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BOOK REVIEW

He's hammering to get his home fix-it fix

David Giffels tackles window caulking, plumbing and rodents with gusto. It's both passion and addiction.

July 20, 2008|Kathy Price-Robinson | Special to The Times

All the Way Home;

Building a Family in a Falling-Down House;

David Giffels;

William Morrow: 314 pp., $25.95

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As a lover of both homes and words, I am personally grateful that a certain 1913 Tudor mansion in Akron, Ohio, was allowed to slide into crumbling, moldy decay.

The sad state of this once-grand home gave hyperactive journalist David Giffels something to do with his energy -- restore the home over a period of 10-plus years (it's still not done) -- and provided him with the material to pen this truly wonderful book, "All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House."

Giffels, an award-winning columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal, and his wife, Gina, were expecting their second child in the mid-1990s when they began searching for a larger home. Like most of us, they wanted more home than they could afford, and they found themselves looking in higher-end neighborhoods with estate-like residences, then creeping back to their own "semi-remarkable" house and the reality of their financial limitations.

They decided a grand fixer-upper was the way to go. The two-story pre-World War I house they bought for less than $70,000 was all but overtaken by trash, critters and decomposition. The previous owner had covered the floor of the master bedroom with 55 baking pans to catch leaks. Ceilings had fallen, and the smell of cat permeated the place.

Imagining what could be

What caught the couple's imagination, though, were the home's six fireplaces, the tiled solarium, French windows, thick moldings and the butler's pantry, which would eventually become Giffels' office and where he would write this book.

This was not to be a simple case of a homeowner in a shirt and tie juggling hired craftsmen and subcontractors. The house's troubles did provide wages for plenty of workers, but the property also proved a battleground for Giffels as he faced rodents, collapsing plaster, cracked window caulking and his fears of parenthood and encroaching middle age.

With warrior-like intensity, he tackled floorboards and plumbing, bats and raccoons, brick and tile and drywall and scrolled woodwork. And he relates each adventure with such exquisitely detailed thoughts, fears, smells, sights and sounds that readers might look up after a spell and wonder why, after vicariously living through all this, their own projects aren't further along.

But, as with any war, there was a price to pay in time spent away from family, missed holidays and vacations, resentment from the spouse. It doesn't take a math major to figure out that removing, cleaning and caulking the home's 733 windowpanes took time away from other things.

Giffels tells of doing brickwork one stagnant August evening while his wife and her sisters watched "The Money Pit" inside the house. Hearing their laughter as he slapped away mosquitoes with mortar-stained hands, he wrote, "I felt unusually alone."

"An experienced mason," he continued, "never touches the mortar with his fingers. I regarded the stuff as clay, to be shaped and squeezed, smoothed by hand onto a brick, the excess scraped off with fingers after each brick was pressed into place. I smeared great globs of it onto my bricks, regarding the trowel in the same way a Caucasian Ohioan regards chopsticks. Soon, blood began to seep from my fingertips with no apparent source. The top layers of my skin had worn off."

With his fingers raw and bleeding, Giffels continues his mortar technique day after day, applying, he says, arrogance to his ignorance.

What is this? Giffels does explain, and eloquently so, this addiction to home improvement. He even calls it "a disease" in a Q&A provided by the publisher.

This book offers no program of recovery. But the author's insight is so great and so full of heart and good cheer that he may make readers want a little more of this driven nature in their own lives.

At the beginning of the book, I wanted to see photos of the house and its transformation. But as I made my way through Giffels' soulful, funny tale, I was glad the visuals were limited to the front of the house and floor plans of the first and second stories. I could see where the pantry was in relation to the kitchen and that the solarium was on the opposite side of the house. Between his words and the pictures in my head, I had the whole story.

One-time experience?

Like others who have taken on enormous, nearly insurmountable renovations like this, the Giffelses say they have no regrets about this house, but they are not sure they would do it again.

The danger to readers is that they too may catch the home fix-it disease. If so, the cautionary tale here is that acting out a renovation addiction of this intensity might work out better before the partner and the children come along.

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Kathy Price-Robinson, who writes the Pardon Our Dust remodeling series, can be reached at kathyprice.com.

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