Friday, May 21, 2010

Rebuilding Without Destroying

The living room of Fort Chapman in the morning light.

Long ago I began to buy books about cottages, and often spent quiet hours poring over the pictures of these charming little houses. Most of the cottages were in England or France, but some were in America too. San Francisco. Nantucket. But, I knew, they might have been anywhere.

What I liked best about the houses in the books, was that each one of them was beautiful to live in now, and yet maintained its continuity with the past. Each successive owner may have modernized, but each one did not rip out his kitchen and install marble counter tops and a Sub Zero refrigerator. The cottages had a unique integrity.

Old did not have to mean dilapidated or bad.

When my sister and I inherited the house our parents bought in 1959, I was not sure, at first, that I could stand to live in the place. It had not been filled with happy memories, for one thing. And for another, it was a little down-at-the-heels.

"I'll have to take a baseball bat to the kitchen and the bathrooms, for starters," I said to my sister. She just nodded and said quietly:

"Well, why don't you just think about it?"

Fortunately, I had some months of closet cleaning as her advice rattled around in my head.

For, as I removed the layers of cobwebs and old clutter, I began to recall the pictures of those old places I had seen in my books. In my imagination, I began to see my parents' home in a different light. Why not, I said to myself, apply the same principles to a 1952 ranch style house in California, that I had seen used on an English cottage?

Not only would this idea save money, waste, and disruption, it would also build on the past. Perhaps the results would be unique, I thought. Perhaps I might create a little place that didn't look like everyone else's home.

And so I began.

Hall bathroom during its rehab, as seen through the doorway.

Hall bath with new paper and new accessories. But the hard scape hasn't changed.

You've seen some of the things that I've done here. I didn't gut the bathrooms and kitchen after all. They don't look new. They look like old rooms that have been updated and are prettier than before. At least that is how they look to me. And in each of our homes, I have come to believe, the right way to decorate is to make it the way we like it. Who else lives there? Who else is there to please?

Late in her life my mother said to me several times that a decorator she had consulted told her she should immediately get rid of the copper hood over our living room fireplace. "I suppose she's right," my mother said. "I think I probably should do it."

I didn't say anything to my mother about this, because it wasn't my place to do so. In fact, if you saw the room in isolation, I could see why a decorator might say that about the copper hood.

Living room at Fort Chapman just after the death of my father.

But if you looked at the house as a whole, you might have a different opinion. The handles and drawer pulls in the kitchen are also made of copper. The ceilings are high and beamed. The vision of the architect seemed to be a 1952 ranch house that had been crossed with a Norman farmhouse. So in the end, the copper hood remained right where it had always been. And it looks beautiful to me.

Certainly: no one else on my block has one!

And I finally understood why, after my mother's death, I kept finding ancient copper pots and kettles and watering cans tucked away in boxes, in the garden, and in the backs of cupboards. My mother liked the copper hood too, she just wasn't quite ready to trust her own taste. I shined up all the copper things she collected and put them around the living room. Probably have a few too many of them now. But I'm enjoying their vintage charm.

The last thing I've completed is the restoration of the red Spanish tile in the kitchen. It was a rich, beautiful color; but tile is porous and it had absorbed half a century of dirt and grime--and, probably, some cleaning products, too. I found a young man who knew a lot about tile and he and an assistant spent last Friday cleaning the old tile and repairing the grout.

Jason, cleaning the red Spanish tile.

The kitchen tile, cleaned and restored. On the island, I added a similar tile to complement the original.

I believe there is a metaphor is all of this. I think when we endure profound experiences in our lives--the loss of a spouse, the death of a parent--we often believe we must "start over." And that in "starting over" we must tear down what we've lived so we might build anew.

That certainly is the American way. But I'm not sure it is always the best. What we've lived is what we've lived. As an old home is renewed when it is filled with new love, so it is with our lives. In this old place I am surrounded by the things my mother and father loved and worked for. And now, I've added a layer that is mine.

A house with a good foundation can endure a pretty good shaking. I think most of us can attest to that.

The kitchen after the red tile restoration. My father's old family clock is at right.

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Florida Beach Basics said...

Robin, this looks just beautiful! You've come a long way, baby!

lflarson said...

Hi Robin,

Very well said -- and beautifully executed. The house looks wonderful and your comments are so true!


Steve said...

Hi Robin,
I like that you're keeping the original character and charm of your family home while making subtle improvements along the way. It looks great!

Robin Chapman said...

It is a pretty house so that helps a lot!

Laura said...

I think you have done a wonderful job! I, too, harbor fantasies of French cottages, and maybe someday ... but I think you were right in keeping the house in its' era. A big spanking new kitchen would just look so out of place. Your home looks charming and comfortable, it says "Let's sit and have some tea".

How do you like your Miele oven??

Robin Chapman said...

Granted I am not a chef, but with that in mind, it is really a cool thing. It saves energy by dimming its power when you open it. It speaks about eight languages (you can have the digital display in Polish if you like!) and it has a high tech look that isn't so hip it will become dated. So far, the food cooked in it tastes good too. Now all it has to do is last as long as the Thermador (58 years) and it will definitely be a winner.

Vickie said...

The comment I left on the previous post was actually intended for this one! Google gave me a hard time with signing in and word scramble since I was using a different a bit befuddled! Lovely and rich rennovations.

Robin Chapman said...

Sorry about that: I've tried to make commenting easy and the word scramble is just supposed to be for comments a month or more old--that's where the virus-imbedded hackers lurk. Thanks for your lovely comments.

Larry said...

Robin, you've done the right thing, building on the past. But your copper hood wasn't alone in the neighborhood. My in-laws house on Berkshire Street had a similar hood and fireplace. Same vintage. Unfortunately, after they moved it was demolished and a French Chateaux built in it'
s place.

Robin Chapman said...

Hi Larry: I wonder if both houses had the same architect? Like you, I am saddened when houses from not so long ago are demolished to build these gargantuan monsters people seem to like. I'm having fun keeping this house's bones and building on that. Thanks for your encouragement.