I just got back from a weekend visit to PA. Funny how your entire world-view can be flipped in one unexpected moment–Los Angeles is no longer home for me, now that Dawn is in PA. I didn’t expect that, but I realized it when I opened the garage door.

First the good news: The township gave us our building permit, in spite of the newspaper article which accused them of “burying us in red tape” (what bad timing), so we can move forward with the project.

Now the bad news: The bank turned down our loan request, so we can’t afford the project. We also got the estimate from the contractor, which was $400,000 more than we could afford, so obviously a loan is an important factor here. We still have the fallback plan of selling our LA house, but we’re going to look at some other options first. (Our accountant says we can borrow against the LA house, use the money personally to restore the mansion, and then claim it as a business expense. I’m a little leery of that option.)

We spent four hours with the contractor and managed to reduce scope by $50,000, so we are making some progress. Unfortunately one of those reductions was the back porch, so now I have to revise the web site to remove any references. Dawn also got tasked with a ton more work: Stripping paint and wallpaper, refinishing windows and shutters, finishing the basement, and gutting the summer kitchen. Obviously Dawn isn’t doing all of that herself, but she’s responsible for getting it done. I assure you, she’s thrilled.

Otherwise, the demo crew is making good progress: all of plaster in the attic is removed, the old bathrooms are gone, and the plaster in the main hallway (under the bathrooms) is gone. They’ve exposed quite a few hand-hewn and hand-planed beams that the contractor thinks we should remove and display; he thinks it is a shame to seal them up again under plaster. We told him we’d take pictures.


  • On the left is the hallway ceiling Monday morning.
  • On the right is the hallway ceiling Monday evening.
  • On Tuesday, most of that was on the hallway floor.


Another crossroads

You’d think I enjoy bleating helplessly about this project, considering how often I do it, but I really don’t. I really would prefer to be making actual progress on the house, rather than chasing my tail for every bureaucrat with a pencil and a checkbox. But there seems to be no end to the pencils and checkboxes.


Before and after pictures of the bathroom. As you can see, not much was left in the “after.”

As I mentioned last week, the building code inspector wants sprinklers and, much as I hate to ruin the aesthetics of the house, I agreed just to keep the project moving. I figured, for $20,000 (or whatever sprinklers cost) it wasn’t worth the fight.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m in no position to throw $20,000 away just for the sake of convenience, but at least I could justify sprinklers – they might actually benefit me, unlike the bog turtle study, the well analysis, etc. It wasn’t $20,000 I wanted to spend, but at least I would get something from it.

Well, the $20,000 figure was just a worst-case scenario off the top of my head, so yesterday we got a bid on the real cost: $80,000.

So we’re back to the crossroads. I can’t justify spending that much money – forget justify, I can’t afford to spend that much money on something as unwarranted as this. On the roof, yes; we need a roof. But we don’t need sprinklers to vacate six people from the second floor with two staircases and three exits. At $20,000 they were a nice to have; at $80,000 it’s just not going to happen.

We offered to just put sprinklers in the hallway, where they would do the most good, but that was denied – they have to be in every room, even the third floor. And while I appreciate the code inspector’s efforts to save my pool table, I can buy another pool table and still save a lot of money.

So again I’m not sure where we go from here. I’m trying not to yell “the sky is falling” like I did last time, but I feel the same way. I let the architect know we were going to fight it and, if we lost, then we weren’t going to pursue the B&B. I look at my business plan and $80,000 is an entire year’s income. And it’s not like having sprinklers will increase our occupancy rate. Historic Elegance and Automatic Fire Suppression in Lancaster CountyTM just doesn’t have a ring to it.

I don’t mean to be glib and sarcastic, I just don’t know what else to do. I’ll put out some feelers while I’m there this weekend to see if there’s any chance of getting around this, but I’m not optimistic. The township, who just started implementing the building code a few months ago, has already told us they weren’t sure how the appeal worked, and that they weren’t going to approve any code variance requests. That’s not a good sign.

And no, I haven’t said anything to Dawn. She’s got enough on her plate right now and besides, she blames me for things like this, as if to say I should be willing to spend every last dime I had to make this happen. Unfortunately, that route leads to foreclosure, and then nobody is happy. (Well, except the new owner.)


Lancaster New Era 2

Oops, forgot to mention the newspaper article came out yesterday.

lancaster_new_era_2005At first I was upset about several of the things he mentioned, but then I realized that he got those things off my blog, so I really had no room to talk. And I shared it with all my friends who said it was a great article and told me to shut up. So now they’re all ex-friends.

