Urbanity

There is a huge difference between the merely impressive and the expressive when it comes to modern cities. Rotterdam, once one of the glories in the European architectural crown, was bombed to dust in WWII and, given the poverty of post-war resources, was rebuilt in the following decades as a horrifyingly soulless, boxy blot of concrete on the face of the Netherlands. There is no comfort in knowing that the firestorm that destroyed the city was probably not planned as it happened but resulted from a perfect storm of another kind in miscommunications; the horrors of war are a long testimony to the potential for such devastation. In any even, it took Rotterdam ages to be revitalized into the place of energy and beauty that it is today. Why? What made it such a heart-stopping graveyard of a place when it had once been full of life and loveliness, and how could it ever come back to be something gracious and potent again?

There is no obvious single word that can express the massive destructive toll the bombing took on that city; annihilation is perhaps a close approximation, since it’s clear even from faded photos that the thoroughness of the attacks left very little evidence there had ever been a Rotterdam. I find it nearly impossible to imagine even when staring at proof. When my spouse and I visited the city for a conference even less than fifteen years ago it was still a sad shadow of its former glory, still dominated by 1950s-vintage blocks of affordable and utilitarian harshness that made me want to scream when I saw them in juxtaposition to the few tiny remnants of the beautiful architecture that had once filled the place.

The main reason that Rotterdam is beautiful once again, and that many other cities have, and some have never lost, such beauty is simple: architectural thought and distinction. Building what is cheapest and easiest to construct is a poor solution to lack of structure anywhere. Places that have never experienced the ravages of war, urban decay and other forms of damage and neglect in such extremes can retain the beauty and patina of urbane culture in their urban settings far more easily. Take Boston, Massachusetts, a city that has seen its share of ups and downs over time, but as one of the older cities in a young and generally untouched-by-war country, still has many of its older–even oldest–and most prized, elegant, distinctive buildings. Despite the expected problems of social unrest, economic up- and downturns, spots of urban blight and misdirected city planning that Boston has faced like any modern city, the knowledge that the architectural strengths it does have are worthy of protecting and preserving means that it was built as more than mere indoor space in the first place and that the character of the structures has as much value in shaping the city’s identity as do its great denizens.photoIt should be obvious to those of us wishing to see all of the world housed and sheltered in humane and useful structures and towns and cities that simply throwing up whatever is cheapest and most readily available is hardly more useful, in the long term, than just plain, well, throwing up on people. If we want others to live educated, healthy and therefore productive and admirable lives, we can’t stuff them into trash bins of buildings that, even if they don’t collapse under their own flawed ugliness, will never encourage their occupants and users to flourish. If we don’t intend to fill others’ lives with the vomitous garbage we ourselves would reject and flee, we must find ways to make good, practical, appealing design a mandate and not an afterthought or an unaffordable dream.

That approach not only makes living and working in tolerable shelter possible but nurtures the human spirit and pushes us all to better ourselves, our cities and our world. photo

Outlets for Creativity

The bane of poorly placed or unattractive light switches, outlets, thermostats and other mechanicals is one of the great challenges to the average homeowner’s creating truly cohesive and attractive decor. Frankly, I’ve never understood what could be so hard about putting all of the functional and utilitarian elements of any building into very easily accessed and yet unobtrusive locations throughout, but that’s never happened in any building I’ve seen let alone in the houses where I’ve lived. Home design is generally pretty dimwitted in terms of simple practicality. But then, it offers a dandy problem-solving adventure to those of us who like such things.

So I say, if you can’t lose it, use it.photosExposed under-sink plumbing but not a lot of room for real cabinets? How about a half-height set of portable drawers and a counter skirt that fills the gap and hides the plumbing? It’s cheap, especially if you can use a ready-made window valance as I did in this instance, which also means that when your tastes change, changing the treatment won’t take a major investment either. A nasty old tile countertop that’s set in such hard concrete that it can’t be removed without demolishing half the room can be overlaid with a simple piece of laminate and a hardwood facing raised to be level with the edge of the top. Again, a cheaper fix than demo and new tile or stone, and easier to replace when the time comes even if you’ve still not saved up enough for the super-cool high-end stuff.

