Sunday, May 6, 2018

When Old House Character Doesn't Work for You.

Our home's name is Ruth. She has a personality. She's modest from the street-side, her heart is larger than you'd guess if you only saw her from the outside, she has quirky angles like many old ladies do, and yet she also has a comfortable lap, like a good grandma, and loads of charm.

Ruth's front room, circa 1963
I'm a lover of history, and have researched my house's architecture; it's a Colonial Revival Cape Cod, built in 1939. I am the fourth owner.

A house this old and older will have quite a few layers on it. I'm thoughtful about those. There's also a range of opinions out there about what to do about it, from the extreme of gutting them completely and putting modern builder's-grade interiors in them (which personally horrifies me), to being supremely dedicated to maintaining period authentic details in every way one can. That extreme I can appreciate a little better, for the sake of its desire to preserve original details from the era in which the house was built. But it's tough for me to be that rigid in my own life. I've got some pretty eclectic tastes, and being stuck in a narrow window of the late 1930's wouldn't work for me.

Besides, people don't live that way. As much as scrupulously period-authentic homes teach us about the way people lived in whatever era, they can be museum-like, and sort of artificial in the sense that it is the rare person who built a household from scratch in exactly the year, say, 1955, and kept it that way for 63 years. More often, people launch in adult life with hand-me-downs and heirlooms from previous eras, get tired of certain things and fall into the fads of the decade (shag carpet, anyone?) in the interim, feathering the nest over the years with what's needed, what works, what delights, and what feels like home.

In addition, one must embrace (me: strong simple graphic design) or survive (me: beige everything, granite countertops) the current home design trends and fashions of one's own time. "Dated" is the word home improvement shows squawk over and over again to describe older homes. Of course it is. Whether or not it's a pejorative is largely up to the house, and its owner.

My house has postage-stamp sized foyer, only a few feet by a few feet, and another, larger room we ingeniously refer to as the "front room" because it is, uh, at the front of the house. In the 1960s, someone paneled this room, and it was where the gentleman of the house lounged, smoked, and watched television.


That purple fabric across the top of the wall hid stereo speakers. It was just as attractive as you might imagine. 

While I like me a good rustic paneling, as seen on our recently renovated screen porch ceiling photo below--


...this was really not the same. It was made of a rather expensive veneer plywood (it's either mahogany or cherry) dark-stained, but not skillfully installed at all. It had gotten orangey over the years, and it made the room gloomy. Then a later owner had sawed a big, unfinished hole to get his big screen TV into the wall, and left that hole behind when we moved in. It was like the hall closet had a picture window into the front room. I hung an old sheet across the hole and put an old sofa in front of it. Which the kids used as a place to pile coats and backpacks.


Not proud, but it was real life here. I also tried to love the paneling. It's historic, I said to myself. Paneling was a thing in Midcentury houses. Part of the charm. 


And practical too. The scuffle of four boys was well hidden by those dark walls. I tried to foof it up with some of my own things:


And still really, really hated it. I just couldn't make myself love that dark room, and even if I'd been able to repair the hole in the one wall, it wasn't worth it to me to be this miserable for the sake of period authenticity. To hell with wood paneling, at least in this case. I needed light. I needed color.

It stuck around awhile though, because I didn't have the carpentry skills and budget to change things up. It's hard to bring yourself to spend money on a room that holds the coats and boots, mostly, when you've got so many other things to do with your house.

When Tom arrived on the scene, we decided that while we still did not want to spend a lot of money on this room at this point, we needed to make it one that better reflected that we both lived here now, that I work from home here and wanted it to be creative, and that we both wanted to invite the sunshine in as much as possible.

I only have two not-so-great cell phone photos from the renovation period, but they sum up the two big things that happened.

One was fixing the sawed-up wall, and adding another bookcase to the room.


You can see into our L-shaped hallway.

The second major part of the reno was paint. Buckets and buckets of primer, paint, and more paint.


If you look at the top of the above photo, you can see how dirty the ceiling tile was from the smokers who previously lived here. While it looked okay in contrast to the dark paneling, once we started painting it was obvious just how disgusting it really was.

The rest of the decor was a matter of assembling things we already had on hand.

Before we updated the room, I had put a folk-art style rug in there in colors that I loved to try to cheer the place up a little bit. I decided that would go back in, and be the inspiration for everything else.


Then Tom's hall tree went into the front of the room, so visitors have a place to leave their coats.


Tom made it from salvaged paneling and wood. I love that it is there to greet his kids when they come home.


The window has a simple white cotton curtain on the lower half for privacy. The room originally had wood cafe shutters, and I would like to do that again when the budget permits. The basket in the corner is to corral shoes (lots of boys, lots of tennies).


The green dresser is a crappy little old thing I rescued off a curb and spray painted. I've had it forever-- it just keeps changing color. It is tucked just on the other side of the front foyer, and holds incoming mail, change, keys, etc. The drawers hold the things you always needs right before running out the door-- mittens and hats, umbrellas, sun screen, insect repellent, etc.

My work space is usually much messier than this, but this is the "blog-pretty" version:


I have a preference for things with a history or a connection, so I'm always more likely to go with old/used furniture than with new. The oak desk belonged to a friend of my mother's. The printer stand is actually a record player/music stand from my Great Aunt Elizabeth's house. The lamp is hers too. 

The floor in this room is 1960s era vinyl composition tile. If it were new or in good shape I wouldn't mind it at all. I like the pattern. But it had carpet over it when I moved in, is full of staple holes, and has cracks and crumbles in places. The next time this room gets an overhaul, it will need to go, I hope in favor of tile or wood flooring.



I'm most pleased with the bookshelf area.

Lots of old friends live there.



Some of the shelves are extra deep, which is a plus for me. I'm famous for squirreling books away. The desk is a curbside find, and Tom uses it for his work-from-home days. The big baskets hold camera equipment and random electronic odds and ends.

I wanted to have fun in this room, so I gathered second-hand store picture frames, spray-painted them in black, ivory, orange, and green (to echo the colors in the rug), and framed family art.


I did not feel constrained by rules here. That part felt good. I like how grade school ceramic projects and family photos and favorite books mix on the shelf




And as much as the paint helped freshen this room up, having art made by people I care about, things that show their personality and humor and love, is the best part of this room by far.

When this room gets another round of attention in the future, it will most likely get some of the things that honor the 1930s Cape Cod heritage of the house, walls with painted wainscot paneling to match what is elsewhere in the house, wood flooring, and trim. In the long run, we'll have both fully respected the heritage of the house, but kept it fresh and for us. For now this redo fixed the biggest problems, and fits our personal style so much better. I only wish I hadn't waited so long.

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