I just loaded three months’ of receipts into Quicken, and it told me we’d spent $173,000.

I was upset, I was mortified, but I wasn’t surprised.

I was also wrong. Turned out I’d seriously screwed something up and the actual figure was under $100,000, but that’s not the point. The point is that when I saw the first figure, I never thought to myself, “that can’t be right.” I just accepted it.

I didn’t use to be that way. When Dawn and I bought our house in Los Angeles, my hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t sign the check for the down payment. When I found an expensive pair of binoculars I wanted on sale on the Internet, I still couldn’t bring myself to order them. (I tricked Dawn into doing it.) And when I decided to buy a laptop, I went on eBay and got a three-year-old system that weighs 20 pounds. (I’m using it right now and I have no feeling in my legs.)

But everything is relative, and when I see checks being written for $50,000 (thankfully I’m not writing them), I think, why am I denying myself? So last month I bought a new computer and gave my six-year-old system to my neighbor. Last week I bought a crystal globe that I thought was pretty. And yesterday I went and saw a show that I’d never heard of.

But you know what? It took me a month to decide on the best value components for the PC. I went to the store three times before I bought the crystal globe (which was on sale for $20). And I got a 15% discount on the show tickets.

So it’s still me, and I’ll always be careful with money. Which creates a paradox, because I would never stay at my own B&B.

It doesn’t matter that the room has a fireplace and a whirlpool bath and a kitchen and it’s a private cottage with a view of the creek and it’s almost 250 years old and there’s 120 acres and wolves and it’s on the National Register and I’m supporting something worthwhile — $200/night is just too much. I’d balk at $100/night.

That’s not to say I’m going to lower the price. There’s a lot of people out there with much healthier attitudes towards money than me who probably think it’s a bargain. Plus I have a major restoration to pay for, and I really would like to rebuild my retirement fund. So no, the price won’t change, but there’s a lot of pressure on me to make sure all of our guests feel they get a good value. And that scares me.

I’ve never cooked breakfast for twelve people. When I make a bed, it looks pre-slept in. My idea of cleaning up is to put everything in the sink and pray for divine intervention. These are not the skills of a great innkeeper.

But I do have two things going for me: pride and laziness. Pride is what makes me offer tours when I’m in town, which makes me open the doors and invite people in, which makes me advertise so more people come. Laziness is what makes me automate everything, keeping it simple so it all flows like clockwork. It’s already hard work; I don’t need to make it harder.

So armed with those “virtues,” I know that I will make this work. And I know that soon those $50,000 checks will stop, and we’ll crawl our way out of the red.

And maybe, just maybe, someday Dawn and I will take a vacation and I’ll spend $200/night to stay someplace really nice.


SUNDAY, MARCH 04, 2006

As I’ve mentioned before, plastering is a lost art. And to the people who used to do it for a living, I’m sure they said “good riddance.”

plaster ceiling

Jerry Lieb Plasterers in Bill’s room

First, you had to put up lath, which originally was thin strips of bark or leftover wood, whatever you had available. This was nailed to the frame and a “brown coat” of plaster — a mixture of lime, sand, and water, mixed to the consistency of toothpaste — was applied. Some of the plaster (the “key”) squeezed through the lath and dried, which is what held the whole thing up. Next came a “scratch” coat of plaster — same ingredients but different ratios — which was a little finer than the brown coat. This was sanded down and a final coat was applied, which was also sanded to create the final smooth surface, ready for painting.

The good thing about plaster was that the materials were cheap, and as long as it didn’t get wet it would last forever. The bad thing was that it required a lot of time and labor, was horribly messy, and the walls were never, ever straight.

So imagine everyone’s delight at the turn of the last century, when drywall was introduced — it was cheap, it was flat, it was easy to install, and it didn’t make a mess. Unfortunately, it wasn’t appropriate for a 1760 mansion, so we couldn’t use it.

But we could cheat a little. Rather than install lath and a browncoat, we used “blueboard,” which is really just drywall that is moisture-resistant so you can apply wet plaster over it. That saved about half of the labor costs, but didn’t save the mess as they sanded the two coats of plaster. I imagine we’ll be blowing plaster dust out of every nook and cranny for the rest of our lives.

