Our House | Before + After

Three years ago, almost to the day, we made a bid for a century-old house on a corner in the Museum District.  Standing in the front yard, waiting for our turn to go inside the property facing foreclosure, I knew it was meant to be our home.  It took four months to close on what was called a “short sale.”  We took another six months to finalize architectural plans, sell our former home, and gather the finances to begin renovation and restoration.  John and his team spent about a year getting the inside to the point that we could leave the apartment we rented and officially live in the house we had affectionately named “Honor’s Corner.”  We spent an additional year completing the exterior of the home and other projects outside.

This summer has brought a real slow down around here.  We finally just live here.  The construction mess is gone and for the most part the house has settled into the block.  We still get an occasional knock on the siding as passersby, heading to Carytown, try to determine our siding material but for the most part we are just another house on the block.

We have tried to gather photos that best represent the transformation of our home.  Because we opened up the interior, it is impossible to get “Before & After” photos that line up perfectly but you can get the general idea.  Many thanks to Mallory for helping me get this culminating post together and thanks to you for following our journey.  It’s really been meaningful to share this transition with family and friends.



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The wall between the front and center rooms was removed so the living room now opens directly into the kitchen.


We removed the fireplace and added French doors opening to the side porch.




We relocated the stairwell to the center of the house to make room for a foyer, shoe bench, powder room, and coat closet.stairs2






The kitchen and a full bath were at the rear of the house.DSC_0481

We added a row of windows in the kitchen, reconfigured the bath, and made a 1st floor master suite.DSC_0145




The former mud room retained its purpose but we added a laundry area with cabinetry. The hole leads to the cat box!DSC_0535


This is the center room at the top of the stairs.DSC_0722


The attic was opened up in the center of the house to highlight the interesting roof angles and flood the space with natural light.
A loft was added to provide space for additional family members and visitors to sleep.  It houses a full size bed!


better flex room



my room





Beforeep before

Afterep after2







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Photographs used throughout this blog post are courtesy of Mallory, Alferio Productions, and Adam Goldsmith Architectural Photography

How much longer?


This photo was a test shot with my new iPhone right after Thanksgiving to send my sister-n-law.  My brother had just taken out the wall between their kitchen and dinning room and they were adjusting to noise bouncing around the newly open space.  I sent this to her so she could get a sense of our open space. With our kids home for the holiday we had a lot of noise bouncing around and up and down!

With the holiday behind us we are back into renovation mode. It’s hard to fathom that we are not actually done yet. We came upon a huge obstacle this past fall that forced us to come to a screeching halt. We were caught in a bureaucratic snare that was by far the most frustrating part of this journey.  The situation was very emotionally charged for me and I could not write about our plight with objectivity until now. It is a very long story.  I will hit the highlights.

In late April, 2014 we approached the city about the utility pole in the alley blocking the entrance to the old garage.  We wanted to remove the dilapidated, cinderblock garage and replace it with an open carport but the pole obstructed the entrance. The simplest solution for city officials at the time was to grant us entrance to the carport from the side street instead of the alley. New curb cuts on city streets are very limited and a cherished commodity, though granted by code to corner homes that border an alley; a fact that I was unaware of until John and I met with the city to ask about moving the utility pole that apparently belongs to Verizon, not the city.  We were surprised but thrilled and set about removing the old garage and making the changes to install a driveway and a parking pad with underground piers for the carport.  That work took place during an oppressive heat wave in June.

July and August were slow months as we needed to catch our financial breath and John took a much needed hiatus from daily work at Honor’s Corner.  Our adult kids were in and out and we used the time to get acquainted with the house and settle into the neighborhood.  When September rolled around we focused our attention to the final stage: the carport and the backyard landscaping. We hired a draftsman to produce the professional renderings for the carport and took them to the city to obtain the building permit.  Back in April we had discussed the plans with the permit office representative but only had hand-sketched ideas so we were not able to file for the carport building permit at that time.  In October I took the plans to the city.