Two interesting things came of this: A man wandered up to the mansion looking for work, and a woman at a hardware store stopped Dawn (who was buying dust masks) to discuss the article. Wait, it gets better: the woman used to be a waitress at the Sutter Inn, and she remembered Dawn from when she was a little girl and her parents brought her to eat. Now that’s a small world.

Addendum: The article is no longer on-line, so I scanned it in (and paid for permission to post it):

MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2005

Structural engineer

They want to put 75-pound weights on each stair to make sure the grand stairway can support all that weight. I have no doubt it will pass the test, I just think it’s a funny way to test it. I could just get fifteen friends to stand on every other stair, and save a little money.

bills room - demolition 2005

Dawn stripped the wallpaper (above) from her father’s old bedroom. (Not sure if it was painted that ugly color, or if that’s wallpaper glue, or what.)

We tried to argue that we only need sprinklers in the hallway and stairwell on the grounds that if we had a fire-rated stairwell, they wouldn’t make us put sprinklers anywhere else. They didn’t go for it. Nope, sprinklers everywhere. They’ll probably want sprinklers in the upstairs closet. This is too bad, I really don’t want to rip out all the ceilings to do this. And it’s not money (it’s cheaper to replace the ceiling than to patch a lot of holes), it’s just the wanton destruction. It’s sad when you want to restore a building properly, and nobody will let you. Very frustrating.

They started taking out the bathroom tile today. We thought this was put in the 70’s because of the color scheme – gold and black – but Barry Stover, the architectural historian, told us that in the 40’s, bull-nose tiles only came in white and black. So it was probably original to when Dawn’s grandparents put in the bathrooms but, unfortunately, that didn’t make it any less ugly. It doesn’t matter; in order to replace the plumbing they have to take it out, anyway.

And the best news of the day: The well is going dry. Last week we had the pump replaced and everything was working fine, and today they started getting brown water, indicating the water level was so low it was pulling in mud. And here’s the irony: I’m flying in Friday. If you recall, when I flew in for Christmas, the water pipe burst and I couldn’t take a shower. And when I flew in at the end of January, the drain leaked so I couldn’t take a shower. And now I’m coming in on Friday and the water goes bad. Should I be reading into this?


I have no idea what was going on with the well — a month later everything appears to be fine. (And yes, I did get a shower.)

FRIDAY, MARCH 18, 2005


fireplace_after-restoration 2005

Fireplace Restoration

The fireplaces were likely closed in when they converted from wood to coal. With the plaster off, you can see the arch in the original opening.[/caption]To complete the restoration and open our own business, obviously we need money. A lot of money. We’ve saved a good chunk of it (the ‘war chest’ as I like to call it) but it’s only about 50% of what we need. We have three options for the rest:

1) Sell our house in California. We don’t want to do that because it’s a good investment property, and it’s also our “escape hatch” if we decide not to stay in Pennsylvania. (It may just be a security blanket, but it’s an important one.)

2) Liquidate our retirement funds. Obviously not a good option, for the same “security blanket” reasons.

3) Borrow it.

The fireplaces were likely closed in when they converted from wood to coal. With the plaster off, you can see the arch in the original opening.[/caption]In our B&B workshop, we were told that nobody will finance a B&B startup–there’s just too many unknowns, and no financial history. (If you’re buying an existing B&B, that’s another story.) So they encouraged us to seek consumer loans, i.e. mortgages, home equity loans, etc.

So we did, and today we were turned down because they have a $200,000 cap on consumer loans. Coming from Los Angeles, where empty lots sell for $500,000, this seemed ridiculous, but that’s just part of my re-adjustment. So next Friday we’re meeting with a commercial lender. I won’t be surprised if he tells us “no” — I just don’t want him to laugh in my face.

fireplace before the restoration 2005

The fireplaces were likely closed in when they converted from wood to coal. With the plaster off, you can see the arch in the original opening.

Dawn had to file some paperwork with the court today, but rather than have our lawyer do it, she took care of it herself. Afterwards, she walked across the street to the lawyer’s office, got them to make copies of her filing, and then had them validate her parking. So instead of paying them $50, she got them to pay her $5 parking. Brilliant! Then she went and bought a $600 vacuum, which kind of defeated the savings, and re-emphasized why we need financing.


Rose-head nails

rosehead nail

rosehead nail

We started this project with the adage, “first do no harm.” Well, that didn’t last long–they pulled down the ceiling in the attic today (in order to assess the roof structure) and found two walls had been hand-split lath and hand-forged nails, indicating they hadn’t been touched in 200 years. I stress “had.” πŸ™

Hand-forged nails are often called rose-head nails because the hammer strikes gave them a “rose-like” appearance. (Or so I’ve read, although I would never mistake one for a rose.)

