Finding character in a home and making it shine through a remodel

There are those that buy bright, shiny new houses. And then there are people like us. My husband and I were growing tired of the dining room table piled high with work papers, as well as the need for an additional bedroom for family members who come to visit for months at a time from Europe. And so we decided it was time to look for a new house. After laboring over listings for months it became apparent that the large “fixer upper” with character I was searching for was not going to be an easy find. As an interior designer I look for something I can reconfigure, to make my own. This, however, can get me into trouble.

The day we stumbled across a large house nestled in a gorgeous country setting, I quickly looked past its many flaws: the artificial stone siding, the sagging porch, and the old electrical wall heaters with exposed coils that burn bright. and I simply thought, “I can work with that!” Sure there were many flaws, but we felt confident in our secret weapon, my stepfather, Alan Barrett. Alan, an engineer with an impressive background that includes building and designing Lotus racing cars, as well as developing molds for the Death Star and Stormtroopers for the first Star Wars film, can tackle just about anything.

The Living Room
Our first challenge was to overcome the hobbit factor: The ceiling was so low that my husband could reach up and touch it! To give the room more height, we removed the sheet rock to expose what I hoped would be decent rafters above it. It turned out the rafters were not vintage treasures, but they were clean and substantial. However, the cheap plywood base between them was ugly. And when the ceiling came down, piles of rat poop came down with it. No good surprises in this house.

Cleaning up the plywood meant pulling numerous nails and staples out, spackling endless small holes and boxing out exposed electrical wiring (the pipelines we left exposed and just painted over). To add the illusion of more height we painted the plywood between the beams a dark gray, and the beams themselves were painted a light gray.

Cheap carpet was ripped up and replaced with wide plank white oak wood floors, shimmed here and there to make up for an uneven subfloor. (Did I mention the entire house is crooked?) We widened a non-load bearing wall in the living room to expose the hallway staircase, and then tackled the 1970s Flinstone-esque faux stone fireplace. I wanted something simple and modern, but rustic enough to reflect the surrounding countryside. To give the room architectural ‘bones’ I decided on a wall-to-wall fireplace façade. Alan used cinderblock to build out the center section, making this part deeper created an added sense of dimension in the room. He then built the mantel and shelves from oak and for the rest he applied an ancient plaster technique called Venetian plaster—a method dating back to Roman times.

The Master Bathroom
This room was christened by yet another animal. When we pulled out the wall cabinet, we discovered many years’ worth of cat urine soaked into the backside. To get rid of the stench we took this room down to the bones, replacing all the sheet rock. For the floor we used inexpensive, 8” wide straight cut (not tongue and groove) pinewood boards. To seal the wood, we painted on two coats of glossy boat paint.

The shower step was extended across to the door, to lend it more substance, and we brought in more light and view by replacing the single window with two crank out windows above a new Carrera marble sink vanity. To match this sink counter, I used floor-to-ceiling Carrera marble tiles in the shower. Alan molded a custom fiberglass ceiling with built-in spotlights for the shower. And at my husband’s request (bless him, he has very few when it comes to design), I got the largest rainwater showerhead I could find. The two-piece white cabinet, made by Noir, was in storage for a year, waiting for the perfect home to put it in. The Restoration Hardware mirror is a 1920s replication. And to top it off, a European heated towel rack keeps our towels warm and cozy.

We still have a few kinks here and there to work out, and another huge project—the landscape—looms ahead of us, but in the end the work and the wait was worth it. Our fixer-upper house is now a showcase home. NVL