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A week or so later I received a call requesting that I meet with the zoning office about the plans.  John went with me.

We were informed that the driveway width and carport placement were out of compliance for the Museum District.  This is where the snare begins.  Because we are a corner lot and abut an alley we are allowed a 9-foot (one-car) driveway.  We were permitted and had installed a twenty-two foot (two-car) driveway.  Additionally, because our side street has homes that face that street, our carport could not stand in the plane of those front yards. Meaning, our carport could not be relocated to the side of the yard where the driveway and concrete pad, with several under ground concrete piers, had been installed. Because there was already a two-car driveway and garage directly across the side street from us, the city had allowed us to mirror the design; to keep with the neighborhood aesthetic.  These details were discussed back in April during our application for the original permit.  Apparently there had been some changes to design ordinances for Museum District several years ago that were not verified before our permit was issued.

John and I sat across the table from a very sweet, frustrated, helpless zoning representative that could only tell us that we were out of compliance and could go no further into our project. She didn’t know if we would be forced to tear it all out, use it as it was or wait for the city to come remove the permitted structures.  I fought back tears and John fought back screams and fist slamming.  It wasn’t her fault.  It was someone’s fault that we had been given the permit and spent several thousand dollars in preparations to get to this point.  Assigning blame was irrelevant. We just needed a solution.

The solution came from weeks of meetings with every level of the Zoning and Planning Commission and our city councilman.  In the end, the only entity that could rectify our predicament was city council.  We had to be granted a special use permit to place the carport on the east side of the yard and to have a two-car driveway.  Neither of these are uncommon in our neighborhood, just out of compliance with the most recent ordinances. Obtaining a special use permit requires that the home owner complete extensive paperwork and post a large sign on their property notifying neighbors of the request. The paperwork is sent to city council for review at their monthly meeting.  Along the way the paperwork and plans are reviewed by design committees and neighborhood associations for required endorsements. Once reviewed by city council, Z&P sends a letter to neighbors within 150 feet of the property line on all sides and a public hearing is held. The results of the public hearing are then presented to city council again for a final vote of approval.  It took just over two months for the process to play out.  From what we have learned, two months is lightening speed! We are so very grateful to the Z&P official assigned to our case and our city councilman for helping us navigate the process and expediting the paperwork.

Because we face two streets, we technically have two front yards and thus were required to post two signs.  A neighbor, who was granted a special use permit by city council the month prior, gave us his sign and we made the additional one ourselves.


There are positives to be found through most unpleasant situations and ours is no exception. We talked to dozens of neighbors and made some new friends!  We became acquainted with our city councilman, Jon Balilies, son of Virginia Governor Gerald Balilies who served the state from 1986-1990. He actually lives on our street but I had never met him and hesitated to reach out to him. That was silly, I found him to be a down-to-earth, no nonsense, genuine person who works tirelessly for our district. It was fun and interesting to see some of the intricacies of city government.  We attended our first city council meeting, figured out the best places to park around City Hall and gained a appreciation for governmental procedures.  I was forced to develop some more patience, which is always a good thing! On December 8th our special use permit was approved by city council!

We are now waiting for the brick mason to build the columns and then John and Patrick will build the carport.  Once it is in place, the landscape work con be done and the fence can be installed.  We have been asked to participate in the Museum District Mother’s Day House tour so we are aiming for 100% completion by May, exactly two years from the first hammer of demolition!

Mallory was instrumental in developing a landscape plan for the backyard and putting it on paper.  The white ring is for flowers and there will be grasses dispersed among the rocks and a planting area under the tree.  We are pretty excited about having a low maintenance entertaining area that provides drainage for rain water to stay on our property.  The yard looks a lot bigger in this diagram than it actually is.  It will be fun to post the pictures after installation!

backyard plans

Blessings and the gift of good luck

Honor’s Corner continues to be a work in progress.  Last week John was able to install the back splash in the kitchen and laundry area while he waited for the back porch tile to arrive.


