Painted Historic Woodwork: Naughty or Nice?

Its light, its bright, but is it all right?

It’s light, it’s bright, but is it all right?

A hot trend in home design and decor these days is clean, light interiors.  And while a bright, airy interior is certainly achievable in a historic house, our un-remodeled old homes, especially those dating from the 1870s to 1910s, can sometimes be murky and oppressive. Continue reading

Be a Pal to Your Porch.

Porches on porches in this post.

Porches on porches in this post.

One of the most characteristic features a house can boast is an architecturally interesting front porch.  Much as the eyes are the window to the soul, the porch is the window to the house.  Well, that’s a bad metaphor, since the porch is the porch to the house and the windows are the windows to the house, but you get it.  The historic quality of your porch deeply affects the perceived historic quality of the rest of the property.  Removing or enclosing a historic porch can irretrievably alter a house’s visual character.

Continue reading

Victorian: It’s an Era, Not a Style.

Let’s be honest: we all like historic architecture, but not all of us know quite how to talk about it.  Maybe you can wrap your head around Colonial vs. Victorian vs. Art Deco vs. Modern, but in a city like Chicago, we’re blessed with building stock that challenges those descriptors.  And getting the nomenclature right when there are dozens of architectural styles and infinite substyles can be frustrating, even when you’re at your most eloquent.

Continue reading

Victorian Color Therapy


Victorian GreenAs a long-suffering chromatophobist, I have always steered clear of vibrant, saturated colors, both inside and out.  Neutral shades of grey, beige, and  taupe, with risky splashes of “wheat” or “sage” have been my safety zone. In my house and on my back.  Time to come out of the neutral-zone closet.  As it turns out, maintaining all things old house is pretty good therapy.

A little antecedent information first. Larger homes built between 1850 and 1915, were probably, in one form or another, influenced by Victorian architecture designs. Detailed gingerbread woodwork, bold brackets and enormous shutters beg for a color scheme that will complement their detail.  In putting together a post on Victorian home colors, I discovered that natural earth-tone colors were favored, as a result of Victorian homeowners’ fascination with nature. White was rarely used and shades of green, brown, red, and mustard were the norm.

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

So how, exactly did we get to the riot of circus colors that frequently and proudly animate Victorian era homes today?  Post Civil War homeowners started the transition to bolder color.  Embracing color has long been a trend in post war eras and downturns in economies. Any fashion catalog you pick up today is testament to that.  While embracing color, I cannot cross the line to coral “manpris.” It’s just not right.   The “Painted Ladies” (tarts, as my mother would say) of San Francisco were transformed into vibrant tones of purple, pink, blue and red in the mid sixties after two world wars and drab makeovers in surplus battleship grey. The true Victorian-era homes were originally painted in much more natural tones. The San Fran tarts stand as international models of out-of-the-box palettes and celebrations of color and creativity.

I have read that color affects moods and emotions.  Why did it take me 48 years to pick up on that newsworthy tidbit?  Some therapists believe that each organ and body system has vibrational energy sensitive to corresponding vibrational energies from color. Huh?  Chromotherapy  is a pseudoscience with no basis in academia, but I  sure sound smart talking about it, don’t I?   This is not a scholarly missive or architectural critique of historical homes.  It’s not even my opinion, really.  Simply an observation of coming full circle, finding our color inspiration in nature.  If we garner some additional benefits and “energy” from the colors of our homes, all the better!

Hope you enjoy the spectrum of houses I found.  Perhaps we have not veered too far from the original intent of Victorian homeowners.

My years in REHAB

Up for a challenge?

I bought an old house. From 350 miles away, I decided to REHAB a house in one of Cleveland, Ohio’s historic neighborhoods. A vibrant area of restored Victorian cottages, multi-gabled Queen Anne homes, second empire tributes and a mix of turn-of-the-century European influenced styles.  This melting pot of architectural styles also boasted a diversity of cultures and socioeconomic demographics. Diversity, evidenced by multiple disappearances of my gutters, building materials, tools and, on one occasion, a pair of shoes. Seriously?

This is more about the journey than the actual REHAB. By definition, a journey is traveling from one place to another – usually taking a long trip, Welcome to mine. This is the story of a house divided amongst itself; literally and figuratively. A house that should have been torn down years ago, NOT purchased with the romantic notion of restoring it to a quaint urban cottage. Yet that is exactly what I did and, at the time, it truly seemed like a good idea. I wish I had thought to start this therapy session (call it a blog) years ago and perhaps, by chronicling this journey via the written word, I could have avoided the rolling storm clouds and plagues of locust.

While much of this journey has little to do with the house, I correlate and reference the timeline in large blocks.  Like when I had to rip up the front yard and replace the entire sewer line; $5000.00, thank you very much.

Each mishap somehow lashed me more tightly with my hometown, this falling-down money-pit and the neighborhood of toothless booze hounds    What should have taken 12 months stretched over 4 years, by which time the real estate market was a tumultuous roller coaster. So, I decided to hold on to the house for a while.  Here’s the rub; I had to REHAB the REHAB. I bought the house to provide my brother with an opportunity to build his contractor business with full intention of selling it when complete. Well, his definition of complete and mine were different.  He saw it for what it really was, a flip. I made the mistake that many rehabbers make.  I was spending money as if I were going to live in it.   Lord, deliver me  from myself.