We also cheated on the ceilings. Rather than patch all the cracks and the holes made by the insulators, we just put up blueboard and a coat of plaster. That saved a lot of labor at the expense of the crown molding in some of the rooms. But since the blueboard was only a quarter-inch thick, it seemed a reasonable compromise.



A variety of events have conspired to prevent me from getting any fresh video for the past two months. (Dawn was taking it, I just couldn’t get it.) During her three-day visit last week, while she was cleaning the yard or something, I copied everything and chopped four hours of stuff into nine videos, each about a minute long. Click on the large picture to play; click on the link to get more information.

After drilling our new well 250 feet through solid shale, they found…nothing. So they picked another spot up the hill and drilled 500 feet down, and found water.

We’re using BIBS — blown-in blanket system — for insulation and soundproofing. First they tack up nylon netting over all the rafters; then they blow in insulation. When finished, it really does look like a soft, fluffy blanket.

Our $2,500 clawfoot whirlpool tub was unceremoniously upended and shoved through the second floor window.
I just can’t seem to get enough of the septic system. This is a compilation of twelve tanks being installed, but the video makes it look like just one tank.

Rodney removes the old mortar, while Henry re-points with new. Not terribly exciting, but a very important part of our restoration nonetheless.

Adam Moyer using an auger to dig holes for the plumbing and air conditioning line sets. If it’s true that the man who dies with the most toys wins, Adam has us all beat.

Dawn finished stripping the windows in the mansion, all 46 of the them.


Shopping list

Since I posted the to-do list, I might as well post the shopping list. These are the things we still need to buy before we hang out the “vacancy” sign (which we also need to buy).

  • Street sign
  • Spotlight for street sign
  • Light posts along driveway
  • Accent lighting on house?
  • Invisible screen door?
  • Stairwell keys with Darlington crest
  • TV armoire
  • Tablecloths, table liner
  • Kitchen sink, faucet, soap dispenser, water filter
  • Commercial dishwasher
  • Range hood, liner, exterior fan
  • Plates, cups, saucers, bowls, serving pitchers, platters, silverware, etc.
  • Wine carafes?
  • 4 twin mattresses (Boys’ room, Paymaster’s Office)
  • 3 queen mattresses (Kathryn’s room, Bill’s room, Summer Kitchen)
  • 2 twin/king converter
  • Sleeper sofa (Summer Kitchen)
  • Gas logs (Paymaster’s Office)
  • Stand-alone gas fireplace (Summer Kitchen)
  • Stand-alone electric fireplace (Boys’ room)
  • 4 electric fireplace inserts
  • 9 bedside lights
  • 5 alarm clocks
  • Lighted mirror (Kathryn’s bath)
  • 3 tub fillers
  • 4 hairdryers
  • Medicine cabinet (innkeeper bath)
  • 4 Vanity lights (Bill’s room, Boys’ Room, Summer kitchen, Innkeeper’s bath)
  • 1 Dresser (Bill’s room)
  • 1 Pool table
  • 3 wireless access points
  • 1 Paper folder
  • Backyard lighting (solar?)
  • 3 TV/VCR/DVD (Mansion, Summer kitchen, Paymaster’s Office)
  • 1 portable TV
  • 1 kitchenette with built-in microwave (Summer Kitchen)
  • 1 kitchenette with separate microwave (Paymaster’s Office)
  • 6 red chairs
  • 2 kitchen tables
  • pots/pans/dishes/silverware (cottages)
  • washer/dryer (Duet)
  • 1 folding table
  • 1 laundry sink/faucet
  • 40 drinking glasses
  • 4 luggage racks
  • 8 flower vases
  • Glass tops for all tables/dressers
  • 3 fans
  • Backup generator
  • Wooden blinds
  • Pictures/paintings?
  • 4 bedspreads (Amish quilts?)
  • 12 sheet sets
  • 12 washable blankets
  • Allergy “bags” for box springs, mattresses, pillows, comforters
  • 36 guest towels
  • Phone system (7 lines)
  • Credit card machine
  • Brochures, gift certificates, price sheets, guest comment cards
  • Travel kits (little toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, etc.)
  • Phone cards
  • Magnetic vehicle signs
  • Room diaries
  • 9 chandeliers (library, kitchen, hallway
    [3], Bill’s room, Paymaster kitchen, dormer, game room)
  • Front porch light


Summer Kitchen

After Brian had gotten a little overzealous and stripped off the wall-to-wall carpeting, six layers of linoleum, the original wood floor, and the old floor joists, the place sat quietly for three months. Last week, it was a hive of activity.

