A Cheery Bungalow Redo Stays True to Form
Over the years, this century-old cottage had lost its color and spark, until a period-driven redo—and many trips to the salvage yard—brought it back
Every house has a story. Some homeowners are just better listeners than others. When Erin Donovan and Chris Long found their Venice, California, bungalow, they could almost hear its thin walls talk. Take me back to my salad days, it seemed to say, back when Venice and I were both new.
Situated within easy driving distance of Pasadena, a birthplace of the American Craftsman movement, the circa 1913 bungalow had "all the basics, like the original fireplace and mantel, floors, and built-ins," Erin recalls. But time and other people's taste had tamped down its spirit. The downstairs bath, for example, last renovated in the 1990s, had all the personality of a Motel 6.
The couple decided to roll back the years, aided by a general contractor with a name like something out of a Woody Allen movie and a commitment, as he puts it, "to make the house what it wants to be."
Most renovators could care less about what the house wants, but Mox Moeschler is not your average GC. Erin and Chris aren't your typical suburban homeowners, either. She's a writer and voice-over actor; he's a producer and director for TV's The Mentalist, which features a crime-fighting psychic. A general contractor who doubles as a house medium was the perfect fit.
Shown: The light-filled second-floor landing has its original balustrade and built-in drawers, dressed up during the redo with salvage-yard pulls.
The couple had found their period piece while downsizing from a home nearby, where they raised two kids and took in two dogs and a cat. "A menagerie!" says Erin, whose infectious enthusiasm for character-filled homes shines through in phone conversations that are so entertaining, it's hard to hang up. "Some people are foodies," she says. "I'm a housie, with a sweet tooth for a turn-of-the-century Craftsman."
Not that their redo was all fun and great finds. Back when the bungalow went up, on the iffy outskirts of a town conceived as one part Venice, Italy, and one part Coney Island, Brooklyn, it was more poor-man than Craftsman. Having to replace the brick foundation with more-earthquake-resistant concrete, Moeschler says philosophically, meant shelling out "$30,000, and you don't see anything." The stairs squeaked like caged mice—come to think of it, they still do—and tree roots were buckling the floor in the sunroom, a gabled space that had started out as the front porch.
Shown: Visitors enter through the sunroom, where they are greeted by reclaimed tile from France, spruced-up rattan hand-me-downs, and a weathered chandelier found on eBay.
Throw pillows: Home Goods
In order to make the one fireplace work without harming the stone surround, Moeschler had to find a mason willing to shimmy down the chimney, Santa Claus style. The upstairs felt like a pizza oven, thanks to hot air trapped behind the ventless knee walls. Adding a bath up there seemed like a no-brainer until someone realized the rustic walls held no place to run pipes. "That was a complex operation," Erin says gamely of Moeschler's space exploration under the stairs.
But if the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath house was no museum piece, it had plenty to offer a jaded 21st-century eye. Along with the original fireplace, the living space boasted lofty cove ceilings and the original wood floors and built-ins, some topped with graceful tapered columns. While the picture window in front was surely more recent than early last century, other windows still had their wavy glass. The roof was serviceable, the siding was sound, and the board-and-batten walls, while arguably a budget choice at the time, now qualified as a cool design element.
Shown: Original built-ins and wainscoting, refinished with a walnut stain, unite the living spaces and, along with the cove ceilings, help make the compact first floor feel more spacious.
It's the upsides you hear about most from Erin and Moeschler, who share an avid interest in the provenance of things, whether of a washer for an outmoded toilet or floor tiles with a French pedigree.
Consider the drawn-out search for a kitchen faucet as old as the house. Rummaging around on eBay, Erin found just the thing. But, once installed, it leaked like crazy, forcing Moeschler to find a later model. Then there's the quirky toilet in the guest bath: "That was a real find, on Craigslist," Erin says. "I drove an hour and a half away and picked it up for 10 bucks. Mox scraped paint off the tank and found out it's Bakelite! It's super rare."
