Some people have too much energy. People like Jocelyn and Steve Gerard, for instance, who rehab their own homes in their spare time—and then blog about it.
Jocelyn and Steve, who own a 1910-vintage two-flat in East Rogers Park, have been writing about their home since February 2005. Their Chicago2-flat.blogspot.com runs the gamut from a disgusting photo of goopy hair pulled out of the bathroom drain to a very funny mock-heroic description of moving boulders for a rock garden. Literate and thoughtful, it’s packed with hands-on stories.
The site makes them part of a whole community of house bloggers, so consumed with their home improvement projects that they rely heavily on one another for understanding and support. “At work, I’d tell people what we were doing on the house,” says Jocelyn, who does most of the writing. “And they’d be like, ‘You poor thing, are you OK?'” She and Steve both laugh.
“I started to feel kind of isolated,” she continues. “Everybody was feeling sorry for me, and I was all excited: look what I did! Nobody related to it. When I started blogging, I didn’t feel so weird.”
In other respects the two are pretty normal. Jocelyn is the administrative director for Maya Romanoff, a wallpaper company in Skokie, and Steve works from home in marketing communications. They had their first date in 2001—taking Jocelyn’s dog for a walk—after seeing each other several times around the neighborhood. They married in December 2007 in Las Vegas, an event described in a blog post. He’s the perfectionist, she plays good cop with their tenants. Their conversation is symphonic: they talk over each other, fill in each other’s blanks, and can argue and make peace within a minute or two.
Steve says the two-flat was in bad shape in 1998, when he bought it and moved into the first-floor apartment. The bathroom had no electricity (he ran an extension cord in from the kitchen) and no water pressure because of sediment built up inside the pipes. Tiles were falling off and the wooden window frames were rotted. The kitchen had a dropped ceiling and fluorescent lighting, while the metal cabinets were held together with duct tape. Everywhere the walls were “old, cracking plaster,” Jocelyn recalls. “And everything was covered with a bazillion coats of paint.”
“We have never not been rehabbing,” Steve says. Jocelyn adds, “As soon as we started dating I started helping him, sanding [the oak beams on] the dining room ceiling.”
They’ve since completed the downstairs dining room, living room, bedroom, and bath, and the kitchen’s almost there: they did demolition on Easter weekend of 2004 but haven’t quite finished the pantry. The new kitchen shelving and bathroom medicine cabinets are Steve’s handiwork, as are their dining room table and a coffee table in the living room.
“We usually refer to what we are doing with the house as renovation that is keeping in the style and period in which the home was built, rather than a pure restoration,” Jocelyn commented in a postvisit e-mail. “The style we are going for is arts and crafts.... But we are not purists.”
When I ask about the worst tasks they’ve tackled, they look at each other: there’ve been so many. Jocelyn reminds Steve about the radiators. He decided to strip the small ones himself, using a stripping agent that emitted heavy-duty fumes. “You set the radiator in a tub in the backyard,” Steve says. “Then you paint it with the stripper, wait half an hour, and spray it off with a hose. Then you get a wire brush and try to scrub off all the paint—crud, goop, sludge, we called it. And it doesn’t just come off: it takes like 20 applications.
“Later we painted the radiators again, but with only one coat of paint, so you can see all the detail.”
Jocelyn says sanding wood is her least favorite thing. Last year she removed, sanded, and stained all the trim from the upstairs apartment. They could have bought new for almost the same price, but old wood is “different.” She calls that “the summer of the woodpile.” Sanding is “so dusty,” she says, “and I just did so much of it my hands and feet would get numb from the vibration. And it’s monotonous.”
Still, “you get immersed in the work,” she says. “[I] talk about the misery of sanding wood, but I’ve also had these great times when I’ve just been in this tactile moment of working with my hands.” She looks with love and wonder at a space just beyond her fingers. “It’s a very connected feeling and an empowering feeling.
“We’re both doers,” she says. “It may seem really weird to some people, but when we’re working side by side on a project, that’s a really good feeling. Those are the happiest times.”
“I’m lucky,” says Steve. “This work has to be done, and she’s willing to do it. Not everyone would be.”v