So Long Shrubs & Hello Clean Lines

Landscaping Update: Goodbye ShrubsThere are about a dozen projects inside the house that should be getting our attention. Half of those – like the fireplace and bathroom - were started over the winter and left mid-project. I said I’d come back to them when it warmed up and I could work with the windows open. Instead, we’ve spent most of the summer working on exterior projects. This is the upper Midwest, after all. We spend roughly six months of the year hunkered indoors, shivering and stuffing our faces full of baked goods to survive the darkness and cold. Once nice weather hits, we want to spend all of our free time outdoors.

Fortunately, there’s always gardening and landscaping to be done. Which means that we can be outdoors while also advancing the goal of transforming the house. This weekend, in addition to weeding the garden, which seems to be a never ending job, we finally cleaned up the south side of the house.

shrubs06We’ve been planning to remove these shrubs from day one. With this big, boxy house and its decorative trim, the tall, floppy shrubs felt too fussy. And this became even more apparent when we put the geraniums in the window box. No, this house should not be surrounded by commanding shrubbery. The house should shoot straight up from the ground, the trim and window box unimpeded. Besides, we recently learned that having tall shrubs close to the house has contributed to the deterioration of the wood trim and stucco at the base of the house. That was all the confirmation we needed!

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The four evergreen bushes came out easier than I expected. First, I used a saw to cut of the branches big branches off and then I cut them down to a stump.  If I had thought of it, I would have waited until fall to cut down the shrubs. The branches would make beautiful arrangements for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Instead, they’re going to make a wonderful bonfire.

After they were cut down, I dug up the roots. OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve only dug up one bush’s roots. Digging up the roots is the hard part, of course. Not helped by the rocks that were used as ground covering on this side of the house. Besides, once the bushes were out, it was obvious that the hostas in front of the window box also needed to be transplanted elsewhere. So I abandoned the stumps and dug up the hostas.

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(Don’t worry – this will not be another project left half-finished. The rests of the stumps are coming out this weekend and mulch will be going down until we decide which plants we want to use as ground covering.)

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Yes, the house looks quite bare in the after photo. In fact, I probably shouldn’t call it an after photo at all. It’s really an in-progress photo. We will plant something on this side of the house – it will just be low and will probably have some white in it.  For now, we’re happy to let the house breathe a bit. You can probably see how the paint on the lower trim has flaked off in large patches. It looks like we’re putting off our plans to have all the trim repainted in a new color for the second summer in a row. However, we are going to take this opportunity to try to repaint the lower trim with color-matched paint. Having pulled out the shrubs, patching the lower trim will now be an easier job.

Take a Tour of Our City Apartment on Curbed

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We spend so much time thinking about and working on This American House that it’s easy to forget how much work we put into our city apartment. Fortunately, little things like a house call on Curbed are there to remind us that that work was not in vain.

We opened up the apartment to Nick Fochtman, a super talented interiors photographer, about a month ago and then played the waiting game until the post went live on Curbed. Nick did an amazing job in making the apartment seem much larger than it actually is. On the day of the photo shoot I left him alone in the apartment to do his work. I took a walk around the neighborhood for about an hour and then returned to find him just finishing up. I had no idea how the apartment would look through his lens. That it looks so incredibly stylish and spacious is quite a delight!

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I think the title of the post – How One Couple Rode Out the Recession and Transformed Their Rogers Park Home – perfectly encapsulates the point I was trying to make in my answers to the Q&A. While it has been very tempting over the years to follow the lead of many of our neighbors and let our apartment go into foreclosure, we’re ultimately very happy that we’ve stuck it out. The value of the apartment is still nowhere near what we paid for it in 2007 but we’re still proud to call it home. I’m proud of all the projects I’ve completed that have come together to make the apartment feel comfortable yet handsome. And, most importantly, had we let the apartment go into foreclosure we wouldn’t have been able to get a mortgage for This American House.

One funny thing about this house call is that just one month later the apartment looks totally different. About a week after we had Nick over for the photo shoot I got the itch to redecorate. Such is life with me – our homes are in a constant state of evolution. I’ve rearranged some furniture and started working on a project that is going to transform the mantel into something a little more useful. Stay tuned for more details on those projects soon.

Meanwhile, take a tour of our apartment on Curbed and let us know what you think!

