Friday, November 7, 2014

True Friendship PART ONE: A Dining Room Renovation

Many of you have read mention of my friend, Allison, also previously referred to as the mildly anonymous character, Margaret. When we first moved to Niagara Falls, more than 7 years ago now, Allison was the first neighbor Scott and I had the pleasure to meet. On a sunny, warm spring day as we walked along the tree lined sidewalks of our block-long street, Allison waved from her porch and called out a welcoming hello.

In that very moment, as we stand slack mouth from the first real attempt at friendly conversation we had encountered on our street, I knew we'd be fast friends - and we were. Not so slowly, we learned everything about one another, and while she was friends with both Scott and me, the family like kinship that Allison and I found together superseded the neighborly friends she had become with him.

Through the years, I've watched as her children have grown from bright eyed, knee high sprites into beautiful young women, the eldest now in her first year of College. I've shared every secret I've ever kept with Allison, and she has shared hers with me. Every so often, but not so often as to forget the value of it, she takes advantage of having a decorator friend, asking for my opinion or help with projects around the house and yard - and I gladly share my thoughts and lend my hands, for I know Allison would do the very same.

We started a garden walk together, and lamented its eventual demise together. We've planned parties, and gardens, been each others motivator and confidant, walked together, cried together, and most recently, completed a full scale renovation together, just as successfully as we've done all our endeavors past.

What you should know about Allison, is that she is a mother of three; three girls that is - each of them at an age where the world is crumbling down around them in one way or another and Allison must don her super-mom cape more than once in a day to save each of them from the latest melodramatic catastrophe. She teaches kindergarten, and has for several years, moving from 4th grade some years ago, after starting her career in Catholic schools where I believe you're moved from grade to grade until they find your "fit". She's a generous friend, a community staple, and a fine believer of the positive possibilities that exist in the world. She, in effect, is the perfect candidate for one of those HGTV reality shows about gifting kitchens, and the like - and I only wish that I could somehow form words significantly vibrant enough to convince some producer of her perfect candidacy.

Allison lives in a beautiful Colonial, with a wide front porch that takes advantage of her double lot frontage on our block-long parkway. The first house built on the street that had once been an apple orchard, the structure dates back to 1920. A rather grand, single-family home at the time, had spent years as home/apartment, turned into a 2-family dwelling, and then made "modernized" by a community grant program sought by a former owner, taking what had once been weathered wooden siding full of character and charm, and forever masking it with vinyl siding. They also replaced windows, except for the gorgeous French doors that allow flow from the living room and dining room of the house onto the front porch, and did some roofing changes.

When Allison, her husband, and their at the time, young family moved into the house, they quickly turned it into a single-family home again, doing as much as they could to beat the closing deadline and, make it possible for Allison to nest a little before the birth of their third daughter. It wasn't the perfect house that Allison wanted, but it was the house that they could have, together, all 5 of them, on a street they loved. She dreamed of the day when she could give the home the motherly renovation that it needed, something only stewards of older homes understand. The house, the longer it allows you residence, creates this sort of silent plea, begging to be returned to the beauty it once was.

As the summer ended, and the first of September loomed, Allison and I, sitting at her dining room table, lamented over the lack of projects she had completed during her teacher's break. During our nightly walks and hikes, Allison and I talked about projects in both of our houses, I in my kitchen, and she in her kitchen, and dining room. Knowing her like I do, I knew that without a reason to get started, she would likely get carried away by the many hats she's required to wear on a daily basis. While adding contractor, designer, laborer, painter, and electrician hats, or hard-hats as they were, to that list of already highly significant hats she was required to wear as a mother and wife, sounds extreme - it was the simple way, if not the only way however, she would ever get the dining room she desired.

I stood up, walked down the hallway through the narrow dining room door, and descended to her basement where I found a standard framing hammer in the storage room. Climbing each stair, I grew brighter and brighter a smile, until I stood, again in that narrow doorway to the dining room looking at her with my mildly evil grin, hammer in hand.

A slight protest ensued, but I ultimately won ... and this story of true friendship, and how that bond grew even stronger began in the form of a dining room renovation, 12 years in the making.

I thought it important to chronicle the process of this renovation after the demolition began, so there is no real "before" photo of the foyer. This photo, however, is where we start the story. Many years prior to hammers being slammed into drywall, Allison had the great fortune of meeting the man who, as a young child, lived in the house right after it was built. Already aging, and falling victim to blindness, the man asked to tour the home during a garden walk that he attended when Allison, Scott, and I were still "in charge". He told Allison of the beautiful French door opening to the dining room, where it was, and of the spindled staircase that led to the second floor. All of those things were lost in the transfer to 2-family, when rooms originally grand and symmetrical were chopped and walled off to create bedrooms, closets, and the like. While she had always wanted to renovate the house, it was this tour through the eyes of a boy, recanted by a now wise blind man, that had Allison more eager than ever to answer the silent plea of Orchard House, begging for it's second chance at beauty.

