The Niche…BEGINS!

The stairhall of the Cross House has a niche. And this niche has more architectural drama, per square foot, than any other part of the house.


Oh my.


Oh my.


Oh oh my.


The niche is framed by a pair of oak columns with highly distinctive hand-carved capitals.

The arch, which appears to be wood, is actually plaster painted to look like wood, and detailed with strips of Lincrusta.

There is a triple window with highly expressive trim above.

There is a east entrance door, and another door to the west for the telephone closet, and each topped with more highly expressive wood trim.


But…a lot of this is not readily evident. The bright light from the triple windows means that most of the expressive trim is hard to see. In addition, all the wood is quite dark, the result of old shellac (shellac darkens with age). The wood would have been lighter originally. There is also no light fixture in the niche.


In order to install central A/C, I had to run a duct just below the original ceiling of the niche. Thus, I need to install a lower ceiling in the niche to cover the new duct. I began this effort today. But then ran out of screws. So needed to refocus my time…


While pondering what-to-do-next, I looked, for the millionth time, at the alligatored shellac finish on the wood trim of the niche. And, for the millionth time, I experienced pain. For, I knew that all this was SO much more attractive when new, as time had diminished and obscured its beauty. But what if I, at long last, just worked on a bit of this?


Oh! My! Under all the alligatoring of the arch? A gorgeous and original faux wood finish! This is painted directly on the plaster, and is edged in strips of Lincrusta. Oh my! The column capital is oak. Real oak!


Giddy with excitement, I moved around to the front of the arch, and found more faux wood graining. Squee!!!!!!!! Again, this is painted directly on the plaster walls. And, is that THE most sexylicious column capital ever?


With the shellac removed, the difference is astounding. The oak window sashes were restored earlier this year.


The upper trim to the east door was coming off, so I removed it, and…


…stripped off all the old shellac, and reinstalled it. Golly.


I had no plans to refinish wood today. But was, nonetheless, tremendously excited by the unexpected diversion.

However, a certain anxiety then arose. Drat!

Across from the niche, and above it, is the monumental staircase. It actually looks pretty good, finish-wise. There is, amazingly, no alligatoring, and there is — praise the Lord! — not really a compelling reason to spend 285 years refinishing it.

But the niche, which this morning was darker than the stair, is, this afternoon, lighter than the stair. So, I may have to use a tinted shellac on the niche wood to assure that it complements the stair, although this sets into motion the same dynamic I am currently having to fix: shellac darkens with age.

I will, of course, ponder this issue. But tonight I will dream of a gloriously restored niche.

Oh, the said gloriously restored niche will, when finished, be graced by a serpent pendant light fixture, thanks to Bo. I can’t wait.




  1. Tony Bianchini on December 10, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    I’m DROOLING on my key board as I feast on all the glorious details!

    • Ross on December 10, 2017 at 8:04 pm

      I understand.

  2. Kelly P. on December 10, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    It’s very exiting to see whats under old finishes. Treasures found!

  3. Sandra Lee on December 10, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    The details are incredible!

  4. Jason J on December 10, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    This is the perfect example to show all these so called “restorers” that wood work was not dark and thus we don’t need to paint it…to brighten it up!

    I just seen it happen on a show called “Bargain Mansions” on HGTV of course…upset me because all the wood work would have needed is to be cleaned and re coated…but nope wood is always dark..

    Its a sticky job to clean up all that but it really isn’t hard at all…

    I personally wouldn’t worry about using new shellac and it darkening. Look at how long it took for this surface to get this way and you figure…you’re not going to be burning coal, smoking or any of the other activities that led to the look it is now…

    I am stripping and redoing all my plane jane pine trim in amber shellac, it really gives a great color to the wood..

  5. Julie C. on December 10, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    I agree with Jason. It will take a long time to darken so make it look it’s best for the here and now. You are the one who needs to enjoy it – let someone else worry 50 or 100 Year’s from now.

  6. EJ on December 10, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    I am so excited to see the finished project. That is one of my favorite spots in the house. Will you continue on into the phone closet?

    • Ross on December 12, 2017 at 3:39 pm

      Oh yes, EJ!

  7. Jonathan Wilkerson on December 10, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    I find it interesting that not only does it darken, but it becomes that deep reddish colour…

  8. Miss-Apple37 on December 11, 2017 at 2:58 am

    how beautiful! even the faux wood has mistaken me until i read your comment of it being painted on plaster. gorgeous! And that capital!!

