AN INNOCENT bystander asked the other day, "Have you ever removed wallpaper?"
The Horrible Experience rose like Godzilla from the swamp of my subconscious. It is not that we have ever taken off wallpaper. But there were the two years when we tried to get it off.
You have to remember that 25 years ago, all our young married friends were buying neat $10,000 houses in the suburbs with ceiling electric heat, two bedrooms and a convertible bedroom/dining el. Not us. We bought an 1860s carpenter gothic, 12-room house in the student housing area near the University of Tennessee campus. The house had belonged to a fellow former student who had paid his way through college renting rooms to Chinese students who cooked marvelous and strange concoctions in their rooms.
Every room was papered. The living room had a different design on each wall. I remember the panel of old-fashioned people going into church. The designs of the rest I have successfully repressed. On each wall, of course, there were 90 years of repapering. The walls were, in effect, laminated.
As always, we were trying to do it on the cheap. So we did not rent a wallpaper steamer as everyone advised us to. We decided it would work just as well if we sponged the wall with hot water. How innocent we were. After sponging for a while, we took to throwing bassins of hot water on the wall in a futile effort to wet it down. You can imagine the mess.
We scraped and scraped and scraped and sloshed and cursed and sweated. The few pieces of wallpaper we were able to get off either slithered to the floor and stuck or slithered onto us and stuck, until we looked like medieval wildmen. I have no idea what ancient glue was used on that wallpaper, but if I had the formula I would be rich now. You could glue a meteor to the moon with it.
More of the plaster came off than wallpaper. Great hunks and hulks fell before our fevered gouging. We got down to the lathing in more places than we were down to just plaster.
After nights and nights of work, we looked at the dining room and wept. The wall looked as though it had grown alligator scales. My husband (or maybe it was I, we argue considerably about who was to blame) suggested that we use a textured paint to mask the three-dimensional effects. At this distance, I can't remember whether there was such a thing in those Dark Ages as a textured paint. In any case, we decided, as usual, to do it the hard way by mixing blasting sand with the paint.
It being the 1950s, we chose a trendy color: chartreuse. (Remember chartreuse? Not if you're under 40.) My husband, noble soul that he is, said, "I'll put it on. You tend to making the tea." (This was before the time when it would have been expected of me to insist on my rights to paint, thank heaven.)
He put it on. It fell to the floor with a whap and a flop. He scraped it off the floor and plastered it back on. There it went again. It took him more time to scrape it off the floor than it did to put it on the wall.
When it was finished, we thought it really looked pretty good, but that may have been an illusion caused by the hard work affecting the brain. We installed our Early Mother set of dining room furniture -- the one with the knobby knees and the 1920s Jacobean design. With the high ceilings and the fireplace (blocked up, but still with its handsome iron screen), we thought it was not bad.
Just the other day my husband and I were talking about it. And I asked him, "Why did you use blasting sand?"
"That's the only way," he said, "to make those sharp peaks that cut your skin as you went by."
Ah, yes, the Wall of the Thousand Knives.