New Obsessions and Old Houses

We have reached the last week — the last few days! — of February. Our family has spent all 25 days of it down to one car because…

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We may be able to remedy that today.

In the meantime, I’ve been podcasting, but last week I forgot to let you know about it! So here’s what you missed last week — my somewhat sheepish confession that I’m just a little bit obsessed with James McAvoy…

And here’s this week’s episode, about some of the surprises old houses hold for their new owners…

I hope you enjoy them. I also hope that the rest of February passes painlessly by for you. And if you’re a praying person, do say one for us that we get a car today. Much obliged.

Don’t Move–Improve!

When we moved into our little brick house in late 2005, we repainted every room and ceiling, brought in our furniture, and generally left well enough alone apart from adding or replacing furniture. Sure, we did some home improvement projects–the ceiling in the basement family room, the main floor bathroom, the roof, and the landscaping being the ones that come to mind. But other than that, for the most part, nothing’s changed really significantly in the last ten years.

Then somehow, we ended up changing five rooms rather dramatically in the course of about a year and a half. Some of those changes have been highlighted in earlier posts on this blog, but I’ve been wanting to get them all up in one, with before and after side by side.

So here goes…

Sun Room to Cigar Room

I’ve a feeling a great many people (especially women perhaps) might be of the opinion that these pictures surely must be backwards. But no, and in fact transforming the very feminine sun room into the very masculine cigar room was my idea, not my husband’s. The result is that we both spend a lot of time in this room now where before he almost never did. Those wicker chairs were not terribly comfortable. And now he has a place to smoke cigars all year long without being exiled to the freezing or mosquito-y outdoors. We spend a good deal of time writing out here, as well as entertaining friends while children roam the rest of the house unsupervised. It’s great. We finished more of the work by the summer of 2016. To see more of this room, click here.

 

Warm Kitchen to Cool Kitchen

So. Much. Painting. This project was six weeks of pretty concentrated work, most of it painting all those cupboards and all that woodwork a bright, washable white (they were just painted with primer before that and got so filthy). This project took up much of October and November 2017. To see more of this room, click here.

 

Office to Master Bedroom

This was part of our big room switcheroo starting in January 2018. With our master bedroom on the first floor, there’s more privacy for everyone and our wandering about well after our son has gone to bed doesn’t disturb his sleep as it once did. I like waking up in a room with an east facing window, even if the blinds are drawn because little fingers of sunlight get through the bamboo blinds and nudge me awake. Well, they do when there are no clouds, which hasn’t been often of late.

 

Master Bedroom to Kid’s Bedroom

Somehow, we got almost all of my son’s possessions into one room rather than having them scattered throughout the house. He has far more room and storage space than he ever did before and the door can just be closed on the mess. It’s a beautiful thing.

 

Kid’s Bedroom to Office

And of course, the reason behind the room switcheroo was to give me an office that was 100% mine, with no one else’s desks or stuff in it. I’ve worked from home for thirteen years, so it was about time. It has really helped my mood and my peace of mind. More pictures of this room can be found here.

All of these improvements have made our house function better and have made it more livable. We have fallen in love with it all over again and have stopped considering a move to someplace bigger. Sometimes you already have what you need–you just haven’t figured out the best way to use it. Now I think we have. And as we were moving all that furniture around in the ice and snow and rain we decided that to move an entire house just seems like too much work anyway.

Now we’re entering the season when most people are thinking of spring cleaning and big home improvement projects and we find that our big projects are mostly done. So what will we do with ourselves if spring ever comes? I suppose we’ll just have to sleep soundly, work without interruption, eat a great dinner, and sit back and enjoy a cigar.

Operation Kitchen Facelift Is Complete!

It’s been nearly a month, but I think I can finally call this project done! Let’s get right to the photos, shall we?

Here is the kitchen before:

Warm and sunny, but over the 12 years we’ve lived in this house, those white cupboards, which were really just painted with primer, not actual paint, got dingier and dingier and more and more like the teeth of someone who drank too much tea all their life. They needed a bleaching session.

And I’d always been bothered that the cupboard knobs and the drawer pulls were shiny rather than matte and especially that they did not actually match each other, the pulls being silver and the knobs being almost black.

Also the wood-grain-looking laminate counters had some problems, namely at the ends. On one end the endcap piece had come off, leaving the particle board interior visible when you sat at the dining room table and on the other end it didn’t meet up with the stove, so all manner of grease and particles of food made their way down to the floor, catching themselves on the dishwasher’s insulation blanket on the way.

And speaking of the dishwasher, there was nothing holding up that end of the counter but the dishwasher, which made it hard to open and shut.