Another problem that’s pretty common in modest homes is a den (in this case the spare bedroom) where you want to be able to sit among your books and read but can hardly fit in your little old slipcovered sofa and still allow enough room for the adjacent door to clear, and then run out of space for the actual bookshelves. One fairly easy way to deal with this problem is to mount the bookcase on the aforementioned door. When I did this, I did install casters at the bottom of the case so the door hinges wouldn’t have to bear the weight of all the books as well, and ended up not only with handily located books for our cozy little reading nook but just a touch, however modest, of the secret thrill of a hidden doorway, even if this one only went to the attic. Add an old highboy dresser with some drawers removed for extra shelf storage, and for tucking away additional materials, there’s no end table or footrest like a stack of old trunks and suitcases. Voilà! A small and comfortable snug for reading, with a lot more stored in it than would seem probable or meets the eye.

With no space for a sewing room, I got a little creative finding a spot for that work, too. I found an inexpensive storage cabinet, the white laminate particle board kind, in about a 6’H x 2.5’W x 1.5’D configuration, at the local builder’s supply store, installed a hinged pull-down bench I could put my sewing machine on (or when it wasn’t in use, put behind it), added small weight-supporting posts in the middle of the shelves, and had a simple little sewing center that I used easily for quite some time. By setting my serger on the shelf adjacent to the pull-down bench, I had a comfortable corner where I could sit in my cheap swiveling office chair and go from one machine to another while I was working on my projects, reaching up to the stacked fabrics stored on the top shelf or underneath to the other tools and notions and sorting boxes on the bottom shelf. Finish work, push the sewing machine back in the cabinet and fold the bench up in front of it, latch that in place, and close the cabinet doors. No sign of Sewing Central in the guest bedroom until next time.photosThat house was more than big enough for the two of us, but in typical older-house style the space was divided oddly and not quite a perfect design for us as-is. What was not typical of the place’s vintage was that it had quite a high proportion of windows to wall space, a very nice thing but also a little limiting when it comes to placing furnishings and hanging art. That drove the placement of the antique china hutch (whose back side, happily, was finished in the same rustic style as its front) as a room divider to frame the dining room without overlapping either of its flanking windows. Having a wood-stove could have been a delight, but since the area where we lived had frequent burn bans because of the local microclimate, we hardly ever had the chance to play with it. Eventually I traded the stove to a friend and fellow artist in exchange for helping me redo the flooring and counters in the kitchen, but in the time while the stove crouched there using up real estate in the living room, it got a customized cover of lined taffeta (made at my little sewing station, of course) that made it into an extra end table with a hint of insulation. The living room itself was quite spacious for a house of that vintage, so with its location practically next door to the campus where we both worked, it was a handy post-concert gathering place for debriefing the concert over a glass of wine.

That meant we wanted to put as much seating as possible in the place without making it feel like one of those seedy recliner showrooms where salesmen lurk in the shadows and try to sell you chairs that look like poseable hippopotami. We already had a couple of heavy mid-eighties pieces of furniture that needed a little touch of camouflage for their portly nature (the white-draped tub of a chair on the left of the first photo above was later ‘darkened’ with multiple shades of purple into the equally chunky but less omnipresent chair on the right of the second photo, and its variety of textures and shades helped at least marginally to distract from the bulk of the whole. To get a slightly airier feel among the furniture occupants of the room, I took my grandparents’ old Jenny Lind double bed and made it into a little post-Victorian settee that kept us company for a goodly while after. That way the frame was virtually free (the seat slats were pickets salvaged from backyard fence repair) and all I spent was on the fabric and padding for upholstering the piece.