Playing with Fire: Having the Chimney Relined

Chimney Relining at This American House

When you live in the upper Midwest, where it’s cold 6+ months of the year, a fireplace feels less like an extravagance and more like a necessity. When we bought our house we weren’t sure whether the fireplace was operational. The house inspector was able to tell us that the chimney didn’t seem to be blocked off at the top but that was about it. (He made sure to tell us repeatedly that he was not a licensed chimney inspector and that we should have the fireplace fully checked out before using it).

Since we closed on the house in late November, we weren’t able to have the chimney inspected that first winter. We spent those first freezing months in the house wishing we could use the fireplace and counting down the days until spring so we could have it serviced. We tried to content ourselves with the wood burning stove in the basement but, honestly, it just wasn’t the same. You can’t see the fire in a stove and you can’t fully appreciate the crackles and pops that it produces.Chimney Specialist Relining the Chimney of Our American System Built Home

And then, one cold, cold winter day, I removed the metal sheet and piece of insulation that had been stuffed inside the chimney just above the firebox and shined a flashlight up into the darkness. “I can see light!” I called out to The Mister. And if I could see light at the top of the chimney, that confirmed that the fireplace had not been capped off. As far as I was concerned, that was clearance to start a fire in the fireplace.

I started with a tiny little fire that first time. First, I wanted to make sure that the smoke was going to get drawn up into the fireplace and out of the house. When that seemed to be happening I was confident that we could infrequently build small fires while we waited for the weather to warm and the chimney sweep to make it out to the house.

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When spring did roll around, we made an appointment to have the chimney swept and inspected. Our hope was that we’d be able to have the chimney swept and then we’d be good to go. As these things tend to go in old houses, our hopes were not met with reality.

It turns out that the pipe for the basement stove was running up the middle of the chimney, making it impossible to get a brush around it to sweep the chimney. Plus, the chimney sweep informed us, an inspection of the chimney showed that the liner was crumbling. The danger in that is that if the wood lathe is exposed and enough heat is created inside the chimney … well, we definitely wouldn’t have any trouble staying warm! We could just roast marshmallows outside the house as it slowly burns to the ground.IMG_6819

The chimney sweep gave us two options. We could keep the stove in the basement and have a fireplace insert installed upstairs. Or we could remove the basement stove entirely and have the chimney relined. Both options would cost roughly the same. The chimney sweep pushed us toward the insert. It would be more efficient, he said, and would allow us to keep that stove in the basement. He could have saved his breath. We had pretty much made up our minds before he finished his sentence.

Fireplaces were an integral part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. In his own homes there were often multiple fireplaces throughout the house. And in Wright’s designs for others, the fireplace was almost always the center of the home. Even in these American System Built Homes, the fireplace was central to the design of the house. As we’re trying to restore as many of the original features to the house as we can, and with the fireplace being one of the few originals left, we knew right away that we didn’t want to install an insert. What we would have gained in efficiency we would have lost in charm. So we made the choice to sacrifice the stove and have the chimney relined.

IMG_6831That was last summer when we decided to move forward with having the chimney repaired. We wrote out a check for a deposit and then waited for the chimney folks to come back out and do the work. And we waited. And waited. Some time around October I called to see if we could expect the relining to happen before snowfall. “You’re next on the list,” they told me, “but we probably won’t get out to you until spring.” That was not what I wanted to hear. But of course our hands were tied. We had already written out a sizable check to cover the deposit so we’d just have to wait. And in the meantime, we might have enjoyed a fire or two in the fireplace. Ssh … don’t tell the fire inspector.

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Now that it’s summer, the chimney folks finally came back and poured a new chimney lining. First, they removed the pipe for the basement stove from the chimney and then sealed it off in the basement. Now that the stove has been rendered useless, I can say that I will in fact miss it. I mean, I’m happy that we’ll have a working fireplace in the living room. But it was nice building fires in the basement when we were down there working on projects. We do plan on having a gas fireplace installed in the basement at some point. For now, we’ll rely on space heaters to warm the basement over the winter.

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Once the pipe was removed and the hole for it had been sealed off, the chimney guys poured the lining in the chimney. I wasn’t home that day but The Mister reported that it was a very noisy operation that got the attention of half of our small town. According to The Mister, neighbors pulled out lawn chairs to watch the operation in progress. And more than one car made several passes in front of our house that afternoon. You gotta love small town life. Meanwhile, I was in awe of the scaffolding and the way the guys stood on top of the roof as if it’s nothing. All in a day’s work for a chimney sweep, I suppose.

The job took the entire day – from removing the stove pipe and sealing it up to pouring the new lining and installing a new trap door in the basement. As it turns out, the company we used – Chimney Specialists out of Madison, Wisconsin – used to be on contract for the chimneys at Taliesin. And, of course, it wasn’t until after we had the work done that we learned there was someone local who could have relined the chimney. We’ll be back to use you as a chimney sweep next time, Kurt.