These are all things you can live with, so we lived with them, knowing that kitchen renovation can be disruptive and expensive. But finally the right time came. We planned and priced things out, went with the cheaper and easy-to-care for option for the countertop, bought paint and knobs and pulls, and then settled in for at least three weeks of patching and painting during every spare moment.

And this is what we ended up with after:

Every choice we made for this project grew out of the choice of the countertops, which are laminate slate basalt (or basalt slate, I can’t remember which) which were chosen because we knew we wouldn’t ruin them, we could install them ourselves, and they would keep the costs down significantly. So the paint on the wall (Glidden, Hazy Seacliff Teal — the color is a bit off in the photo and actually looks very different in different lights) was chosen to work with the deep grey and black of the counters.

I moved my cookbooks to the top open shelves above the sink and got new spice racks. And the sink itself was kind of an odyssey.


This is the fourth one I bought. Our house was built in 1939 and these are the original cupboards, so they are smaller than today’s standard, and a standard 33″ sink will not fit. I wanted a single basin so I had room for my big pots and canners, and so that I didn’t just mindlessly fill one side with dirty dishes but instead had to empty the dishwasher. The faucet is the kind where the sprayer is built into the end and can be pulled out and retracts automatically.

The wine rack on the wall to the left in the above picture was, like the spice rack, found on Amazon after going to eleven stores looking for both. Apparently everyone has more counter space than I do and is just fine with wine and spice racks sitting there, taking up space, because not one store had a selection of wall-mounted varieties. But in a small 1939 kitchen, space is at a premium. In fact, all of my “decorations” on the walls are functional.

The things on either side of the clock above the window here are commonly used, easily adaptable recipes. The idea came to me when I was going through my cookbooks and moving them to the shelves above the sink. Two that I use more frequently than the others are binder-type cookbooks that don’t stack well and anyway I thought ought to be more accessible. But really the main things I get out of the one are the pancake and waffle recipes, which I know by heart but compulsively double check because I don’t want to confuse amounts of ingredients in my head.

So I thought, why not just make them a design element and put them on the wall?

But just a couple recipes isn’t enough for decor, so I found more that, while I don’t make them frequently, I make them more frequently than others. Shortcake, banana bread, pancakes, waffles, blueberry muffins, pound cake, sugar cookies, and chocolate chip cookies. I’m hoping that having them on the wall will make me think to make some of them more often.

I also wanted a chalkboard to replace the little whiteboard on our fridge where we write all the things we’ve run out of so we know what to add to the grocery shopping list. This I also could not find in a store to save my life. Either they were too big or too small, and none of them seemed to be an actual, real chalkboard. They were largely just a flat surface that was painted black and didn’t have the feel of something that would properly interact with chalk, if you know what I mean. So again, Amazon to the rescue.

The little thing on the wall beneath it is actually a tray-style birdfeeder I’ve had there for years and that’s where the chalk and eraser go. Originally we had put our garage door opener in it, but the garage door opener has been broken for years.

One thing I had wanted for years was to move the cabinet knobs to the corners where they could more easily be reached and get the cup-style drawer pulls. This meant a lot of spackle before I could paint, especially on the drawers. The people who had this house before us had replaced the original 3 1/2″ drawer pulls with 3″ drawer pulls. But rather than spackle and drill new holes to ensure that the pulls were centered, they drilled one new hole and used one old hole and the style of the pull was such that it hid the old unused hole. So all this time, our drawer pulls have been slightly off center. And while we never noticed visually, the drawers have always been hard to pull out and push in without getting them crooked. Remember, old cupboards. There are no metal tracks that the drawers travel on — it’s just wood on wood.

So I went ahead and did it right, though it took more time of course. I also decided to remove some doors on some more of the upper cabinets entirely. I love the idea of open shelving when I see it in magazine or pinterest photos, but not for my whole kitchen. I know what’s in some of these cupboards and it isn’t pretty enough to be on display. But there is certainly room for some open shelving in my life.

Once everything was light and bright with new paint (seriously, look back over these photos at the amount of woodwork and you will see that this was indeed a laborious task) the floor looked sad and meh, and maybe someday we will tackle that (or rather have someone else tackle it) but not right now. I’d love to see it with old-style shiny hexagon tile, white with a black stripe all around the outsides and dark grout.

And looking at the pictures now I wonder if a white beadboard ceiling or even a tin ceiling would be cool. No, I don’t wonder. It would be. So sometime down the line I can see the ceiling and floor getting redone. But for now, this is quite a transformation in its own right.

