House Of A Lifetime: 25 Years of Change

A number of you have shown us the cars you’ve owned for years and how you’ve improved them with time. I don’t have the time or energy for that (except some basic maintenance), as I spend my energy on my houses instead, but they are curbside classics, just immobile ones.

I’ve shared my various building projects over the years here, but never our own house. It’s a genuine CC, having been built in 1928. But it’s hardly original anymore; more like a resto-mod. I know some folks are sticklers about keeping old houses original, and we’ve been there. But this poor little house suffered the indignities of some pretty dreadful updating over the decades, so it wasn’t exactly a desecration. It’s a perpetual work in progress; there’s plenty more to be done, but if you’re interested in this sort of thing, I’ll give you a tour.

Here’s how it looked in July of 1993, right after we signed the contract to buy it. We had driven to Eugene for three days while the two older kids were in summer camp, to scout it out as a possible location to move to from our expensive digs in California. We instantly liked Eugene and bought this house and enrolled our kids in school. We move quickly! That’s our red Caravan in the driveway. We were buying it from an older woman whose sons were moving her into a retirement facility. As you can see, the front and side yards were very different; wall-to-wall grass.

Frankly, it had very little curb appeal. And that’s before we saw the inside. But it was in an ideal location; the kids would be able to walk to school, after having had very long drives. Fairly close to town, but very quiet. As they say in real estate: location, location, location.

But this modest-looking little house was a painful contrast to our house in Los Gatos. We were leaving a large, historic 1865 Italianate-Greek Revival house. And we had just finished a very expensive expansion and complete interior renovation-restoration. It would have made a great episode of “This Old House”. Big bucks; we moved into an apartment for the better part of a year. It was a gem, on an acre with big trees and a seasonal creek right in town. Fruit trees, a large garden, lots of room for the kids to play and trees to climb. It was not easy to leave, especially for this modest little brick house in Eugene.

Actually, not really bricks. The basement and first floor exterior walls of the original house were made with these “structural clay tiles“, something the Romans had already used, and which were somewhat popular in the US from the later 1800s through the mid 1900s. The ones in our house were made nearby at the Monroe Brick Company, and one can see them around town in a few remaining older buildings, more often industrial, commercial and agricultural ones. Our house and the one next door, built at the same time by the same builder, are about the only residential ones I know of in town. They are laid flat like these leftovers under our deck, and one course makes a complete wall, the inside face being covered directly with plaster.

So how best to conduct this tour? Probably the way we would if we had real visitors, with a quick look around the Stephanie’s front garden.


I built the arch out of 3/4″ copper tubing.


It’s what’s called an English cottage garden, and our house wouldn’t look out of place there. Just needs a thatched roof.

This garden has evolved organically over the years, as there was no master plan to start with. But the first year there, I wisely put in a multi-zone drip irrigation system, so watering is automatic and can be adjusted depending on the dryness of the season.

The side front yard (our house sits on a double lot) has of course also changed too, and in addition to ornamental plants there are two strawberry beds, two peach trees, an asparagus bed, and blueberries and currents. And I’m undoubtedly forgetting someone.

Probably the best way to show the inside is with before and after pictures. The living room is a bit weird, as it’s a long and rather narrow room across the full width of the house, with the front entry door and the stairs dividing it into two. This is the west side with a fireplace of ugly-colored bricks.

We tore up the carpet before we moved in, uncovering a fine white-oak floor that got sanded and refinished. And then moved in our furniture. A few years later, we redid the living and dining room, with new paint and finally covered up the ugly bricks in the fireplace with handmade local tiles, and a surround I built. Like so many living rooms, it mostly gets used for watching tv on dark winter nights. Meaning, it gets very little use otherwise except for holidays and other special occasions. The furniture came with us; the chairs were thrift store finds we had recovered.

The house had a forced air heating system that I soon came to hate. The duct work was very old and poorly designed, and the furnace and the ducts were noisy whenever they kicked in. But more significantly, it was uncomfortable, as the brick walls on this house are not insulated, so they’re on the chilly side. Which means that whenever the heat was off, one could feel one’s body heat radiating to the cold walls, as heat always travels to a colder mass. And heating the air really didn’t really solve that problem either, as air is a crappy medium with which to heat people. It works ok in a well-insulated house, where the temperatures stay fairly constant. But not in this one.

