Just Beyond the Front Door

I snapped this picture 3 days ago on the trail around the lake in our neighborhood.

Our neighborhood was created in 1913 to host the Second General Missionary Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The ‘Assembly,’ as it’s locally known, covers about 5.6 square miles (roughly 14.6 square kilometers) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina; including a 200-acre lake, 16 gardens, a golf course, gym, various meeting, lodging and sports facilities. There were only 13 homes here in 1913, but summer cottages continued to pop up throughout the Assembly over the next few decades. Quite a few of these cottages, such as ours, have remained in their semi-original condition for decades.

Our front door opens onto two rooms: the kitchen and a living area – what we’ve since learned was a 1960s addition to the original 1945-era cottage. Somewhere along the way the first owner’s family probably grew large enough to require extra rooms to accommodate their summer get-aways. This two-room addition followed the sloping landscape, leaving it two steps down from the front door of the original cottage.

Our first carpenter came up with the idea to expand the steps and incorporate a platform of sorts on the right side with a large storage drawer underneath. The antique wine rack we found while living in Ecuador found a home atop the platform, and the big drawer has become the best spot to store dog leashes, extra dog food, and stuff in general.

Although our cottage sat idle for 60 years or more (decoratively speaking), we’ve re-worked these two front rooms three times in the past two years. The first decor was designed around using the cottage as a vacation rental property, but we decided to move in before we went through with that plan. In the second decor we used our own furnishings – minus those things we kept in storage as we went through construction to add one more room onto the back of the house. With construction finished and everything out of storage, almost every room in the house has been re-worked again.

We finished the first kitchen renovation last year, but since then we’ve switched to all black appliances, changed the rug, added a backsplash, upgraded the light fixtures, and most recently, exchanged a small table in the center with a counter-height island and two stools.

The Kitchen (version III):

Once or twice a year there’s a sale at the E.J. Victor showroom in High Point, or sometimes at their factory in Morganton. Even when there’s nothing in the world I need, I love going to these sales. Earlier this year, there were boxes and boxes of chandeliers at the sale in High Point. I brought two of them back home.

It wasn’t an easy job to add overhead lighting. The metal roof had been installed directly onto the ceiling joists leaving no room to run the wiring. Recessing anything into this ceiling was out of the question. A local investor had won the initial bid on this house and was renovating things for several weeks before we convinced her to sell it to us. Her electrician was implementing an altogether different approach to the overhead lighting project before we arrived on the scene.

He didn’t mind re-thinking things at all, and eventually we came up with a more inconspicuous option by adding plugs to the chandeliers and running the wiring on the back side of the ceiling beams. Old houses seem to require out-of-the-box thinking sometimes, and I think this was one of those times.

The chandelier plugs into an outlet above the cabinets on the left by the ceiling beam:

The living area side of the front rooms had been our family room in both of its previous iterations. This was the Living Area after we moved in with our own furnishings:

Now it’s a Dining Room (version III):

We added a gas starter to the wood-burning fireplace last year, but this year we went a step further and opted for artificial logs – less work, no mess.

We’ve accumulated some interesting furnishings over the years, and although we didn’t have room to keep everything when we downsized, I tried to be thoughtful about keeping things that might work. Then the challenge became to use what I had kept!

Several of the more unique accessories we’ve collected over the years have come from Maitland-Smith – a by-product of having owned a home furnishings store. I’d sit at my desk whenever traffic was light and study the methods the artisans use to create these treasures.

One technique is Lost Wax Casting where the artisans create a finely carved wax model surrounded by a special form of lightweight concrete.The mold is filled with molten metal through holes carved into the material, which melts the wax model which then drains away through a small exit hole. When the mold cools, it’s broken open to reveal a finely cast metal object that was once wax. Then the pieces are finished in verdigris, aged brass, dark bronze or another popular finish. Some of my favorite accessories have been created using this method.

I wouldn’t say our front rooms’ decor will remain as-is for the next 60 years, but we’re definitely done for awhile.

Musical Chairs and the Room in the Middle

While most homes have functionally specific rooms, my little cottage suggests it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. For example, the original kitchen is now the master bedroom, the original master bedroom is now a closet, and the room in the middle has been a living room, bedroom, dining room, and now a foyer – all within its original footprint.