The thought never occurred to me that for two days, while installing the tile, John would be working in the direct path to the cat box.  Our timid and fearful kitties were forced to find a few alternative places to relieve themselves.  While in the throes of this discovery, the main sewer line clogged again and as before backed up into the shower.  What a mess!  I have to say that Woodfin is one amazing company.  They were here right away and just as pleasant as ever!  It took them two days to identify the problem and make the final replacements to the line so that we now have a completely new sewer line.  Crumbled pieces of the century old terra cotta pipe lay in a heap in the back yard.


Periodically, during the repairs, our water use was limited.  The kitchen was torn apart with tile and grout, the cats had messed around the house, there were remnants of sewage in the shower and I had limited water.  It was a little crazy and I was definitely stressing. I have mentioned in the past how Mallory has a knack for keeping me grounded.  Amidst the chaos, this water color rendering appeared on the coffee table.


Now that’s something to think about…

Later that evening I was outside cleaning up the yard and hauling trash to the alley when I noticed a young woman sitting on the grass strip between our sidewalk and the street.  We had noticed her a few times before in the clover patch and assumed she was searching for 4-leaf clovers.  As she was leaving I saw that she was carrying a bouquet of clovers.  We chatted and she informed me that she had found about 50 of them!  Apparently we have a lucky spot by our walkway and our neighbor Elise was thrilled to have found dozens of the tiny leaves to press and use in her jewelry designs. What a neat idea!  I told her she was welcome anytime to pick clover.  Wouldn’t you know it…later that evening she rang the doorbell and presented me with a lucky pendant!  I will treasure it and it’s symbolism, the reminder of how blessed we continue to be while building our new life on the corner.

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Two weeks ago our son graduated from The United States Naval Academy and in another day or so, our youngest will graduate from high school.  Two weeks, two graduations.  Too Blessed to be Stressed!

Since we moved…

We have been settling in and getting acquainted with the intimacies of the house.  The day we moved in my sister Diana helped me organize the kitchen. When she left she told me it was a start and that I would probably rearrange it several times before we landed on a system that works.  It’s ironic how well we when know each other and how similar we are in lifestyle.  I haven’t moved a thing since that first day and the flow is perfect.  The kitchen, which so many months ago I feared would be too small, is actually roomy with plenty of cabinet space.  The entire house “lives big” because of it’s open floor plan and tall ceilings. We absolutely love it!

Just after we moved in the sewer line broke.  A backup of the system into our downstairs shower  was the clue.  All the plumbing on the inside had been replaced so we knew the problem was outside and started digging.  Well, we didn’t start digging, Mr. Rooter started digging and he found a big pocket underground where our waste had piled up for about two weeks until it backed up into the house.  The main line was cast iron where it entered the house.  That section was strong and clear.


The problem was a few feet down the line where the iron pipe attached to the original terra cotta pipe.  That’s right, a 104 year old clay pipe that had been cracked several times and repaired with cement.  Apparently the well digging, gas line dredging and significant landscaping had jostled the pipe enough underground that it had crumbled in several places.

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In hind sight, maybe we should have dug up the line while we were in the demolition phase but in keeping with the spirit of conservation, it seemed superfluous at the time. In any case, when the final landscaping is done in the backyard, the last section of pipe will be dug up and replaced and the entire sewer line will be new!   An added benefit is that we got to know our fantastic neighbors.  Some barely knew us when they welcomed us into their homes for showering!

John is now working on the back porch, hoping to get it done before the Richmond heat and humidity become oppressive.  Our project has become a real family affair as Bobby’s son, Stephen, is assisting John with the porch and Bobby’s brother, Michael, will soon dismantle the old cinderblock garage that sits at the back of the lot.   It will be replaced with a carport of sorts, or open garage that  will have a door to the street but will be open to the inside yard.

