Author Archives: mweil07

Finally, Foundation Fun!



So for all my complaining about how long this process has taken, things are finally beginning to happen. No one expected anything to happen as fast as I would like (since patience is not my virtue), but in my opinion it’s even slower than I’d expected. I try to be calm, but I can’t wait to move. That said, it is gratifying to drive by and see very visible changes.

First, we saw the lot cleared. The uneven ground was leveled and some of the trees, which needed to be removed, were bulldozed out and left at the back of the lot. I admit, I’d hoped for something truly interesting and historical to be turned up during this process – Dignowity is, after all, the oldest suburb of San Antonio. Nothing, unfortunately, came to light except for a couple rusted old cans and some miscellaneous car parts.

Form 1

Next, the form for the foundation was built – the plywood box, held up by 2×4 framing. This was a quick job, and for the first time really made it possible for us to understand the scale of the house (which is much bigger than I personally expected). We decided at this point to celebrate with beer, since we’re quite prepared to celebrate every step in the process. This felt much bigger than it probably was. After the form was in place, it had to be inspected to make sure that it was the correct distance from the property line on one side and the setback in the front.

Drainage Pipes

When this inspection was complete, the waste water pipes were dug into place. This let us see where the downstairs half-bath and the kitchen sink would eventually be. Like the forms themselves, the pipes also had to be inspected, and we found a green form attached to one indicating the seal of approval. One interesting thing we did see when the pipes were dug into place was a section of the original waste pipes, which were made out of terra cotta.

Inspection TagOld Drain Pipe

Next, they dug out the foundation and filled it with sections of aggregate. The Historic Design and Review Commission required us to include a foundation which matched the height of other pier-and-beam foundations in the neighborhood, so the aggregate was used to add volume and increase the height. There was one trench in the midst of the aggregate sections running the length of the house and several running perpendicular to that one. Another trench ran even deeper all around the perimeter next to the plywood forms. Interestingly, there was a layer of bricks several feet below ground level, which we assumed had been part of the original foundation.

Aggregate and drain pipes

Old Foundation Bricks

Over and around the sections of aggregate, then, went the rebar. This took two days to complete. It filled the trenches and crisscrossed the surface of the aggregate sections. The rebar made it much more difficult to walk around the site, but that didn’t stop us, especially when we felt the need to give someone the “grand tour”.

Since the rebar has been done, we’ve seen a water pipe go in through one of the outside trenches. The temporary electricity is also being put in, and the structural engineer must come out one last time to make sure that everything has been installed according to his plans. The pour should happen sometime in the next week, and the walls should start going up a week or so into September. Again, not as fast as I would wish, but not bad.


Sinks and Doors and Restoration, Oh My.


So it’s been quite the interval since our last blog post, but in the interim quite a great amount has happened. We’ve finally obtained the final draft of the plans (using the correct building material – a polystyrene-concrete block that my significant other will doubtlessly write up shortly) and all that’s left is for the builder to obtain permits and begin.

That said, it’s high time. We’ve been collecting bits and pieces of the house since we settled on the idea of constructing. Needless to say, there’s no excess room in the condo to store the makings of a new house – the flotsam and jetsom of our imagined creativity, which will hopefully someday form a cohesive whole. Sometimes the list of projects seems overwhelming, but the idea of each jigsaw piece falling into place makes the process worthwhile. To date, we’ve collected a pot filler (at my instigation), a kitchen faucet to match, 2 ceiling fans, 2 bathroom faucets, a sink, a front door, and some random glass fixtures or fixtures-to-be, pending the level of our dedication to uniqueness. Add to this every piece of dinnerware waiting for a shelf to live on, every piece of art waiting for a wall on which to hang, and… well, you can start to imagine what the “craft room” of our current residence looks like.

The front door and the sink are special projects. I say special, my significant other may choose other vocabulary. These are items which (again, on account of those visions of perfection dancing in my head) we’ve purchased in what you might call a raw state. Because, you know, we’re fixer-uppers par excellence. Or hope to be.

