Rescue Remodeling

Back in 2004 I was working on a house in Irvington, and a neighbor dropped by to chat.  A loquacious gal, she had soon informed me that her elderly father had been moved to a nursing home, so she and her husband planned to fix up his house and move in; it was just down the street, would I like to take a look?  I eagerly followed her down the leafy, lovely street of beautiful old houses, looking forward to some good snooping, if not necessarily paid employment.  The house seemed ordinary enough from the front, a modest arts and crafts style bungalow,  painted barn red. It looked a little overgrown and shabby, but I could see it was still a very good house.  Then we went inside.

Her father was quite evidently a hoarder, and worse, one with a predilection to undertake weird engineering experiments, like cutting holes in the roof for convenient adjustment of the TV aerial.  We make fun of Tonya Harding for throwing a hubcap at her boyfriend in her living room; here she could have gone up and gotten the piece of engine block on the floor in the upstairs hall and finished him off for good.  One of the three bedrooms had been gutted by fire in the 70′s and never repaired.  There were disturbingly large rat holes in the kitchen and hall that looked just like in the Tom and Jerry cartoons.

I knew I had to have this job.  The house was designed by Ellis Lawrence, who created a large number of the city’s great houses, and later became Founding Dean of University of Oregon’s Architecture School.   The best building on that campus, and I had four dreary years to study the matter, is his magnificent Art Museum with its forbidding, monumental  deco-Andalusian facade opening into one of the prettiest, most intimate cloistered courtyards I’ve ever seen in the US.  The guy is good.  And underneath the grime, grease, and rat turds, I saw a lot to like.  Every room had light on two sides, the wide portals that separated the living room from the dining room and entry were works of art, and the heavy wood doors and windows were all original.  It had a back stairway into the kitchen, ingeniously lit by stepped casement windows, and unusual and charming cabinetry and woodwork throughout, spared by neglect from forty years of gloppy latex paint.

In the end, they did hire me, and I remodeled the kitchen, bathroom, and the infamous burnt-out room, restoring or mimicking original details wherever possible.  Because they were on a tight budget (as you can see by that crummy range they still have…) they stripped the wallpaper themselves, which only led to the discovery that all the plaster was crap, not just the more noticeable collapsed ceilings, and we would therefore need to skim-coat just about everything.  Even had I wanted to do such a thing, they couldn’t afford it, so I taught the husband the mysteries of the mud pan.  And, to my considerable surprise, he took to it like a duck to water, even though during the process he generally looked more like Lucy after that time she got stuck in the deep freeze.

It was the same with the woodwork; after I’d painted the fire-damaged hall and the kitchen and bath, they naturally wanted me to paint the rest, but couldn’t afford that, either.  We agreed that I’d paint the most complicated things, like the portals and cabinetry, and again I’d teach them to paint woodwork themselves.  They learned that, too, evidently; I don’t know how long it took, but all the woodwork was nicely painted when I was there today.

One of the nicest discoveries of this project was the little details that set it apart from even much more extravagant houses of the era; the stuff that distinguishes building from architecture.  The slanted bookcases beneath the stairs, the subtle yet lovely Gothic influences in the china cupboard that remind one that the architect designed churches, too, and the uncomplicated pleasantness of the small but gracious floor plan, were hiding in plain sight; the glass painted over, the driveway a forest of weed trees, and heaps of junk everywhere.

This was part remodeling, part rescue, and I’m most proud of the rescue part.



  1. nswfm says:

    Nice that you could work on such a gem. (BTW, did I learn the term hillbilly remodeling from you?)

    • cocktailhag says:

      Well, since I use that term a lot, I expect so.

      • nswfm says:

        Then you should know that I taught a 50 year old general contractor that term. He’s been a custom cabinet maker/general contractor since he got out of high school & has seen a lot of hillbilly remodeling. The worst was an REO property which the bank was giving the new owner a 35,000 allowance to fix things. The worst problem was that the previous owner had installed windows where you could see daylight outside the frame but inside the stucco hole. This was after a very rainy winter in So Cal, so who knows how much mold was in the exterior walls. The previous owner was also renting to 25 or so farm workers, even renting under the stairwell for a twin bed for $250/month . My contractor friend walked away from that disaster.

  2. avelna says:

    Very nice. I wish I could afford to hire you – my house is neither old nor special but the previous owners undertook many weird engineering experiments, such as cutting holes in the floors and ceilings to make a laundry chute (just holes, no actual chute) and I’ve had to have some of those corrected just to make the house livable. You must get great joy out of producing this kind of art.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I’m a big fan of laundry chutes; sometimes I’ll use a chimney chase or an old dumbwaiter shaft to create one. (Cutting holes in floors can be a good first step, but not the only step….)
      Yes, working on houses like that one is quite satisfying; it’s also fun to get to know the owners, and visit later. Unfortunately, that’s when the Alzheimers kicks in:
      HAG: I like that green in the dining room.
      OWNER: You picked that green.
      HAG: Oh.
      Or another time:
      HAG: I like those upholstered valances.
      OWNER: You built those and upholstered them.
      HAG: Oh.

  3. bystander says:

    These are always my favorite of your posts. Should you ever do a book, I’ll be first in line to buy it. Your artistry in rescue competes neck and neck with your description of the same. Nice work, CH.

  4. rukidding says:

    Beautiful! Congratulations. I’m sure the owners feel very lucky to have had your assistance.

  5. Ché Pasa says:

    Now that’s a place after my own heart. You did a wonderful job, Hag.

    You’re certainly right about the difference between building and architecture. I’m generally not one of those Bungalow/Old House fanatics who practically worship their dwellings and have to have everything just so and authentic, but it does seem quite the shame to see some of the ruination people are willing to inflict on houses of distinction like that one — too often with the willing complicity of contractors and not solely through neglect or eccentricity, but simply because they don’t know the difference or why it should matter.

    The fact that you were willing and able to teach the homeowners how to handle some of the tasks they couldn’t afford to hire you to do is something I’m not sure many others would or could have done. It speaks very well of you and of the trust they put in you and you put in them.

    Bueno! Muy bueno!

    • cocktailhag says:

      Thanks. Actually, I’ve taught quite a few people how to paint and mud; better than than letting them fuck up.
      So often I’ve seen places ruined and kick myself for not getting there first; my motto has become “Don’t do it.” Whatever the age or style of a building, you hardly ever have to rip out the original stuff; it’s the “improvements” of later years that have to go.