Tool Girl Again: Why Rescue Houses?

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I was trying to explain to a friend why I would spend a year and a half plus a tidy chunk of money renovating my wonderful but very, very neglected mid-century modern house, and then decide to sell it when I finish. 

"It's the project," I said. "I can't resist a good renovation project."

That was a weak answer, and my friend knew it. She gave me one of those you-are-crazy-but-I'm-fond-of-you-anyway looks, and changed the subject. 

So what is it about building/renovation projects that has me hooked? As I've written recently, I've clearly got a "Jones" for this work: I've finished, built, or renovated three houses in the past six years. That despite basically never picking up a tool more complicated than a screwdriver or a spade until I was in my late 50s. And only then because the guy who could design and build anything died of brain cancer before he finished our house. 

That man, the one I loved with my whole heart, my late husband, Richard Cabe, was the quintessential tool guy. He owned hundreds of them, both power and hand. He could (and did) sculpt a firepit out of a one-ton granite boulder, design and build his own hand-operated crane, hoist the roof beam of our house using just ropes and pulleys, build anything with his own hands, and also out-fox an opposing lawyer as an economic expert witness. He was just that brilliant.

A boy and his tools: Richard adjusting the load-carrying beam on his gantry--hand-powered crane--after he set in place the 450-pound sandstone block that became the sculptural base for our mailbox. He had just had one brain surgery then, and would have another set of brain tumors removed in a few weeks. None of which deterred him from sculpting--or climbing ladders. 

I used to say Richard could design his way out of a paper bag--only he would build a better bag first. 

While he was alive, I never considered myself capable of conceiving, repairing, or restoring structures. I could design a landscape or restore a stream, yes. But build? No. Then Richard died, and out of sheer financial necessity, I had to finish both our house and his hundred-year-old studio building. Soon. Or lose them both in the morass of post-cancer bills. 

Thanks to patient friends (that's you, especially, Maggie and Tony Niemann!) and knowledgeable trades-folk, I learned to use tools, to hang doors and trim windows, to frame doorways and build counters, and to envision the way buildings work (or don't). In the doing, I learned that while I'm not a great carpenter like Richard was, much less a sculptor, I do enjoy and find satisfaction in the process of solving design challenges of light and space and color and form, of materials and tolerances, of construction and restoration.

What precisely do I love about that process? Something deeper than only design: "Here is this neglected space with badly-designed, old windows that leak. What can I do with it?" It's more the challenge of learning the place well enough to hear its voice, to ask, "What do you have to offer? How can I facilitate that?"

As with my office in the photos below. I saw the paint colors right away; adding bookshelves to the walls, and insulation to the attic were also a no-brainers. But it took me over a year to hear that what that window-bay needed was not just new windows, but windows in proportion to the ones in the rest of the house, with a built-in seat below.  

The north-facing "sunroom" opening off my bedroom-to-be as I first saw it. Yes, the floor was that filthy, and yes, the windows were so scarred it was like looking through fog.

Now that room just sings. It could be so many things for different people: an office, sure, but also a playroom, a craft room, an artist's studio, a kid's bedroom, a reading and movie room... Restoring it returned its beauty and its utility in the original sense, its ability to be a useful and comfortable space.

That same room almost two years later, brand-new window-seat, new windows, paint, insulation,and all. It's happy and inviting now. 

That I have sweat and skin in the game (not to mention money) just makes the work all the more satisfying, all the more meaningful. My body remembers. Restoring the house becomes part of my felt experience.

Friday I spent four hours scraping and painting the west-side house eaves to stay ahead of the guys putting up my new gutters. When I finished, I was both exhausted and exhilarated.

"Yes!" I said to myself. "I did that!" I'm not as good a painter as Shantel Durham, my contractor's daughter, is. But I can do some of the work, and get some of the satisfaction of a job done, and done well. That feels very good. 

Are those good-looking eaves and gutters, or what? The eaves on this side of the house were shabby and partly rotted when I first saw them. Now they shine. (Those are heritage tomato plants in the stock-tank planters, grown with seeds from Renee's Garden.)

As does relaxing on my deck as hot afternoon eases into cool evening. As robins chuckle and wrens fuss, a bright yellow tiger swallowtail flutters through the yard, and the twin fawns of the mama mule deer who haunts our block pick their way carefully, small hooves clicking, down the alley.

As this sixty-two-year-old, beautiful but long-neglected house settles in, ready to shelter, nurture, and inspire for another six decades--and beyond. 

What I love about this process of seeing buildings anew, is that "re-storing." Or as my friend, writer and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan puts it, "re-storying." In listening and tending to these places, I am giving them back their voices, their stories, the gifts they have to give us. 

That makes my heart sing.

New office windows (yes, those shingles need their color-coat of paint), new deck, which still needs steps, and new paths beginning to take shape. Old house and yard, new life. 

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