Mike had another job to complete in Cornwall, so Barry from Olde York Homes is helping out. His first job was to remove the only functional bathroom, which didn’t make him real popular with the rest of the crew. (The septic guys had accidentally cut off the water supply the day before, but nobody noticed the toilet didn’t flush. They noticed the toilet was missing right away.)

The many faces of Barry

The many faces of Barry

Barry then removed the “privacy glass” window that had been installed where the old door had been. (He found a brick signed “Wm Darlington 1952” — William was Dawn’s father.) Unfortunately, we don’t have a door to replace it with, so right now there’s a piece of board marked “door” covering the hole.

Next, Barry laid out a grid of new floor joists, but Mike the HVAC guy stopped him so he could first install some ductwork. Soon the plumber and electrician were also involved, and the entire floorplan was modified! Now there’s a “utility room” that’s only accessible from the outside, which houses the air handler, hot water heater, and breaker box. It’s actually kind of clever; I wish I’d thought of it.

So then Barry went upstairs to pry up the old floorboards on half of the room so he can reinforce the floor to support a whirlpool tub and a bathroom. The plumbers have asked if they can hoist up the bathroom fixtures while the floor is out, instead of having the take them up the circular staircase, so he’s waiting for them.

So if you’re keeping score, Barry removed the old bathroom without building the new one, he opened the wall but didn’t install the door; he laid the floor joists without laying the floor; and now he has pulled up the old floor upstairs without repairing it. Barry, can you finish one job before starting another? 😉


“This Old House” book

I just finished reading “This Old House,” the companion book to their first their first project in 1980. Everything we’re doing, they did the same thing 25 years ago–nothing has changed!  Except the cost, of course. And the scope:

This Old House
Bob Vila with Jane Davison
Speedwell Forge B&B
Dawn Darlington with Gregg Hesling
House 1860s Victorian 1760 Colonial, plus six 18thcentury outbuildings
Size 3-stories including finished attic; approx. 1,500 square feet 3-stories including finished attic; 5,000 square feet in mansion; 3,000 square feet in outbuildings
History Bought and sold numerous times; converted into a medical office, then into apartments, then back to a house Sold once in 245 years; east wing added in 1795; last renovated in 1870s.
Roof Mansard roof with asphalt shingles, rotted eaves; replaced with asphalt shingles and wooden gutters Mansion had gabled slate roof, replaced with slate and copper gutters;
Summer Kitchen replaced standing-seam metal roof with slate and copper gutters; eaves were rotted;
Workshop replaced asphalt roof with slate and copper gutters, some of the rafters were rotted
Exterior Clapboard siding; required scraping and painting;
Rotted front porch that was demolished and rebuilt
Stone building that needed to be repointed;
Front porch scraped and repainted;
Rotted back back that was demolished and will be rebuilt
Windows 24 windows, all two-over-two, needed to be repainted 46 windows in the mansion plus 16 on the outbuildings; generally eight-over-two or six-over-two; needed to be disassembled, stripped, repaired, rebuilt, reglazed, and repainted
Land Quarter-acre flat lot; removed a few old trees and added sod and foundation plantings 120 acres, sloped lot, need to create a swale around the house for drainage; removed six dumpsters of trash from the property (so far)
Garage Brick garage Have to resurface the quarter-mile driveway and add additional parking areas; Can’t replace the roof on the 6-bay tractor shed because of local stormwater ordinances
Fireplaces One, with restored marble mantle Seven, four with full-length wooden mantlepieces
Floors Restored wood veneer flooring Restored solid wood flooring; replaced flooring in Summer Kitchen
Walls & Ceilings Replaced sagging plaster ceilings with blueboard and plaster Gutted attic, cut out water-damaged sections on all floors; replaced with blueboard and plaster
Electric 30-amp service converted to 200-amps; hooked to city service 30-amp service converted to 400-amps; installed new transformer; hid meter on back of the privy
Plumbing Replaced one and a half baths with two and a half baths; hooked up to city water and sewage Replaced three and a half baths with six and a half baths; drilled a new well; built the world’s biggest septic system
Kitchen Replaced existing kitchen cupboards and counters Built a new 4′ x 8′ island to house all modern appliances; restored Dawn’s grandparents 1950s-era stove; had a new floor-to-ceiling cupboard built to match existing and hide refrigerator
Heat Replaced an oil-burning steam boiler with a gas-fired hot water boiler Replaced an oil-burning steam boiler with a new propane-fired steam boiler and added a propane-fired hot water boiler, plus two heat pumps for the outbuildings
Cooling N/A Added a “split-system” in basement and attic; ran ducts to first and second floors; hid compressors in the first floor of the workshop
Other Demolished mud room None.
Cost Purchased for $17,000; budgeted $30,000 for restoration; spent $80,000 (that’s in 1980 dollars) Inherited; budgeted $200,000 for restoration; spent a lot more than that (and we’re only half-way through)
Timeframe 3 months 15 months

