Saving a 1920s-era Shaker house after a winter catastrophe.
By Diana Simeon
Bari and Scott Garfield will never forget returning home from vacation last winter.
“It was 11 o’clock at night and bitterly cold outside,” recalls Bari. The couple, tired from their journey, entered their Malvern-area home through the back door and turned on the lights.
Then they saw it.
“Water was cascading down from the ceiling,” says Bari. “We were shocked. ‘What is this? What did we walk into?’”
Unfortunately, the couple had arrived back in Shaker Heights to discover a homeowner’s nightmare: a broken pipe that had been spraying water for days.
In this case, the pipe, which carried cold water to the second floor, had burst inside the wall between the Garfield’s front foyer and dining room. “The continuous flow of water caused a six-inch hole to be blown out,” explains Bari. “And water sprayed up, then cascaded from the ceiling to the doors, walls, and floor.”
The couple turned the water main off, then got an up-close look at what had happened to their home, which was built in 1927.
“We were so shocked. At first, we didn’t know what to do,” says Bari.
The original mahogany woodwork in the foyer was drenched and completely covered with a white, filmy substance. Veneer was peeling off the glass-paneled French door between the foyer and the front hall. The home’s massive front door had soaked up so much water it had buckled, allowing the winter’s arctic cold to pour into the house.
Opening the foyer’s closet, whose French folding door had also absorbed gallons of water, the couple found icicles. “Everything inside the closet was wet and soggy,” says Bari. That included the leaves to the dining room table and a collection of antique linens, including a lace tablecloth handmade by Bari’s grandmother. Rust from metal hangers had stained much of the material.
But it got worse. “The wood floors in the front hall were buckled, almost a U shape, and the walls were dripping with water,” says Bari. That included the dining room, where the walls had been hand-painted by the Cleveland Heights artist Michael Romeo.
As far as the old woodwork goes, everything can be made, but it’s never going to be the same. Those trees that were cut back when these homes were built were much older growth and you cannot get that same wood anymore.
Meanwhile, after spraying into the foyer, the water had seeped through to the basement.
“We went downstairs and found the water was draining into a utility closet,” says Bari. The closet was located below the foyer. Part of the ceiling had collapsed, while the walls and floor were severely damaged. “Much of what was stored in the closet was also ruined. A nearby storage area was soaked with water, as was the boiler room floor. There were puddles all over.”
Still, there was some good news: The basement recreation room, which has the same original wood floors as the rest of the house and which the Garfields had recently renovated, seemed unscathed. “We had just refinished that area, so you can only imagine how thankful we were that it hadn’t been touched.”
Taking A Leap
That same evening, the Garfields called their insurance company, which told them to get in touch with ServPro, a company that specializes in water damage.
“But ServPro had been having a lot of calls,” says Bari. “The local ServPro representatives were overwhelmed and they were calling groups from other states.”
This was, after all, last winter – remember the polar vortex? – when homeowners all over Northeast Ohio were dealing with burst pipes. The group that showed up at the Garfield’s home was from Georgia. “They were all young, strong guys and they were ready to start demolishing everything,” says Bari. “They’d never worked in an old house. But when they saw the damage, they would say, ‘This has got to go’ and ‘That has got to go.’”
This and that included most of the home’s original woodwork, including doors, floors, and trim, as well as the dining room wall and its original plaster molding.
“We were heartsick,” says Bari. “What Home Depot can you go to to get that plaster molding or those doors and the woodwork?”
Fortunately, the couple had the presence of mind to get a second opinion. They called Greg Shelt, owner of Renaissance Painting & Decorating in Cleveland Heights, who’d done work for them in the past.
When Shelt arrived, he was surprised by the extent of the damage. “It was one of the worst situations I’ve seen,” he says. But Shelt has spent most of his career working on older homes in the Heights (he founded Renaissance in 1988) so after inspecting the damage, he was encouraged.
“Nothing was submerged,” he says. The wood, while soaked, was mostly intact. “I knew that wouldn’t be a problem when it dried out. It was high-quality wood, which we could restore.”
Indeed, it’s worth noting that wood can be exceptionally resilient. “The Garfield’s house is pushing 80 or 90 years old, so the wood has multiple layers of sealants on,” explains Shelt. This provided some protection. In fact, the white film that the Garfields had observed all over the wood was simply the varnish absorbing the water. “A lot of that white stuff scrapes right off,” Shelt says.
What’s more, the wood in the Garfield’s home, and most every other 1920s-era home in the city, is, quite literally, irreplaceable. “As far as the old woodwork goes, everything can be made, but it’s never going to be the same. Those trees that were cut back when these homes were built were much older growth and you cannot get that same wood anymore,” says Shelt.
It didn’t take much to convince the Garfields to take Shelt’s advice. “We decided to take a leap and to trust what Greg was recommending. He was like the calm in the storm,” says Bari.
Patience and TLC
The couple dove into the restoration. The first step, after getting the plumbing fixed: Dry everything. ServPro handled this part of the process. After an extreme water event, it’s important to completely dry out a house, otherwise mold can set in. This is accomplished using industrial-sized blowers and dehumidifiers and, depending on the extent of the damage, can take days. Companies like ServPro have meters to detect how much water is in the wood and walls and will continue drying until the levels are acceptable.
Next came the demolition, also handled by ServPro, but under the careful watch of Shelt and the Garfields. “Usually they come in with sledgehammers and all that,” says Shelt. “But we asked them to take everything out piece by piece.” That means the doors and each and every piece of trim were carefully removed by hand as was the original hardware on each door.
It was evident that the wall between the foyer and the dining room needed to be replaced. “But they wanted to just tear the wall out, including the plaster crown molding, which wasn’t damaged at all. So we had them cut it at the top and leave the crown molding intact, then take out the wall piece by piece as well,” explains Shelt.
