beams he said were way too skinny to be convincing. Someone had nailed, screwed and glued them into place.
“I mean, who the hell does that?” Steve said. He’s been keeping a blog of the whole renovation (http://houserehabproj.blogspot.com/).
Then, of course, there’s the stick-on bathroom tile covering up an original floor of real tile. Or the bathroom walls upstairs, where cheap wood wainscoting supports, inexplicably, several ceiling-high panels of whiteboard. Steve plans to rescue and remodel the bathroom sometime down the road, but until then, “I’ll get some markers and write notes to everybody in the morning on the whiteboard,” he joked.
The shingles, too, will have to wait, along with the new kitchen Steve has in mind and the wall he plans to demolish in the basement. But many other improvements couldn’t be put off.
“Apparently, I had the world’s oldest circuit breaker,” Steve said. “The guy said it probably would never even have tripped. We would have burned the house down first. … Beyond the ‘remuddling’ the old owners have done, there’s just a complete lack of maintenance. The stained-glass windows’ trim was painted over so often we couldn’t open it. And look at this windowsill. I mean, it’s rotting. And in the meantime, what are they doing? They’re putting half-assed cabinets in the kitchen.”
Still, Steve said, the work and the wait are worth it. Oak Park offers his daughters a backyard, a quiet neighborhood and plenty of good schools, and the el and the city aren’t too far away. Even considering Oak Park’s property taxes, Steve said, his new house is a bargain compared to the price of a home in Chicago with a similar walk to the el.
“I’ve always liked Oak Park,” said Steve, who grew up in Schiller Park and remembers coming to Oak Park and River Forest High School musicals as a kid. “Most of the people I’ve met here seem pretty progressive.”
Which suits Steve’s plans perfectly. The “smelly onion” on South Clarence will be his home for the indefinite future, and so he’s looking to green it up. He’s already begun. Rather than using conventional paint stripping chemicals, Steve used a tool that separates paint from wood or plaster with heat and a little scraping. When he repaints, he’ll do it with paint made without ammonia, formaldehyde, crystalline silica, ethylene glycol and other lingering unsavory substances.
A yard composter”with a hose for watering the grass with the resulting “tea””is already in the works. In the interest of saving heating and cooling energy, Steve said he’d study how much shade neighboring trees and houses offered before deciding what color to paint the house’s exterior and what kind of shingles to buy. And rather than installing a light fixture for the dark hallway upstairs, he’ll pipe in a little solar-powered light through the roof.
“This house is very cool for me, because it’s a pre-existing structure with lots of parts,” said Steve, who’s hoping to replicate the kind of sustainable system described in the book Natural Capitalism, albeit on a tiny scale. “You can learn a lot from the way houses are placed, by how they’re protected from the wind, or shaded by trees. You can drastically reduce the size of your furnace and your energy footprint by not just paying attention to things like insulation, but the trees around you, the houses around you, whether water is allowed to get into the ground instead of concrete.”
But that’s all years away. Right now, Steve is thinking about uncaulked corners, door frames without doors, windows that aren’t rotted.
“I’m sure I’ll be working on this place until we sell it,” he said.