tag : Design, Mobile Alabama, renovation, Renovation Bootcamp, Sieguzi Kitchen & Home, Southern Romance
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Full Disclosure: I was invited by Phantom Screens to travel to Mobile, Alabama as their guest to tour their restoration project of a historic home. I was not paid for this post and all opinions are my own.
My house, which we bought in 1998 in a mature neighborhood in Toronto, was built in 1937.
It had been renovated by the previous owners it in the 1970s — which was not an era known for its good taste. In an attempt to modernize the house, they removed many of the home’s historical features, like cornice mouldings, door trim, the balustrade up the stairs and went crazy spraying much of the interior walls and ceilings with stucco. YUCK!!
The kitchen, had ka-ka brown tiles, white laminate cabinets, countertops and backsplash. It was a bizarre aesthetic mix of gag-me-with-a-spoon dated, and clinical cadaver chic. But weirdly, in a couple of rooms, they left the original, traditional tray ceilings with original stippled plaster work, an original light fixture which I had re-wired and installed in the bathroom I designed in my 130 year old farm house….
….and hand-carved plaster mouldings, which gave us a wonderful glimpse into an era when the house had a servant’s staircase, and a full-time maid to go with it. The whole place was a mish-mash of a “little bit a dis, and a little bit a dat”. So I set about to restore some of the architectural details while re-designing and updating bathrooms, kitchen and the fugly 1970s basement rec-room into a home theater.
My 130 year old farmhouse has also seen lots of renovation and restoration work over the years, and my pride and joy is the fridge which I designed to look like an old ice box.
I have a fascination for and love of old houses. I think their character, quirks and foibles soften the landscape and tell stories which we’re in danger of forgetting in our superficial world.
And that’s why I was intrigued to be invited down to Mobile Alabama a couple of months ago, to see a restoration project taking place in a century home owned by Canadian super-entrepreneur, Esther de Wolde, CEO of Phantom Screens.
When I design the interiors of older homes, my clients’ dilemma is often: How far do you go with a renovation, and how much should we adhere to the history of the structure by restoring it, without making it look like a museum artifact instead of a functioning family home for the 21st century?
My feeling as a homeowner and designer has always been to respect the history of the home without being a slave to it, and mix old and new so the result is an eclectic blend that looks welcoming, practical and pretty, but doesn’t obliterate the stories from the past that every older home has witnessed within its walls.
Since Esther is one of the co-founders of the British Columbia-based Phantom Screens, you would be correct if you figure that the screens will figure prominently in any renovation that Esther might do now or in the future. But I can tell you from personal experience, it is the perfect product to incorporate into an older home if you want to preserve the architectural integrity, since they function so beautifully and are so unobtrusive, they almost disappear. I never thought I’d get excited about a screen door, but I was wrong.
If you don’t know about Phantom Screens, you owe it to yourself to read my post about my experience installing one in my own home last summer. The screens are retractable so they disappear when they’re open, and when they’re closed, there’s no nasty handle, trim or doo-dads to clutter your view. Honestly, where I live, in the six months of the year that start with “M” (which stands for mosquitoes in Kamikaze gear), this screen is my best friend!
But I digress….
After I wrote the post about installing one of the screens, Phantom came calling and asked if I’d be interested in joining 7 other bloggers in touring a restoration project in Mobile, Alabama.
Among the bloggers, I was the amateur of the group. They were a dynamic group of women who blog full time, and blew my mind with their knowledge of the business of blogging and blogging accomplishments. (You can see that Esther was pretty blown away by them too and you can find out who we all are in her post about our trip there) But I’m a full time veteran of the home design and renovation business who blogs when time permits (which hasn’t been a heck of a lot lately, since I’ve been swamped with design clients!) So I was looking at the project with a different eye. And what I saw was very interesting.
My first thought when invited on this trip was, “Mobile, Alabama?!? Why ON EARTH would a Canadian choose to buy a house that needed a major overhaul THERE?? I’d understand Charleston, South Carolina or Savannah, Georgia – both cities oozing with Southern charm, spilling over with a cast of quirky and wacky historical characters, mystery and intrigue that would make a great book, and which did just that in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (a great read! I highly recommend it!). But I knew nothing of Mobile, so in my ignorance, assumed that it was going to be a bit nondescript and bland. I could not have been more wrong, which seems to be a running pattern here.
What I saw, was a city that takes enormous pride in its historic homes and works very hard to preserve them with tight restrictions on what can and can’t be done to the facades (In fact, Toronto could learn a thing or two about preserving its neighborhoods from Mobile rather than tearing them down to make way for McMansions). So much so, that their historic neighborhoods are a stunning snapshot of the gracious proportions, symmetry and craftmaship of days gone by, which is very hard to come by in our slap-‘em-up, my-house-is-bigger-than-your-house, sea of urban mediocrity.
Each tranquil street shaded with a canopy of stately oak trees, featured homes each which was unique, though they had many elements in common, like grand front verandas, columns, prominent front entrances and tall, double-hung windows with shutters.