You can start from the beginning here, but to quickly recap: we were on the hunt for a cute cottage for downsizing our life; found it, but got outbid by a flipper; convinced her to sell it to us anyway, as-is (remodel in-progress); finished the remodel so we could put it on the vacation rental circuit until we were really ready to downsize; changed (or lost) our minds and moved in; added one more room onto the back of the house, which allowed us to repurpose almost every room (move furniture from front to back and all around). This is the story of the room in the middle.

It was a bedroom when we first saw the house in August 2017. The doorway on the left would have been the front door until a 1970’s addition created a new kitchen and living area, which makes us think this room would have been the location of the home’s original living room.

The room also has a small coat closet and a fireplace. It’s hard to see in the photos, but the crown molding had an unusual design along the bottom – sort of the shape of fish scale shingles. The flipper had already replaced the windows with french doors, which we thought was a grand idea, but she had also removed the crown molding. Our lead carpenter at the time told me he could replace the molding, but make it even better. He did not disappoint.

The photo below shows the outline of the original crown molding. This was how the room looked on our first day after buying the house.

When we furnished the house for the rental market, this was the most logical room for a dining table. We added a closet in the center hallway that would eventually become the entrance to the new addition at the back of the house.

I discovered the German Schmear the same year we bought the cottage, and tried out my own version on the little fireplace in this room. My husband found an arched style ventless fireplace insert on Wayfair, and the carpenter created the curved trim surround. A thermostat causes it to turn on randomly throughout cold winter days giving the room a warm glow.

From the angle of the photo below, you can see the bricks on the left side of the fireplace are shaved flat while the other side is angled. I love these oddball things about old houses where only an owner from long ago would know the background story. We’ve made our own contributions in this area along the way I guess. The wildflowers are from my garden.

Now that we have a covered carport on this side of the house, this room has become the way we most often enter the house. We also linger over coffee here in the mornings, and sometimes we sit here with a glass of wine at the end of the day. As you might imagine, we solve a lot of the world’s problems from right here. 🙂

ACE Construction and the MaSonRyPRoJecT

After weeks of nearly indiscernible baby steps on our cottage construction project we have a finished space. It wasn’t really worldwide breaking news the day they sprayed foam insulation into the walls, when the metal roof and the interior ceiling planks went up, or when paint covered the walls inside and out. But when they broke through the walls and finished the transition from old house to new addition, this adjunct room that seemed to independently protrude from the back of the house was now part of the collective whole, and the end of the project was finally in sight.

The cottage before construction started:

Most every project has at least one memorable moment – something you can’t believe just happened. There were no shocking, pull-your-hair-out surprises in this project. Everything fit. Everything worked the way we wanted.

The contractor’s biggest worry was that the floor of the addition wouldn’t line up evenly with the home’s original floor. He poked a hole through the side of the house to spot check his measurements in late April, but we wouldn’t find out whether those measurements were accurate until they opened the wall at the back of the house a few weeks ago (they were spot on).

There were two places where the addition would open up to the house – in the master bath and through a hallway closet that would ultimately become the entry to the room. The guys hung a tarp to serve as a partition of sorts when they cut through the exterior wall – which means the only thing between my bathroom and a half dozen workers was a blue tarp. Sometimes I walked to the end of the road to use the bathroom at the gym rather than use the one at home with the tarp.

Once we discovered the existence of wormwood (the ceiling planks we used in the hallway bath remodel), we changed direction and used them in the new addition as well. It totally changed the character of the room. I kept eyeing the leftover pieces of wormwood from the cuts they made for the ceiling, and finally decided there’d be enough to also use on the wall in the master bath.

