The old house crouched in the weeds, summoning as much dignity as it could, missing parts of its roof, some walls, and some windows. Not quite level, layers of paint peeling off the warped siding, it was abandoned, deserted, unloved.
It had good roots, built in 1890 in a nice neighborhood in a growing city by a family who loved it for many years. Neighborhoods change, however, and families move on. It was turned into a boarding house for college students, and after a time, the lot it sat on was sold for parking. It became For Sale to be Moved.
In 1976 the house was dissected; its top floor shaved off, dismantled and sold for scrap, the original gingerbread trim sold to renovate other vintage houses, and the main floor cut down the middle to facilitate the 20-mile move to its new resting place: 4 acres in the woods on the edge of a little town.
The Unkind Fates weren’t done with the house yet. After being reassembled and “updated” to ’70’s chic (shag carpeting, dark faux paneling, avocado green appliances) the new owners never moved into the house and it went through three different rent-to-own-ers, all of them having to be evicted for non-payment. Folks who are evicted do not take the best care of a place. It sat empty, quiet and alone for several years.
Meanwhile, a woman was slogging through her own journey. Although her history didn’t reach quite back to 1890, she sure felt like it. On the tail of her second failed marriage, working two full-time jobs to make ends meet, she had just moved out of the worst trailer park in Texas and into the home of friends, kind of a lateral move self-esteem-wise, but physically safer.
All her life, she’d wanted to redo an old house in the country, but though she’d owned two homes, neither had been the home of her dreams. Twice a day she drove past this house, which was just down the hill from her friend’s house. She’d even toured it (easy because remember, it was missing doors and walls, you just walked in) and fantasized about what it once looked like and what it could be again.
Although the asking price was ridiculously low, it was still out of her reach. She was now seeing a Good Man, and one day at lunch he asked her how low it would have to be for her to afford it. Out of the blue, she picked a number and they both laughed. When she got home that night, her friend said that the owners had called that day to tell them that they had lowered the price of the house to exactly the amount she’d come up with.
Well, she may have had a run of bad luck, but she still knew a sign when she saw it.
The owners gave her three months to scrape together the tiny down payment and the house became hers.
OK – the mood has been set. Poor sad house. Poor sad woman. Sad woman finds Sad house. If you don’t know by now that “she” is really “me”, then you are sharp as a sack of wet mice. From here on in, the story will be written in the first person, because the other way is giving me a headache.
The first years were like primitive camping, only not as glamorous.
I closed on the house in December of ’95. I didn’t move in till April because it really was unlivable, even for me.
All the initial work on and in the house was done by me and several good friends, mainly my neighbor, who gave me moral support and constantly reminded me that mere chicks can do most anything with the right attitude and access to really big power tools; and the man who is now my husband, who quietly surveyed the “diamond in the rough” and instead of running screaming the other direction like most sane folks would’ve done, just nodded and said, “Lotta work”. My nine-year-old son was too busy with the neighbor boys to care what his mom was doing, and my 14-year-old daughter announced “Mother, this is not a fixer upper. This is a burner downer“.
The first order of business was to gut it down to the bones. The flooring was disgusting and the kitchen cabinets were unspeakably nasty. We ripped the carpets off the floors, dragged them outside and burned them. It took several burns to really kill them, and even now there are still some fragments poking through the weeds. The linoleum was pried up and broken off of the floors. Underneath all this mess were the original pine floors. Even though the house had been empty for several years, there was still food (or what used to be food) in the cabinets. There was not enough bleach in the universe to clean them up, so out came what were to be our three main tools for the next seven years: pry-bars, sledgehammers and a big ol’ heapin’ helpin’ of EEEWWWWWWW. When we dragged the cabinets out to add to the burn pile, we brought along the avocado dishwasher, unopened. There was no way I was looking inside THAT.
I had no fridge at first, just a counter-top model my mother-in-law loaned me. There was no stove, but I found I could cook just about anything between my crock-pot, toaster oven, electric griddle, and a propane camp-stove.
There were several rooms on the back of the house that had been added after the move, and they had not been properly attached to the main structure, causing water to run down between the walls. They had to go. The most effective, enthusiastic and affordable wrecking crew is several preteens armed to the teeth with tools of destruction. On a fine sunny Saturday morning my crew gazed at me through their safety goggles, clutching their sledgehammers in their work-gloved hands, a dusting of sugar donut fuel still on their faces, as I instructed them “Everything behind this point comes down”. Tentatively, they tapped at the walls till I grabbed a sledgehammer and said “NO, like THIS”, and slammed a gigantic hole in the wall. There was a moment’s stunned silence, then mayhem. Within an hour, there was only a pile of refuse where the rooms had been, and one lad came up to me, still trembling with the excitement of pure positively directed violence. Grimy and sweaty, sledgehammer still in hand, he crowed “This has been the best day of my life!”
