March 7, 2012

DIYer Brings Home Back From Nightmare Reno

Owner has been transforming the house since ’79

BY GRANIA LITWIN

The first thing that catches your eye inside Mary and Louise’s 1891 Victorian Italianate house is a quirky coat rack: A row of sparkling, antique door knobs in various shades of glass line up along a piece of upside-down baseboard. “I built it myself,” said Mary, who also sawed the legs off a dining table to create a coffee table for the living room and made a West Coast chandelier out of tiny lights and arbutus boughs for the dining area.

She bought the house in the James Bay neighbourhood of Victoria in 1979 and has gradually remodelled it ever since. Mary and her partner of two decades, who asked not to reveal their last names, say the makeover is almost done. “This house was the victim of a really bad reno,” Mary said, noting that when she first started reshaping it, she found newspapers dating from the 1950s in the walls — hence her approximation of when the work was done.

The previous owners had no appreciation of heritage. They had dropped the ceiling from 10½ feet to eight, crazily covering the tops of the main-floor windows. They installed acoustic tile on the ceilings, panelled the walls in fake mahogany and covered up three attractive arches. Mary uncovered these when she returned the ceilings to their full height, and added decorative Italian-style plaster brackets to enhance the arch ends. “The previous owners had dropped the ceilings to run ductwork,” she said. “Back then, a home like this was not really old enough to be thought of as significant. People didn’t care.” But she saw the potential.

“I grew up in an old house on the peninsula and it kind of ruined me for modern houses. I basically bought this house because I love the look of old houses, the details, the proportion.” The house had so much going for it. “It’s on a cul-de-sac, so it’s very private; it’s an easy walk to downtown; the lot faces south, so there’s lots of sun; it’s right near Beacon Hill Park; and I liked the neighbourhood.” Mary tackled the two-storey, three-bedroom house one project at a time, learning as she went and often acting as her own general contractor. “I did it room by room, from top to bottom, as I could afford to.”

All the wood had been painted, so she decided not to spend ages taking it down to bare wood, though she did strip it to some degree before repainting, so as not to lose definition of the architectural profiles. More than half the window and door mouldings had been removed and discarded by previous owners, so she had the existing ones copied so new ones could be custom made. Much of the work was invisible, including new perimeter drains, wiring, plumbing, gas furnace and seismic upgrades.

Rooms were gutted, taken down to the studs, with lath and plaster removed and new drywall installed. “The poor drywaller had to cut every board on four sides because there were no square corners.” Picture rails, tall baseboards and storm windows were added throughout, along with a small wood-burning stove. “I grew up in house heated with wood — it’s the nicest kind of heat.” When she bought the house, it had a “bowling alley hallway” from front to back, down the east side.

She moved the living room wall and cut off the alley to create a new dining alcove and allow more light into the middle of the house. She also created a large opening between living and dining rooms, and added sliding glass doors to expand the visual space even more. Mary was quick to stress that this was an update, not a restoration, and the new kitchen does not attempt to mirror the original style of the house. Louise has helped a lot in the last two decades, with renos to bathrooms and kitchen, but said, “Mary had all the really ugly, messy stuff done before I came on the scene — for instance, she had already torn out the turquoise shag that had been soaked in cat pee.”

The new kitchen is a room they both love, especially as it was so poorly laid out before, with only one tiny window in the south wall. “It’s really an efficient kitchen now, and opens onto a wonderful deck,” Louise said. Pointing to the modern stainless steel stove, fridge and dishwasher, she joked: “These are the boomer versions of a harvest gold or avocado appliance.”

Despite the modern touches, the house features lots of antiques. Just outside the kitchen, they have an antique icebox they turned into a storage cupboard and a beautifully made Scottish sideboard constructed with no nails or screws. Around the corner from the kitchen is a newly minted multi-use laundry room, with sink, toilet and large storage cupboards. “The new kitchen saved so much space, we gained a laundry room,” Louise said.

In the late 1800s, there was no bathroom in the house, just an outdoor biffy. A previous owner carved one out of the master bedroom, but it was small and poorly designed, with a tub in front of the window that made it awkward to access. By reconfiguring the fixtures, they eked out enough space for a new mahogany cabinet. By using glass block in the bathtub wall, they took advantage of natural light.

Victoria Times Colonist

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