For some reason this house brought familiarity and comfort to me the first time I saw it. Was it a rotting, dilapidated excuse for a house? Absolutely. Was the idea of managing a total rehab from 350 miles away a lousy idea? You bet. I couldn’t wait to get started.

After 4 arduous years of false completions,  I took a brief hiatus from Chicago and went “home” (I am from Cleveland originally) and finished the house.  Then the party really started.

October 2010; after taking firm control of the checkbook I had no choice but to get creative with how every penny was spent. I wanted to maintain  the home’s heritage and integrity and a strict budget certainly facilitated that. The kitchen plan was originally sketched up pretty much on the back of an envelope and it simply did not make use of the kitchen’s size and terrific natural light.  In reconstructing the layout, I took old doors found in the basement and cut them down to build a breakfast bar and re-purposed the granite I had cut for the original layout.

The second floor which I originally planned to carpet took a hit as well.  The stairs and floors were typical of an 1887 worker’s cottage built for employees of Cleveland’s steel mills – pine planks that were patched, gouged, and in some places, patched with old soup cans.  Rather than trying to cover them, I celebrated them.  I painted them, added some well planned “distressing” with a belt sander  and then varnished them. Bam!  They looked terrific and added some wonderful texture to the upper level.

Here I was, 4 years after I had restored 80% of the exterior clapboard and the damn thing needed to be repainted. I discovered it had not been primed and was painted when the wood was damp. #@%$!*! Clean living truly must triumph because February, 2011 brought a week of temperatures in the 60’s. Hallelujah!  I roped one of my disenfranchised neighbors (probably the one that stole the gutters 3 years prior) to help me out.  We got ‘er done in 3 days.  I doubt he spent the money on much needed dental attention.  So be it.

I could make a long story even longer but you get the idea. Well, when all was finally finished in spring of 2011 I put the house on the market.  One open house.  SOLD. List price.


Second Hand Prose.

This old  house has a few stories worth passing on. Listen up.

After a recent trip to a Swedish retailer, which shall remain nameless I am standing strong on a philosophy I have long thought to be a foundation stone to the sustainable future of our consumer driven economy. I have always had a sweet tooth for found objects, repurposed furniture, gently used clothing and well, some might say junk.   Not to mention pre-owned cars, leftovers and old fashioned hand-me-downs of all sorts.  This is the stuff that surrounds me and illustrates my level of taste, style, and identity.  Let me say now that I am by no means a hoarder, pack rat or junk collector.  Well…not yet.

On a planet with finite resources and space, it is worth looking at our consumption from “the triple bottom line” approach. A term coined by Jon Elkington in 1994 to evaluate the measurement of corporate performance from the perspective of the shareholder to that of the stakeholder and coordinate three interests: “people (social), planet (ecological) and profit (economic).”  Three interests that work together like the legs of a stool.  All must be equally strong for the stool to serve its function.

With so many manufactured products already crowding the corners of our world is there truly a need to always be looking for something “new” – newly manufactured, that is?  NEW to our household is something to think about.  Some of the best housing stock in our cities and neighborhoods is the vintage stuff.  Many of our most prized possessions have been around for longer than anyone can remember.   Classic cars, vintage clothing, retro design…see where I am going with this?

Not too long ago, I made some updates to my kitchen and bath in order to put my home on the market.  I had quite a time finding fixtures, lighting and finishes that matched the vintage integrity of my home while still making decisions that would appeal to buyers looking for updated amenities.

I did not want (and could not afford) to do a total remodel so I opted to get rid of a few pieces and replace them with vintage pieces that supported my concept of reusing existing materials and pieces…nothing “new”.  Just new to my old house – and me.   For the master bath I found a vintage pedestal sink that looked great and added a wonderful look with period light fixtures, accessories and paint colors.

My kitchen, which had been “remodeled” before I bought the place, had an entire wall with no cabinetry, counter or anything else useful for a functioning kitchen.   By retrofitting a farm cabinet I found in a 2nd hand store with lighting and glass shelves I was able to add additional storage and an element of authentic vintage character.  I also found a great farm table that had been used as a mechanic’s bench in an auto garage.  Needless to say, that was quite a restoration project.

So, back to the “triple bottom line” approach; people, planet and profit.  People; I contributed to a general well being by shopping locally, employing the services of a furniture restoration company, and engaging the services of a handyman for installation (do not for a minute think I did the work myself). Planet; I re-used existing stuff.  Profit; I saved money on the acquisition cost and put money in the pockets of a local merchant, restoration company, and handyman.

I know that applying TBL, (3BL) to home remodel projects is pushing the envelope a bit.  My goal in using this analogy is to make us think globally about the decisions we make in our homes, shopping habits, and daily routines.  Yes, it takes more time and requires more planning but the benefits outweigh the efforts.

Upcycle. Just something to think about.