There was no heat in the house, and even though I waited to move in until April, it was still darn cold. There was a spot in the back hall where a woodstove had been, but one of the evictees had taken it with him, and there was an under-the-floor furnace in the front of the house that a heating/ac installer had said WAS usable. If we all wanted to die. I’d eat my breakfast cereal perched on the toilet because the bathroom was the only room I could get warm enough with a space heater. My kids came down for Easter and my daughter wrapped herself in her electric blanket and went through the house like a Cocoon with feet, trailing an extension cord. One day she proclaimed “Bad news Mom. It‘s warmer in the fridge than out here”.
By fall, I had saved what I thought was enough money to install a gas line for a furnace. A plumber quoted me several thousand dollars to do the job. When my eyes glazed over and I started to sway, he told me I could borrow the tools I’d need if I wanted to do it myself. He dropped off a pipe threader and a pipe cutter and showed us how to use them. The pipe was delivered and we started to dig our trench: over 200 feet hand dug between the roots of three gigantic oaks to the house. Once at the house, we donned miner’s hats, said prayers to the God of all Things Crawly and dove underneath. We installed t-joints anywhere we thought we might someday need one: at the fireplaces (I wasn’t sure if I was going wood-burning or gas), by the water heater (so I can replace the electric with gas when it finally dies), for the stove, and on to the back of the house where the furnace would sit. The same installer who had given me the dubious recommendation for the current furnace appeared with a furnace someone had replaced with a new one, fitted with a hood to blow forward, and installed it for free. I had heat.
The first winter I shared the house with a family of raccoons. This was not my idea, it was theirs. They moved into the attic and rearranged it to suit their tastes. There was a layer of blown-in insulation up there that they took an especial dislike to and spent hours chucking it down through the hole in the living room ceiling. Every few days I’d find a massive pile of the stuff on the floor. There’s an attic access door up high in the master bedroom wall and one morning as I was lying in bed, the door slowly opened and a little pointed nose peeked out. He and I stared at each other for a minute, then a little humanlike hand extended and quietly pulled the door shut. Summer in the attic must’ve gotten too warm, because they moved out and didn’t come back.
The house is blessed (or cursed, depending on the season) with huge windows all around. Two feet wide by eight feet tall, sometimes doubled, they bathe the house in natural light that streams in and reflects off of the 12-foot ceilings. When the kitchen was “updated”, they removed the windows to allow for the installation of traditional built-in counters and cabinets. A window that was 24-inches square was tucked over the sink. The tiny window, dark paneling, cheap cabinets and red-brick-patterned linoleum gave the kitchen a very cave-like feel. Ripping the cabinets out helped. Tearing up the linoleum helped. We had saved the windows from the rooms we tore down and we chose one with easily working ropes and pulleys, cleaned it up and commenced to cut a big hole in the wall that we hoped was window-sized. In streamed the light, banishing the cave monsters.
The first summer, I allowed the kids to do their rooms. From choosing colors to measuring and figuring out how much paint they needed, this was to be THEIR deal.
My daughter’s room is what used to be the dining room. Double windows, a transom window from her room to the hallway connecting it to the kitchen, wooden wainscoting, a chair rail all around and a door onto a tiny porch give it a lot of character. When we moved in this room was painted white with Pepto-Bismol-pink woodwork. She chose blue to replace the pink. The walls and ceiling are now a light blue, almost white, and the woodwork is just a shade darker. The wainscoting is sponge-painted, as are the doors. Our neighbor, Fran found an old wrought-iron light fixture at a garage sale, painted it white and rewired it for this elegant room. My daughter’s favorite art posters are wallpaper glued to the walls, framed with slivers of wallpaper borders. A rainforest wallpaper border above the chair rail, rag rugs, calico curtains and new quilt for her great-great- grandmother’s bed completed the look. She sent out a declaration of independence from the rest of the house, as her room was too cool to coexist with the shabbiness around it.
My son’s room is on the other side of the kitchen, what used to be the “keeping room” for putting up produce. The woodwork is not as fancy as the main house, but it does have double windows and is attached to the sun porch. He chose green and a fish theme. We texture-painted over the cheap paneling and the result was too dark. In trying to come up with something a nine-year-old could do, I hit on thinning a little pale green paint, putting it in a spray bottle and telling him to zap the walls. It has a nice spatter effect and lightened the walls. We stenciled fish on all the woodwork and realized that two of the four types of fish didn’t have eyes (!). Off we went to the craft store, and many little googly eyes and dabs of hot glue later, all the fishies were able to see. Dark green plush carpet (remnant store, cut to size like a big area rug), undersea posters, whale wallpaper border and trout bedding finished it out.