If you get a chance to pick up the “This Old House” book, I highly recommend it, if only to see Bob Vila in a plaid shirt installing orange plastic laminate counters. (They didn’t need put a copyright date on the book; that picture said it all.)


Our first fight

Dawn and I had our first big fight over the restoration. We’ve gone for two years designing, researching, discussing, meeting, hiring, and spending most of our time and resources on this project, and we’ve had plenty of disagreements but never a serious argument, until today.

And what was this major conflict about? Was it a significant cost? A primary design element? Was it our whole conceptual perception of the future of the property? No, it was over the bathroom exhaust fans.

I had pointed out that we should not rely on our guests to turn on the exhaust fan while bathing, but we needed to vent that moisture or we would have problems with the paint and plaster. I found some exhaust fans that were triggered by humidity, and wanted to order them.

Dawn pointed out that people often wanted bathroom fans for…uh…other reasons…that had nothing to do with humidity. So she did her own research and decided that the best solution was a motion detector that would turn on the exhaust fan when you entered the bath, and leave it on for 15 minutes after you left.

Now, we’re both reasonable people and usually have reasonable discussions, but when she suggested a motion detector, with a blinking red light, in a guest bathroom, at what we’re hoping to be an elegant bed and breakfast, there was no discussion: I said no. Absolutely, positively, unequivocally not happening

Now, Dawn is not used to being told no. She is just one of those people that you can’t refuse. And it’s not just me: She has this power over everyone, even complete strangers. There’s just something about her, some combination of innocence, vulnerability, and intimidation, that you can immediately tell making her happy is in your best interest. So my “no” brought out some pretty primal responses. She even threatened divorce, three weeks before we’re getting married.

After she realized that I wasn’t going to bend on this issue, she pointed out that I was 3,000 miles away and in no position to dictate what she could or couldn’t do. I acknowledged that, and told her that I would be happy to remove them when I moved out there. She told me I wasn’t moving out there. And so the conversation went, split across a half-dozen phone calls during the day. She even sent a mass email to everyone, asking if they would be freaked out by a motion detector in the bathroom. She said that 90% of the respondents did not have a problem with it, and I pointed out that a 10% complaint rate would put us out of business in a year.

So here’s where we left it: I ordered humidity controllers that can be used in conjunction with a switch to control the exhaust fan, and had them shipped to her. She told me the controllers were ugly and she was not installing them. But we both agreed that we loved each other, so I guess there was some resolution.

She also clarified that she wouldn’t divorce me, she would just bury me in the back yard.