So I took the rather unusual step of tearing out the whole system, furnace, ducts and all. Remembering how cozy we felt from the warm glow of our Vermont Castings wood stove in our Los Gatos house, I put in this Vermont Castings gas stove, and ran the intake and exhaust through the chimney. It was a huge improvement, as it works by radiating heat directly to the cooler bodies (like us), instead of blowing gusts of hot air into the room. By drastically improving the insulation in the attic, the heat now radiated through the walls and ceiling into the upstairs bedrooms. We prefer to have our bedrooms be cooler anyway, so it heated the whole house quite well.

The other side of the living room was obviously not much used by the previous owner.

And it still isn’t by us either. It’s mostly become a place to put the excess furniture (old French/Belgian farmhouse furniture) we brought from California. I’m still waiting for the right inspiration to put that space to proper use.

The front entry. Oh, and if you’re wondering about that light fixture, it didn’t come from IKEA. We met a blacksmith at a party and had him make this and the other side one for us. This one is a bat hanging from its feet, with its wing skeleton surrounding the light globe.

Not a very good picture, as I just took it now in the dark of the evening. But there he is, faithfully guarding our light fixture.

Here I am signing something in the dining room, probably a sign-in sheet for viewers. Love that light fixture. See what I mean about the lack of 1920’s originality?

Here’s more or less the same view. The big change came in 2007, when we decided to completely redo the kitchen.

That little project included taking down the wall between the dining room and kitchen, which made a huge difference just by itself.

Before we plunge into the kitchen redo, here’s Lil’ Man’s bed in front of his “precious”, the second gas stove which I added when we redid this area. It quickly became the main stove, and the one in the living room only gets turned on on chilly nights when watching tv, or when we have exceptionally cold weather and this little Jotul can’t quite keep up. Which isn’t all that hard, as we keep the house cool, as in 64-65 degrees. It’s been proven to be healthier to train our bodies to live in cooler spaces; stimulates the immune system and the growth of more brown (good) fat, which creates body heat. Seriously.

Its location right between dining room and kitchen is ideal, as this is where we spend almost all our time in the house when we’re not sleeping (in really chilly bedrooms), or I’m upstairs in my office, which is at the top of the stairs, and gets the full benefit of the rising heat.

So now for the really big changes. This is what the kitchen looked like. It had been redone in 1968 or so. Harvest gold appliances. One aluminum slider window. Poor Stephanie, who is such a fantastic cook and baker, had to put up with this dull and dreary kitchen for way too long after our splendid new one in Los Gatos. My apologies…it shouldn’t have taken this long.

How’s this for a contrast? Yes, we like lots of color and light. Probably in part because of the long gray winters here.

That clock came from a school in Oakland, CA. I’m just going to sort of sweep around the kitchen so you can see it from all the angles.

Stephanie designed all the cabinets and general configuration, although we actually left most of the key appliances in their same general locations. I did all the work except for a guy in the neighborhood built them for us in his shop. They are all made of high quality materials and the craftsmanship was excellent. They would have cost several times as much in California.

As for the aesthetic inspiration, I’d say a mix of Carl Larsson, British country kitchens and just whatever came to mind. In any case it’s certainly not the current popular aesthetic of stainless steel, granite and shades of gray.

The counters are copper. I got exposed to copper counters at the new houses I helped build back in ’94-’96, and really liked them. Their patina is always changing. And they’re practical as well as sanitary, as no bacteria can live on copper. The black walnut surround, as well as all the walnut trim, cabinet door knobs and some counter tops were made by the same guy from a bunch of rough-cut walnut I hauled up from California.

We had a massive old black walnut on our property in Los Gatos, but it was falling apart from old age. I found a guy, Sal Carilli, who had a Wood Mizr portable saw, and he came and milled it on site. He didn’t lift that big log up there; there was some kind of winch that got it up there. Son Ted is looking on in the background. It was quite a thing to see this dead old tree turned into huge slabs of black walnut. I shared some with him, as well as my neighbor, and the rest got hauled up to Eugene in the old ’66 F100 on the several trips I took with it and a trailer.

Tom, our cabinet maker, loved working with the black walnut and also made the island/work table.

On the other side is the baking center, fridge and pull-out pantries.

I painted the cabinets with a brush, adding some Floetrol additive to help make the brush marks disappear.