Before and after pictures of the attic.

Before and after pictures of the attic.

To make matters worse, while we’re still reeling from this loss, the contractor recommended pulling down the rest of the ceilings! Unfortunately, he’s right–if we cut “chases” for the plumbing/electric/sprinklers, the ceiling is going to resemble swiss cheese. And in the end, you won’t be able to tell what we did: whether we patch it back or replace it outright, it will still look the same.

But we’ll know we destroyed something that’s been there for over 200 years. πŸ™

MONDAY, MARCH 14, 2005

Day One

It feels very strange writing “day one” when we’ve been working on this for a year and a half, but today was the first day anyone (other than Dawn or myself) did anything to the mansion. And what did they do? Not much. πŸ™

Because of the leaks over the years, the contractor wants to check the condition of the roof beams, which means pulling down all of the plaster in the attic. (It was in pretty bad shape, anyway, thanks to the aforementioned leaks.) Rather than carry that out, they built a chute from the dormers down to the trash container. They also put down something that looks like linoleum to protect the floors. And then for some reason, that was it for the day.

The electrician also hooked up a 400-amp circuit and snaked extension cords throughout the house, so nobody is plugging their circular saw into the 1940’s knob-and-tube wiring. He’s also going to replace the attic fans in Aquarius to try and help with the heat buildup.

Ray Erb started the septic design, plotting all of the lines that need to be run throughout the farm. We thought we could contain the work to the mansion area and protect it with a rental fence, but it’s obvious now that we’ll have trenches across the entire area. We’re not sure what to do about the horse. If she trips and breaks a leg, we’ll never forgive ourselves.

I promise not to report on the day-to-day minutia of the project. It just seemed that “day one” should get some kind of special treatment.

Tomorrow Gary is taking Dawn “shopping,” words that fill me with dread…

SUNDAY, MARCH 13, 2005

Leaving LA

I leave LA for the weary trek to Pennsylvania, my seventh in 12 months. I wonder when I will stop thinking of LA as home. For 35 years I have been here, and I have enjoyed it, but I do not hesitate to say good-bye. Five years ago, when we made the decision to leave, I thought about what I would miss, and the only thing was the weather. So I bought a convertible.

Leaving was inevitable the day I met my Dawn. She told me of her grandparents’ house, built in 1760 and vacant since her grandmother died in 1988. She told me of the farm, and the house she grew up in, and her dream to restore the mansion and live there. Not having one of my own, I think a dream is a very precious thing, and so I supported hers. But dreams need money, so we stayed in LA.

In 1998, her father passed away. I remember my first visit, although 12 years have passed. We flew into Philadelphia and drove to Lancaster (getting lost along the way), past the farms and small towns. In LA, I have to drive two hours to get out of the city, and then there is a clear demarcation between city and desert; there are no rural areas, only suburbs. Here were fields and forested hills and people comfortably integrated into the landscape. I saw my first Amish buggy. Like most city folks, I dismissed it with cynicism. But I have a photo I took, with the sun breaking through the clouds and shining a spotlight on a barn in the distance, that I titled “God’s country.”

Then we arrived at the farm, taking the right fork in the driveway to go to her parents. The driveway, I later measured, was two-tenths of a mile. I’ve never measured distances between houses in miles. We parked in front of the Wolf Sanctuary, a 22-acre enclosure her parents built in 1983, right behind their house. The entire farm was 120 acres, a figure that still defies me. I’ve never walked the entire farm.

Dawn took me in via the greenhouse, filled with flowering cacti, which led directly into the living room. The house was dark and small and filled with five wolves, the impetus behind the Sanctuary, who let me pass inspection after a few tense minutes (tense because of my asthma, not because of the wolves). On the wall across from me was her father’s gun collection, which included several machine guns. I’d never seen a gun in person before.

Then Dawn took me to her grandparents’ house, across “the circle” – a quarter-mile race track used for training race horses a hundred years ago – and opened the door with a skeleton key. It was years before I believed the house was built in 1760; that number was simply beyond my comprehension. In LA, some streets lay claim to that age, but certainly no buildings.

I remember this all clearly, but it all seems quite normal now; I’m sure I didn’t think so then. I’ve adapted. Being there now feels the same as being in LA, except at night. In LA, I long for dark skies; in Pennsylvania, I’m afraid of the dark. I will continue to adapt, and in so doing I will learn much about myself.

