A 1920s Exterior Becomes the Belle of the Block
Rich color and a tweaked façade for a Queens house
Gary, a scientist, and his husband lived in their humble home in the New York City borough of Queens for ten years before they found the nerve to move on their exterior renovation. “We always knew we wanted to do it but we were intimidated,” he says. “We didn’t know where to start.” The partners summoned the strength to tackle the much-needed work, then posted their project on Sweeten, a free service that matches renovators with vetted general contractors. Soon, the contractors they chose had a plan to transform the not-so-pretty home to one with serious curb appeal.
The truth is, when I called Sweeten and their Client Services said, “It sounds like you need a GC,” I didn’t even know what that was. This is our first home, purchased a decade ago. Over the years, we’d done what we could on our own, but we knew it needed more TLC than we could manage. We had hired handy people for patches. We’d had poor experiences, and those incidents made us gun-shy. We knew the house needed serious renovation work, but we had no idea how it would be done or what the cost might be. We were terrified.
Our home is a freestanding, wood-framed, single-family structure in Queens. It’s only 16 feet wide and 36 feet long, with postage-stamp front- and backyards. One of our friends, when visiting for the first time, christened it, “The Tardis.” It reminded him of the time machine on that old British sci-fi show Dr. Who, because it looks bigger on the inside than it does from the street. The house has a basement; a first floor with a living room, dining room, and kitchen; a second floor with three bedrooms and a bathroom; and an unfinished attic. The square footage is about 1,600 with a finished basement or 1,100 square feet without. Built in the 1920s, the house was of a popular style—there are thousands like it in Queens.
We have a 1939 tax photo of the place, given to us as a housewarming gift, and since we received it, we’d wanted to revise the exterior to resemble the original. We’d driven around and looked at a lot of houses in the neighborhood, noting styles and features that we felt worked nicely, and those we knew did not. The homes around us have great potential, but many lost their souls during the vinyl-siding cataclysm of the 1970s and ‘80s.
Our home had a few leaks in the roof, thanks to five layers of derelict shingles. It also had “yankee” gutters—U-shaped troughs built right into the roof—that would spill over and direct water down the sides of the house. So the first phase of the project was to replace the bad roofing with new shingles and install hanging gutters, which we hoped would resolve the leaking issues. We chose black shingles and black gutters to match, and the job was a relative snap that made a huge difference inside and out.
Next up was to remove the old vinyl siding. We would upgrade the windows and place insulation in the walls, since the house had previously had none, before installing new siding. The front of the house had a bow window that was oddly tall, and did not jive with the eyeline of the door, giving the house a disjointed look. We had it removed and replaced with a window that is a better fit and gives the facade cleaner lines.
With the windows and insulation done, we were ready to replace the faded yellow vinyl siding, and we did that with boldly colored cement-fiber siding. We’d read about a technique of using more than one color to visually augment a home’s gables, so we decided on three-toned siding and used an online visualization tool to try out combinations of bold, saturated colors. Once we’d agreed on a palette, we got paint samples and tested the colors on large, flat surfaces. We finally choose our barn brown reds, along with a sage green.
Having committed to our colors, we needed to decide on the style and surface texture of our siding. We wanted a wood look and had heard we could get that with cement-fiber siding; we appreciated the product’s appearance and durability, and also that we could paint over it if we didn’t like our long-debated hues. We decided to add dimension and offset the house’s gables with shakes, a sort of shingle that is thicker and split, not sawn, in the brown-red color.
Figuring out a trim color was next. With the black shingles, gutters and windows, we were afraid more black would be too heavy. We decided to stick with it for the main lines of the house but went with gray trim around the windows and doors. The storm door is black but our front door is a rich burgundy that pops and says, “Welcome.” In honor of our house’s Tardis-like qualities, we painted the back door in Police Box Blue.
Sweeten made taking this leap so much easier and got us over the hump needed to start the project. Our Sweeten contractor, who has been doing these jobs a long time, was great. We picked his brain and expertise and took many of his suggestions with no regrets. He was accessible, coming by multiple times a week to check on the progress. We never needed backup, but we liked knowing that Sweeten’s Client Services team was there. There were times when our vision failed us, but our contractor gave us good advice: If you aren’t happy with something, stop and have it done right. It was a challenge to believe that the mess would eventually yield success. But it did.
A few neighbors have been open in expressing their dislike of our home’s new look, but they are a minority. We focus on the many people who’ve gone out of their way to say they love it. One neighbor, who is friends with the director of Project Runway, told us that when the friend visited, he said our house was “amazing.” That really tickled us and made me sure that what we did, we did just right.
Thank you, Gary, and to your husband, for sharing your new exterior!
EXTERIOR RESOURCES: Aura exterior paint colors in Sage Mountain, #1488; Country Lane Red, #2088-20; Gray; and Black: Benjamin Moore. Mountain Sage Cedarmill plank siding: James Hardie. Andersen 400 Series windows: Home Depot. James Hardie shakes; GAF Timberline UHD roof shingles; Berger Building Products gutter: Richmond Hill Lumber Supply. Steel front door: Masonite. Storm door: Larson.
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