The master bedroom was originally the den, with ceiling-high built-in bookcases and a fireplace. When the house was moved, the bricks were removed from the fireplaces/chimneys and they were not replaced. The fireplaces were still there, lovely old wooden mantels intact, but boarded up. The walls were as most of the rest: nasty dark fake paneling that had chunks broken out of it in places, warped in places, and thousands of staples and nails everywhere else. We wondered what was under all this nasty paneling, so we pried up a corner of it. We found very old wallpaper on top of cheesecloth on top of wood. Solid wood. Curious, we did the same thing in each room of the house. More wood. The house was solid wood, some so old and petrified that we couldn’t drive a nail into it. Other spots were pocked by an old termite population, and still others were water damaged.
How to “fix” the walls on a shoestring budget? OK, who am I fooling? My budget was not a shoestring, it was the Dust on a Bug’s Shoestring. Enter my friend – fabric. The master bedroom was swathed in plain muslin, applied with finishing nails, topped with a fern border also nailed in place. This set off the dark woodwork. Since the room was once the library, it had no closet, but it did have an alcove. I found bed-sheets in a pattern that I liked that were the perfect size for curtains (with the size of the windows, draperies would have been custom; read Expensive) so I curtained off the alcove with the help of a spring-type shower rod. Instant closet. Another trip to the remnant store scored a nice patterned Berber that we cut to fit.
The house has a main central hall and rooms opening into it on each side. Each side room also opens into the room behind and in front of it. When I purchased the house I had no worries or intentions of ever having to chase a toddler around the many circular patterns that can be run here, but life is funny. Five years ago, when my other kids were 13 and 18 another child joined the family; born right here with two midwives in attendance. Trying to catch the little bugger takes a team of at least 2 adults – one to flush and one to catch.
The central hallway was painted gangrenous infection green over ’50’s institutional green wainscoting and woodwork. A single light bulb tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to light it. It took three coats of light peach paint and another rummage sale light fixture (a magnificent wrought-iron whimsy of palm leaves and blossoms) to transform it into an inviting entryway. The floor in the hall, front to back, was particle board. It had deteriorated over the years and was not in any condition to accept the tile I’d like eventually, so back to the remnant store we went for simple white roll linoleum.
This is as good a point as any to remark that I don’t like white walls. My goal for my house was to have every room a different color. Also, there is something completely freeing about working with a house in this state of disrepair. You can try whatever you want to, and no matter how dismal the results are, it will still be an improvement.
Double French doors open into the back hall, which serves as the utility/sewing room. It was grey with a plywood ceiling. I painted it lavender with iris and dragonfly wallpaper and hot glued lavender-pinstripe fabric (OK, bed-sheets) to the ceiling. Important scientific observation: when using hot glue on the ceiling, gravity is NOT your friend, and when a glop of the molten glue does fall on your hand, your first inclination is to quickly wipe it off with your OTHER hand, giving you double burns to enjoy. Someday this will be a metal ceiling, but many of the initial projects were necessarily cost-effective “first wave” decorating. Surprisingly, a number of these projects turned out so well, that now I don’t want what I originally thought I did. A roll-down shade hides the furnace from view and rolls up to service it.
The kitchen was one of the rooms that had undamaged walls under the paneling, wallpaper, and cheesecloth, so these were painted pale yellow. There are three doors into the kitchen – one from the back hall, one from my daughter’s room and one to my son’s room. One of these retained the original transom window, but the other two had been gleaned and sold, the holes badly patched. Someday, I hope to find matching transoms, but for now, they are covered with “mirror windows” purchased from the local home improvement center. When the counters were ripped out, it left me sink-less, and I purchased a large utility sink that I love for roughly a quarter the cost of the cheapest “kitchen” sink. I can wash lots of produce and small dogs (not at the same time), and it hides a fair amount of dishes. I have taken the art-on-the-fridge idea to the extreme and framed toddler masterpieces with frames from the dollar store. They cover the walls almost to the 12-foot ceiling.
The bathroom contained what was indisputably the most valuable item in the house – a metal claw-footed tub. As far as I can tell, the only reason they didn’t sell it was that they actually built the bathroom around the tub, and it won’t fit through the door. Unfortunately, it had been painted pink. Then brown. It took several coats of white to get it back. A new pedestal sink, pale pink paint to cover the dark brown (like all the dark brown paneling hadn’t been enough) plus a flock of flamingos and the bathroom was good to go.