Shelt then replaced the walls in the foyer, the dining room, and the basement closet, as well as the ceiling in the foyer and the basement closet, and began the months-long process of restoring the woodwork.
“We took all the wood down to the basement and started stripping it,” says Shelt, whose staff includes several graduates from the Cleveland Institute of Art. Next, the wood was sanded by hand and stained to match the original woodwork. “Then we put a coat of polyurethane on it and put it all back together, like a jigsaw puzzle.”
We were heartsick … What Home Depot can you go to to get that plaster molding or those doors and the woodwork?
The floors on the first floor and the basement were repaired and refinished. While ServPro had recommended cutting out significant sections of the home’s flooring, in the end, after the wood had dried, only a couple of pieces needed to be replaced.
The foyer’s sandstone floor was undamaged.
Last came insulating and finishing the walls, which also took Shelt’s experience with older Heights homes.
“The plaster in the foyer had a texture to it, so we mimicked the texture in there,” he explains. In the basement, the walls also had a particular texture, which Shelt copied by adding sand to the new plaster, then adding extra layers of paint to match the original. “Old plaster may have 15 layers of paint on it,” Shelt says.
Last, but hardly least, about half the dining room was repainted by Romeo.
In all, the restoration took months, but walking into the Garfield’s home today, you’d never know that it had once been the scene of a major water disaster. Only the French door is missing, which is still being restored in Shelt’s workshop near Taylor Road.
It’s an experience that, says Bari, has given her plenty of perspective on what it takes to both prevent and recover from such an event. On the prevention side (see sidebar below), the Garfields had always taken precautions: insulating pipes, for example.
But having a boiler, they of course never turned their water off entirely during the winter.
After the pipe burst, however, at the suggestion of their plumber they added a dedicated pipe that feeds water to the boiler, which is mandatory for it to work, thanks to today’s autorefill systems, but allows the Garfields to shut the water off to the rest of the house when they’re away.
Shelt also recommends this approach to his clients, particularly if they travel frequently during the winter. “If a pipe bursts in the basement, it’s just the basement. But if a pipe bursts somewhere else, it’s not going to just flow,” he explains. Indeed, if the pipe had burst on the Garfield’s second or third floor, the damage would have been much worse.
Shelt also suggests updating water shutoffs with a pull lever (versus the old-style crank) and, of course, knowing where the water shut off is in your home. “These are old houses and if you still have your original pipes, eventually something is going to go. At least know where the shut off is, so if it does, you can shut it off quickly.”
When it came to the recovery process, working with a contractor experienced in older homes is a must, stresses Bari. “Greg has worked with old houses and the guys from ServPro, as nice as they were, hadn’t.”
Finally, the Garfields had the right kind of homeowners insurance for an older home, namely one that covered the replacement cost (not market cost) of the home. Replacement cost means the insurance company was required to return the Garfield’s home back to the same state it was in before the damage occurred.
“You may be paying a little bit more for that coverage, but if you end up with a disaster like this you don’t want them to substitute or cut corners,” says Bari. “Everything needed to be restored to its original beauty.”
In fact, the Garfield’s insurance company was supportive of the restoration approach the couple opted for. “Every little strip of wood had to be hand-stripped and refinished,” says Shelt. “But if the insurance company is going to pay a craftsman to replicate this wood, it would have cost just as much, if not more.” Meanwhile, replacing the couple’s doors would also have been difficult, if not downright impossible, as they are simply no longer available. “You’d have to find a craftsman to make those for you and you would spend a lot of money,” says Shelt. “I think the insurance company was encouraged because it was actually cheaper for us to go in and restore the doors than to make new doors.”
Advises Shelt. “Ask your insurance agent hypotheticals. ‘Hey, if we’re not there and a pipe breaks for two days, what are you going to cover?’”
And, finally, if you do find yourself in the Garfield’s position, be prepared for months of work – and dust, lots and lots of dust – in your home. “You have to be very, very patient,” says Bari. “It all happens in what seems like seconds, but to repair all the damage takes a long time.”
Winterizing Your Home
Heinz Akers, the City of Shaker Heights building commissioner, offers some tips about what a homeowner can do to help avoid the catastrophes that can occur in a home due to winter weather. Some are simple enough to DIY, others require the services of a professional.
Roof and chimney: Have a professional check for deterioration or loose shingles on the roof, as well as the flashing around the chimney. Cleaning the chimney and checking for bird nests are jobs for a professional. Make sure that the damper opens and closes properly.
Gutters: Usually a job for a professional. Gutters must be free of debris and properly pitched so that water can flow freely. This also helps prevent ice dams.
Pipes: If you have exposed water pipes in areas such as crawlspaces, outside walls, attic, etc., they should be insulated. Various types of insulation can be obtained at hardware stores. This is an easy job for homeowners. If unsure, call a professional.
Furnace: Homeowners can usually replace dirty filters and tape the ducts where the joints are so that heat doesn’t escape. But for furnace tune-ups and inspections, professional help is usually required.
Gas and utility lines: These lines entering an outside wall should be sealed to prevent insects and cold air from entering. Caulking around such areas is an easy and inexpensive DIY job.
Windows and electrical outlets: If cold air comes through the seals around old windows, homeowners can generally do any necessary re-caulking and/or sealing with material available from hardware stores. Sealing kits for electrical outlets also are available.
Attic: Have a professional evaluate the existing insulation in this space. There may be areas where the insulation is missing or inadequate. If adding additional insulation, be sure to use the unfaced type and do not block attic ventilation.
Exterior faucets/hose bibs: Turn off their water supply from inside the house and drain the water from the line to prevent the pipes from freezing and bursting. This is an easy homeowner’s job. Or call a professional.