Still, I was irritated that the first wall anyone approached on coming through our front door was ‘decorated’ with an inconveniently placed thermostat. Never mind that the thermostat was located directly downwind of the only exterior door in the area, it was just plain an eyesore and a pest to hide. So I made it part of the art arrangement, ‘gilding’ it with metallic ink to match the background of the small icon and the frames of the larger artworks with which it was prominently grouped. It may still have been a pig, but I liked its looks better with the lipstick on it.

Now, I told you that I think virtually every place has some of these irksome ill-placed or hard to disguise quirks in its construction, and those I’ve dealt with were hardly limited to the one house. Our current place has them, too, and I’m working my way through them bit by bit, like the hideously ugly and out of date but perfectly functional doorbell box in the front hall that now lives behind a small basket that I think was originally meant to be an office Inbox but is mercifully less attention-getting than the egregious original bell cover. And it’s ‘breathable’, so there’s no worry about the sound being muffled or the mechanism overheating in a closed box.photoFurther episodes must wait for another day. The hunt for better, easier, more practical and attractive but less expensive solutions never ends. There will always be another touch of decorative deceit needed, as long as there are builders who don’t think through the way their buildings will actually look and work when, wonder of wonders, people live in them.

Foodie Tuesday: Hospitality as Apotheosis

photoBeing good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.

Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.photoThe work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.

The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.

Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.

The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.

It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.

Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)

Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you’re not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.

(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)

When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.

Cook. Share. Polish your halo. Enjoy.photo

 

Just a Little Thing

It doesn’t always require a huge investment of time, materials or effort to effect a notable improvement around the house. No matter how gifted I am at procrastinating when it comes to DIY and fix-it projects around the place, I’m always kind of amazed to rediscover how small a thing can have such large-scale impact. It doesn’t mean that I learn from my experiences enough to behave sensibly and just get the tasks done without resistance, but I seldom fail to be impressed after the fact all the same.photoTake front door painting, for example. There wasn’t anything especially unpleasant, let alone wrong, with the existing paint on our front door. It was, in fact, in good condition, and even a pretty nice color. I do like this trim color on the house in general. What was a bit unsatisfactory to me was that with such a dark color on it, the front door seemed to me to actively recede from view into the shadows of the porch rather than appearing to welcome visitors approaching on the front path.

So I decided to paint the door a sprightly and fresh color that might liven up the entry and seem a little more encouraging to anyone who might be coming to knock there. I chose an apple green that I knew would mimic the brightest greens in the plantings around our yard and complement both the existing deep green trim paint and the earthy mix of colors in our brickwork. I chose a semi-gloss paint to reflect light without glaring and make the door even more visible from the street and path.photoThen I waited. I put it off for weeks. It was only a couple days’ work to mask, prep and triple-coat the door, but I could find any number of excuses to do Other Things, even put up the also-evaded porch Christmas lights, as long as I could avoid repainting the front door. That’s how I [don’t] roll. Lazy People Unite!photoWell, I did finally get the task done. And it’s kind of impressive to me, yet again, how much this one little thing manages to change the look of the house. For the better, I think; in the name of fair play I must, of course, tell you that the manly member of the household is not yet convinced the change is for the better, but he doesn’t object so strenuously that I’m going to repaint it anytime soon. Besides, even if I do decide to repaint it, there’s no doubt it’ll take a good long while for the project to actually get done.photo

DI-Why-Not

Here at the ol’ Sparks Ranch (well, just a ranch-style house, but we are in Texas after all), DIY projects happen for a variety of reasons, but there are three main motivators that have the best chance of eventually getting me involved in them. The first is that I get, ahem, the spark of an idea for something that could be better than it is. The second is that I don’t often have the moolah to purchase such an item or bit of action ready-made and fabulous. And the third is that sometimes just the right piece of the puzzle arrives on my doorstep to nudge me into  motion after all.