It was a messy process, one that I'm surprised we were able to get through, what with Allison's OCD about cleanliness. Breaking through the wall of the reveal the room beyond, seen from the foyer in a way the architect had intended was enough however, to have her OCD slightly subdued - her mind entangled with a new mission to finish the project she'd wanted to start all those years before.

While I won't claim to be talented to a degree of Ty Pennington, I know my way around a hand-tool, and I set in, as the best friend, designer, and motivator to help Allison with this project, feeling slightly responsible as I did hand her the hammer and encouraged, no, forced her to take the first swing. Together, we cut the opening to size, and framed it with the original molding that cased the narrow door.
If you ever have the pleasure of working with reclaimed, antique wood, know ahead of time that it's not easy. Over the years the wood becomes harder, to the point of nearly non-usable stone, but together, we found a way to make it work, one hard-headed board at a time.

With this new opening in place, there was no need for the old narrow door that once lead guests into the dining room. I taught Allison how to build the framing necessary for drywall, and, to my professorial delight, she did an amazing job of closing up the doorway once and for all.

When, as a decorator and friend, I consulted with Allison about the space and it's ultimate eventuality, I suggested that she frame either side of the French doors that lead to the front porch with built ins to store her plates and silverware, and the hats, gloves, scarves, and other winter items that had been previously homed in an old dresser. Above these cabinets, shelves to the ceiling would provide sufficient room for beautiful display, and create a sense of height beyond the already 9.5 feet.

The wonderful friend, and even more wonderful client that she is - she agreed to the proposal, and we went from stock cabinets found at Home Depot ... to semi-custom built ins that had a nostalgic quality, seemingly fitting into the original layout of the space, an intention of the original plan.

We had, in our first idea, decided to back these case pieces with beadboard, but thought better of it once we had gotten them into the room. It seemed too country, too cottage to fit in with the new, improved version of this semi-formal space. So off it came, and the architectural beauty, and what they did for the utility of this room appeared.

By this time of course, you can see that I had convinced Allison that the dated Ikea chandelier had served it's penance, and the old barn red dining room needed a fresh breath of life in the way of a new, lighter palette. We settled on Behr's Hazelnut Cream, with Bright White for the trim and new case pieces.

Brushed nickel bin bulls were placed on the cabinets, and beautiful crystal knobs on the doors, mimicking the chandelier and the original door knobs on the French doors to the porch. We added lighting to the cabinets, and I, began playing with the accessories from around the house to style the cabinets prior to the photos I had hoped to capture with my "good" camera for the blog and my portfolio.

The shelves are trimmed in a rope braid trim, both on the outer edge of the display surface and the front of the shelves themselves. Allison has always been a fan of my cross bottles, and has collected them from the very beginning. She, in fact, has the first bottle I ever made, shown here on the second shelf, far left.

Her old curtains were dismissed in favor of these sage green back-tabbed curtains, and her old beautiful but far too colorful rug was switched out in favor of this seagrass option, banded in a fawn brown. The most notable change, however, was the table.

Allison found this 48" round table at a yard sale, for $35. It included one leaf, but was a tragic color of aged and yellowed oak. You know the color, reminiscent of old number two pencils you had to sharpen by hand. Using a mix of ebony and walnut stain, she created this gorgeous, much more expensive looking finish.

The chairs were garage cast offs I had once used at a dinner party we had under a tent in the garden. She recovered the seats, and they fit beautifully in this space. The table will stay round until of course, it needs to be extended to fit the many attendants of the Sunday Supper's Allison hosts for her extended family each week.

At this point, the room was nearly finished. But I needed to come in and do some styling and take better photos. That's all in PART TWO! So stay tuned.


  1. Oh what a fabulous story of friendship. I can't wait to see the final pics, this is such a wonderful project.

  2. Truly a story of labor and friendship.....I can't wait to see more of the room!!!!!

  3. The best kind of friend is one that isn't afraid to take a hammer to a wall. It's very sweet of you to share both your decorating talent and your brawn with your friend. Love it all and can't wait to see the styled photos!

  4. I love,love,love this! What a beautiful reno,but most of all a beautiful story of friendship!

  5. I am an American man, and I have decided to boycott American women. In a nutshell, American women are the most likely to cheat on you, to divorce you, to get fat, to steal half of your money in the divorce courts, don’t know how to cook or clean, don’t want to have children, etc. Therefore, what intelligent man would want to get involved with American women?

    American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.

    This blog is my attempt to explain why I feel American women are inferior to foreign women (non-American women), and why American men should boycott American women, and date/marry only foreign (non-American) women.


  6. Well that was fun walking throughout this renovation! The room looks lovely and I especially liked reading your description of how your friendship blossomed! Love the built-ins on each side of the door - I need some of those!

  7. Wow!! this looks great - can't wait for part 2!!!!

  8. Their managers has some of the best customer service skills ever. When I called once to ask about changing unit sizes. The person who answered was perfectly nice & helpful.

  9. Artie, Fabulous job, love it!! What good ideas to make the space so much larger and so chic!
    I would like to ENCOURAGE you to make the bead necklaces again, I would love to buy them!!!!


  10. Beautiful photographs with article . Thank you so much .