The master bath during construction: Still in progress, but almost finished. . . In January we decided on all the design particulars of this one new room. Building the room on a slab rather than crawl space left us with a decision about flooring options. I didn’t relish the possibility that the sound of walking on hardwood floors could be different between the slab foundation and the crawl space foundation of the original house, so we decided to use brick. Everyone that sees our new brick floor has asked if it was an original patio or some part of the original house all along. One of the early chores of the project was to meet with the electrician about the lighting plan – although it became more of a negotiation than a meeting really. I wanted to convert my beloved sconces to be hard-wired and permanently attach them to the wall. He suggested I buy new sconces. I asked that all the outlets be switched, but eventually compromised on half the outlets – which turns on exactly two lamps. By the end of our meeting, he had told me I was ”obviously afraid of the dark.“ It all worked out in the end and there’s a light, outlet and switch in all the right places. The furniture movers had only one day available last week and then they were booked until the end of September, so we hauled the furniture in from the storage room a few days earlier than perhaps the contractor had hoped for. There’s still a pretty hefty punch-down list of things yet to be finished, but the guys have cleared out their tools and for the first time in months our house doesn’t really look like a construction zone – aside from the gutter strewn across the back yard, the dumpster across the street and the port-a-potty in the driveway, of course. But none of that will prevent me from the most wonderful part of renovating: decorating.

The Hall Bath Remodel: before and after

The last time I wrote about remodeling our hall bath we had removed the old cast iron tub and an accumulation of squirrel nests that were no doubt as old as the tub.

Paul has worked with us on remodeling projects several times over the years and he was making great progress on the hall bath. With the tub removed, he repaired the rotten floor boards, updated the plumbing, and moved the drain to a more central location for a shower.

Once the new plumbing was in place, we covered it up (a collective gasp can be heard throughout the land). I wanted to create a more spacious powder room in lieu of having an extra shower/tub we didn’t need. In a small house, it’s nice when a room can feel a bit oversized (relatively speaking, of course), and we can always re-install a shower down the road if necessary since the plumbing is already in place.

Next up was the ceiling. We had planned to use a simple pine plank ceiling until Paul discovered our local Lowe’s also carried worm wood planks. We changed direction.

Healthy trees usually expel beetles by producing a defensive resin. But cycles of warm weather have weakened some of these trees preventing them from producing enough resin to ward off the beetles. Blue stain fungus spreads from the bark beetles to the Lodgepole Pine, Douglas Fir, and Whitebark Pine trees where the fungus works symbiotically with the beetles by turning the tree wood into nutrients. A byproduct of the damage done to the tree is this beautiful, eco-friendly, blue pine lumber streaked with a natural blue-grey stain, also called Beetle Kill Pine. The beetles don’t weaken or contaminate the wood and the fungi is burnt away during the kiln drying process. I’m totally in love.

After applying a light skip-trowel finish to the drywall and tiling over the shower drain, Paul had a family emergency. We pondered the situation for a few days and decided we could finish things up on our own since Paul had already left all the materials ready to be installed. It only took a couple of afternoon’s worth of work to finish things up.

We painted the walls ( a perfect shade of blue that I found on the Lowe’s OOPS rack) and installed trim around the ceiling, window, door and baseboards.

I’ve recently read that one of the trends designers are most ready to get rid of is the accent or “feature” wall. Sometimes we have to go our own way.

On my last trip to the E.J. Victor showroom in High Point, I snatched up 10 partial rolls of wallpaper for just $5. The box says it had been used in the AERIN Fall 2013 showroom, although I couldn’t find a photo anywhere to confirm this (Aerin Lauder is the granddaughter of Estée Lauder).

Eventually I realized wallpaper was the perfect answer for the awful blemishes on the wall behind the sink, and the fact that there was already a chair rail dividing the wall meant partial rolls were no problem.

We also replaced the light fixture over the sink with a pretty brass one I found on Amazon that looks sort of like a picture light. It’s considered a ‘make-up’ light and includes options for warm, natural or pure white light. I chose the natural light, but now sort of wished I had gone with warm. So many choices.

Paul had already installed an under-mount sink and faucet into our antique cabinet.

Most of our spare art and accessories are locked up in a small storage room while we finish construction, but I had stumbled onto an adorable poster last year and slid it under the bed for safe keeping. We opted for a traditional frame from the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore for $7, slid our poster in front of the frame’s original art, and carefully put everything back together.

We’ve had “Stinky” the tissue holder for a long time, and fortunately the console table was at the front of the storage room. I stained a simple dowel rod to hold drapes that had been in the master bath. Maybe I’ll add another accessory or two when we’re fully unpacked, but the hall bath is finally remodeled!

