Greetings From Our Old Red House!
For this single mom, holiday cards delivered annual updates on her four loves: her three sons and the rehab of her 1899 foursquare that's been years in the making
It was January 2005 and obviously too late to call the update a Christmas letter, but I sat at the computer anyway. I figured my family and friends in Texas would understand—I was, after all, living in the middle of a construction site.
At least I was no longer sleeping on a bed in the back parlor, with no door for privacy and boxes piled high around me, like I had been for over a year. Just before that Christmas, I had finally moved into the new bedroom and bath I added on to the first floor. The laundry, though, was not yet finished, so the washer and dryer were still in the also unfinished basement. The 1899 foursquare itself had been stripped of its old tan vinyl siding and aluminum trim to reveal robin's-egg-blue clapboards, now dotted with blown-in insulation entry points and about 10 test patches of red paint—as it had been for months. I'm sure our neighbors were holding their breath to see which one we would finally choose. The winner, by the way, ended up being my own special concoction: "Bunny Red Mix No. 14"—yes, it took that many tries to find the right one.
Pictured: Homeowner Bunny Blaha and son Tyler Hixenbaugh in front of their renovated 1899 foursquare with spaniels Molly and Elvis. While Tyler and his older brothers pitched in with the demo, Bunny took care of details, like refinishing the front door, an antiques-store find.
Poinsettias and topiary: Courtesy of Pikes Peak Nurseries, Colorado Springs, CO; 719-632-4751
Exterior paint (custom colors): Benjamin Moore
There was so much still to be done. But I took the time to get out my card because, frankly, the more I did to my new home, the more I wanted to brag about it. I sent my first Christmas card starring the place in 2003. I had bought the house a few months earlier, newly divorced and rushing to settle my three sons in before the school year started. I moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the military medical facilities and other on-base conveniences the area offers retired naval officers like myself, and for its historic district. After decades of watching This Old House on television and subscribing to the magazine, I wanted to tackle an old home and put into practice all that I'd learned. When the Realtor showed me this place, I wasn't enthused about it initially. On top of being drab and dreary, the interior smelled and the ceilings had water stains. But it was the closest to what I was looking for size-wise, and I could see its potential. I knew it would be a big job. At the time, my DIY skills were mostly limited to painting, staining trim and doors, and building birdhouses, but I was ready to tackle new projects and learn new things.
The day I closed on the place, I went straight over to rip out the filthy carpeting on the second floor. The next day I tore off the awful faux walnut wainscoting in the home's two parlors. I didn't know exactly how the house looked in 1899, but I knew I wanted to bring it back to that era.
Pictured: New 9-inch-high oak baseboard complements the living room's original double-height mantel and other trim.
Living and dining room paint (custom colors): Royal Touch Premium Paint, Ace Hardware
The place had suffered some questionable remodeling—more like remuddling—over the years. Neighbors told me it had once been chopped into apartments, and nonworking pipes in the walls seemed to confirm this. A room next to the existing kitchen had been walled off from the foyer and divided into an office and storage area. I figured the original dining room must have been there and not on the other side of the house where the previous owner had it. And that must have meant there was once a door to the foyer. So one day I just took my now trusty circular saw and cut through the drywall from both sides. Wouldn't you know it, I found the original doorjamb framing!
It was the kind of small victory that made my day during that year and a half of construction, when I was living out of boxes and spending all my free time on the house. I worked part-time as a teacher, but this was my main job. Things were so tight and chaotic that first year we barely had enough room for all four of us to sit comfortably in the front parlor and watch TV. So for that first Christmas, I went out and got a 4-foot-tall tree and put it on top of an end table so that it wouldn't take up much room. At least the boys never complained.
Pictured: To undo previous remodels, the dining room was reopened to the foyer. The six-light chandelier was a money-saving home-center find.
By the next Christmas, things were coming together—despite some curveballs. One of the subcontractors I hired for the addition didn't follow the engineer's instructions, and the weeks he took to fix his mistake left the excavated site open to torrential rains. It looked like I had a swimming pool built against my house. One night I found water flooding my basement and in a panic had to run to the home center for a sump pump minutes before it closed.
When that same contractor put the swale to divert rainwater too close to the house, I decided to just rent a skid-steer loader and regrade the yard myself.
It was yet another remodeling first I found myself tackling, like when I manned a jackhammer to demo tile laid in a 1½-inch-thick bed of concrete, learned to cut and install trim, or turned an antique sideboard into a bath vanity by cutting the legs down and installing the sink myself.
By 2005, we were able to have a real Thanksgiving dinner in the dining room for the first time, and I put a true "after" photo of the house on my Christmas card. Over the years the projects have become smaller. I've added a wide pine top to the kitchen island to create a spot to eat, and I remodeled an upstairs bath. Of course, the to-do list always seems never-ending—I'm thinking about making a walk-in closet and removing a dropped ceiling upstairs—but what was a cold, ugly old house is finally a lovely and comfortable period home.
Renovated an 1899 foursquare and added on a bedroom, bath, and laundry.
Remodeling cost: $100,000
Time frame: Six years
Where I saved: Reused pickets from the backyard privacy fence for the front one.
Where I splurged: On oak 1x8s to make new baseboard for three rooms.
What I would do differently: Make sure I got a bay window in the dining room, to echo the one in the parlor.
Biggest challenge: Dealing with delays during the building of the back addition.
How I solved it: Renting a skid-steer loader to help out with the job myself.
Pictured: Holiday cards show the house over the years:
A) with the original tan vinyl siding (bottom right)
B) then with the blue-painted clapboards that lay underneath (top left)
C) and the cheerful red, green, and beige paint job it has today (bottom left)
D) Last year's snowy holiday scene (top right)
The homeowner designed a built-in pantry around drawers originally installed in the basement stairs. She removed them, then stripped and repainted them before building shelves and cabinets based on the size of the drawers.
The mottled fireplace tiles beneath the ornate mantel, also original, were initially on the owner's to-replace list but grew on her over time.
Finish carpentry: Dale Clifton, Dale Clifton Home Improvements, Colorado Springs, CO; 719-661-3912.
Period-appropriate, 3-foot-high anaglypta wainscoting was added to the front parlor.
Reproduction hardware gleams on a bedroom's new wood door.
A rear addition houses a new master bedroom, bath, and laundry room.