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Chicago Bungalow DIY Projects

New year, new bungalow mystery.

I began a simple project on New Year’s Eve.

Ok, I began what I THOUGHT was a simple project on New Year’s Eve.

Having refinished the hardwood floors and patched and painted the plaster walls in the living room and dining room less than two years ago, the final project to finish these two rooms was pretty straightforward: refinish the window and baseboard trim and install the new quarter round.

I felt pretty confident that this would be a quick project, especially because I had just spent the end of last summer and into the fall stripping and refinishing trim in the back bedroom. That project taught me what to do when refinishing woodwork, but especially what NOT to do.

A plaster wall painted diagonally with kelly green paint on the top and white on the bottom. There is crown molding at the top of the wall and four inch baseboard trim at the bottom. The wall is lumpy from temporary patches meant to cover holes in the plaster.
Getting to work on the first step. You can see the lumps on the wall from the temporary patches, as well as the paint on the crown molding that needs to be removed.

So I began my dining room project armed with that knowledge and a pretty straightforward order of operations: wall prep first, followed by mineral spirits and denatured alcohol on the woodwork, a quick scuff sand, a couple fresh coats of shellac, caulk, and lastly, new wall primer and paint. A process, yes, but nothing compared to the process I went through over the summer.

*I should note, this would be my second time patching the walls in this dining room. I spent spring break of 2017 patching cracks in the plaster and painting the walls a creamy Palais White (Behr Paint).

I began by removing some temporary patches I had put in the walls after taking down my first attempt at a gallery wall, in order to do them properly and permanently now that I had the time.

While removing the patches with a chisel, I also decided to uncover the original sconce openings that I knew where hiding under some horribly lumpy patches (not mine this time). My husband and I had gone back and forth, weighing the pros and cons, and then ultimately deciding that whatever we found, we’d take it from there.

It turns out they were pretty easy to uncover. I found the electrical boxes for the sconces under those lumpy patches. Filled with plaster.

Scraping off the green paint revealed a round electrical box filled with plaster.
The original sconce opening in the dining room.

As I began to chisel away at the temporary patches, a funny thing started happening. The paint started coming off the wall in big chunks. Not just the Palais White, but about three other layers of paint underneath it.

To my surprise, I actually began to uncover the remnants of trim. Not actual wood, but where there used to be trim mounted to the walls.

First, it was panel trim. Small strips that outlined large wall panels, with the sconces mounted at the top center of each panel.

Then I found the picture rail.

The green and white paint is chipped away in the center of the wall to reveal the markings of wallpaper adhesive around what appears to be panel trim that used to be installed on this section of wall. There are two panels outlined with a sconce opening at the top-center of each panel.
The original sconce openings, panels, and barely uncovered picture rail. If you look closely, you can see the faint outline of the buffet that would have been against this wall.

We already have crown molding with picture rail. This picture rail, however, also served as the top piece of trim for our windows. It’s 4.25″ wide and stretches around the entire dining room (and presumably the living room).

This was a shock, to say the least.

I had assumed the trim around our windows was original; I bought the house completely content with how it looked, set on restoring it to its former glory. Now, it seemed, my plans were up in the air.

But where was this phantom wall trim?

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Old houses are often filled with mysteries and secrets. Not necessarily scandalous secrets or murder mysteries, but secrets like the shadows of molding and trim hidden behind layers of paint, or old wallpaper hidden behind radiators, asbestos tainted insulation and linoleum, or the mystery of original millwork hidden in the floor joists of your home.

My friend found a door hidden behind a wall in her attic during the renovation of their bungalow, and the next bungalow tour I’m posting has not one but FOUR art glass windows visible from the outside but completely obstructed by walls on the inside.

Old houses are filled with secrets and mysteries. Some good, some bad. But they exist and you’ll only find them if you go looking for them.

I knew about the woodwork hiding between the floor joists in the ceiling of our basement. Our realtor discovered them on inspection day. What I didn’t know was where that trim was removed from. Two obvious guesses were the two rooms that had undergone the most visible changes: the kitchen, bathroom, and the original pantry that no longer existed.

Trim that is stored in the floor joists of the bungalow in the basement.
The piles of trim hiding in-between floor joists in our basement.

When I finally dug the trim out (I was waiting for a lull in projects to do this) I was partially right: The original pantry trim and door jamb were crammed up there.

But I was really wrong about the rest of it. I found two pieces of panel trim and the rest were the odd piece of wood here and there. But then it started to click. Some of the wood was nearly the width of our house. This was the missing picture rail… at least for the dining room.

It took some effort to get it out, but when we finally did I started trying to piece it all together. That’s when I realized we didn’t just have the picture rail. We also had the casing for the original opening between our living and dining room. And as I suspected, it wasn’t originally an archway.

As exciting as this all was, not all of the pieces fit in my mind. The doorway between the kitchen and dining room is too short for the picture rail… Was there another piece above it? I also found a panel among the saved woodwork that I have no idea where it goes!

Was all the trim work original? What has been replaced or repurposed? Why save some (the dining room) but not all (the living room)? And do I really want to spend the time to source more picture rail and restore this house back to how it looked in 1924?

The mystery continues… So far, I’ve uncovered six panels in the dining room, the outline of a built-in under the sconces, and… more and more questions.

A second wall with paint chipped off of it revealing more panels.
The original panels previously lined this wall.

Removing the paint is a tedious process, much like removing wallpaper without the help of solvents or steam because I don’t want to disturb the markings underneath it. My goal is to remove enough that I can take measurements of the original placement of the paneling to store away for the future and then continue on with refinishing the woodwork that I know will be staying (the crown molding and baseboards). The newly discovered trim will also be refinished as I work on sourcing salvaged picture rail from around the city. I don’t expect to find any salvaged panel trim, but if I do that would be crazy exciting.

While my husband isn’t a fan of putting back “all this woodwork” seeing those panels gave me a flood of inspiration and a renewed excitement for the future of this bungalow. I love working within the constraints of history, and I’m finally ready to embrace the madness and stop playing it safe.

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