We’re looking forward to a winter full of crackling fires in the living room. Now, know anyone who wants to buy a used wood burning stove?

Images: This American House

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Grandson’s Fab Prefab Home

Frank Lloyd Wright's Grandson's Fab PrefabDid you see the article in Dwell magazine about Tim Wright’s fabulous little prefab home? The grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright is living in a small home in the hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, not far from Taliesin in Spring Green. (This is actually a second home for Wright and his wife. Their main residence is in Boston.) For their home in Wisconsin, Wright chose a prefab model designed by Blu Homes which was manufactured in San Francisco and then transported to Wisconsin.

Our American System Built home was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early attempts at affordable prefab homes, which might have been more popular were it not for poor timing (World War 1 was right around the corner). While the ASB homes were not manufactured offsite like today’s prefab homes, the components were all cut, labeled and then shipped to their final destination to be constructed. Rumor has it that the components may have made their way from Milwaukee to Iowa via railroad.

It’s interesting to know that Wright’s grandson is still honoring his grandfather’s notion of affordable prefab housing.

Check out the full article on Dwell: Grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright Constructs Peaceful Prefab Near the Legend’s Famed School

Image: Dwell

New American Made Shades for the Sun Porch!

American Made Window Shades

I’m finally giving the sun porch a little love. Thanks to a random email from Matt at CellularWindowShades.com, I’ve finally been able to take down the temporary IKEA curtains that had been hanging in the sun porch windows for the past year and half! Good riddance fussy old curtains. Meet my new best friend, American-made top down, bottom up shades.

Sometimes things come along exactly when you need them. When we first moved into the house, I hastily purchased white and blue striped curtains from IKEA. It was a stop gap measure, I assured myself. The previous owners had left the windows of the sun porch bare and instead installed an insulated curtain over the beautiful sun porch doors. This, to me, was a travesty. By closing off the doors with thick, white curtains, you’re losing the joy of having a sunny, window filled room visible from the living room.

I’m hesitant to even show you how bad the curtains looked. In fact, when I went into the archives to find a photo of the sun porch with the curtains, I had a hard time finding them. I must have really, really hated them if I couldn’t even take photos of them! Anyway, here are the curtains the weekend that I installed them back in January of 2014.

Ugly IKEA Curtains. Ugh!

Yeah, they just did NOT work in the sun porch. The horizontal lines never quite lined up the way they should have and the overall look was just way too fussy. The only thing I liked about the curtains was that they allowed light to get in while shielding the sun porch from prying eyes.

Not only did the curtains look bad inside the sun porch, they also looked pretty awful outside. The blue stripes – it was all about those damned blue stripes.

IKEA Curtains at This American House

I hated those IKEA curtains from the very beginning. There were maybe five minutes after I installed all the hardware and got the curtains up when I was actually pleased with them. And then I immediately hated them. They were cheap, I reasoned, and they were better than nothing in the meantime. But I couldn’t wait to replace them.

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When CellularWindowShades.com contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing their American-made shades, I knew this was my opportunity to finally get back to the sun porch. They offered to send one shade to me for free in order to review it. Once I got the first shade up, I knew I had to go back and order enough to finish off the sun porch.

Window Shades Made in America

I’m happy to report that the shades are easy to install. We have similar cellular shades in the condo so I’m already familiar with installing them. I think that even someone who hasn’t installed cellular shades before would be able to do it pretty easily. It’s really just a matter of installing two pieces of hardware (more for wider sizes) and then snapping the shades into place.

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The thing that I like about these shades versus the top down bottom up cellular shades that we installed in the city condo is that these new shades go up and down more easily. Back at the city condo, the shades tend to get uneven and need a lot of finessing to make them look good. These new shades, which are cordless and are raised and lowered by simply pulling the top down or the bottom up, stay nice and level.

I wanted shades that would still allow some light to fill the room. I mean, it is a sun porch after all. It should be filled with sun! The view from the street facing windows in the sun porch is not very nice. This is when the top down shades comes in handy. With the tops lowered we’re able to see the treetops and the sky while still blocking out the uglier parts of the landscape.

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Now that the shades are up and the dining table and chairs are in the sun porch, it’s time to enjoy those summer meals in style!

 

Full disclosure: This American House was supplied free and discounted product from CellularWindowShades.com. However, all views in this post are our own.