We reached a point where we could tackle the Big Stuff: projects we didn’t have the skills or youth to do. The day they shingled the roof was a banner day. For six months after the roof was put on, the first thought in my head when it clouded up was, “Are the buckets empty and in the right spots?” Then I’d smile. If I was at home, I’d stand under where we used to be roofless and listen to the rain, feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
With the new roof on, we could finally do the living room. Time had not been kind to the living room. There were gaping holes in the ceiling, the walls were water-damaged and so was the floor. The living room is another place I’d like a pressed tin ceiling, but for now, it’s white metal ridged siding, and it looks pretty slick. My husband asked what color the woodwork was going to be, and I told him without hesitation, “Red”.
He just shook his head and walked away. I painted the woodwork before doing the walls, so I was painting next to the nasty dark-paneling, and of course, when the paint was wet, it was shiny. Shiny Fire Engine Red. Bravely I painted on, and the finished product is striking and dramatic. Fabric was brought into play again for the walls. I found a pattern of tiny floral calico in multi-colors and ordered eight bolts. Seen from a distance of a few feet, it looks muted, not busy. It’s a lovely counterpoint for the Victorian Red woodwork. To the remnant store again (they love me there) for more Berber.
There was a large porch off of the living room that had fallen down with the other rooms we dismantled. The foundation beams for this porch were still there, and, in fact, were proving to be all but impossible to pry off. It was therefore decided to make half into a deck off the living room and the other half a badly needed second bathroom that would open onto the back hall. The one wall of the bathroom was, in fact, the outside of the living room wall, so, solid wood. Our contractor picked out lovely pine planks to make the other walls and I satin-polyurethane-ed them and the ceiling (another project where gravity is not your friend). The first time my older son saw the new bathroom he announced: “Smells like Canada”.
Whatever that means.
The last room to be done was the sun-porch off the boys’ room. I was officially out of colors to choose from, and the walls were in good enough shape to hold wallpaper, so the room became plaid. When we opened the door to our little son’s new playroom, he exclaimed “I love it. It’s my treehouse!” And you know, with the windows all around and the forest pressing in, it truly is.
Siding the house was a hard decision. I really wanted to save the original wood siding, but was given the news by several painting contractors that to repair and replace and THEN paint would be roughly three times as costly as vinyl siding. My contractor (who loves old houses) pointed out that siding has come a long way in the last few years, and there are different widths and styles you can choose from. We chose a narrow width, like the original, and even found vinyl medallions and fancy trim for over the windows and doors similar to what was sold from of the house before it was moved. There are even vinyl “fish-scales” for the peaks. All in all, after the siding was done, the house looked much more from its own period than it had in years. After the siding was complete, one neighbor called to complain that now his property taxes would go up (grin), and another still brings people down the road to show them what we’ve done to the house.
Less glamorous projects included insulation in the attic, the walls and under the house (there had been NONE), installing ductwork and hooking up the furnace to it (heat in every room, all the time), and moving the circuit box indoors (I kinda miss standing in the dark, in the rain, in a puddle, flipping circuits) and adding a few new ones. The house had eight circuits when we moved in, no 220. In the kitchen, if we were making Sunday breakfast, we could make toast and eggs, but if we wanted the coffee maker on, we’d have to turn the lights off. Now we have over 30 circuits and don’t use more than half of them. There’s 220 if we need it.
We chose to have the windows reglazed rather than replaced. It’s not energy efficient, especially given the size and number of the windows, and it was costly, but I just couldn’t part with the old, lovely wavy glass. When I first moved into the house and it was room after room floor to ceiling bleakness and despair, I would lie in bed and look out the windows at the oak trees and marvel at how beautiful they looked through that glass.
The ultimate finishing touch was getting the fireplaces back in working order. The first night with a fire was glorious. There is nothing more decadent than a fire in the fireplace in your BEDROOM, cocoa on the bedside table, good book in hand, snuggled under quilts with dogs and family all contentedly snoring next to you.
Oh, there are still lots of things that need doing, or re-doing. A house is like your life, a constant work in progress. The important thing is that after a long, hard journey, a sad tired woman found a sad tired house and together, with a lot of help and a lot of hard work, they are Home.
Postscript: The story you have just finished is an unabashed love-story to my house. Even though the winds of change may blow me elsewhere, and on to new challenges, this house will be forever in my heart as the old house in the country that I finally had the privilege to restore. In bringing this house back to life, so my own life was healed and restored.