In 2019 I bought a house. It had gone into foreclosure years before, and sat vacant for almost a decade. It was built at some point in the 1800s, renovated once in the 1950s and again in the ‘70s. When I found it, all the copper in the heating system had been stolen, the roof leaked, the basement was like a jungle, etc. etc. but, as they say, it had good bones. I ripped out the carpets, wood paneling, a lot of formaldehyde-rich MDF and four drop ceilings. I did all this without a clear plan in mind, but in order to know the house better–removing layers of additions to reach the skeleton, which (I hoped) might show me what it wanted to be.
Some of the layers were physical, and some of them olfactory. Freeze-thaw cycles and moisture in the carpets meant that the house stank, somewhere between wet dog and salt&vinegar chips. There were months when I thought it might never go away. To combat the smells, I took to burning incense everywhere I could, using whatever I could find. These quickly became little temporary sculptures: Construction Blessings.
They burned as I worked, the house still stank, I worked more, and after what felt like endless painting, sanding, cutting, removal and open windows and more incense, the smell of mold, cigarette smoke, dog fur, and air fresheners finally retreated.
I started living here a few months into the project, after one room and the kitchen were clean enough to enjoy, and slowly picked away at it. 2020 was a good year to be engaged at home, and without shows or residencies to go to, it felt good to pour my energy into this structure. It took a long time to get here, but I now see this work as an extension of my sculpture practice (which, in turn, is influenced by years of study and employment in architecture).
Every building has a complex web of stories embedded in it, and I’ve learned a few about this house. Early on, the previous owner dropped by a handful of times to see what it looked like after the sale, and when I gave her a collection of leftover objects and paperwork that was hers, she returned again a week later with some artifacts: a photograph of two residents taken in 1956 and a skeleton key that unlocks the one original door in the house. It means a lot that she gave me her blessing - she raised her kids here, still lives nearby, and had such a strong connection to the place. She gave me valuable information about the natural springs buried under the house across the street, which yard had the best soil and provided the most veggies, etc. She also left behind half a dozen bird feeders posted up around the yard.
Living inside of a project turned out to be more complicated (and hazy) than I had thought. The sheer number of tasks meant that there was a psychic burden attached to whatever I happened to look at. My mind would race through all of the little things that needed to get done and then I’d suddenly realize I’d been standing frozen in a doorway for 5 minutes. That took a long time to get over. I’m not sure exactly what did it, but this is all to say: I went slowly.
I learned traditional plaster along with modern drywall techniques, a bit of plumbing, basic electrical, enhanced my structural understanding and, more than anything else, dirt and dust management. That slow speed ended up becoming a boon to the project, as ideas would emerge naturally –one complicated plan would dissolve immediately when a new, simpler version emerged. Many of the design choices happened this way, and feel strong because of it.
I was working intuitively, and without much of a plan, but once clear ideas for big changes occurred, I needed to go through the code office. That and the building was techincally vacant and therefore at risk of massive fines unless inspected, so I drew up plans of the house and applied for permits.
An ethos has emerged along with these ideas: to use and augment what is here before importing any new material. That means taking the low-rent railing and carving a globe into it rather than tossing it into the garbage, cutting a window into the staircase and leaving the original studs exposed rather than spend the energy on a big new header, etc. To avoid getting another dumpster, I made a sculpture out of an old set of extorior stairs.
With all of these choices, I’m hoping that the house can begin to speak for itself, at least to me, if not to oter people as well. In the back of the house, I opened up a slim porch that had been added in 1890, and instead of blowing it out, I tried to massage a better flow into it. I moved the back door 10 ft, to where a window had been, and added a screen door to the porch. With those two small changes, the entry sequence changed dramatically. The backyard is now a straight shot from the kitchen, rather than a long zig zag through a dark porch.
In some ways, I’ve approached the renovation as a set of details, and that does seem fitting, since each piece of the house has a very particular flavor to it, described by layers of material from the 1800s, 1950s, ‘70s, ‘90s and the present. There is no sweeping plan, or a pinterest board, but instead an approach. It’s helped me see that the majority of my projects are like that: using a premise (the project) to find a new way to approach the world at large.
I’m still figuring this one out, so stay tuned.