Project Spotlight

Old Wood: What We Started With & What We’re Doing With It

Woodwork. Wow. What a pain that has been.

One of the things that made us absolutely fall in love with Charlotte House is the gorgeous old woodwork, much of which was spared from the trademark Kappa Sigma red paint we found all over the house. It’s the kind of very old school feature that just can’t be replicated today, because even if you had the kind of cash to do it, there are very few craftspeople around these days who would even have the skillset to do it well or be able to source the materials. This is some old ass wood, and you can’t even find an American chestnut tree anymore because they’re all dead now. 

(insert sad violin 🎻)

When the frat moved out, there was still wood paneling and/or ornately oversized window trim in nearly every room on the first floor, with the exception of the kitchen (now a utility room) and the two small rooms off the kitchen, which we think were a laundry room and…a trash room? Torture chamber? We don’t know for sure, but rats were clearly involved.

This may look like a formal dining room, but it is actually a storage facility for 8,000 staples.
Look closely, you’ll see the little buggers everywhere.

We hoped to save as much as we could (afford) during the renovations, but unfortunately most of what had avoided the paint brush had most definitely not avoid the stapler. Probably tens of thousands of staples were left on the walls, the windows, the ceilings, you name it. Nothing had been maintained, cleaned, or spoken to kindly in a very long time, so unfortunately, not everything was destined to be restored to its former glory. We decided to paint (gasp!) the wood panels in the downstairs office, which turned out to be what looked like pine with a horribly-applied dark stain, and would not have been worth the extreme time and effort to get it back into stain-level shape. 

I mean…come on now with this wall. Is there anything right about this?

The former dining room—now our kitchen—was lined with tall, dark, & handsome paneling that at some point had been cut in the middle to create a stairway to the basement. It was also infested with staples, dings, and missing sections that had been damaged and lost over the years. We considered incorporating it into the kitchen plans, but didn’t have much wall space left once the kitchen cabinets would go in, so we removed the panels and wrapped them up so save for another project one day.

Former dining room panels in the process of removal. That’s the old kitchen you can see through the doorway; the latter was added by the fraternity at some point for basement access.

What still remains as we found it is the quarter-sawn oak paneling & trim that line the new dining/fireplace room and grand staircase, plus nearly all the original window trim on the first floor. The panels are in very rough shape: the shellac has yellowed in the few places it hasn’t peeled, wide sections had been busted in two, and the baseboards look like they’ve been dipped in cigarette mud (which isn’t even a thing, and yet is somehow exactly right.) Oh, and did we mention the staples?

You know why that guy on the wall doesn’t have a face?
He doesn’t want to look at the woodwork

The plan is to scrub and clean what we can before we move the kids in, then at some point in the future, hopefully after the kids stop using diapers but before we start using them ourselves, we’ll give them all a proper cleanup and restoration. 

While most of the panel work can wait, we’ve realized that the living room woodwork will do no such thing. It doesn’t seem like there was ever paneling in this room, but there are some beautiful casings around the large bay windows and arched picture window, plus some large oak baseboards and door trim that demand attention all their own. We knew the windows were in rough shape operationally speaking, but it wasn’t until we hit the paint stage that we really noticed just how horrifyingly dirty these things really are. Jack decided to do a little test cleaning before we primed the room, and there was so much cleaner required, grimy mud was literally dripping down the walls and damaging the unprimed plaster. 

Before Cleaning
After Cleaning

Rather than ruin a new paint job, we shuffled the priorities, primed the walls to protect them, and Jack is now focusing on getting the living room woodwork into…well, working order, so we can then get the room painted and all buttoned up for final inspections. 

So far, it’s been an extraordinarily slow, arduous process that requires extreme elbow grease and a near metric shit-ton of cleaner. We’re using an alcohol/lemon juice combo to remove any paint and remaining finish from the wood, and some heavy duty wood cleaner to scrub some of the dirtier bits. But the real ringer has been the newly dried plaster that got all over the windows when the drywall team skim-coated the exterior plaster walls. Evidently they though that prepwork was child’s play, but they were deeply misinformed. Prepwork is a thing of the gods, worthy of adulation and the praise of a thousand mothers. Or at least of one very tired, very pregnant, and very sore-armed mother. 

Plaster. Paint. Oh look! There’s some window trim in there, too.

If you think plaster is like drywall mud, that you could probably just rub it with a damp rag and maybe sand or scrape it a little to remove, you are not correct. You are in fact very wrong. But progress is being made, and the results so far are astonishing. You could have told us the windows were actually mahagony in that room without too much convincing, they were that dark and dirty. But like our own little archeological dig, we’re discovering new wood grains and even actual oak-y hues every day. We definitely know what it’s like to dig for dinosaurs now. For sure.

Take a wild guess which sash has been scrubbed

We’ll keep sharing our progress, along with other fun stories and tidbits, both here and on our social pages, but if you have any tips or questions in the meantime, feel free to leave us a comment and get involved in the insanity. BYO mask, gloves, & hazmat suit…it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. 

What we’re using on the woodwork

3 parts Isopropyl Alcohol + 1 Part Lemon Juice




  • Ross

    I lived there for 2 years and would love to chat so I explain the staples and whatnot also amazing work so far I am so excited to see what it looks like when y’all are done good luck.

    • jack

      Thanks so much! Thinking about putting together a little submission form or something so everyone can share their pics and stories. Ms. Charlotte certainly has a very rich history!

  • Richard Greco

    I lived in that gorgeous house for three years from 77-79. Trust me, we tried to keep the woodwork clean. But we were just boys. The bathrooms on the other hand were a lost cause in 1977. And I cannot even imagine what the basement looks like. There was a pine bar by the back door. If it is still there I was the architect. And no it is not too tall. It is the perfect height.

    Thank you for making this your labor of love.

    • jack

      Unfortunately I think the wood & house maintenance fell off after your time there, but we’re still able to salvage plenty! Don’t think the bar was where you’re referring to, but there was not shortage of bars around the house, it may have just been moved elsewhere!

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