Stephanie wanted me to keep the existing low-slope roof structure, which had originally been a utility room added at some point behind the original small 1920s kitchen, which occupied just the area with the flat ceiling. But one day while she was at work I decided I just had to have it more slope and skylights. So I tore it off one morning. When she and my daughter walked in after work, the whole roof was gone, and new rafters set. They were more than a bit surprised. Or not. Of course if I’d known I was going to do that, I would have ditched the last remnants of the existing 2×4 walls and framed from scratch.

We had a giant old maple tree in the back yard, and I wanted to be able to look up into its branches. Which explains why I put in five skylights on a southern-facing roof. Full sun in the winter; shade and some dappled light in the summer. Once again, we had a very old tree with severe structural issues…more on that later.

But this is how it looked back then. It worked out perfectly, for the time being.

Of course lights are still needed at night. But just not store-bought lights. I had come up with something different in my imagination, and it turned out to be quite a challenge to make it work.

I have a thing for copper, so I figured “why not make a lighting system with flexible copper tubing?” I’ve never seen it anywhere else, and had no ideas as to how to actually do it, but that’s never stopped me before.

It turned out to be quite tricky to feed the wires through and make the splices at each light. I ended up having to drill a hole in each tee, from the top so it can’t be seen, and then feed the wires out through that, make the splices, and push them back in. It was difficult; a bit like brain surgery. I almost gave up. But in the end it worked. I just hope I never have to redo them.

The sink is copper too, all welded into one piece by the sheet metal shop.

It was made by an older guy in town who was the first to work with copper here. Of course copper counters were once common a hundred years ago or so.

Looking back to the dining room. By the way, this kitchen re-do took over a year, as our cabinet guy went through a major break-up during it, and stopped working on it for several months. It wasn’t the end of the world, as I had set up a temporary kitchen in the dining room, using a few chunks of old cabinets, the stove and old fridge. That now-unused heater outlet behind the dining room table turned out to have a sewer pipe quite near it in the basement below, so I took off the grille and ran the sink drain line down there. And temporary electric wires and Pex water lines came up the same opening. The dining room table got moved into the east side of the living room. Worked quite well.

I won’t tell you the process of how I replaced that structural wall…you wouldn’t approve.

But I will tell you the saga of the refrigerator. Stephanie found it early on in the project at the discontinued/scratch&dent warehouse of the local appliance dealer. I wasn’t too happy about that, as we had no room to store it here. So I took it to the storage shed at our rentals. It was upright in the back of the pickup. I had a dolly and two ramps. I knocked on the door of one of my tenants at the time, a young guy, who was a bit weird, and asked him to help me. As in: just put your hands on the side of the fridge as I wheeled it down the ramp, to keep it stable and from falling.

As I started to come down the ramp, he literally pushed it sideways, and it came crashing down on its glass doors; actually, one door flew open before it hit the gravel. The whole thing was surreal. This not-cheap fridge was no laying on the ground in a sea of millions of pieces of tempered glass. I assume he didn’t actually do it on purpose, but I had no recourse, except to get rid of him asap.

The fridge was a total mess; not only were two of the three glass pieces broken, but the very complex flipper thing on one door that seals the two doors, as well as bent structural elements and glass shelves from the interior. I was beside myself.

It sat in the shed for the year we worked on the kitchen, and then I had to bring it over and repair it. All the parts alone came to about half the price of it in the first place. And it took a lot of tricky work straightening out bent metal and most of all, making the tricky door “flipper” work again properly. No more buying appliances until the project is finished!

There is an entry hall/pantry that connects the kitchen to the garage entry was really gross before the remodel.

The far door goes down to the garage, which is our entry for the house. This area was turned into something of a work desk area for Stephanie and a counter, looking out over the back deck and back yard. It doesn’t get used much though. Both counters are also of that black walnut. Two more copper tubing light fixtures.

It’s where the phone used to sit, back in the old days. Nowadays, this tends to be a cluttered mess where stuff gets stashed awaiting its ultimate resolution. But the tall cabinets just past it are useful.

The whole garage and a room above it had also been added sometime in the 50s or 60s. The previous occupants had two teenage sons who were ensconced up here (but there was no bathroom up there). This is how it looked when we first saw it.

After we moved in, we turned it into something of a rumpus room fro the kids, who were young then. It was very poorly built, the unpleasantly low ceiling and acoustic tiles hid a bizarre truss-like roof structure of 2x4s that was sagging. There was little or no insulation. The windows were crappy. The only good thing was the oak floor. But it was a great place for the kids to be noisy, and later the first video game appeared there.