The door we purchased from a fantastic establishment called the Old Door Store, near the junction of Blanco and Hildebrand. We found out that though the sign suggests that the store is open 10:30 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Saturday, appointments are also available. This also prevents one from running into other pesky shoppers while perusing the aisles of… old doors.

But the nice part about old door hunting is that it turned out to have been something that my love and I could agree on. Now that may sound unspectacular, but there are surprisingly few things about which there hasn’t yet been a protracted (and sometimes unresolved) conversation (my word – his would be dispute). Seeing the old doors in their antique and unfinished, freshly-salvaged states, however, was able to simmer the creative juices in both of us, however, and we generally agreed on the styles of door we preferred. We had both agreed that, as the front door would be our future guests’ first experience of the home, it should be a door that added some individuality – something that reflected our style, not simply a builder-grade mass-produced door. I didn’t calculate cost into this aspiration.

After a considerable amount of deliberation (I should mention here that we had looked at doors elsewhere and been generally unimpressed) we settled on our 39” wide, craftsman-style door with 3 lights. The size, we presume, will add an appropriate grandeur, and the windows, while larger than those of other doors of this type, aren’t large enough to pose a real security risk or compromise our privacy.

After deciding that this was the door we’d adopt (and rushing to the nearest ATM while the kind owner of the Old Door Store, Mr. Raetzsch, waited patiently for us), we gingerly loaded it into the back of my truck and proudly drove away. Not far away – to have a drink with some friends at Barbaro, on McCullough. All the while praying and crossing our fingers that no passing door-thief would see the not-insignificantly-priced opportunity waiting in the back of my truck, which I had oh-so-purposefully backed into a parking space, so as not to make our goods evident.

The door survived, and we kept it in the “craft room” (again, my name, not his) of our condo until we decided to crack the proverbial eggs and start working on our omelette.

The sink, which was stored for a month or two in the back seat of my pickup rather than the “craft room” (at my love’s insistence), was similarly purchased. Now, we easily agreed that we ought to have a front door with character. The sink was a harder sell. It stemmed from my fear that a home made from entirely modern, builder’s grade (or better) fixtures would end up looking rather like any cookie-cutter box of a home in some development in outer suburbia. (You know the type. They all look exactly the same from the outside and -let’s face it – also from the inside.) Thus my decision that we ought to use as many re-purposed, re-finished, re-used, or up-cycled finishes as possible. But that will come later, perhaps.

The sink we found at a lovely shop in Dignowity called Architectural Antiques. Now not everything sold there changes hands at rock-bottom prices. This I admit, but there are many, many things to be said for this lovely store. They offer the service of re-finishing doors bought elsewhere, have many unique pieces, and offer a store owner with a fantastic amount of expertise. Mrs. Rusler, I believe, seemed to know impossible details about the finishings she offered when I struck up a conversation while browsing after school one day. (Yes, I went shopping for antique hardware after school one day. It’s my joy.) “Those hinges, the strap kind, never really caught on in the South. They come from up North. These things in this case were window pulls for double-hung windows, but now people use them for pocket doors because they mount flush.” Details I’d never have either known or thought to ask about.

Anyhow, my love capitulated to my idea that the downstairs half-bath should have a vintage sink. I offered to do the refinishing myself, since I’d priced professional refinishers and wasn’t willing to spend $275 on one sink, which wasn’t even mounted yet. (This price was quoted to me several times.) So we found the perfect sink – a wall-mounted cast-iron gem (in my eyes) with a bit of rust around the drain and a considerable amount at the overflow holes. The professionals had advised that these would have to be closed up, as attempting to refinish the sink without doing so would just allow the rust to creep back in a few years. I’m far too perfectionistic for that.

Thus, with these two projects in tow, we took over my parents’ lovely backyard for one day of our spring break staycation. The refinishing will come in a later post.

As for our sourcing:

It’s All Good in the (Historic) Hood

Our neighborhood is beautiful – that is, to me, the other half of the dynamic duo.I like to think that I see potential in a lot of things.  This lovely conglomeration of homes, warehouses, and eclectic historical features is situated on the very near East Side of San Antonio, Texas – my favorite city of all-time and home since birth.  This area can best be described as “in progress.”  Though there is much good in it, there is much that many current residents still want to improve.  So why did we choose this area, rather than an already-bustling area of town?  The answer to that is complex, as humans usually are.