These three inspirations converged recently when my longstanding desire to spiff up our built-in bar–an item I’d never been accustomed to having in my home, but what the heck, it came with the house–complicated by my unwillingness to spend much on the project, met with the gift of our renovating next-door neighbor’s removal of the built-in bottle and stemware rack from the bar in her house. (Thank you, LM!) As our houses are of similar vintage and share close cousins of the woodwork stain variety, the ejected cabinet was a close enough match to those already in the lower half of our bar to make a fine fit.

What began as a modest set of lower cabinets, a set-in [and nearly stainless] bar sink with a cheap but functional faucet, a nasty very fake looking ‘wood’ laminate countertop and some glass shelves on a simple bracket style rack is now, I think a reasonable bit better: it’s both a fair amount more functional and a little less sketchy looking, and I think I won’t be quite so worried about keeping it closed constantly as I had been in its shaggier state.

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Homely yet functional. Kind of like me. But I always want to be a little better, so why shouldn’t my house!

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Now, with more storage! And a little bit more finished look, despite its humble beginnings.

What I did: first, I remembered that I’m now over half a century old and therefore should not lift a couple-hundred-pounds cabinet up and bolt it into place solo, something I would undoubtedly have been dumb enough to try in times past. Okay, and I was silly enough to lift the thing onto the counter by myself before I decided that not being hoist on my own petard was a really appealing concept. So after I cleared all of the previous bits out of the spot and plugged up the screw holes from the old shelves, I hired a carpenter friend to come and heft the oak box up, herk it into position, and bolt it generally in place with me. I’m cheap but not [entirely] insane.

I masked off the space and did the most gruesome part of the job: prepping and spray painting the countertop and the lower half of the walls, along with the sink and faucet, with my old friend Hammerite paint in the bronzy brown hammered finish. The walls and hardware (including the light switch and outlet) were all in extremely rough shape and it seemed to me the better part of valor to just embrace the rugged look and be a tiny bit old-school industrial in style. Then I brought in all of the scraps of trim and moldings I had left over from our previous reno projects here, along with my little hand-saw and miter setup, and pieced together some legs to support the front of the already weighty empty cabinet and horizontal supports for shelves over the sink, cut two short shelves out of a couple of old bookshelves no longer in use elsewhere, and then trimmed out the whole conglomeration. Under all of the paint, if you look too closely, you’ll see that it’s one wild concatenation of mismatched trim profiles and caulked, spackled, sanded and glued odd parts, but I did my best to pull it all together with the finishes by painting the bottom half all in Hammerite and the top half (including the ceiling) in plenty of primer and a finish coat of satin latex in simple cream.

I borrowed a couple of unused curtain rod finials to hide some of the weirder joinery at the corners and loaded the cabinets, and I believe I’m now within an nth of Done with this particular DIY. Or, if I’m to be honest, I suppose I should admit it’s DIM (Did It Myself–and yes, dimly enough). I just took the globe off of the ceiling light and stuck a reproduction Edison bulb in the fixture for now; eventually, I’ll want to either move the fixture itself or get a swag to relocate the bulb over the sink, so it doesn’t sit right next to the wine rack and heat it up, however briefly I keep the light turned on in there. And I’m going to put some of those little chalkboard labels on the front of the ‘new’ cabinet in those flat spaces so I can write in what’s in the rack and change it as the inventory changes. At the moment, I’m done with what I have materials on hand to do, so I think I’ll just enjoy it. Probably ought to sit down and have a drink!

Cheers! Sláinte! Salut! Prost! Egészségedre! Here’s Mud in Your Eye! Skål!photo

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All in the Details (Small and Large), Part 3

At last we come to the changes made via some refurbishing and renovations in the Jack and Jill bath and, most significantly, in the master en suite. Let’s be honest: a large part of the quality of life for many of us revolves around having access to a good bathroom–or several. You do know what I mean. Oh, joy!

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Jack & Jill just got a refresher course . . .

I will simply say right now that we are mighty satisfied, contented even, at having a whole batch of fairly unfussy yet fully functional and nicely spiffed up bathrooms gracing our living quarters these days. Life is ever so good.

