Townhouse renovation

Surprises wile Renovating a Townhouse

(Last Updated On: January 14, 2018)

When doing any kind of renovation you can always encounter surprises some good some bad. In a landmarked townhouse we worked on we encountered both. This project is an interior renovation of a 100 year old Landmarked Townhouse on the Upper West side Of Manhattan located at West 88th street half a block from Central Park.


A little background on the building, it is approximately 100 years old, it is landmarked, it had gone through several significant renovations previously and unknown to us there had been a fire in the building in the late 70s early 80s according to the neighbor’s account (we will get back to the fire). So we redesigned the interiors, we got landmarks approval, we got DOB approval and started work.



The general contractor was removing all of the interior plaster from the walls down to the brick. When he removed the plaster on the wall facing the street we found a surprise. An original stained glass window with original wood frame in perfect condition. See photo above. This was a 100 year old window. What we had discovered was that the original brick facade had been cover with stucco at some point covering the window from the outside, and then covered it with lath and plaster on the inside. We assume this work was done when the front stoop had been removed many years ago, although we can only speculate why the window was covered. This was a great find and the homeowner is certainly exited about it.

So now that we have this 100 year old stained glass window what do we do now? 

The window is in great condition so we are definitely going to keep it. Here are the options we are exploring.

First Lowest Cost Option: Leave it as is. Clean it up but otherwise do nothing. It can be a nice piece on the wall over the two operable double windows bellow it. This will obviously have no financial cost therefor the cheapest way to go.

Second Middle Cost Option: We are considering as one option we can temporarily remove the window and put in LED lights behind it. As we said previously the window on the outside is covered with stucco so there is no light coming though the window. Back lighting the window with LED lights would give the effect of light coming through and making the stained glass glow.

Third Most Expensive Option: The most costly and time consuming option would be to remove the stucco on the facade and restore the window to its original state. We would love to do this and so would the client but of course cost is an issue. Also we are concerned that perhaps the reason they covered it in the first place was due to water leaking. If we find that is the case it would further enlarge the budget. If we go this rout we will have to submit an application and plans to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) since this is a landmarked building. We are almost certain they will be in favor of and approve the work but it will take time to get approval.

We will update this post with the solution to this and photos once it is complete.



Townhouse joist repair

Townhouse Burnt Joists

Townhouse split joists

Townhouse split joists

Townhouse Structural Repair

Temporary beam for jack

Unfortunately we had a bad surprise while renovating this historic townhouse. There are some structural problems. The contractor removed all the plaster from the ceilings and we discovered there had been a fire at some point in the building. The new owner was very upset about this as he was not informed when he purchased the property. He asked around and found one of the neighbors who had been living next door for many years. The neighbor said she remembered there being a small fire at one point around the late 70s early 80s. See the picture of burnt structural joists.

Fire damage repair is serious business and needs to be handled properly. These bunt joists are a problem and will either need to be removed or sistered. Sistering is when you put a new joist next to an old joist as additional support and bolt them together. This is the solution we used here. One of the joists was sistered previously but the new joist was neither the same size as the old one nor fastened in any way to the old one.  Also there are a few joists we believe were replaced after the fire because they are not the same size as the rest of the joists causing the floor above to be severally unlevel. Additionally we found one joist that has a large structural crack and will need to be sistered as well.

Since we were going to do the structural work we took the opportunity to correct a dip in the floor at the burnt joist. This is done by jacking the existing joists up before connecting it to the new joist. Now you want to be careful when you do this. As Newton’s third law states “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” The joists above need to be jacked but the floor below was a wood joist floor. If we put the jacks on the floor an push upward we are also pushing equally downward. This could cause new structural damage and possible a very hazardous condition. Thank’s Newton you saved us on this one. So how do you jack a floor without deflecting the floor below? You install a new temporary beam. See the picture labeled temporary joist for jack.

Once the Temporary beam is installed we can use that as a base for the jack. We don’t care how much we bend that beam because it isn’t going to stay. We made new beam pockets in the wall for the temporary supports. What is a beam pocket? A beam pocket is a whole in a masonry wall to hold a beam or floor joists. That beam pocket was later refilled. We kept all the bricks that where removed. We also made new beam pockets for the new permanent joists. When the new joists were installed we bolted them to the existing joists. See the final product below.

Townhouse Joist repair

New sistered joists in a townhouse

Always Plan Ahead for Contingencies when Renovating

Sometimes you find interesting fun things during a renovation like a 100 year old stained glass window and sometimes you can find structural damage. Either way there are always surprises when renovating especially on a 100 year old NY Townhouse and these can bring unforeseen expense to any budget. It is always a good idea to have anywhere up to an additional 15% to 20% of the job’s budget set aside for extras

Author Jorge Fontan AIA

This post was written by Jorge Fontan, a Registered Architect and owner of Fontan Architecture.

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