The 130-Year-Old Surprise under the Stairs

In my ongoing quest to maximize storage as we remain in our house, I suggested to my husband that we should clean out the space under the basement stairs, build a custom shelving unit under there, and store hiking gear and luggage in a more efficient way. He was game and began the project a week or so ago, sawing and pounding and generally making it sound like he was removing the very foundation of the house. There were some things under there we expected to find — leftover paint, old area rugs that for some strange reason we had decided to keep even though we replaced them with other rugs we liked more, some things we used to have on the walls of our old apartment and I guess weren’t ready to get rid of, even though there was nowhere for them in this house, etc.

But there was one thing that surprised us — because we weren’t the ones who put it there and because the closed off closet under the stairs was so dark we never even noticed it.

When we first moved into the house at the end of 2005, there was a little shelf in the basement with the exact same design on it. We gave it to my in-laws because it didn’t quite fit our style. We knew it was either Eastlake or a later Eastlake-inspired piece. It would stand to reason, then, that this bundle of wood was a related piece. But just what was it, we wondered?

We brought it upstairs and started to unwrap it. It was partially packed with a September 1941 issue of The Detroit News (which I’ll show you all in a separate post because there was some great stuff in there). We laid out the pieces and started to ponder.

Some of our early theories were a mantle piece, a huge frame for a long lost mirror, or a headboard. A bit of putting the puzzle pieces together and searching for photos of Eastlake furniture online, this is what we came up with.

It’s a twin-sized headboard. It is missing at least two short pieces that would go vertically on either side of the darker piece of veneered wood in the middle. Whatever happened to those (and why the rest was saved even though it could not really be used again unless those pieces were present) will never be known.

What is quite interesting to me, knowing the history of our house, which was built in 1939, is that it is unlikely this 1880s headboard was ever used, or if is was, it wasn’t used long. The first resident of our house was a single female pediatrician named Frances Kenyon. If she moved in in 1939 or 1940, she would have used the headboard less than two years before packing it away with a 1941 newspaper (unless the paper had been around for a while before the bed was packed away).

I can envision her moving in with some hand-me-down furniture that she replaced with something more modern (perhaps something advertised in the very newspaper that was used to pack this old-fashioned piece away) when she had the means. And why did she keep the headboard she was no longer using? First of all, I know from a very knowledgeable friend of mine who is a historic preservationist that some bedsteads in past times were the finest and most expensive furniture you might own and they were passed down within families. But I’m not sure this was the case here.

More likely, I think, is that she kept it in case she might need it in the future — perhaps for a child? Frances Kenyon never married and she handed her house (my house) down to her niece, Sarah, who lived here until the early 2000s, when a young family bought it. That young family was transferred to another city, and that is how we came to own it. But maybe she wasn’t single by choice all her life. Maybe she had hoped to start a family and kept that twin headboard for a child who was never born.

And now we are left to decide what to do with it. It’s definitely been damaged while sitting on a basement floor for perhaps 75 years. It would need specially made replacement parts to again function as a headboard. And it’s just not our style. So we’re sending it to live with the shelf we already gave away. My clever in-laws will be thinking of a way to repurpose it in their home.

For me, the best part about my husband’s discovery of this artifact beneath the stairs was the pre-Pearl Harbor newspaper packed with it. I can’t wait to share it with you in a later post…

Staying Put and Scheming about the Future

A couple summers ago, we began considering putting our house up for sale. Driven by a number of factors, one of the most important of which were schooling options for our son, we started cleaning stuff out, sprucing stuff up, and living on Zillow.com. The plan had been to possibly list the house this past spring. That didn’t happen.

We still weren’t in as advantageous a position as we were hoping as the Lansing real estate recovery stalled. The urgency to move was lessened by us finding a good private school we love that isn’t too terribly far away. And then this summer I thought, hey, if we’re probably staying here at least a few more years, why not make some improvements, and thus began the transformation of the sunroom into the cigar room.

Our space and storage issues remain, but some recent scheming has made it plain that it would be possible to stay long term, just as we had originally planned when we moved in. This would mean some thoughtful reconfiguration of rooms, some creative storage solutions, some updates and upgrades around the house, and hopefully (please, please may it be so) some willingness to let go of some STUFF.

We’d like to do some updates in the kitchen, someday I’d really like to replace our deteriorating driveway and squirrel-hotel of a garage, and we’ll have to tackle the issue of closet space when we eventually move our bedroom into the current office. But some of these repairs and changes open up opportunities.