In the Jack and Jill bath between TV room and office, the original tub tile of pale chartreuse is here to stay, being sturdily cemented in and expensive and tough to remove, so it was essential to work around that, as well as keeping the existing dark woodwork intact. Okay, then, I stuck with that and the extant bronze-toned hardware. Even the ’80s light fixture would be a bit too pricy to replace at this point. But I didn’t have to do especially huge things besides tackling that main expense-inducer and complicator of things, replacement of the sink, counter and faucet. The new granite is complemented by a small but deep and flat-bottomed sink of porcelain that allows easy cleaning of the sink and of things set in it, particularly with its new higher-rise faucet. I confess I’m mystified why more people don’t opt for single-lever controls on faucets when that allows hands-free on/off/temperature control, a very common need among people washing their, well, dirty hands, I would think! Along with the faucet, I added new tub and shower hardware to replace the old corroded parts, new curtains there (a vinyl waterproof one and an accent set of sage green sheers to cool the tile color) and a little carved valance (too narrow for the window width, but it’s a start) over the translucent shade-covered window. All three of our bathrooms recently got grand new Toto commodes, dual flush toilets that are a massive improvement over the original antiquities that used to struggle to serve our household and guests.

The last change in the Jack and Jill was to replace the dated frame-less mirror with a simple framed one and trade out the glass shades of the over-sink light fixture with some more modern and artful ones. They’re described as ‘gold and blue’, but the color in the glass is in effect softer than that (more neutral, like sand and grey on white). They gently combine with the delicacy and prettiness of the granite color and texture and it all softens the tile’s green further and lends a quiet calm to the space.

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Next to my husband’s grandfather’s shaving mirror in the J&J bath is a delightfully amusing photo of Paul Gauguin sitting at Alphonse Mucha’s harmonium while wearing an appropriately bohemian deshabille shirttail-over-no-pants getup. Old school bathroom humor, I suppose!

The Big Bang of this phase of project happiness chez nous was of course the master bath suite redo. It felt like a long time coming even though it was only two years’ waiting on the wish list. So much happiness in getting our hands on it now. First up: we had a Solatube skylight installed in the space that was previously lit only by a weak ceiling light and two arrow-slit windows in the shower. Solatube now offers a nice combination contraption, which we chose, that includes the light tube for natural sunlight collection, an internal electric light for nighttime, and an integrated fan vent whose motor attaches to the roof joists and so is quietly distant. And a whole lot more effective than our 30-year-old fan, to boot. The constant wash of daylight in the space is a remarkably cool alternative to big windows. Wouldn’t it be lovely to install some in the living room, dining room . . . .

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Doors to his and my respective vanities flank our lovely, simple old bedroom armoire (that’s his grandmother’s cocktail dress hanging there, by the way). I left a strip of the dark-stained wood unpainted on the vanity door jambs to complement all of the mahogany and teak in our master bedroom furnishings and tie the spaces together.

The master bath reno actually started during the original freshening up for our moving in, when we knew we wanted doors installed in the openings between the master bedroom and the two separate vanity areas that flank the shower/toilet room and through which it’s entered. Those six-paneled doors were installed then but never finish-painted over the pre-primed starter coat. At long last, they’re fully clothed. I changed out the door handles, putting brushed nickel lever handles on both those and the vanity-to-shower doors, regular knobs of that color on the walk-in closet doors on each side, and new silvery hinges on everything, white door stops on them, new silver colored hinges on all of the cabinetry, and so forth. I’d already changed the light fixtures in the vanities from bright brass 12-light ’70s theatre dressing room atrocities to simpler nickel and glass lamps. I had put nickel knobs on the cabinetry throughout the suite to start. Now it was time to finish up everything else with some fresher and more modern goodness.

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From the vanity on my side of the suite you can see that marvelous skylighted walk-in-shower room. So inviting! The vanity space is a comfortable spot, too, where I can enjoy the folk art painting of the family farm in Norway (L) and the little embroidered alpine plant my mother stitched (by my mirrored closet door).

