Bekah and I got married in October 2010. Two days before the wedding we bought a ramshackle little 120 year old house in Dignowity Hill on the near east side of San Antonio, the city where we grew up. We then set to work figuring out how we wanted to live our new life: within our new marriage, within an old house, within an unfamiliar neighborhood, and within an all-too-familiar city.
We wanted to be deliberate in all of these things, and we wanted them all to inform and to shape each other. We also wanted our own quirks to come forward whenever possible.
This was some ambitious stuff, and we knew we had to start somewhere. So we set to work on the most concrete of these goals, the house renovation. We hoped this house would provide us a rich backdrop for our daily lives together, and we also hoped it would become a well-liked addition to our neighborhood. We didn’t know if we could actually achieve any of this but figured it was best to dream big since we were at the very beginning of so many new things.
The house we began with was intact but in a fairly crusty state. We found plenty of historic details to dust off and celebrate and plenty of other things that needed to be stricken from the record. With our very small budget, minimalist mindset and bizarre assortment of old furniture and weird family trinkets, it became clear that this house would be a collage of some wildly different parts. Whether it would feel like a Frankenstein monster or a Makoto Fujimura painting was the question I lost sleep over.
This renovation was going to require an intuitive sense of balance and an experimental jazz sense of composition every step of the way to draw forth its unique character and prevent something horrible from awakening and running amok. No book of style rules existed to guide us. Instead for this design task I had my gut and a streak of rebellion, and I prayed to Jesus a lot.
Our first priority was a set of rooms where we could start trying to practice hospitality and let our lives and our house open up to the life of our neighborhood from the inside out. We started with the living room, dining room and kitchen.
We enlisted the help of artist/handyman/good friend Marcus Rudd as well as the dynamic sheetrocking/carpentry duo of Dave Woodard and Lucas Conkling. Dave played trombone in our wedding band, and Lucas has a photograph of Townes Van Zandt tattooed on his arm. During the renovation Bekah and I drove to Ikea a lot. We tore down some walls. We fell in love with the existing wood board wall sheathing that had been hiding for 100 years behind cracked gypsum board and decaying wallpaper. We picked a shade of orange we called Nacho Cheese to paint the existing cabinetry with. We spent hours online searching for exactly the right ceiling fan.
While the house was in disaster mode Bekah and I camped out in our bedroom and cooked grilled cheese sandwiches on a panini press in whatever spare corner we could find. Through all this work an interesting suite of rooms materialized. A new atmosphere we hadn’t quite anticipated slowly emerged. We started to get a sense of what our new lives would look like inside this house. It was all happening through hundreds of mundane little decisions, negotiations, splurges, sacrifices, accidents and discoveries – both in the house renovation process and in our new married life together.
So far in this process both our house and our marriage have brought us a lot of joy. I think they are turning out to be fairly accurate reflections of each other. Follow along for a brief tour of Phase 1.
We removed a closet in the corner of the dining room (where the bookshelves are) to make this room large enough to fit a mid-century Scandinavian-modern dining table that had belonged to my grandparents.
There was no good place to hide a pantry so we fattened up this kitchen wall to conceal food storage. Slide-out pantry drawers are behind the white cabinet doors concealed in the thickened wall jamb on both sides. We’re calling this invention a McNeel wall.
Preserved behind a coating of clear sealer is the pixelated/camouflage texture of the old chipped paint that was on the salvaged wood. “Dude, it’s like…digital AND organic at the same time,” said Lucas the carpenter.
The ceilings throughout are 11′ high. That was a free gift the house gave us. Each room gets a Westinghouse Industrial ceiling fan to circulate the air up there in all that space above our heads. The fans do a lot to augment the central AC system we installed.
Almost nothing is better than a high ceiling and natural light. These things can bring an ennobling quality to the daily chores of life. As Bekah and I go about our days trying to honor and lift up each other we find that our house is also doing its own part to honor and lift up us through whatever ways a house can. Tall ceilings certainly help in this respect.
The physical things around us certainly aren’t what make our life together a happy one, but it is an added blessing of immeasurable value to get to exist inside a house that nourishes our own idiosyncratic senses and shelters us gracefully from the wind and the rain. It allows us perhaps a bit more freedom on a daily basis to expand our thoughts and dream and create in new ways.
At its best I think a house can even be a physical reminder of other deeper blessings that might be harder to see. A good work of architecture might not just be a well-functioning pretty building. It might also be an attempt to show the best possible outcome that can result from trying to exist well in the world, or at least a hopeful rough draft sketch imagining some small piece of a better world to come. There are lots of destructive and ugly and soul-crushing things out there. The blessing of a good house (or even a few good rooms) might be a reminder of some of the deeper goodness that can still be found in all sorts of strange and unexpected places.
Our odd little home is probably not the best house in the world, but we think it’s been successful at meeting the first part of our goals for our new life together. We really like our kitchen, living room and dining room, and these spaces have provided us a rich backdrop for our daily tasks of living together. The next step is to see how this house fits in to the larger scale of daily life in our neighborhood. And there are more room renovations to come.