A few days ago…


Today, with Stephen’s help…

photo 2


The front porch railings continue to plague us with issues.  It rained the entire weekend we moved.  We noticed that the railing paint bubbled and a brown liquid oozed out and dripped down the sides.  It also oozed out of nail holes in the balustrades.

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After much investigation it seems that the liquid used in the dipping/stripping bath had not completely dried deep inside the wood.  The moisture meter gave a satisfactory reading on the surface so the restoration company felt safe in painting the surfaces.  They have returned, scraped the paint form the railings and the nail holes and are waiting for everything to dry completely so it can be repainted.


The column and railings restoration has been a difficult process.  We were committed to retaining this feature.  We have no regrets that we undertook restoration as opposed to replacement but it has been a journey.  I have personally driven the restoration company crazy, especially the lead carpenter assigned to our job.  I have pestered her for perfection and insisted upon attention to every detail.  It’s impossible to make 104 year old railings look new.  Our expectations were unrealistic in the beginning and the carpenters are accustomed to a more worn look than we were willing to accept.   We have all learned to compromise and to communicate.   A few more hot days and the process should be complete.  The wood is strong and as the head guy said to me just yesterday: “It’s time to let the beauty of age shine through.”

Lastly, we are thrilled with our geothermal system.  In particular, I love the hot water feature. We installed a Rinnai tankless, on-demand hot water heater in conjunction with the geothermal system.

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The idea behind a tankless system is that it heats the water as you need it instead of continually heating water stored in a tank.  Tankless heaters last about five to 10 years longer than a tank heater, take up much less space and provide an unlimited amount of hot water. They cost a bit more and can require new power lines and venting so it’s easiest to install during the building process.  The geothermal company has set up our system so that the hot air extracted from the air conditioner is used to heat water that is fed into a holding tank.  That warmed water then runs through the Rinnai.  The preheated water is so warm some days we don’t even use the Rinnai, just the hot water generated as a by product of cooling our home.  That means less heat being dumped into our environment, less energy used to heat water and we never run out of hot water.  There is also less guilt for me when I lower the temperature on the air conditioner!

Here we are enjoying one of our favorite Carytown establishments: Nacho Mamas!

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A little piece of Honor’s Corner

As we come down the home stretch we are continually amazed by the multitude of professionals who have come and gone over the past 11 months, contributing their talents and great works to our project.  We have met some interesting folks and have made some new friends along the way!  I was inspired to present each of the key contributors with a token of thanks and being the crafty person that I am I was determined to make them something representative of the house.  All summer I tossed around ideas but kept coming back to the pile of wall studs left from the demolition.  John had his eye on most of it for reuse in the house but he let me have a few pieces and just before the winter holidays he cut it into smaller sections for me.   I remembered that our son had handcrafted some wooden pieces when he was enrolled in a technology course at Pocahontas Middle School in Henrico County.  Some were made as fund raisers and some as personal items including a beautiful writing pen.  Deciding that we should give our principle contributors a pen and knowing that I could not make a pen myself,  I reached out to the technology teacher to see if he and his kids would be up to the challenge.  Wouldn’t you know it!  PMS is involved in a year long fund raising project for Relay for Life.  They are hosting the event on their track in June and had set some pretty lofty goals for themselves. Mr Long designed a win-win collaboration through which I would make a donation to Relay for Life for each pen completed by either himself or one of the students.  In the end, I have 50 handmade pens crafted from century old wall studs and Relay for Life has a nice donation.  I love it!

All the interior walls were taken down to open up the floor plan.  Nails were removed and the wood was stacked for future use.  I was able to sneak a warped piece for the pens.


Coincidentally, Mr Long was wearing his purple Hawks Relay for Life T-shirt the day I picked up the pens!


Our collection of pens made of Heartwood Pine taken from the walls of Honor’s Corner.


