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Penkava: 'This Old House' meets the Panama Canal

Published: Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 11:55 p.m. CST

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You have probably seen the TV program, “This Old House.” It’s all about tradesmen who take on restorations of vintage homes. Well, our house is kind of like that program, minus the skilled workmen and the unlimited budget.

You see, our home used to be an old school in Crystal Lake. It was built in 1885 and in 1906 it was auctioned off, moved a few blocks, cut in half, and made into two homes. Our neighbors to the south of us have one half of the school, and we live in the other. Our shared history has brought us close together as friends, except for when I claim that our half of the school is smarter than theirs. Then we shoot spitballs and run in each other’s hallways.

Both our houses have undergone various restoration projects over the years. We have fought our way through lathe and plaster. We have wrestled with knob and tube. And there has been no little contention between bearing walls and ceiling joists.

But as we began a new season of what my wife and I call “This Aged Abode,” I found myself facing a renovation project that had left me feeling like a man with a shovel who was just told to dig the Panama Canal.

Back in the day our house did not have a bathroom. Well, there actually was one, but it was in the backyard somewhere. We are not privy to its exact location. But eventually some space on the second floor of the home was converted into a full bath. I am sure the original owners were flushed with excitement over the improvement.

When we bought the house many years ago we didn’t mind having a single bathroom on the second floor. My wife and I adopted a lavatory regimen that accommodated our schedules, and we were as happy as a backsplash on a vanity. But, after all these years and all those trips up and down the stairs, we were both ready for a first floor comfort station.

The only possibility for a main floor bathroom conversion was the pantry, a quaint little room with built-in cabinets, a beautiful antique zinc countertop and even an original flour bin. However, my wife, along with her army of “This Old House” magazines, found a way to accommodate a toilet and sink and at the same time preserve the integrity of the original pantry. So, with designs in hand, we took the plunge.

I discovered that constructing a new bathroom would be easy. The big problem would be what I call “architectural collateral damage.” Yep, accommodating the plumbing, heating and electrical needs of a simple sink/toilet combo would impact almost every other room of the house. It became a worse case scenario of infrastructure domino effect.

I found myself tearing through walls. I pulled up floors. I ripped through ceilings and roofs. I even sledgehammered ancient basement foundations. I used tools that I didn’t even know the names of, much less how to use them. All the while my patient wife was saying, “I’m not sure, but if you held it by the handle, it might work better.”

But I journeyed my way through stud and junction box and pipe fitting to finally arrive at the Promised Lavatory. Sure, the budget was quickly breached. And the folks at Home Depot and I are now on a first-name basis, although I’m also known as “Oh, no … here he is again.” But the bathroom is done and the resulting architectural collateral damage has been stabilized.

Now my wife is talking about painting the upstairs bathroom. But I do not despair, for it was Mark Twain who observed, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

So I figure, what’s a little paint job compared to digging the Panama Canal? Ribbitt.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He now knows what it means to be on the reciprocating end of a reciprocating saw. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.  

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