Remodel in real life

What happens when a noted design authority takes on her first family-home renovation?

Remodel in real life
Photo: Thomas J. Story

This isn't really a confession, although it may sound like one. For seven years, I was the editor of a modern architecture magazine. I spent hours either visiting breathtaking homes or poring over photographs of them.

I was a vicarious renovator, one who watched with equal parts empathy and awe as modest shacks were transformed into Scandinavian-furnished, Wolf-ranged, outdoor-fireplaced, floor-to-ceiling-glassed houses worthy of, well, the pages of a modern architecture magazine.

During much of this period, I lived in an incredibly lovely - though decidedly unmodern - apartment in San Francisco, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge from its bay windows. My furniture fit the modernist bill; the mansard-roofed Edwardian, perhaps not.

But I was off the hook, both personally and professionally. For one, the apartment was a rental, so we couldn't interfere much beyond the odd coat of paint or window covering. And besides, my 9-to-5 immersion in Viking, B& B Italia, and the Eameses fulfilled all my personal design cravings.

Then my husband and I bought a 100-year-old house. And at almost the very moment we became homeowners with the right to renovate, we also had a baby. We soon discovered that the desire to fix one thing and then another (and another) increases in inverse relation to your ability to act on it.

Because as anyone with a newborn can tell you, not only can you not operate heavy machinery, no one else can come to your house and do so either.

We closed escrow on the 10th of December; our daughter was born at 7:39 a.m. on the 28th. In those two and a half weeks, we tried to beat the clock, taking on (in no particular order) the painting of all rooms, electrical and plumbing upgrades, and the meticulously researched purchase and installation of an energy-efficient dishwasher and washer-dryer.

Inexplicably, we decided to rip out the bathroom sink and cabinets and replace them with new ones. (The nesting instincts of a woman 34 weeks pregnant worked wonders to motivate the normally lackadaisical plumber and contractor.) We also furnished our daughter's nursery, assembled a Bugaboo stroller - which, by the way, comes with instructions on DVD - and, with great ceremony, installed a stainless steel house number on our front door.

And then? To the extent we were able, we continued the madness, replacing our roof (necessary) and all 28 windows (also necessary). These undertakings each involved three estimates and the infuriating end result of knowing you can't quite "enjoy" a roof in the way you might, say, enjoy an Italian sofa or Italian vacation - either of which would have cost less.

In the groggy haze that defines new parenthood, we tackled our home's various architectural oddities, like the living room's fake fireplace (which we demo'd, giving us back 25 percent of the floor space), or the hidden pantry in the kitchen that had been mysteriously walled over. (We were half-expecting to find a skeleton or a suitcase full of cash.) Did I mention that we had the back deck rebuilt?

I'm not sure how all of this was accomplished; in retrospect, such domestic surgical strikes seem impossible. But last summer, we made one last Herculean attempt at that holy grail of renovation: the kitchen.



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