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Restoration projects are not for the fastidious or faint-of-heart

Restoration! One pundit describes the on-going renovation wave as the grooming of America. And with good reason. Pick up almost any building-related publication and there is an article with full-color photos of rooms brought back from neglect and decay. What isn't discussed, however, are the mountains of rubble, the many pairs of rubber gloves eaten by chemicals used to strip wood and plaster detail, or the ubiquitous gray "restoration dust" that is part of any such project.

Dirtier than new construction, restoration is not for the faint-of-heart or the fastidious.

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Unlike rehabilitation, which usually empties a building and turns it into a shell before being rebuilt, restoration is a time-consuming process of peeling away layers of grime, paint, or wallpaper and a careful replacing of whatever has been ruined or destroyed.

Adapting an old building for contemporary use by means of this method usually includes intensive hand labor.

With a carefully thought-out plan, however, plus a clean space to live in and a good understanding of the building, a restoration project can be turned from a series of aggravations to a demanding andm rewarding experience.

Take the case of the pre-Civil War bowfront sold to someone who, against all advice, bought the house for its remarkable woodwork and spacious rooms. It was one thing to be able to see past the layers of rooming-house grime, chipped paint, and lumpy linoleum to envision, in full color, what the results could be. It was quite another to know where to begin.

So, to avoid being overwhelmed or taking a false step, the owner hired a home inspector to go through the building, brick by brick, to assess the structure. His report was accurate, but not cheering.

The 130-year-old house was solid and showed no signs of settling. The furnace was new and in good working order. That was the good news.

The room, however, had serious leaks. The wiring was almost pre-Edison and anything more than a 5-watt refrigerator bulb caused fuses to blow.The plumbing, advanced for 1851, was a study of recent plumbing history. The lead, brass, and copper "ages" were all in one building.

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And that wasn't the end of it. The drains, by 1980, were almost at a standstill. A number of windows were about to make their final curtain call by plunging into the street below.

The report became a technical guide and a schedule for short-, mid- and long-term restoration. It also showed how services could be made to conform to present code requirements.

Repairs began with the roof. Leaks were fixed; total replacement would come later. New plumbing lines and drains were brought in. The worst windows were replaced. Now there was a bathroom and a modest kitchen. Although many of the creature comforts seemed decades away, it was decided to haul away the Spartan life with the faded linoleum.

So, initial work was budgeted to include totally refinishing one room and transforming it into a haven of cleanliness, order, and beauty.

A lowered ceiling, when carefully removed, revealed an ornate plaster cornice and center medallion which were clogged with calcimine. After some experimentation --mine with an old manicure set and a nut pick -- the plaster detail was cleared without chipping.

Various chemical strippers and a heat gun were tested on darkened woodwork to find which best took off the oxidized finish.

Once stripped, the walnut doors, window casings, and shutters were "washed" with denatured alcohol and then French-polished -- repeatedly rubbed with an alcohol/shellac solution -- returning the woodwork to its original chestnut color.

The lighter woodwork appeared to change the proportions of the room. The fireplace was unclogged. Walls were painted, carpet laid, and pictures hung.

This mini-home provided a testing site for methods that would be used in the rest of the building.

Completion of that one room was not only a major morale breakthrough, but it underlined a crucial point. If labor-intensive finishing work was done by the owner, the project could be kept within a fairly tight budget.

This one-room experiment also brought out the importance of several restoration rules:

* Don't throw anything out. That strange object found in the coal chute may be something needed to complete a broken item located elsewhere.

* Restoration means careful experimentation. An art eraser may clean the stenciling in a room or hallway, but denatured alcohol may be the only solvent that can clean the surrounding paint. Perseverance, ingenuity, and a liberal dash of the frontier spirit are requisite.

* Knowing how the house originally worked is a must. For example, in many Victorian houses water lines often ran to bedroom sinks in sawdust-packed troughs or chases concealed under the floorboards. When emptied, these chases can be used to run wires from the basement to the upper rooms when rewiring. Also, the fact that many fire-places were frequently elaborate marble fronts for hot-air ducts means that they cannot be easily adapted for use as a working fireplace.

* Finally, the most important rule: Discouragement is out.m

Restoration can be tedious and have its share of unexpected surprises and expenses.

If the bottom falls out of the antique sink after the plumber has carefully reinstalled it, or the layers of paint on a rosewood door turn to a toffeelike irremovable glue, don't fret. Hundreds of others are having the same problems.

Because you are a member of a large and growing group, there are a number of publications that can help you straighten that staircase, free those jammed interior shutters, or pick an authentic color for your Greek Revival home. Here are a few of them:

* Country Journal. PO Box 2405, Boulder, Colo. 80322. As the title implies, this publication is not about restoration, but it often includes useful articles on how to make repairs to old houses and where to buy period pieces, such as stoves and hardware.

* Fine Homebuilding. Tauton Press, 52 Church Hill Road, PO Box 355, Newtown, Conn. 06470. Another bi-monthly, this publication covers a variety of subjects for the do-it-yourself home builder and restorer.

* The Old House Journal. 69A Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217. Published monthly, The Old House Journal is a must for the restorer. It is well worth acquiring back issues because they provide answers to almost any problem that may come up during work on an old house.

Its companion, The Brand New Old House Catalogue, Warner Books, PO Box 690, New York, N.Y. 10019, lists anything and everything that might be needed for restoring, refinishing, or refurnishing an old home.

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