  9. Mary Garner-Mitchell on December 11, 2017 at 5:28 am

    It’s astounding, and oh, so lovely! But … that “toothie” radiator bites! Eeeekkk! Surely it’s not original to the niche?? Seems if were it would have been at least a shorter model as to not obscure any of that yummy trim.

    • Grandmere Louise on December 12, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      The radiator has beautiful swirls in the casting that are all gunked up with coats of old paint. I recognize the problem from my home. I’ve had some of my radiators removed and taken to an auto body shop where they were sandblasted and repainted plain white. They stink for a few weeks when the heat comes back on in the fall but they look so much nicer. The old metal colour paints also reduce the heat output so the new thinner paint improves their efficiency.

      • Ross on December 12, 2017 at 3:42 pm

        Thank you, Louise!

        The radiator will be beautiful once it is refinished in two-tone gold.

        I love the radiator!

  10. A Minnesota Preservationist on December 11, 2017 at 7:13 am

    You need to look for either Buttonlac or Garnet shellac flakes and mix your own finish. It is true that shellac darkens with age but it is likely that the original finish used one of those varieties of finish which add a rich translucent color. Mixing shellac from flakes and alchohol is easy but takes a bit of time. With the darker (less refined) colors of shellac it is important to strain the final product to remove impurities. It is also possible to mix in a bit of fade resistant aniline stain ( I use Behlen’s Solar lux) to adjust the color further. Of course none of these are available at your corner hardware store but easily sourced by mail.

  11. Stewart McLean on December 11, 2017 at 9:17 am

    Every time you post that shellac darkens with age, I wonder why. Yes shellac does darken with age, but not if it is properly cared for. Every piece of trim from which you strip off the dark aged shellac needs it because it has not been regularly kept clean, nor waxed on a regular basis. It is a result of a combination of time, dirt, huge variations in temperature and humidity, as well as light exposure and other factors. What you are removing is these layers that have built up over the years. If you look at the woodwork in your house as a huge piece of furniture, you must realize that without proper care it will eventually return to the state that you found it.

    Assuming that it is given proper care, it will not darken significantly. The secret is properly applied paste wax. Think of it as never polishing your best leather shoes. The process of waxing protects the finish and cleans as it works. If it is regularly waxed, once every year or two, it will gain more patina without darkening.

    The process is like spit and polish on shoes.
    1.First, he wax is applied with very fine (0000) steel wool. The steel wool picks up dirt and smooths imperfections. After the whole surface is waxed it needs to be thoroughly buffed out.
    2. Secondly, a slightly damp cloth, (thinking spit and polishing shoes, this is the spit part) is used to smear the wax that you have applied with the steel wool so that the wax is spread everywhere. The wax will now be a cloudy mess through which you can see the surface. You are using the damp cloth, I use soft paper towels, to remove excess wax and to assure that it settles into all of the spaces. The reason that I use paper towels is so that, as each towel gets covered in wax, I can dispose of it and get a fresh one. After a while, your damp towels will no longer be loading up with excess wax. This is when you move on to buffing.
    3.Now you really buff it out with dry towels. When you start, the towels will drag along the wax picking up the excess. As your towels get covered in wax, you dispose of them and use new ones. You will know when you have buffed it out enough when a fresh towel literally slips along rather tan feeling any drag.
    4. When your whole area is super slippery-smooth, stand back and look at the now protected finish. You will see some streaks and cloudiness in the wax. Let it settle for a day or so and go in for a final buffing. The process is complete when you see no streaks in the wax. You can always go back and buff areas that don’t look quite “there”. You will know what I mean by “there” when you see it.

    Areas that get heavy wear, like banisters and trim, need to be waxed a lot more often than those parts like the balusters. Floors with poly don’t require wax as far as I know. If you are using shellac on the floors, then regular waxing is a must. Be careful, waxed floors are really slippery. The reason that shellac might be a good choice for floors is that it is a repairable finish whereas, in my experience, polyurethane varnishes are not.

    This same principle applies to good furniture. The wax keeps food and liquids from penetrating to the finish.Janitorial supply houses often sell the wax in five gallon buckets, which last a long time. On a house the size of yours, you could go through a lot of cans of the size sold at the supermarket or big box store.