A Cottage Update

We were only a few days away from the start of construction last December when I wrote about a planned one-room addition to our cottage. Then it rained nonstop. It was a miserable winter. Exterior work came to a screeching halt, and we spent the winter working on interior projects instead.

The Kitchen

September 2017: the kitchen and living room had been added onto the cottage in the 70s, and never touched again. It’s really better that way I think. The seller had left the cottage furnished, including a rooster in the kitchen – which you can barely see above the door in the photo below. The paneling had darkened around the rooster over the years, and I put him back in exactly the same spot after the remodel.

October 2018: our initial plan was to put the cottage on the vacation rental circuit for a few years. This picture was taken just before we changed our mind and decided to live here ourselves. The kitchen’s footprint is the same, but it seems larger with the wall fully opened to the living room.

I really loved the look of the kitchen, but it had practical issues. It was difficult to completely conceal the patchwork done to the paneling after closing off the original door and window on the back wall. A marble backsplash hides this world of sins.

The next issue was the appliances. Since the refrigerator was not counter depth, it extended too far into the room. Same problem with the dishwasher – when the door was open it was impossible to move around. The ice cream parlor table and chairs are adorable, but miserably uncomfortable and too small for everyday use.

April 2019: Over the winter, we replaced the standard dishwasher with dishwasher drawers, added the Bosch refrigerator with black glass door panels, switched out the chandelier, and exchanged the rug for a cowhide. We also re-stained the vent hood a shade darker than it had been, changed out the table and chairs, and opted for blinds instead of the ‘all-or-nothing’ shade. I’m on the hunt for swing-arm sconces, and a black stove is on order.

Living Room:

September 2017: the living room was in pretty good shape. I’m not sure the fireplace had even been used. I love all of the wood in this room and the large front window. However, the fireplace isn’t center on the wall, which makes me a little crazy. And the paneling had darkened around the bookshelves leaving an outline of the shelves when they were removed – just like the rooster. Eventually we painted the back wall white, and then re-painted it a pale shade of grey-green this winter. With great hesitation, we painted the fireplace too.

January 2019: We liked the fireplace painted white, but it seemed harsh – almost too white. My husband remembered a container of black glaze in the closet from another project, and we used it over the white. This last step softened the white just enough and allowed more of the brick to show through.

We snapped this picture of Bentley playing with Mr. Boggs in January when the wall was still white and before we experimented with the fireplace.

 

After four days of excavation last week the rain started again. Dump trucks came one after the other all day every day to export dirt from behind our house to some unknown location nearby. A couple of days into the process I remembered to ask them to leave some of the rocks for landscaping, and now we have a pile of rocks so large we’ll never summon the strength to move them ourselves. The sheer number of these large rocks leave us all convinced there was a rock wall at some time in this land’s past. Otherwise, the only buried treasures were a handful of old bottles and a tire.

By this time next week, we hope the dirt will be gone, the back yard will be flat – or at least partially flat, and there will be endless days of gardening ahead of me. Said differently, I’ll be in heaven.

The Strategy of Staging

Our downsizing experiment has lasted almost four weeks, and we’re still married – although there was that meltdown near the end of week one.

We had furnished our cottage for the vacation rental market, so we really only needed to bring clothes and a toothbrush. He forgot his toothbrush.

The plan was to bring the bare minimum; no need to move too much until we were sure this downsizing experiment was successful. Except that every day of the first week we had to make an emergency trip back home to fetch something critical to our survival. After a few days of this routine, my husband announced he would not move back home – even if we hated living in this little cottage. It would be the understatement of all time to say he hates to move.

With the gauntlet thrown, we turned our attention to getting our house ready for market. The only thing my husband hates more than moving is getting a house ready for market.

I’ve spent a month of days removing anything from the house that would identify us: family pictures, pictures of the dogs, my running memorabilia. The garage, closets, kitchen cabinets, and even the refrigerator have been re-organized. Then we cleaned everything like there was no tomorrow. The last step was to edit, edit, edit: accessories, books, artwork, plants, and even the area rugs. Staging is the part that sends my husband over the edge. With every house we sell, he swears our house doesn’t even look like our house by the time I’m done staging. It’s wasted time to tell him, that’s the point.

