Wednesday, July 25, 2007

House Adventure Part II


(Photo of free door,
after much stripping, sanding and painting)
I learned about the joy of getting stuff for free at an early age. When my Dad lived in a tiny studio apartment on Paloma Court in Venice in the mid-70's our family frequently checked out the neighborhood Free Box (similar in concept, not scale, to this) a few blocks away and came away with cool toys, useful household items and clothing. People in the neighborhood would leave items they no longer needed but which were still usable in the box for others to take and use. Someone in the neighborhood had put a wooden box, the size of a small trunk on the sidewalk in front of their home, with a note that read something like "Take what you need, leave what you don't" Even as a 6 year old, I was well aware that this was definitely NOT how things usually worked in our society. I remember the thrill I would get as we walked down the street toward the weathered box, wondering what treasures we would find when my Dad lifted the lid.

I still love gettting stuff for free and giving stuff away. I am a member of Freecycle and am so happy when I can pass along useful items to other folks. I am looking forward with much aniticipation to an upcoming event that a friend is organizing, a women's clothing swap party where a bunch of us are bringing clothes that no longer fit us to exchange with one another. I often leave items out on the curb for the scrap metal collectors who cruise our neighborhood on trash day. And I can now justify my freebie-mania, knowing that I am practicing the three R's: reducing (my consumption of the earth's resources, the amount of stuff going into landfills, the amount of my income that goes to multi-national corporations, etc.) recycling, and re-using.

Of course, my Dad was the most influential conservationist in my life, he taught me how to mend socks, make flying toys out of popsicle sticks and re-purpose old furniture. His conservation ethic and skills at reusing found materials probably came both from his experience growing up in a poor family, especially his grandparents immigrants from rural Mexico and also from the vocational training in the building trades that he got from his instructor, an older man from New York whose family had emigrated to the US from Eastern Europe and lived through the Depression.

So, no one was more thrilled than my Dad when my husband and I started picking up old house parts from the streets and sidewalks of LA to use in our remodelling project. He literally shouted with joy when we brought home an amazing, turn of the century solid sugar pine door with original bevelled glass and a matching screen door ("before" photo at right). He grinned from ear-to-ear when we brought home the 800 lb "built-in" china cabinet (photo below), salvaged from a house being demolished near Chinatown. And he was truly impressed to hear how my husband and a friend had taken two pry bars, a few screwdrivers and a small pick-up truck to the doomed house and returned to deposit this treasure on our front lawn, where it rested until we could get enough strong hands to move it to the back patio. (And he didn't laugh, when we later learned that to install the "free" front door and move the china cabinet into the house, we'd have to spend big money to tear down the front wall and reframe the whole thing to current-day standards!) He happily lent his pick-up truck, shovel and muscle power as we made multiple trips to various construction sites around town to pick-up loads of arroyo river rocks that would become garden edging, and the dry river bed arrangement that would solve one of our drainage issues.

I am proud that my spendthrift ways make me the latest in a long line of conservationists, though my impoverished ancestors would probably just call my habits being smart or making do. We have gotten a lot of joy from the freebies we have used to rehab our house. Every so often, I look at the front door and recall the unmistakable sweet and fagrant scent that the nearly 100 year old sugar pine gave off when we sanded it down. Not only do we have high quality, historically appropriate pieces for the house, some made from material no longer available, we have the satisfaction of finding, hauling and, in some cases installing these things in our home ourselves. And each of these house parts provides us a cool story to share with guests and connects our house to a place or event in recent LA history. On top of all this, we have the memories of working together in this project with my Dad and the image of his broad, infectious grin and expressions of disbelief (Man, how do you find these things?!) over each one of our finds--things that you just can't buy at Home Depot or Lowe's!!

Monday, July 23, 2007

House Adventure Part I

This is the first in a series of posts that I plan to write about our 1909 house ("Before photo, at right), which holds so many memories and stories. I will add posts and photos as time permits.
"This house is going to be a showplace"

Our home-owning adventure began in early 2001 when my husband bolted upright one morning and announced "We're buying a house!". He had grown tired of being woken up at 5am most mornings by the sound of our neighbor's concrete mixer right outside our bedroom window.

After scouring the streets of Northeast LA looking for a house with the right mixture of historic character, affordability (there was such a thing in early 2001) and potential, we found our current house. I fell in love with the place from the curb. One look at the wraparound porch, dormer windows and arroyo stone foundation and I knew in my bones that this was the place for me. That the place was only a mile from where we had been renting a 1906 carriage house that had been saved from demolition, moved and rehabbed by a local preservation group and , in the community where I had spent much of the past 15 years, was the deal closer. I was not dissuaded when we got a chance to look at the home's interior and saw just how much repair it would need. (At right, one of the "before pictures" of our home)

Growing up, I had gone with my Dad to jobsites-condominiums and old houses undergoing remodelling-when he couldn't find a babysitter, which was most of the time. I spent many hours doing homework under his work lights, growing accustomed to the hum of the circular saw, the rhythm of nails going into 2 x4s, and the fresh and clean smell of sawdust that still reminds me of my Dad. And, as a young adult, I had helped my Dad rehab our North Hollywood bungalow, finding solace in the routine tasks and tangible results of making the place sparkle again-removing decades old wallpaper, and sanding and hand-rubbing the finish on the dry and worn oak floors- during what was one of the most difficult times in my life. I had just quit a job where I had been assaulted and the management refused to discipline the guy who assaulted me. I had also left college because of financial and emotional pressures and was uncertain how I would be able to fulfull the potential that all the adults around me claimed I had.

So when I walked into the 1909 bungalow that would become our first home and saw the poorly repaired plaster on the walls, the doors that were out of square, the rotted windowsills and the cracks in kitchen and bathroom tile, I didn't see quite how badly neglected the place had been, I saw an opportunity to make my mark on the place.

My Dad didn't discourage us from buying the major fixer-upper though he probably saw what an overwhelming task we had taken on. He did not have money to help us, so he gave us what he did have: his skills, patience, and hard work. For nearly three years, he spent almost every weekend working on the house with us. He taught my husband how to use tools, he mediated our disagreements over large and small issues, and he debated design ideas with me. He took pride in our progress, beaming his happiness to all around when we'd sit on the porch for our lunchbreak, enjoying his favorite root beer, deli sandwiches from the corner market, and the breezes from the southwest that reached the porch with just enough velocity to cool us off. With a sparkle in his eye, he would take a look around at our progress and tell us "This house is going to be a showplace".


True to his character, on his last visit before his sudden death, he had made up a list of the tasks we needed to tackle in the kitchen and ranked the items in order of importance. He handed me the list after a particularly spirited exchange where we had debated the merits of various schemes for shaping up the kitchen (Photo of kitchen in progress, with free door, at right). Before he left, I realized that my tiredness and frustration about the long project of remodelling the house made me short with him. So as I walked him to the door, I stopped him and gave him a hug and said "Thanks, Dad. For everything." By everything, I meant not only his work on and excitement about our house, but also the love, patience, and guidance he had given me throughout my life that was epitomized by his participation in our house adventure. That was the last time I would see him alive and I still remember how it felt to hug him that day , with the sunlight streaming in through the kitchen windows, the breeze coming in off the porch and the feeling of being protected and nourished by his unconditional love.