Hard Candy, Redux: Tear Down That Wall

When we (El Cap and I) decided to move back to the ‘port, I knew what I was getting myself into. Our little town may appear a waterfront ideal, but by the time we cautiously decided to look at two houses (one on Beach Boulevard and the other – the one we now call home – in the much-maligned “Ward Four”), I had covered Gulfport and its myriad of issues (and if you don’t live here, trust me, for a 2.5 square mile town, we have issues. The smaller the stakes, the bigger the drama and all that) for almost a decade. One of the biggest problems new Gulfportians have with Gulfport is that they visit for a weekend, fall in love with Beach Boulevard, buy a house largely on impulse, and then realize that our downtown is not representative of the town.

Oh, don’t misunderstand, Gulfport has plenty going for it – we live here, after all, and I’m glad I do – but despite our devil-may-care, anything-goes, “we’re a drinking town with a fishing problem”, hippie-meets-good-ol’-boy-vibe, the town is not perfect. Our non-brick streets look like a teenager’s pre-Acutane face, our sewers tend to fail (to be fair, the city’s started to repair and replace those), we undervalue our waterfront, and the northeast corner of the city (that’s Ward Four again) gets systemically neglected, the old guard is having trouble with a newer, younger generation wanting to take the city in a new direction, and the houses often need more than a little work.

Ah, yes. The houses. That’s the chief complaint I hear: People working on their houses are absolutely furious with our planning (we call it “Community Development”) department. For the first 20 months, we were lucky: Our home needed mostly cosmetic work. We moved in and painted and cleaned and re-landscaped and did all the things new homeowners do. After a year and a half, though, we decided the time had come to make our kitchen functional.

Kitchen, Pre-Renovation
Look beyond the shiny fridge to the grape wallpaper and “custom” cabinetry.

Here’s our old kitchen, Well, half of it. Don’t be fooled by that shiny new refrigerator. We bought that pre-renovation when we couldn’t stand the old one any longer. That dishwasher? A portable. Which is about as much fun as when I had to unfold my couch to go to sleep every night, or when my dad and I were renovating my bathroom and I had to go to the Walgreens to pee.

So, we met with a kitchen designer. Two, actually: One we hated and one we loved. We also looked at IKEA kitchens but Tom Pitzen of Olde World Cabinetry (and the artist who designed Gulfport’s Historic Waterfront Sign, among other public art) created a kitchen design that would cost about the same amount.

Now, about that designer we hated: Among many things I disliked about them, they told us the renovation would cost about $60,000. Of course, they added, they needed to have their general contractor go up in the attic and make sure that wall behind the refrigerator wasn’t a load-bearing wall. We had no intention of spending $60,000 on a kitchen but as we believed the wall to be load-bearing, we thought it was a swell idea to confirm that before we started swinging sledgehammers.

Long story short: The uber-expensive designer’s contractor said it wasn’t, we didn’t hire them, and about five minutes before El Cap and my dad started ripping down that wall, El Cap went up in the attic one more time and said, “You know, I really think this wall is load-bearing.” We called out another contractor who said hell, no we couldn’t take down that wall without the roof coming down with it, and we embarked on the arduous process of finding an architect who would draw up plans to put in a beam to bear the load and getting an engineer’s stamp on the plans, and also of the installation of the beam and the ultimate removal of the wall.

Old Kitchen
That oven was the best $76 could buy, I’m certain. Also, seriously, grapes on the wallpaper.

Now, if you’ve ever done any work on your home, or owned rental properties, you fall squarely into one of two schools: The “get the permits” school and the “permits are for suckers” school. When we started the project, it became clear that my dad fell in the latter school whilst I fell in the former. While I understand my dad’s point of view, I disagree with it. Bear in mind, when we started, I still worked for the local paper, and a good portion of the “have I got a story for you” calls and emails I received were people with a “scandal” about Gulfport Community Development.

For almost 12 years I looked into a goodly number of these alleged scandals and found, without fail, the frustration on the part of the person crying foul stemmed either from them lying to the planning department, not pulling a permit and then getting caught, or attempting to get the planning department to approve plans that involved structural changes but lacked the approval of someone (an engineer) qualified to make sure those same changes didn’t make the house collapse. I am typically a “forgiveness, not permission” type of person, but not with city government. I also figured after over a decade of calling the planning department with public information requests and chasing down every complaint someone gave me, the inspectors would be damn delighted to learn I had attempted to bypass the rules.

So, of course, by the time we realized we had to, as former President Reagan said, “tear down that wall,” we had already pulled our permits and assured the city’s planning department we weren’t making structural changes. I figured it would be open season on us. So El Cap took our stamped plans into Community Development, copped to the error, and they basically said, well, gee, the plans look good and you haven’t done the work yet, so cool.

That was it. No problems. No trouble. We’ve had, as I said just yesterday, a damn delightful experience with Gulfport’s Community Development. We’ve passed our first plumbing and electrical inspections and the inspector has also offered some helpful tips, like Norm from This Old House, but with a city ID.

They’re actually just good guys. Seriously. I mean, I imagine if we’d tried to cheat they wouldn’t be as understanding, and I think that’s quite common, but by and large? They’ve been one of the easiest things we’ve done thus far.

So the moral of the story is this: All of those folks who beleaguered me for 12 years about how awful our Community Development people treated you? Every last one of you I found had tried to outsmart or cheat the city in some way, and now that I’m in your place, I feel vindicated.

Also, dusty. There’s drywall dust everywhere. But that’s another post for another day.