Esther de Wolde always had a dream to restore a grand old Southern Home. An eccentric dream, perhaps, but because I share her love of old houses, and have a rescue habit of my own, it’s a dream that I admire.
Because Mobile is not as high profile as Savannah or Charleston, house prices are more reasonable, particularly if you want to acquire one that needs a generous helping of TLC. Esther was introduced to Mobile by TV host and Phantom Corporate Spokesman, Danny Lipford, also the owner of Lipford construction, the company which is doing the renovation work on the house.
I won’t go into a whole song and dance about the history of the house or the blow-by-blow description of the project, because Esther does a better job of describing it in her webisodes than I ever could. The webisodes will introduce you to a whole cast of characters: from the former owners of the house who’d owned it from the 1920’s whose daddy’s motto was “Never trust an Englishman or a woman”, to Southern charmer Danny Lipford, who rolls his eyes every time Esther wants to make a change, rescue the original kitchen sink or install an asymmetrical set of antique doors that she found among the treasures of the astounding, local antique reclamation business, Charles Phillips Antiques and Architecturals.
This project is very much a renovation, since the house had to be gutted inside revealing all the original lath and plaster, ancient heating system and coal burning fireplaces. But it’s also a restoration, in that Esther is trying to preserve some of the original features like the fireplaces, aforementioned kitchen sink, stained glass transom, corbels…
…unique front porch railing……
….and some flooring, while replicating the elements that can’t be saved, and scouring Charles Philip antiques for salvaged architectural items that could plausibly have been found in a home of this vintage.
What will not be saved, much to my relief, is the old kitchen which probably would have been installed sometime in the 1920’s by the parents of the former owners. The new kitchen, however, is being built to accommodate the original sink. (Insert Danny Lipford eyeroll here)
The Four Most Expensive Words in a Renovation – “While We’re At It”
It was very interesting to listen to Esther talk about the project and how she’s approaching it, but it’s diametrically opposite to the way I work and how I advise my clients: she’s choosing things as she goes along and makes changes as she sees the house coming together. It’s an extremely time-consuming way to work and can end up costing a great deal more money, since trades often have to make changes to work already completed, or come to a stand-still until decisions are made. Since no trade could possibly afford to only work on one project at a time, this way of working really challenges their previously scheduled projects. But since it’s Esther’s house, it’s her prerogative to work how she wants. And I got the impression, which I observed with the greatest affection, when Esther gets her mind set on something, probably not many people can say no!
But after 20+ years designing and supervising the remodel of hundreds of homes, my recommendation to clients, and what I included in my book, Renovation Bootcamp®: Kitchen – Design and Remodel Your Kitchen Without Losing Your Wallet, Your Mind or Your Spouse, which you can find here, and my regular column in the upcoming August/September issue of RENO and Décor Magazine, is that if the plan is completely detailed and ALL the products are specified, ordered and on site or in storage prior to the contractor ever setting foot on the job site, the renovation will go faster, be more likely to stay on schedule, suffer fewer glitches and cost less. But what it means is that you have to think very far ahead, which is tough for many people without the guidance of a designer who’s done it a few hundred times before.
The Jewel in the Crown
While touring the house, it was hard to make any judgment about how the interior would turn out, since we saw it in the early stages when it was just studs with no drywall.
But the exapansive, original front veranda, and the newly constructed back porch were the features that really captured my attention.
Although I’m sure the whole house will be great when it’s done, in my view, the new back porch will be the jewel in the crown. The demand for outdoor living spaces all over North America has literally exploded, and the back porch is poised to capitalize on this market demand.
The plan is to make it a full living space with outdoor kitchen, fireplace, eating and lounging area protected from Mobile’s bionic mosquitoes with vertical retractable screens controlled by a remote, which will be built into channels which you can see in the porch structure, so will completely disappear when retracted.
But what really excited me, was that Esther is testing a prototype product on her own house that will allow homeowners to significantly extend the porch season. Although Mobile doesn’t have the severe winters that we get in the North East (Toronto’s winter is comparable to Chicago), this new product will extend the porch season for 3 full seasons for us Northerners, as long as the temperature is around the freezing mark. I can’t say more than that right now, but readers should keep their eyes open for more information during the launch which will be in early 2016. It’s not yet available to the public, so shhhhhhh! Keep it just between us, but when January comes, you’ll see me first in line to get this new product for my own house even before I specify it for clients!
And that’s the best of combining restoration with renovation to create a home that demonstrates love of the past while incorporating practical elements that will take a family comfortably into the future. If I had my way, that’s how every renovation would go.
I’ll be following the progress on Esther’s Southern Romance with interest, and I hope you will too. There are lots of lessons to be learned from this project, and you can learn them without a speck of drywall dust or a second mortgage!
Many thanks to Esther and her terrific team for hosting an interesting couple of days in Mobile. If you ever get a chance to go there, you’ll never forget it.
If you’d like a free kitchen renovation planner, you can find it here.
If you need help with design planning for your home renovation or decor project, you can reach me through Robin@RenovationBootcamp.com. And if you liked this article and know anyone who could benefit from it, please make nice like your mom taught you and share!
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