Although not intentional, we have, for the last three houses anyway, lived within a mile of an Ace Hardware store. Which is good, because we can just run down there and get whatever we need to keep the house running. And bad, because we have to, often.
One of the joys of old houses is that every repair and upgrade is a major remodeling adventure, which means there is no way to know just what is behind that switch plate or faucet until you open it, and then it becomes a can of worms. Everyone knows that a can of worms, once opened, cannot be re-closed–you need a bigger can.
Our “new” old house in Washington is a classic late 1920s bungalow that has been kept in fairly original condition, with a few minor upgrades. One of which was the replacement of most of the light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps. Well, the kitchen had two fairly modern ceiling fixtures, each of which contained exactly one 13-watt CFL. Now, I like a candlelight dinner as much as anyone, but cooking by candlelight just doesn’t quite have that same ambiance. Besides the dim glow from the ceiling fixture, and the equally dim glow from the old fixture over the sink, the stovetop light under the microwave was one shade above total darkness.
The stove top light had one burned-out lamp and one that was completely black from tungsten boil-off, which, in fact, blew out promptly just from the vibration of opening the lamp cover. The friendly Ace guy reminded me to buy two, because the other one isn’t far behind. I said it was too late, and resisted buying three.
The increased illumination on the stove top helped, a little, but we decided that track lighting, while not authentic to the era, would at least blend well with the modern appliances and solve our problem. So, off to Lowe’s, 25 miles away, for a bigger selection. We returned home with a nice brushed-stainless 6-lamp model that promised to put at least 5 times more light on the work surfaces. OK, it takes 24 times as much electricity, but we only run it when we are working in the kitchen, and it’s a matter of safety working with knives and hot pans, not to mention being able to see well enough to clean the work surfaces.
So, I unpacked our new lamp, studied the instructions, turned off the circuit breaker, and popped the shade off the existing lamp, something that would be more at home in a small bedroom or bathroom than a working kitchen. The first hint of trouble was the mounting–two huge, widely-space screws that obviously went into the ceiling, rather than the usual fixture box spacing. OK, drop the fixture, finding two sets of wires and a cluster of wire nuts nestled snugly against a nest of slightly charred and crumbly 85-year-old wooden lath, in the middle of a large and irregularly-shaped hole in the equally crumbly beaverboard that constituted the ceiling material. The ceiling had been textured in the knock-down, crudely smeared style that young moderns associate with old houses–without removing the light fixture, so there is a large ridge of plaster with flaking checkered wallpaper in a circle a couple times larger than the new fixture mount. At this point, I simply put the old fixture back up and turned the breaker back on, expecting the whole ceiling to burst into flame, and started preparing supper one more time in the gloom.
The next morning, bright and early off to Ace, where they still sell rework boxes, commonly called a “plaster box.” Carefully positioning the box to both fit in the hole in the beaverboard and admit the wires poking through the wood lath, I screwed the box to the lath, in several places. The surrounding, much larger hole in the beaverboard and the unsightly ring of crumbly wallpaper with its plaster-ridge border will be a project for another day, and yet another trip to Ace. One must ponder these things, as there is no quick remedy other than ripping out the entire ceiling, rewiring, and replacing the beaverboard with sheet rock. So, if you look closely, the decorative medallion surrounding the new light fixture will appear to be a foam picnic plate with a hole cut in the middle, which, in fact, it is.
After fastening the ends of the light bar to the ceiling (at least, the expanding plastic plugs for the screws work in beaverboard–they don’t always in lath and plaster) and installing the six energy-sucking halogen lamps, we flipped the switch. Let there be light! We spent the next 15 minutes or so scrubbing the stove, now that we could actually see it.
The companion fixture to the old one, centered over the breakfast nook, glows pale in the corner. It’s on the list for replacement, next trip to Lowe’s, but I’m not looking forward to discovering what’s behind that fixture. Count on at least one more trip to Ace–after we open it.