I kept the light sage walls through the suite happily–it’s so calming and almost spa-like to me, even though our particular, personal ‘spa’ is not all that high-end. The shower we had replace our old bathtub now is the closest we’re likely to get to a spa, however, and we’re enjoying it immensely already. The men we brought in for this their second round of work on our home gave us a lovely refuge where we can scrub up for the day. They demolished the old, tough olive green tile, pulled out the beat up cast iron tub, and tiled in a lovely naturally soothing walk-in shower with sandy tan square and rectangular tiles, a floor of sweet tiny brick-shaped paler tiles and soft tan sanded grout. I bought a nice brushed nickel shower head with a single lever valve and a secondary spray head, a spice rack to use as a shampoo-and-implements holder, a wall dispenser for tea tree oil soap, and a fold-down teak shower seat.

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Closeups of the new look of the master shower. The ‘Lucky Bamboo’ in the window is not the only one that loves it in here now!

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I had already begun work on the other parts of the master washroom before we got to this wrestle-out-the-tub phase, but now they got some fresh paint and new hardware to wrap up the process.

The granite contractor who installed our marvelous kitchen counters and sills two years ago brought his wonderful crew back in and set in our vanity tops and under-mount sinks that match the Jack and Jill’s, and our plumber installed the new faucets I’d bought, and when the crew completed a few more tasks of fix-it mania around the house their work was done. Once they built our haven of cleanliness it was my turn to get back to work. I primed and painted all of the dark wainscoting and cabinetry in the bathroom suite white, replaced the whole-wall mirrors over the vanities with smaller white-framed mirrors and hung a white wood medicine cabinet next to each of ours, rehung the full length mirrors on our closet doors, reassembled all of the cabinets with new silver colored hinges, padded stops, magnetic latches, and a vast quantity of swear words, and finished with the clean reorganization of drawers and shelves and reintroduction of wall art and such amenities.

The long and the short of it, the small and the large, is that we have a lot of upgrades around the house to show for relatively few days’ total labor and machinations. I will very happily not deal with such messes and involvement again any time soon, but it is as always a tremendous pleasure to have things this much closer to our ideal. In the usual way, it will undoubtedly uncover the next set of changes to build a new wish list upon, and that is simply the way that this inveterate changer-of-all-things operates. And the way that life flows, no matter what. These are the details on which our reality is truly based.

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Note that the light coming in here is all sunlight from that small skylight in the adjacent shower room. And yes, His (L) and Hers (R) vanities. It’s dandy to have so much space–and we each have a full walk-in closet of our own attached to these, plus the shared shower room between. Living like royalty, indeed; that IS, after all, our style . . .

All in the Details (Small and Large), Part 2

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Pale yellow and gold and bronze add to the cozy warmth of the dark ash woodwork in the guest bathroom but with the dash of teal I think it doesn’t get too claustrophobic. A faux stone tall backsplash helps to cover some of the sins of the non-removable and painted-over wallpaper with better-wearing toughness in this wet room.

We’ve moved on to more complicated things . . .

Specifically, to the bathroom improvements we have had on our wish list since buying a house with four stereotypical ’70s bathroom counters all made of one-piece slabs of olive green marbleized acrylic of extreme fakeyositude, with integrated shell shaped sinks that, no pun intended, made our hearts sink every time we saw them. Besides being hideous and worn, they showed every speck of dirt and dust that came within their vortices, and they made us infinitely sad.

Now, we did have a little practice on bathroom reno from our first bout during the move-in preparations. The guest bath was both too decrepit and untenably ugly to be offered to people we actually liked as any sort of relief from need. I couldn’t tear out all of the wallpaper in there, having found quite speedily that aside from the kitchen wallpaper this house had paper glued directly to its unprimed wallboard, so I applied a heavy coat of oil-based primer and evened out the seams as best I could with lightweight spackle, finished corners and edges with caulking and filling holes with both caulk and spackle, and primed yet again. Then I could at least paint much of the remaining wall surface in there. The tiny shower stall was sturdily tiled in yellow–thankfully, a light shade, since it would be hard to remove–so I painted the walls a paler yellow yet and called it good.