Adam Moyer came by “for a few hours” to drill the lines for the air conditioning. As I’ve mentioned, we’re putting the compressors into workshop, so we need a pipe from the workshop into the basement and the summer kitchen. We can’t dig a trench because its right under the 200-year-old sycamore trees, and we don’t want to mess with those roots. So Adam said he could use an auger to bore holes underground. We didn’t know what an auger was, but it sounded simple enough.

auger - Brings new meaning to "getting screwed"

Brings new meaning to “getting screwed”

Well, it turns out an auger is just a big screw, as you can see in the photo. They dig a four-foot deep hole to start, then drop the auger in and turn it on. After it goes so far, they add another “segment” and keep going. The only problem, we found out, is that you really can’t control where it goes. Worse, the only way you can find out is by digging another hole!

So Adam and his crew started to drill a line under the summer kitchen. Dawn took some video but it was slow work and she got bored and went and did something else. When she came back, she said Adam looked pretty guilty. Apparently, the auger had started at four feet deep, but it dug itself up and instead of going under the summer kitchen, it came up right in the middle! Besides chewing a large hole in her brand new vapor barrier, it also broke some of the old mortar floor supports. Fortunately these are just nuisances, but Dawn pointed out that if it had hit the other floor support, the stairs might have collapsed! They finished digging that line by hand.

Next they went to drill into the workshop. After half an hour, the auger still hadn’t come through, and nobody was sure why. Dawn, who has a knack for stating the obvious when it escapes everyone else, told them to dig a hole and go look for it. They found two things: 1) the screw head had broken, and 2) the auger had again headed for the surface, starting at four feet and ending at one foot deep. It’s a good thing the head had broken, or we would have had a big hole in the wrong place!

So they went to extract the auger when the whole thing jumped, slamming Adam’s hand against the stone wall and ripping off his fingernail! He seemed to take it in stride, bandaging it up, but he casually mentioned he would probably stop by the emergency room on the way home. I get the feeling they know him well there.

So instead of a few hours, Adam spent the entire day at the farm, didn’t finish the work, and has a mashed finger for his troubles. The moral of the story, I guess, is that when a contractor makes it sound easy, it probably isn’t (which is why you hired the contractor in the first place).


My “vacation”

Friday 11pm, red-eye flight to Pennsylvania, two-hour layover in Cincinnati. I sleep soundly, but my back is killing me the rest of the week.

Saturday 9:10am, arrive in Harrisburg a little early. I call Dawn only to find she is running late and so stressed that she is crying. I assure her we have plenty of time, and then silently hope she hurries up.

Dawn gets me back to the farm just in time for the 11am tour, and I am surprisingly coherent. We have seven people — 3 from the Lancaster County Historical Society, 3 from the Lebanon County Historical Society, and 2 who are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. Checking out a construction site is not my idea of a romantic vacation, but I may feel differently in another 21 years. 🙂

At 2pm, the alarm guy arrives, and we review the options. I want something as unobtrusive as possible which, of course, is much more expensive than just installing door and window contacts everywhere. (I’d give you more details, but then it wouldn’t be much of a security system, would it?)

He is also installing the fire alarm system, and I bite my tongue as he shows us where the bright-red fire pulls go. He does compromise on the alarm keypads — normally they go by the front door, but ours will go in the kitchen. I still can’t believe we’re being made to do this to our historic home.

Dawn and I spend the rest of the evening discussing interior colors. Someone realized that the radiators need to be installed by November, which means that we need to paint the wall behind the radiators before November, which means we need to choose colors now. We’re looking at the Sherwin-Williams “Victorian” line because they are really Colonial colors. (Their “Colonial” line is really “Colonial Revival.”)

Sunday 1pm, we drive to Mechanicsburg to meet a minister ( She wants to know all the details of the ceremony, and we are clueless — we have a date and a location, and that is about it. Dawn and I argue over whether guests will be seated or standing, if we will “recede” after the ceremony, even what time the ceremony will be! I suddenly remember why we’ve avoided this for so long. We finally agree that the ceremony will be at 1pm, casual dress, BBQ reception, Dawn will make the wedding cake, and the photographer will double as the chef. We still don’t know if the guests will be seated.