Julie, our trusted realtor, walked through every inch of the house and gave me advice on my progress. We’ve worked together long enough that I could imagine what she would say about almost every accessory in the house. I have a propensity for decorating with dark bronzes. She would suggest something bright instead. And then there’s a few buyer-distracting accessories, such as the dog door stop that has his leg hiked. One time I took out all the bronzes, including the stampede of horses, and stored them in the garage. This time I’ve brought the dog, the fish coat hooks, and a few others to the cottage. Every surface has finally been re-arranged with an eye toward benign and bright in hopes of appealing to the masses.

Our forever home, the one with nine rooms and a mansard roof, hits the market today. Julie reminds us we can always move back home – if it doesn’t sell, if we don’t get the price we want, if we change our mind about cottage life. . .

It’s safe to say we’re hoping it will sell.

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Photos Courtesy Julie Lapkoff, Keller Williams

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A view of the back patio in full bloom last summer (with Bentley and Mr. Boggs).

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The beginning (before photos): Nine Rooms and a Roof

Our Cottage Remodel: Part II

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This little cottage started its renovation under the purview of someone else. An over-ask buyer had won the bid the first day this house hit the market forcing us both to negotiate the deal a second time. There were pros and cons to this arrangement.

The good side was that our over-ask buyer discovered foundation issues during the inspection allowing her to request a tidy reduction off the purchase price to compensate for her troubles – this ultimately showed up favorably on our bottom line as well.

The con side of this ordeal was that our over-ask buyer was an interior designer/flipper, and being a highly efficient designer/flipper, she had already purchased all of the materials to create her vision: building materials, building permits, light fixtures, appliances, flooring, faucets, doors, kitchen cabinets, the kitchen sink, a shower enclosure. . .

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Which meant our purchase agreement included the repairs to the foundation, a new HVAC, a few furnishings left from the original owners, all the renovation materials, and a crew of intrepid workers barreling forward on a design I wanted to change.

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We didn’t realize until the day of closing that all of the appliances were hidden somewhere in this room of furniture.

We quickly re-arranged a couple of walls to create the floor plan I dreamed of, and then I frantically started a search for new light fixtures, plumbing hardware, kitchen cabinets, and flooring in hopes of having everything on site before the workers had to actually ask me for it.

Meanwhile, there were a few trees to take down, a driveway to create, and a porch to build.

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A rope was fastened to the tree before the top section was cut off.

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The top of the tree was set down in the road, then the rest of the tree cut down and the stump ground up (we have mulch forever). Twelve trees were taken out in all – almost every one dead or dying.

Interior changes included swapping out light fixtures:

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The electrician had added four sconces and a chandelier to the living room

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I thought the wrought iron sconces looked more original to the house. The chandelier popped up on Wayfair’s Open Box sale for $85.

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When my husband and I went to Chicago last October for my 50k race, the race was not my only priority. It was almost equally important that I take a trip to my favorite fabric warehouse for the perfect drapery material. It was simply unfortunate for me that my husband tagged along. He quickly grew impatient of my 13-room tour of fabrics, and insisted we could find the perfect drapes somewhere amid a collection of hundreds of packages of $8 pre-made drapes. I was determined an $8 drape would not dictate my entire design, but somehow each of the drapes have survived – so far.

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The white pig pitcher was one of the things left over from the original owners. One pair of the $8 drapes will close off the french doors for privacy.

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Standing in the doorway of the bedroom, a new barn door to the master bath is barely visible on the right. One of the original doors was moved to close off the new master suite, and the public bath is visible just beyond. The little black stand was also original to the house – we think it’s a smoking cabinet that has lost its ashtray.

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We created a shower with this fabulous tile I found at Home Depot. It was only after folks told me how ‘brave’ I was to use this tile that I realized maybe I could have used it only on the floor. I still love it.

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Days of torrential rain, severe cold, sudden snow storms, and then the holidays have slowed work to a crawl in recent weeks. The valve between the tandem propane tanks was accidentally shut off causing the HVAC to unknowingly stop, and the pipes were frozen for a solid week. There’s a million gazillion little things left to be done on the interior – akin to death by a thousand cuts. It’s a labor of love.

The kitchen in progress. . . (the rooster is original to the house – in that same spot).

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