We wanted hardwood floors, a fireplace, room for a garden, and overall, character. We wanted a fixer to change how we saw fit. A fixer, by default, I suppose, meant a non-HOA neighborhood, a detail also fine with us. We found such a structure on an almost quarter acre; a very large canvas, or lump of clay, with which to create; not one fireplace but three; hardwoods and character hiding behind the late 60s “upgrades”. Sprinkled throughout the paperwork were the words “As is”. The elderly seller concerned that potential buyers might ask too much in way of pre-sale demands. Our bank did demand that a portion of roof be repaired, and we did hire an inspector to pry, prod, and sniff his way from attic to basement. Even so, Mrs. Carlson struck gold, pulled Lucky 7s, won the lottery when she got us as buyers. Papers signed, she was now free to move east, closer to her children’s lives.
An original 1935 Freeway House lifted from its original foundation, somewhere along the under-construction I-5 corridor, and moved to a new foundation, a full basement no less, prepared for it by the newly weds who bought it. The hardwood floors, double hung windows either side of the fireplace, the dining room nook and enclosed kitchen, the octagonal bathroom floor tile, and the fir siding all made the trip in good condition, only the lathe & plaster suffered some dings and cracks. The newlyweds, unfortunately, didn’t survive. The house sold 2 years later, as part of divorce proceedings. Change moved in with the Carlson’s.
We like to think that the changes began from necessity: instead of 2 people living with a 2 bed, 1 bath, full basement, there were now 2 adults and 4 kids. We imagine that the Carlson’s worked quickly to dig more basement on the south end of the house, the end facing the lot next door which they also owned. Atop the basement foundation appeared a larger, though never finished, bedroom, a more formal living room, with large picture window facing that undeveloped 2nd lot, and 2 more fireplaces-one upstairs and one down-2 flues sharing the same chimney. Perhaps to avoid repainting the wide plank fir siding, mint green metal siding soon covered the house, with areas of brick added to the front elevation. A new, Soviet-era-sturdy cement entry way emerged, with a fiberglass corrugated roof and ornamental wrought iron vertical supports.
Given the design sense of the time, most of the, perhaps cracked from the move, lathe & plaster walls of the new family room now sat covered in faux wood paneling. You know, the imprinted 4×8 sheets of wallboard veneer? A plastic transition piece covered the seams between veneer sheets, floor to ceiling. The hardwoods worn down by construction and 4 kids, became covered with golden brown medium-pile carpeting. With the new addition, the front entryway moved from the center of the original house to the living room, a door facing the driveway, much more feng shui then a doorway facing the street. The new construction brought “modern” aluminum-framed windows to the living room and new bedroom. With the original house windows so dated, they could have needed replacing, so someone installed louvered or jalousie windows, with storm window and summer screen options.
The now 2nd bedroom sported a new sliding glass door, also aluminum framed, giving access to the backyard via the rickety not-attached-to-the-house “deck”. A door to the new living room replaced what was most likely a window. The original door to the hallway and bathroom remained. The third bedroom, the north-east corner room, painted mustard yellow with white shag carpet, its exterior walls each holding a window, 2 of the 3 double-hung windows left in the house, both so layered with oyster enamel that they could only muster an opening of 8 inches. Hardly the egress required by code. This room contains the “walk-in closet” mentioned in the sales material. A walk-in, after a step-up, two-thirds the size of what most consider a standard size bedroom closet. More 70s updating had adhered loam-brown cork board to 3 of the lathe & plaster walls. Undoubtedly, wall space was needed for posters and calendars and perhaps even strings of beads to hang. Anyone who has ever tried to push-pin lathe & plaster understands the cork board. Carpeting covered the very cool bathroom tile and a vanity sat the distance between doorway and commode. A counter to ceiling mirror filled the wall.
The kitchen was a cave. Kitchen carpet, a darling of the house’s renovation period, all browns and golds, covered the floor. The dark brown veneer cupboards, certified Pay-N-Pak, a long-since defunct precursor to Ace or McLendons, lined the walls. The upper cabinets were small, the space above them closed off with veneer sliders, much like a vintage travel trailer. The range stove was a smooth-top, probably cutting edge when installed, and the area adjacent boasted a food warmer set into the counter top. The Sear’s manual advised savvy housewives to keep their husband’s dinner warm using this new-age convenience. The room was lit by fluorescent lighting housed in an oversized ceiling fixture, its plexiglass cover yellowed with smoke and grease and insects and time. The counters were a classic laminate, white with gold space-age starbursts and aqua blue outlined boomerangs . This covered the counters and about 10 inches of wall too. The laminated portion of the walls stood out almost a full inch. The end of the room contained a window to the garage, space for a fridge, and the access door to landing, outside, and basement. A pocket door closed all of this from the rest of the house.
There are more details, oh so many more, of what we purchased, but I think I’d lose you. As to the basement, I will just say we tore out walls, covered up black painted cinderblock, acid-stained the main room floor, added walls for a laundry room, shop, and under-stair storage, and put in lighting. All the details, including what we found behind those portions of laminated kitchen wall or that large bathroom mirror, all that we found outside, the full story, can be shared while we tour the house, red wine in hand. What we found funny, beside that Mr. Carlson fancied himself a handyman, was that this house, a stick-frame, wood construction building, wanted to be a mobile home. The louvers, the metal siding, the flimsy black metal porch supports, the corrugated fiberglass all screamed TRAILER PARK. While there is nothing wrong with living in a trailer park, one usually finds the opposite: mobile homes want to look like they are not. We loved this and we hated this and we’re still working to make it less so.
This has been our project for many years. We DIY. I demo. Spouse rebuilds. I clean up. Spouse works full-time in an office so the rebuilding is slow-going. Spouse is a visual thinker. He stares, he thinks, he pictures, he draws on paper, he goes to Home Depot. Some projects get waylaid and are hard to get back to. But each of them, when finished, are amazing. We like our funny house. We like that we don’t owe a ton. While there are things we’d like to have finished, our house is warm & dry. We have indoor plumbing & running water. We have garbage pickup at the street. We have space to garden & play. While we now stare at closer-than-ideal neighbors through those south-facing windows, we have a place to be. Sometimes, as with any older structure, things go wrong. During those times we don’t get to choose the project: the project demands attention. Our recent heavy rains presented one such situation, but we handled it. It was hard and almost terrible, but with the support of our village, by diving in, somehow instinctually knowing what needed to be done, shoulder-to-shoulder though not really speaking, we tackled it. Together. While this place isn’t House Beautiful, it is our beautiful house, the place we make beautiful, together.