For instance, moving the master bedroom to the main floor got me thinking about adding French doors to the back yard, redoing the upper patio, and having my morning coffee out there. Updating the kitchen will mean adding functionality and style. Moving the boy into our current bedroom will mean he has room for all his STUFF in there and I won’t see it all over my living room. And the small size of his current bedroom, which would become my office and studio space, means it can only be mine and no one else’s stuff will fit in it.

Muahahahahaha!!!!! A room of one’s own, the holy grail of rooms. It almost makes me want to start moving stuff around now.

The decision to stay put for a while has lit our creative spark, which is a good thing. Last month Zach made more custom built-in shelves in the fun room (aka, family room) and a couple days ago we starting scheming about new custom shelves beneath the basement stairs to house all the hiking gear.

I’m sending away a bunch of little-used STUFF from the basement, garage, and yard through liberal use of our area Freecycle group. A number of things I’ve saved over the years “for if we ever have a bigger house” can now be let go of. Things I packed away when I was thinking about showing a house and then moving, well, if I don’t miss them over the next year and they’re nothing of sentimental value, that will be the next wave of stuff to go out to new owners. And if you know me, you know I love getting rid of STUFF.

We may still find that in a few more years we’ll want to move and the opportunity will be just right. If that’s the case, we’ll hopefully have less STUFF to move and an updated house to sell. But in the meantime, we’ll get to enjoy any improvements we’ve made, rather than just doing all that work for the next owners.

Or, maybe the feeling we had when we first saw this house back in 2005 — that we could live here forever — was right all along.

 

Only time will tell.

 

Estate Sale Win for the Cigar Room

I am in love.

EamesChair

The cigar room continues to slowly come together with this Eames-style mid-century chair for which I got up at 6:00 AM on a Saturday. I got my name third on the sheet and should have been third in line when the sale opened, but the first two ladies were slow and apparently not too eager, so I was the first one in the door at 9:00 AM. One of the estate sale workers had already told me exactly where in the house to go for it. I snagged the tag a split second before the lady whose name was after mine on the list (and then avoided making eye contact with her).

Victory!

The lady who checked me out told me they’d gotten a lot of calls about the chair, so I bet there were a number of disappointed people out there this morning. But I’m not going to worry too much about them. Instead, I’m going to sit smugly in my awesome new chair and get back to drafting my next novel. In fact, I used the time waiting in the car this morning between 7:00 AM and 8:30 AM to get more than 700 words written, so I’d say it’s been a pretty productive morning.

Now, I say Eames-style because it is not an authentic Herman Miller Eames chair. Here’s a great article on how to tell the difference. But the estate handlers advertised it and priced it accordingly. I never would have bothered going if it were authentic.

Creative Waiting

Waiting stinks. When we want to do something but it’s not happening on our timeline, we can get impatient and sullen and full of self pity.

Or, we can get creative.

Last summer a realtor called us inquiring about whether we or any of our neighbors were thinking of selling. Housing stock is low in the area and it’s a great time to sell.

Except when it’s not.

I had thought this spring we might make it work, but it’s just not the right time for a variety of reasons. Boo. I had been dreaming of gaining another room, maybe a bigger yard, hopefully less traffic noise and more tranquility. But mainly, more space. And I’m always excited about the possibility of just doing things a little differently.

So there’s a part of me that’s bummed. But there’s also a part of me that says, Okay, what can we do in the meantime to freshen up and make this house work just a bit longer?

The easiest way to freshen up is a new coat of paint. And the room I spend the most of my time in is the office, which is, in my son’s words, “An ugly green.”

I didn’t think so, of course, when I chose the color a decade ago. And I still don’t think it’s ugly. But maybe it is time to move on to something a little lighter and brighter. So I’m examining paint chips.

And the process of moving things out of the room in order to paint will facilitate some further decluttering and reorganizing. Why put it back the same way when there might be better options? Plus, while everything is away from the windows and baseboards, I’ll touch up the trim as well.

I don’t really have a timeline for doing this, but I’ll be sure to share the results when it’s done!

 

In Which the Year Hurtles to Its End and I Try to Hang On

Life of late has been a blur of copywriting, baking, eating, decorating, laundry, and editing, with some DIY church renovations thrown in for good measure. And here I find myself on the first day in December with no food in the house, nearly every room in some state of disarray, one car in the shop, and one gorgeous refinished chapel floor.

The walls and the curtained panels on either side of the cross are next on my list in our attempts to bring the room out of the 1970s-1980s, but not for a couple weeks at least. I’m taking much of the week off to focus on finishing up an edit on The Bone Garden so I can send it back to my agent. We’ll soon be prepping to go out on submission in early 2016. I’d be excited and nervous, but I haven’t the time. Christmas calls and I’ve hardly bought a thing…