Raise High the Roof Beam: And a Happy Anniversary to Us!

John and Mary Helen Stefaniak with the frame for their new garage

To celebrate our 50th anniversary, my husband and I are building a garage. (Yes, we married young, but we were very mature for our age.)

Ever since we moved into our former stagecoach inn back in 2005, the tiny attached garage has been occupied by a 1972 Volvo 1800ES, a once jazzy little vehicle that looks like a cross between a sports car and a hatchback. We have long had plans to get that car back on the road—heck, with these kits they have now, John says we could make it an electric car—if only we had a garage with enough elbow (and head) room to pull the engine, do the body work, store the welding tanks, etc.

For years, we have been detouring down alleys to scope out interesting garages and outbuildings. And then, one Sunday, when we joined our three wonderful children and two grands for our weekly game of Bananagrams online, somebody mentioned the 50th anniversary coming up next July. How would we celebrate such a momentous occasion?

“Let’s have a barn raising!” somebody said. (It might have been me.) “Except, you know, we’ll build a garage.”

All of us had substantial DIY experience. Not one of us had ever constructed a whole building from scratch.

The kids thought this “barn raising” sounded like fun. They would come to Iowa City for a week or so in July, and we would have everything ready—plans drawn and approved, slab poured, and lumber delivered—to get ’er done!

John and I went into serious research mode on our alley walks—taking pictures, putting one foot in front of the other to measure the widths of garage doors, estimating the pitch of roofs. We watched YouTube videos—dozens of them—with titles like “How to Raise a Ten-Foot Wall If You Don’t Have Any Friends.”

Before we could order the concrete slab, we had to have a building permit from the city. John worked feverishly on drawing up plans, memorizing sections of the 962-page International Residential Code (a.k.a. the IRC).

We got our permit in May from the truly helpful folks at the Iowa City Housing and Inspection office, and the slab was poured by the very same Stumpf Construction that replaced the crumbling limestone foundation of our house 18 years ago. Obstacles remained. Lumber prices rose and fell. Supply chain issues required us to order stacks of lumber far ahead of schedule to make sure we could get them at all. Our driveway became a campground of blue and green tarps.

Now we missed our lifelong parade of mostly old Volvo station wagons—though you’d be surprised by how many 16-foot-long two-by-fours you can load, from dashboard to way back, in a 2013 Prius. Plus, we enjoyed watching Tom of Tomgo Delivereaze crab-walking his three-wheeled forklift laden with 20-footers or plywood sheets, skillfully avoiding trees and dry-stacked stone retaining walls. “You wanna have at least one fun delivery per day,” he said.

Vanessa and Liz with John and Jeff in front of garage under construction

In the meantime, the kids were making their travel plans. Only our daughter Liz and family could be in Iowa City during the week that included our actual anniversary, July 15th. Lauren, our youngest, was leading a National Science Foundation research trip to Belize in July, and our son Jeff—a firefighter/paramedic about to be promoted to captain down in Florida—could only get five days off at the end of the month.

Our barn raising was going to be a tag-team effort—not the family reunion we’d imagined. On the bright side, for one full month, we’d have at least one of our kids on the premises.

First up, from Omaha, the Huetts: our daughter Liz, son-in-law Van, grandkids David and Vanessa (11 and 9), and, in the middle of the week, Van’s mother, who joined us for a couple of days bearing gifts of zucchini lasagna, an anniversary rose plant, and more.

For three days, it was all electric saws and nail guns. On July 15th, they fell silent. We celebrated with an afternoon at City Park pool—Vanessa doing front flips and back flips while David practiced the crawl stroke he’d been working on—and then dinner on folding chairs at Solon Beef Days (proceeds to the fire station building fund).

By the time the Huetts left, what had been only a concrete slab was the skeleton of a garage, all the walls framed up in two-by-fours.

Jeff steadies the ladder for John.

Next shift. Our son Jeff flew into Cedar Rapids on the afternoon of July 26th. (Is there another airport in the country where you can take a nap on the grass under a tree while waiting in the cell phone lot?) During Jeff’s five days on the job, headers were placed above future doors and windows; plywood sheathing that covered the frame was riddled with nails in exactly the patterns required by the IRC; and, most impressively, seventeen of the nineteen joists that would support the attic floor were safely installed overhead.

How do you lift a 20-foot-long board that weighs over 90 pounds and place its two ends on top of opposite side walls, spanning the width of the building? Without a crane? It required two men on two ladders, John holding one end of the board steady on top of one wall while Jeff walked the other end up the other ladder to the top of the opposite wall. A harrowing thing to watch (seventeen times), even if everyone was wearing a hard hat.

Liz and Vanessa came back for the weekend while Jeff was in town. Vanessa and I returned to the pool. Liz—deeply impressed by her brother’s ability to organize the workplace for greater safety and efficiency—was sent to buy more boards. She reported: “Those two-by-twelves tried to get the upper hand on me. I loaded them first, so the smaller boards knew I meant business.”

At 7:30 on everyone’s last night in Iowa, I ran out to the garage and announced the 8:00 p.m. dinner reservation I’d made for an outdoor table at Monica’s in Coralville. Tools were stored, showers taken, and we got there right on time.

Lauren works the saw.

Third shift. Lauren took a few days to regroup after bringing her team back from Belize. She arrived August 3rd and stayed for a week. There’s nothing like hearing the insolent shriek of a compound miter saw and knowing that your daughter—a university professor and scientific diver—is cutting another stair tread from one of the 2-by-12s that her sister had to wrestle into her slightly larger Prius.

By the time you read this, the gable walls at either end of the attic will be in place. John is framing them up as I write. Then all we have left to do is add the rafters and the roof (using our recently purchased Bucket of Safe-Tie Fall Protection Kit), put in two doors and eleven little windows, attach the board-and-batten siding, and paint!

Luckily, the kids will be back for the holidays.

Reading on October 25

Join Mary Helen at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St, in Iowa City on Tuesday, October 25, at 7:00 p.m. for the launch of her new book, The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life (University of Iowa Press). The essays are selected from more than 20 years’ worth of Mary Helen’s Alive and Well column in The Iowa Source.