Distribution of the pens began on the night we hosted Green Drinks and had many of the principles in attendance.  Every now and then another stops by the house I can get one to them.  Pretty soon we will have another gathering for the demolition crew that spent the hot summer months deconstructing Honor’s Corner and I can give them each a pen made from remnants of the wood they removed, reshaped and reused in our house.  Certainly a small token of our appreciation to them and many others for their hard work.  I treasure my pen and have been using it to write the many checks necessary to get us through these final weeks.  That’s right!  Final weeks.

This is the year…

Finally we have arrived to the year of Honor’s Corner.  It’s hard to believe that this adventure began in 2012!  There are lots of pieces and parts that are coming together as we approach the home stretch to completion.

The wrought iron fence installation is underway.  But, as with most other parts of the process, the work got interrupted for a few weeks but it’s off to a great start!

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The roof is finally complete after several long interruptions and nearly all of the interior of the house has been painted!  I will dedicate a post to our fabulous painters soon.

The most significant change is the installation of the Tidewater Pine which began just before Christmas.  The holiday stalled progress but as it turns out, the hiatus had a much needed effect.  The wood had been underwater for a hundred years and was then stored in an unheated warehouse.  Most of the moisture had evaporated over time even before being cut and the planks had to sit in the house for some time before the installers would begin dry fitting the boards together.  We were ecstatic to see the 6”, 7” and 8” planks laid out like puzzle pieces.  It seemed like that was the hard part; figuring out the pattern.  But when they started the actual installation, the wood was still a bit moist which made fitting the tongues into the grooves very difficult.  In addition, the floor joists were a bit wavy as expected in a home built over a hundred years ago.  The wide planks, which are less forgiving over the uneven areas, and the tight grooves made the fitting extremely difficult and slow moving.  We ran a dehumidifier over the holiday hiatus and kept the heat running.  The installers were happy to see lower moisture readings when they returned and fitting was much easier and faster this week.

Stacks of wood acclimating to the house temperature and humidity.

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Dry fitting planks.


 Gluing planks before nailing through the grooves.

Image 6Close up of the tongue and groove.  This piece was damaged in the groove during nailing and had to be cut out.

2014-01-04_0001Erinn’s Bedroom floor nearing completion.

IMG_1758A few days more and the floor will be complete.  The wood is raw and will be sanded and finished after the kitchen and stair railings are put in place later this month.

A Virtual Holiday Greeting

For as long as I can remember we have handcrafted a Christmas card. Every year we vow to start in July next time and every year we end up starting in November. It’s a process and when the kids were little I would find a way that each of them could contribute. I remember one year I gave them each a stack of blank cards, a glue stick and a baggie of precut paper pieces to construct cards in the car during the 14-hour drive to Disney World over Thanksgiving break. I am pretty sure that was the last year that Zach had anything to do with card making. Being held prisoner in the back seat of the van with his sisters, gluing decorative paper while Mickey Mouse carols played on a cassette tape cured him of any card making desires for life. Mallory also made her crafting exit a few years later but was drawn back in during high school as she developed a talent for graphic design and photography. It was good timing for me as Erinn, who has always loved the process, took off for college and wasn’t around to help.

A year ago, when we started to downsize and pack up for this transition, all the craft supplies went into storage. This created a problem for making Christmas cards. I don’t have the space for crafting in the apartment nor the supplies, but I had to find a way to carry on my joy and tradition in making a card. In the spirit of minimalism and conservation, I decided to use only what I had readily at my fingertips. I rummaged through the recycle bin and put together some simple cards from cardboard and newspaper. My first attempt at a star, made from glue and sawdust collected from the house, flopped. So I went to the storage unit and was just able to reach my scrapbook tote which holds paper and doodads from previous holiday cards and projects. I fashioned a tree and stump. It needed some bling so I added a little glitter and sawdust for snow to the bottom. I used all the cardboard in my recycle bin at the time, counted the cards and made a list. I had fewer to send this year, but I guess that is fitting anyway.

Here’s a look at our little card. It’s actually one of my favorites.

Happy Holidays to you all!DSC_0009


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