1) Location

Naturally, as for all homeowners and home-builders, location is primary.  Everything we do is in or near downtown SA.  My significant other is the kind who would be perfectly happy in a 400 square foot efficiency in a mixed-use retail/living structure.  I, on the other hand, demand a yard, a dog, and a place to produce crafts.  Dignowity Hill lies right across I-37 from downtown proper, less than a mile from our oh-so-sacred Alamo, a little over a mile and a half from the landmark Tower of the Americas, and only 0.8 miles from one of my favorite places on earth – the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA).  Once you get into the actual neighborhood, you might not remember that Dignowity is so near to our urban center.  Yards are large, houses decently spaced, streets lined with flowering crepe myrtles. You get all that, and our master bedroom will have a fantastic view of the cityscape. The best of both worlds, you might say.

2) Price

But of course, there are lots of choices for locations around downtown.  There are apartments of varying square footage and fanciness throughout the city proper.  The areas around Broadway and the lovely structures of the Pearl Brewery are scenic and bursting with life and real estate.  It’s even possible to find lots with space for yards.  Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Dignowity is not yet as popular as other up-and-coming areas.  Less than a decade ago, most of the Pearl Brewery sat abandoned.  The luxuriant Japanese Tea Gardens were dry hangouts for unsavory characters (and my high school friends and myself), and nary a local would be seen regularly downtown.  Now, though, change is in the air.  Third Brewsday offers craft beers, the Tea Gardens are served by a lovely tea house, and apartments are rising all around the Pearl and SAMA.

“But, you were supposed to tell us about price!” you say.  Yes, a decade ago, it might have been perfectly affordable to move into the neighborhood near the Pearl.  And yes, it is still in development.  However, a piece of land in that neighborhood 4/5 the size of the one we found in Dignowity was slightly over 5 times the price.  The cost of fixer-upper bungalows in the once sketch Southtown are creeping ever higher.  And all of this ties in to…

3) Potential

Dignowity Hill may have some houses that seem to be collapsing on themselves.  Certainly, there is vandalism.  One of our favorite restaurants had its front windows smashed in, and the culprits have not been apprehended.  However, it has the potential to be one of the most fun and interesting neighborhoods in San Antonio.

Firstly, most residents are fantastic. We’ve met most of our future neighbors, and are greeted warmly by many of them every time we visit. We attend neighborhood association meetings monthly, and have not only met interesting people, but listened to interesting dialogue go on about the neighborhood. We eat at Pancho’s and Gringo’s weekly, and are always treated royally by the family that owns it. (This is the above mentioned favorite restaurant.)

Besides the people, however, sits the neighborhood’s development. The San Antonio Express News ran an article recently about the businesses and entrepreneurs who are taking an interest in the Near East Side. Among these, one of the most well-known is the Alamo Brewery, which plans to build on and develop a lot next to the historic Hays Street Bridge. Also in the works are a rooftop wine bar, an outdoor beer and wine joint which will resemle the Friendly Spot in Southtown, and one development which is already visible – the introduction of 12 compact townhomes on a lot at the corner of Cherry and Pine Streets.  While only the last of these is in the works as yet, the promise of interest in the neighborhood is what provides the security we need to move in – especially where finances are concerned. The possibility that this neighborhood may become something like a new Southtown someday means that, if we were to turn around and sell our new home someday, the value will have gone up. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re planning on selling (ever), but then, it’s always nicer to hedge your bets.

4) History

The last and smallest of our motivations for moving to this neighborhood was that it has a rich history. In fact, it is San Antonio’s first “suburb” (for all that it is now practically downtown). It was the province of Czech immigrants in the late 1800s. Boosted by the railroad, among other industries, the neighborhood grew and diversified, leaving all the beautiful, historic homes still found there. This is the kind of neighborhood we want to live in – one with a rich history, rather than populated with cookie-cutter mass-produced homes.

So this is my short insight on our complex thought process. We’re happy with our choice. We’ll see how the experiment turns out.