In 2001 I had just returned to New York City from a year in Tokyo performing for Walt Disney. It was a fantastic experience living in a such a different culture and country, but I was happy to be back home in America.
The lease had run out on my old apartment, and I was now going about the insanity that is involved with trying to find an available and affordable apartment in the city. Finally, after a few weeks of crashing on a friends couch, I found a spacious (500 SF) 2 bedroom apartment in Astoria in Queens.
The building was built in 1901 and was an average looking two story place just blocks from the N train. The apartment I had rented, however, did not posses the “charm” of the rest of the red brick building. The place was covered in filthy blood red shag carpeting and had pink walls with crayon marks everywhere from the previous tenants. The sheet vinyl floors were worn through in the kitchen to reveal older, dirtier vinyl tiles. And it was almost impossible to step out of the shower and not step into the toilet. My bathroom was 20 SF and it felt every bit as small as it was.
My roommate, Luke, showed up a few days after I had signed the lease and started removing trash bags full of junk from the family who lived there before us. I noticed his jaw slowly drooping down and the bewilderment in his eyes. This was going to be his first apartment in the big city and after being away from Oklahoma for only a few hours I could tell he wanted to go back to the airport ASAP.
I assured him I had a vision and that it would be better and quickly. It just “needed a little work.”
We went to Home Depot and bought a floor scraper, paint and brushes, and I rented a drum sander and edger to refinish the wood floors I had found hiding underneath the shag carpet.
We started by scraping off the sheet vinyl in the kitchen. It only took about 15 minutes and we felt such a level of accomplishment that we decided to work at getting the old vinyl tiles that were underneath that while we were at it. We started moving along at a decent pace, though not quite as fast as the sheet vinyl. Underneath the tiles we found a beautiful hexagon mosaic tile floor with blue, green, and maroon patterns and borders.
But about half way through the room, we hit a wall. To this day I’m still not sure what they used to glue down one side of this vinyl floor, but it seemed like we were trying to scrape up asphalt mixed with glue combined with cement. It was the most impossible stuff that relentlessly resisted any of our efforts.
I tried all kinds of strippers and solvents until we were both high from the fumes. I went out and bought a window fan to help ventilate the room and after a night of running it non-stop while we worked, I finally removed it only to find that the fumes had burned a hole in the fiberglass screening the shape of the fan. From that point on, we decided no more strippers or solvents. Probably our best idea yet!
I knew I couldn’t stand the carpet in the rest of the place, and so that was the next project. We tore it out and mopped the filthy wood floors before I got the drum sander ready for my first refinishing. I had never tried this before, and honestly had no business trying to refinish anyone’s wood floors, but I was 24 and a bit too sure of my own abilities.
I wish I could give you a true description of how the floors came out, but I don’t really know. At the time, I thought they looked perfect. Even Luke was impressed, though he didn’t like the idea of sharing a futon in the kitchen while the polyurethane dried. I would love to go back and see those floors today and see how I did. I don’t know if I left awful gouges in the floor or had beginner’s luck with the machines. I can’t even remember if I did more than one coat of polyurethane. All I know is they look pretty in the pictures.
I had lived in NYC for a few years now and I knew how much I hated the dreary winter weather so I wanted something cheery to help me deal with the dirty, rude city outside. So, I painted my bedroom a soothing navy blue with white trim and for the living room decided on what I can only describe as Sunny-D in paint form. Our living room was bright orange painted wood panelling. It was so cheery that the Care Bears would have vomited.
From painting the bathroom I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t use flat paint in a bathroom. Our tiny bathroom had no vent fan and so it became a steam room when you showered. I had used the leftover navy blue paint from my bedroom. And since it was flat paint, the walls turned almost black as the water soaked into the paint. I never got around to fixing that and kind of wish I had.
One paint job I was particularly proud of was the radiator in my room. I used the proper high heat radiator paint and actually prepped the thing properly too. It came out great!
After we had finished I had spent about $3000 of my own money fixing up someone else’s apartment. The landlord stopped by at one point (she hadn’t been there in a couple years) and she was quite impressed with the condition of the apartment. Unfortunately, she didn’t believe that we had done the work since her lying #%*$& of a handyman took credit for the whole thing. She even raised our rent because it was in such good shape. Oops!
In the end, I was left with a pretty decent little NYC apartment that since that time has been passed down from my friends to their friends to their friend’s friends. I don’t have a clue who lives there today, but I think about it often since it was a my first project. Flawed as it was, it was my first. Everyone has to start somewhere, and for me, this was the place.
What was your first renovation like?
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.