Decades of Home Work
In 1994 we were young, dumb, and took on too much responsibility, moving into a new home with a much larger property, while consolidating the Niermann Weeks factory from 13 little buildings into the shell of a partially constructed strip shopping center. While the factory greatly expanded our floor space and capability, we chose to live in a small house. Having once been captives of a 10,000 square foot home, we chose never again to be burdened with so many possessions. To give you some idea, here’s the living room of our house in Memphis, in whose decoration we got help from our designer friends Rodgers Menzies, Roland Gerhardt, and the late Jimmy Graham.
Our new home in Annapolis was constructed in 1903 as a farmhouse with two stories and a 40 x 40 footprint. Sometime in the 1940s, the house was moved from the far north end of the property to the center of the lot, incidentally abutting a wetland. It’s not an ideal site for a house, maybe it’s even a stupid site. Over the decades trees have grown really well on that side of the house, and the basement will always require constant dehumidification. In 1944 the Helgars bought the property to manage as a truck farm growing fruits and vegetables for the public markets in Baltimore. They also dredged for oysters off our dock, again to sell in Baltimore. They apparently found the house adequate for the needs of their family of four, bur fifty years later my family of four demanded some immediate upgrades. Here’s the front façade as we first saw it. Notice how healthy the trees look on the far (wet) side.
And several months later, the back façade.
Our immediate priority was a new bathroom, as the one and only original facility had been jammed into a room 7 x 11 feet. We didn’t need a professional designer to tell us that the tub was too short for any of us to sit in, and there was no shower. Also, the scale of every item in the original bathroom was way too small for our livability. (As an aside, when I visit homes, I can tell when the owners did their own decorating; the scale and proportion are usually all wrong.) Getting back to my new home, however, the mismatched, faux marbleized linoleum flooring drove us crazy, reminding each of us of awful dormitories during our school days.
We knocked down a connecting wall into the former nursery to give ourselves a more generous space for the master bath. Crowbars ripped out the tile flooring, the ditzy blue wallpaper, the dinky hand basin, the ¾-sized tub, the leaking toilet, and the clumsy blue medicine cabinet. For that first two days, the local fast food places saw us rushing in to use their facilities, but by the third day we once more enjoyed a working toilet. The new drywall took an off-white coat of paint. And for the flooring we learned from a past mistake. In our Memphis home, Jimmy Graham had us install slick marble tiles, which we found too cold and too slick to walk on. Never again, so I picked out an amorphously patterned tile for the floor. Joe has always hated it, and so soon it will vanish, but I’ll never use a slick, cold flooring material again. In essence, that defines the difference between Joe and me in interior design. He will always opt for form, while I stick up for function. This time we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.
Our new litte house had lots of other, less pressing, priorities, like a complete floor in the smallest bedroom. That room measured only 7 x 7 feet, and through its holey floor we could see people at the front door. Our friend the fabric designer Peter Fasano (www.peterfasano.com) slept an anxious night there.The next morning, he earnestly recommended patching that floor right away, which we did. However, re-flooring the entire house awaited yet more teardown.
An antiquated chimney stack ran straight up through the middle of the house, starting in the basement with an enormous old heating system called an octopus because of its many pipes. We ripped out that brick stack all way through the attic ceiling, giving us an additional 3 x 5’ of empty space on every floor. Our new HVAC system is a lovely three-zone unit, whose mechanicals tidily fit outside. Suddenly the basement became a full 40 x 40 space, and the second floor gained a decently sized central hallway. The attic transformed from a junk space with open rafters and no insulation into a bedroom aerie, hovering over a view of the woods and the water. On the main floor we used the new space for a tiny washroom. Using a suggestion from Newell Turner, who is now Editor-in-Chief at Hearst magazines (www.hearst.com/magazines), we opted for a golden yellow as a foil for my collection of Turkish lamps and plates.
Our next priority was dictated by a workman falling through the roof over the front porch. Sombody had constructed the porch with his own untrained hands, using plywood in 4 x8 sheets as the flooring, which determined its overall dimensions. 4×4 lumber formed the columns, now rickety with age and poor installation.
Knowing that I love to garden and to live on a porch over my garden, Joe designed a great covered veranda that wrapped across the front and halfway around the corner, and I do live on it. Sometimes in cold weather you can find me out there, wrapped in my cashmere throw from Holland and Sherry (www.hollandandsherry.com). You’ve seen my improved porch in our ad for outdoor furniture and again in a story in Garden Design (www.gardensign.com). Joe cooperated with the late DC designer Antony Childs to design this collection of teak and steel furniture, which debuted I think in 1989 at the Alexandria, VA showhouse.
Joe also created a second outdoor area for me, in front of the original tool shed attached to the living room. Dust and mud had led up to a faux-garage, whose interior was oppressively dark. Since we make our living through the work of design, this icky room required transformation.
Cleaned up and painted with the shade of white recommended by John Saladino (www.saladinostyle.com), the space transformed from a fungus into a swan, where Joe, Eleanor, and Claire have happily worked ever since on Niermann Weeks’ designs.
Sometimes, the design studio cleans up even better. Look how my daughter Eleanor transformed it into a bedroom for an ad. She has the gift to combine scale, proportion, beauty, and livability, all in one package.
But to return to my porch fetish, new design turned the dusty driveway into a brick plaza, surrounded by trees to frame it as an outdoor room. I sit there to listen to the birds and to hide from all connection to modern technology: no iPhone, fax, or computer disturbs my peace there.
Young Eleanor re-created that space one December for another NW outdoor ad. I still have the original French planter that inspired our Trevi Table (on the right), but all the rest went back to the warehouse and the showrooms. Thank goodness for evergreen foliage and plastic hydrangeas, which fooled the camera into seeing a warmer climate.
Our final outdoor space emerged from the wreckage of our nasty back yard, which had been just an irregular hillside descending to the waterfront. The owners before us had used this yard as a staging area for irrigation equipment for their truck farm. We have made it pleasing in form and function with the installation of a two-lane lap pool. This photo previews an upcoming NW ad showing our new Melbourne Daybeds and our Toulon Settee.
I am a fortunate woman to live surrounded by design professionals in my family and friends. God didn’t give me their gifts, but I sure do benefit in my beautiful, livable home.
Thank you for reading along with me, and in the next blog you can watch my home’s interior metamorphose as our design needs have dictated.