The guns are gone now; the cacti are mostly gone, too. The original wolves have passed away, but their progeny, and some rescues, are still out back. Dawn’s father spent most of his 70+ years on the farm, and his presence can be felt everywhere. (Like the magnolia tree, which has no right to survive so far north, but he made it.) But his absence can be felt, too. I hope that when I am gone, I will be remembered that way as well.

To ask Dawn of the history of the place, she would tell me how her grandmother always wore pearls, or of the pony her grandfather gave her when she was four. That was her history, and the house was worthy of preservation for no other reason. Eventually I gathered some of the details–built by an ironmaster, etc. I learned a lot about period details — the Georgian layout, the Federal staircase, the Victorian windows, the Colonial Revival cupboards. Dawn’s grandparents had added only electricity and two bathrooms. But the stone, the trim, the soul of the house had remained intact. Only the Summer Kitchen, which was used as a rental house, had been broken; everything but the stone walls and tin roof were contemporary.

Dawn’s parents did not move into the mansion; there were too many memories, and it was too far from the wolves. So it sat, gathering the ravages of time. Each year we’d visit, and each year Dawn would note the latest indignities — fallen plaster, peeling wallpaper, a fresh leak, a patch of mold — and each year she got a little sadder, and her dream died just a little bit. Still we needed money, so we stayed in LA.

In 2003, it was time. We’d saved enough money (we thought), we found a good contractor (we thought), and we got the zoning permit (we thought). We submitted a National Register nomination, took a B&B workshop, and cleaned the mansion of sixty years of accumulation. By the end of 2004, we still hadn’t started renovations, we had to change contractors, and the estimates have gone up exponentially. We need more money, so I stay in LA, making monthly visits to Dawn.

The project is overwhelming, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel; indeed, we openly question our sanity. We do not feel chosen to do this; we feel burdened by the responsibility. So we stand at the base of the mountain, the crossroads far behind us, committed now only through resignation. But in my quiet moments, of which I have many now that I am removed from the action, I remember this was Dawn’s dream, and a dream is a very precious thing. We need it much more than we need money, and so someday I will leave LA.


Stir Crazy

Most people instinctively know that they could never live with their parents again, so this should come as no surprise. To anyone contemplating it, don’t. Better to be homeless. They know all of your hot buttons, and you know all of theirs, and for some reason with family you never exercise any restraint, and pretty soon you’ve started Armageddon.

Dawn is quickly remembering why she left for college at 17. Her mother is a dear, don’t get me wrong, but tonight she told Dawn she couldn’t drive to Delaware because it was “too dangerous.” Dawn is a very head-strong person, and nothing rubs her the wrong way like telling her she can’t do something.

High speed Internet was installed today. To save a few bucks, I had them install the cable modem in Dawn’s mother’s house, with a wireless router so Dawn could use her laptop in the greenhouse. At least, that was the theory. The reality is that the wireless signal doesn’t get past the front door, so Dawn is stuck in her mom’s house. (The term “powder keg” comes to mind.) And when things reach the flashover point in about two weeks, that’s when I visit…

Over at the mansion, Dawn had three people moving any remaining items into storage, as well as cleaning out the milk house. (Speedwell used to be a dairy farm.) We rented a 30-yard dumpster, which yesterday Dawn said was enormous, today she said was half-full. She even had someone from Horst Auction over to see if anything could be recycled (i.e. sold) — nope, not a thing.

I’ll end this on a somber note: Look around your house and ask yourself, “When I die, what is going to happen to all of this stuff?” If the answer is, “Someone will throw it away,” then do everyone a favor and throw it away yourself.


Lancaster New Era

The last time Speedwell Forge was featured in the Lancaster New Era -- Oct 11, 1961

The last time Speedwell Forge was featured in the Lancaster New Era — Oct 11, 1961

Yesterday, Dawn woke me up at 7am (apparently forgetting the 3-hour time difference) and put me on the phone with a reporter from the local paper. I thought he was doing a story on the wolves and just asking about the house, so I talked to him but I didn’t really say much. In fact, I don’t even remember what I said — it was 7am! (Yes, I know not being a morning person is a liability in a B&B; I’m working on that.)

Anyway, today Dawn tells me that he wasn’t there for the wolves at all. Our application had come before the county planning commission meeting, and he was just interested in us. Talk about your blown opportunities! I just flunked marketing 101! I couldn’t believe it. I called him and left a message, apologizing and asking him to call me back. Dawn said he was even thinking about a series of articles!

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