Monday, 10am: We finally visit Tulpehocken Manor. In a word, wow. Geoff and Jason give us the full tour, including the 7-hole outhouse. Originally a colonial stone house, it had been converted into a 7,500-square foot Victorian mansion, with gingerbread trim in every nook and cranny. Neglected for 18 years, the two brothers and their families spent a year restoring it before they could move in. That they did almost all of the work themselves is just amazing.

The rest of the day is spent at the Long’s Park Art Festival. I expect a small group selling carved corn cobs or something, but there are hundreds of vendors from all over the country selling very expensive clothing and artwork. One of the locals makes hand-carved wooden toys — golf carts with removable golf bags and individual clubs, and train sets six or seven cars long! We take his card and if we have any money left at the end of this project, we’ll definitely give him a call.

Tuesday, 9am: We go to the county courthouse to get our marriage license. I want to stop by St James Episcopal church because someone told me Robert Coleman and Ann Old are buried there, but we are already running late. It is going to be a long day.

11am, we meet with Adam Moyer, who is handling the plumbing, heating, and cooling. (He also bid on the electric and septic, too, but we didn’t want all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak.) Every restoration book cautions you against making any change orders once the work has started, but we completely ignore that: We want all of the thermostats in the kitchen, plus remote sensors in the return ducts; we want radiant floor heat in the kitchen and one of the bathrooms; we’ve rearranged all of the radiators around the house; we want a new type of exhaust fan in the bathrooms; and we need everything done by November 1st so we can keep the house warm during the winter. Adam looks around, thinks for a bit, and agrees without changing the cost. This is why we like Adam so much.

1pm, Gary Geiselman of Olde York Homes comes by. We go over the schedule and we’re not going to make an April opening, but May looks good. I’ll still leave the “Open Spring 2006” message until we have an exact date. I’d like to be able to offer rooms as they are ready, but we can’t get our occupancy permit until everything is done. (We will, however, have friends over to serve as guinea pigs before we open.)

There is some bad news: The roof of the summer kitchen is shot, and needs to be replaced. Gary was hoping to preserve the standing-seam metal with a special rubberized coating, but it had gone unpainted for too long and is now paper thin. Dawn is getting a bid from Lantz roofing since they did such a fantastic job on the mansion. (We also found out they did Tulpehocken Manor, as well.)

3pm, Tony Haldeman is here to discuss the new septic system. Apparently in constructing a sand mound (which isn’t sand but stone dust), you have to build a “berm” of dirt to contain it. Since our sand mound is the size of a football field, he needs 70 truck-loads of dirt! (If our septic system was ready, I’d donate it to New Orleans–I’m sure it could handle 50,000 people.) Anyway, it just so happens we need to move a lot of dirt on the side of the mansion because it is directing rainfall into the basement. So if we move the dirt to the septic field, we kill two birds with one stone, right?

Of course it’s not that simple: First, there are trees by the mansion that would not appreciate the dirt being removed, and Dawn does not appreciate the trees being removed; and second, the same township that won’t let me put a roof on the shed without doing stormwater detention is not going to appreciate us moving a small hill. We call David Christian, who handled all of the permit issues, and also happens to do landscape planning. He’ll be out on Friday.

4pm, channel 11 news arrives. This is the local cable station news, but I’m happy for all the coverage I can get. Or, at least, I thought I was until they pointed the camera at me! I was exhausted, hoarse, and completely unprepared. The reporter and cameraman were so friendly, and I’m sure I came off as some shifty-eyed psychopath. Sigh.

Well, that was my Labor Day vacation. Tomorrow at 6am I’ll be flying back to LA, leaving Dawn to deal with all the issues I created. But she’s used to that.


Solid gold septic

Dawn’s gotten three quotes for the septic system, ranging from $60,000 to $90,000. As one person eloquently put it, “holy crap!”

Last week, Dawn even met with the sewage enforcement officer to see if there were any other options. (“Sleep with him if you have to,” I said.) It didn’t matter; there was nothing that could be done, and even if there was it would set our project back six months. So we are building the Taj Mahal of sand mounds.

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