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The living room is getting lighter all the time . . .

The majority of the house being paneled or wainscoted–again, thankfully, in better quality than the flimsy plastic-looking stuff popularized in the later 1970s–with dark-stained ash, I opted to play off of the coziness and old-fashioned qualities of the cabinets and trim in the two small bathrooms and leave them dark, collecting all of the bits of bronze-tinted hardware randomly installed around the house and finishing those rooms with that color of metalwork for face plates and towel bars and robe hooks and a few dark wood and gilt trimmings. In the guest bathroom, as we were making our move-in improvements, I played off of the idea that washrooms are often reading rooms and hung up a couple of vintage books on the walls along with the requisite magazine holder. We did ‘invest’ in replacing the counter and sink with a simple composite scrap our contractor had around and a plain porcelain bowl, and I bought a gilt picture frame at a discount store and trimmed the inside edge with gold braid, to mask the edges of the old unframed mirror.

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‘Finger Trap’ (by Patrick McCormick) joins a couple of my graphite drawings, and possibly the only extant sample of my wildly rudimentary stitchery, in the living room. Now, how to get enough light to see all of it . . .

Meanwhile, our home’s openness means that while genuinely private rooms like the baths and bedrooms could and perhaps should have distinctive features of their own, the adjoining spaces in the living areas being so open to each other means it’s best to at least be reasonably compatible, if not coordinated. I’d rather not get bored, so I hope to find a happy medium and not risk severe matchy-matchy disease sneaking up on me for having tried too hard. The main thing I want to have been truly through-designed in this place to make it home and happy is lots of light. Artificial and natural. And the openness of the floor plan should lend itself to that kind of flow. The trick is enhancing what is unfortunately innate in a dark-paneled house, especially one built in an era not best remembered as the era of intelligent room lighting.

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It’s not ultra-bright, but in daytime, sheers let in a little gentle natural light without overheating the living space. After all, the flanking phony tree scenery gives a little boost of a pretend view, too.

The living room one of the darker spots in the house because of its position and direction and the big floofy flowering pear tree in front of its main window. My first line of defense was to install LED rope lights in the ceiling recess in there (giving us a low ambient light any time we wish) and add wall up-lights to the three corners other than the one where I keep my vintage 50s torchiere–that lamp my sisters and I called the Space Needle Light when we were little and it lived at our Grandma and Grandpa’s place. There was not a lot of window light in general, but of course the dark brown Venetian blinds that came with the place weren’t a big help. I’ve recently replaced the blinds on the small driveway-side window with a very simple accordion-pleated white translucent blind so a whole lot more light comes in steadily. I opened up the front window blind too, hung up pale golden-tan sheers, and will probably do the same in the dining room window that balances the living room one. I think having the sheers under the dining room’s carved valance (Gramps’s artistry from his youth in Norway) will hide the shaggy mounting hardware behind and underneath the valance anyway! Not least of all, having better light in the living and dining rooms will help to show off things like Gramps’s carved valance and picture frames in the dining room and the artwork and my exceedingly rustic faux cruel, I mean crewel, stitchery on the throw pillow in the living room.

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You can see–and see *through*–how much space is here between living and dining rooms for entertaining . . .

And having fun stuff to look at in the house can do nearly as much toward house-warming as having a nicely built house itself can do. It’s another reason we keep moving forward with the renovations and projects over time. The biggest change here lately has to have been the bathroom renovations in the Jack and Jill bath and, most of all, in the master en suite.

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Grandpa’s carvings grace the front wall of the dining room and will be all the more visible if I put in some sheer curtains so the Venetian blinds can stay open more of the time.

(To be continued tomorrow . . . )