  12. Robyn on December 11, 2017 at 9:21 am

    That is just… wow. You can clearly see it’s the same column as on the left, but my brain insists it’s been replaced with a new one. Wow.

    I don’t see why you should worry about matching the niche to the stairs.
    1) You’ve told us that each of the rooms have slightly different trim colors.
    2) I can’t see why with their love of glorious pattern combos the Victorians wouldn’t have enjoyed a little color shift here and there as well.
    3) Considering the niche as a separate room seems logical. Each should have its own flavor.
    4) If it still bothers you in a decade or so, you can get around to stripping the stairs.
    5) The next owner may paint it white if it’s too dark.
    6) Squires would likely be tickled.
    7) If *you* like it, who cares?

    I think the house keeps amazing all of us as we see her younger self restored. There are very few ladies who would object to looking like they did in their 20’s, even if bits of their outfits were old fashioned.

  13. Stewart McLean on December 11, 2017 at 9:23 am

    You might try aggressively waxing with 000 or 0000 steel wool as a possible alternative to the denatured alcohol, which may leave you with insufficient finish on the wood. You can rub through the dark part without going through the old shellac or the faux wood painted finish.

    • Ross on December 11, 2017 at 9:32 am

      Thanks, Stewart!

      The thing I like about using denatured alcohol is that it does not entirely remove the finish.

      All the rooms in the house, save the stairhall/entry, have a faux wood finish. The denatured alcohol removes the old shellac (wholly obscuring the faux wood finish) while leaving intact the original finish.

      In the stairhall/entry, all the wood is oak with no faux finish. With the work I did yesterday, I removed most of the old shellac but not all of it. You are not looking at bare wood in the images.

      • Stewart McLean on December 11, 2017 at 7:58 pm

        As I have repeated stated, you have a superb eye. I don’t have to say the following and probably shouldn’t.

        The column looks fantastic, but…

        Allegorically, to my eye, you have removed too much shellac from the east door top trim. It is gasping for more finish. “Feed me, please feed me. I am dying here.” The column looks fat and happy, and is gloating over its riches.

        The preface that so many say to their family members when they are preparing to drop an emotionally devastating bomb. “I am only saying this because I love you.”

        I am telling you this because I know that you have the very highest standards and are perfectly capable of taking this critique in a positive light and making the choice that you consider best.

  14. Alice on December 11, 2017 at 9:35 am

    Those capitals! Amazing!

  15. Carole Sukosd on December 11, 2017 at 10:31 am

    In my house it was ” Orange”. Then later I read an article that said that orange shellac was a choice ! L ! O M G. We are talks pumpkin orange after 120 + years. My real concerns are two. Ross authentic toilets were so very very low to the floor. Totally impractical I feel as a baby boomer. We are a much taller people, ADA standards aside. Also the niche is almost perfection with your plans. However, the radiator sticks out like a sore thumb. My memory fails me at this point. Are you removing the radiators or will you paint it to blend in with the wood tones? I so look forward to your postings. Someday we will meet..

  16. Ginny on December 11, 2017 at 4:13 pm

    What did you use to remove the shellac?

    • Ross on December 12, 2017 at 3:40 pm

      Denatured alcohol.

  17. glenn on December 11, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    Sexylicious? I wouldn’t have taken you for a Prince fan.

  18. Cody H on December 11, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    The lighter toned oak you’re finding doesn’t surprise me in the least, because looking at the room as a “package”, this lighter finish coordinates much better with the (fabulous) gold and green wallpaper that would have hung in the room. Might it actually be worth your while to refinish the staircase itself, in the hope that someday you’ll have the wallpaper recreated too?

  19. San on December 11, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    Simply amazing. Well, okay, not simply, but stupendously. Yes, absolutely stupendously amazing!

  20. Janice Ramey on December 17, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    Have you ever considered inviting people who follow your restoration to help by spending a day or three working on something like cleaning old shellac? It would be fun getting to know each other and seeing the house. Plus I don’t think it is anything we could mess up for you. I would hope we could fairly quickly finish off a whole room for you.

  21. Janice Ramey on December 17, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    I forgot to add we could all bring potluck or finger foods and all our own drinks so that wouldn’t be something that would be a burden on you.

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