But several years after the two older kids moved out, in about 2008 or so, I gutted it. And it sat that way for several years. The plan was to turn it into a proper guest suite, for when kids, family and friends came to visit.

In February of 2012, I put an ad in Craigslist for some carpentry help on a remodel, as I was busy with blogging at CC and since it was winter, the framing would have to happen quickly. Two hardworking guys responded, and they were so reasonable and enthusiastic, I just let them at it, with my general directions. They tore the roof off the first day.

And of course it rained that night, naturally. I mopped it up in the morning, and miraculously, we had no more rain for a couple of weeks.

I decided to keep as many of the existing walls as possible, for a number of reasons.

So in order to get the roof height higher and provide proper headers for the two big windows, I just put a couple of big solid 4x12s on top of the existing wall, and then cut open bigger openings.

Blue tape marked where the new windows and door (to a deck) were to go.

Since that central wall running down the middle had been structural, removing it entailed replacing it with a beam. I had to make sure it tied in properly with the framing below in the garage.

The span was too long for a single beam, so a central post was necessary. It tied in to an existing post in the garage below.

Since I wanted a bathroom up there, I had the guys frame up a dormer out to the front.

The remaining part of the roof and sheathing got replaced too. It’s a good thing I didn’t try this myself, as we had a high pressure (dry) system for just long enough to get the roof all buttoned up. Then the rains started again.

Here it is now.

This picture shows a section of the beam, but it has more significance for me, as it documents the one screw up these guys made with the electric. They’re wiring the overhead lights, which were to be controlled with two two-way switches. I specifically asked them if they knew how to do that, as I had a diagram in a book I could give them. “oh no, Senor Paul, no se necesita. We know how!

I never checked it (this is what happens when you have a blogging addiction, which was in full bloom at about this time). And after the sheet rock was up, and I painted it and went to hang the lights, they didn’t work properly! They had made the classic two way wiring mistake, and not left a traveler between the far lights and the center one. So what did I do? After pulling out some hairs, I turned the ground into a neutral traveler between them. Realistically, it’s not a genuine problem, as it was still in its Romex sheathing and is not a hot wire.

And get this! The guy I hired to help me build the new house a couple of years later made the very same mistake! And he had done such a superb job helping me with the rest of the wiring, resulting in the most beautifully wired main panel ever. But the day he did the living room and upstairs hall lights I was…busy blogging at CC, and I didn’t check him, after I specifically asked him if he really did know how to wire them. “Oh yes, Paul, I’ve done it a bunch of times!”  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me…

The guys did the drywall, and then moved on. I did all the rest, and it was a fun project from there on out. Here’s how it came out; quite the transformation. And we now Airbnb it, as we don’t get very many visitors.

The windows let in gobs of light, and when the sun comes out in the winter, it warms it up very nicely. All the wood trim was recycled from the old farm house I tore down the year before.

The other direction.

The sofa folds down into a pretty decent second bed.

Kitchenette by IKEA.

Functional but not extravagant bath.

Stephanie made some splendid patchwork curtains from scraps of fabric she’d accumulated.

This is how the back of this part of the garage looks now. The room below the balcony is a “greenhouse”, where Stephanie overwinters plants.

There’s a pretty nice view from the balcony, including the red house I built next door and Spencer Butte off in the distance.

And our veggie garden.

In July of 2014, about one fourth of the old maple came down. There was a bit of wind, but not all that strong, given that it was  a summer day. Amazingly, it laid down perfectly across the back yard right between the fence and the house, inflicting no actual damage. Having the rest of the tree taken down ended up being quite a challenges, as it was rotten and nobody wanted to do it unless they could get a bucket truck up in it. I finally found someone, and the guy who went up there was a courageous guy.

This is how it looked when we first looked at the house in 1993. The tree continued to get bigger. And more rotted out.

We lost and missed the shade it provided, which meant that I had to put up a steel roof over the deck. That deck was thrown up by me in 1998 in a few days, and was meant to be temporary. A new one is in the works; this spring hopefully. It will span across the whole length of the  back of the house. And there will be new landscaping.

That upstairs dormer was actually the very first remodeling/expansion project, the summer after we moved here. My two boys were sharing an upstairs bedroom, and it was not working out well. Another dad from their school who was a carpenter came over the 4th of July weekend, and we cut the roof and framed up the dormer. It became Ted’s room, and is now my office.

That’s it, for now. But it’ll never be finished. And I’m trying to imagine what it will look like 90 years from now.