Another previously cast-off toilet gained pride of place in the new master bath: When Moeschler scratched the surface of this one, he struck copper. With the paint stripped off, the tank was so luminous that Erin found herself ordering a copper tub from England to go with it.
Shown: The master bedroom's new, freestanding source of heat uses gas.
Things like these aren't just home improvements; they're conversation pieces. Take the vintage O'Keefe & Merritt stove, which replaced the boring old Viking that was already there. The vintage cooker had belonged to Erin's mother and needed only a complete overhaul. Or the sunroom's faded tile, said to have been reclaimed from old French farmhouses. It has a daisy pattern—"Our daughter's name is Daisy," says Erin—and was tracked down through a Brit living in Burgundy, who shipped it through Belgium and Amsterdam to San Pedro, California, "where U.S. Customs got all funny about it," says Erin, remembering a similar kerfuffle with the British tub.
She nabbed two cast-iron beds closer by, at a place in Malibu colorfully known as Cathouse Antiques.
Shown: The master bedroom, tucked under the dormer, kept its existing tongue-and-groove ceiling while gaining ventilation, knee-wall storage, and a painted iron bed.
To channel the bungalow's past while making it fit for a 21st-century household, Moeschler replaced questionable upgrades with new as well as old parts. The stove is complemented by a retro-style fridge and a matching dishwasher, and hex-tile countertops are trimmed in Deco black. Salvaged beadboard—complete with "lumps, bumps, and scratches," Erin notes—became cabinet doors, finished with fresh paint and beat-up hardware.
Shown: The star of the show is a 1950s O'Keefe & Merritt stove, refinished to match a vintage-green dishwasher and flanked by cabinets with salvaged-beadboard doors.
Moeschler also dropped in a modern-day skylight over the first-floor bedroom and opened up the kitchen to add an eating nook. It's framed by a marble-topped peninsula with a convenient niche for the microwave. Laundry machines hide discreetly behind beadboard doors.
Shown: The new eating nook was designed to fit seamlessly into the circa 1913 bungalow, which has held on to its original board-and-batten walls.
Secondhand flotsam for the main first-floor bath, unearthed online and at salvage yards in nearby Orange and Pasadena, includes not only that pre-low-flow toilet but also an old tub, now painted to match the green accents in the new hex-tile floor, and a corner sink with 1876—could it be the date?—stamped on the back. Moeschler popped in separate taps, which he lovingly distressed to look even older.
The main bath on the first floor, "remuddled" in the 1990s, was stripped down and refurbished with salvaged finds, including a corner sink with separate cold- and hot-water taps.
To revive the second floor while maintaining its bungalow flavor, Moeschler opted for blanket insulation and whirly-bird attic fans. Alongside the copper tub and its salvaged-tin backsplash he added a worn pedestal sink, elevated on a marble block to better serve 6-foot-1 Chris. Bringing in a vintage French tub faucet proved unwise: It leaked worse than the one in the kitchen had. "Erin and I thought the house was working with us," Moeschler says, "but it was remarkable what it would not let us do."
Shown: The new tub plays off a salvaged-tin-ceiling backsplash and a vintage ceiling-mount showerhead and wall-mount fittings.
In the end, everything came together remarkably well—even the exit pipes for the second-floor bath. "There was a cove right where we needed it to get the drain line for the toilet," Moeschler says. "It couldn't have gone 1 inch to the left or 3 inches to the right.
"Working on an old house, sure, there are always things that come up," he says, sounding pleased. "But the house kept making it possible."
Put another way, all you have to do is listen.
Shown: After eight months of work, Erin Donovan and Chris Long, photographed at the front door with their dogs, Phoebe and Dashiell, finally moved in. “Each room I walk into,” says Erin, “I think is my favorite.”
The 1,926-square-foot bungalow—its gabled front porch long ago converted into a sunroom—kept its original footprint and much of the existing layout. On the first floor, a mudroom wall came down to create the eating nook. Upstairs, one wall was moved and another added to turn two bedrooms into a master bedroom with a walk-in closet and an adjacent bath.