They say going through a house remodel is the most stressful thing a couple can live through, more stressful apparently than surviving a life-threatening illness or financial ruin. Yet months into our project and we were having the time of our lives.
The first thing we did after finally closing on the new house was begin looking for an interior designer. The plan always had been to completely renovate the top floor of the 1950s-era Brady Bunch-style home -- every single room, including kitchen and three bathrooms. Walls would have to be torn down, creating a large open-concept living room / dining room / kitchen. The house’s cramped entrance way also would be opened up, along with the fireplace room. Even the staircase leading to the basement would be exposed.
The project would require hundreds of design decisions and ideas. No matter how many House and Garden TV shows we watched or copies of Dwell magazines we flipped through, we knew we couldn’t do it alone, but we knew what we wanted -- an ultra-modern design, the kind of house that Bravo TV personality Jeffrey Lewis could create.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to discover that Jeffrey Lewis lived a long way from Nebraska. In fact, no one 'round these parts likes ultra-modern design, or so we were led to believe after visiting local home improvement stores. As a cost-cutting measure we figured we could find cabinets and fixtures on the floor at Lowes, Home Depot or Menards, but all we found in the demo areas were the same traditional “country-kitchen” beveled cabinets we remembered from our youths, decorated with large plaster roosters and needle-point “Welcome Home” artwork.
One afternoon we drove to a kitchen-design outlet store located off south 72nd Street that promised a huge selection of designs, but all we found was more of the same. We asked the perky clerk/designer if they carried anything "modern.”
"We can get that stuff for you, but we don’t have it on the floor," she said. "This is Nebraska. No one around here wants modern design.”
We found our answer via a Google search. Her name: Elizabeth Monical. She was young, she had experience, and she shared our same love for modern interior design. Instead of using 3D CAD drawings, her website was loaded with hand-painted renderings of modern kitchens, bathrooms, living spaces she'd completed. We walked her through the house and told her what we wanted, and two weeks later she returned with a large drawing of our house exactly as we imagined it, but with odd little additions like hollowed-out, lit structural columns, enormous barn doors hung from brushed metal hardware, and an angled “art wall” created by expanding the master bathroom and walk-in bedroom closet.
The robin-egg blue carpeting would be replaced with wall-to-wall dark bamboo flooring. The den’s walls would be blown out, its exposed-brick fireplace painted a dull gray. Kitchen walls would be cut out for large vertical windows, forcing cabinets under a granite counter.
The design was different, dramatic, a bit scary. Had the house's original owner seen these plans, he never would have sold us the house. The next weekend Elizabeth showed up with armfuls of samples -- flooring, paint, counter-tops, and back splash, as well as folders stuffed with torn-out magazine photos of modern fixtures, furniture and appliances she could find online (because they sure as hell weren't available around here).
We spent the afternoon making decisions.
A month or so later, the demo began. We had chosen our general contractor, Rick Lutmer, based on a recommendation from our real estate agents, Hedy and Jerry Ahlvers. This was after a walk-through by a different contractor, who had estimated the remodel would cost somewhere north of realistic, and would only include the living room, kitchen, den and one bathroom. “The rest will have to wait,” he said.
“What was he gonna do, gild each room in gold?” Lutmer asked. His bid came in significantly lower, but still was out of our budget. Cuts had to be made. The basement refurb was out of the picture, but at least we could get the entire top floor remodeled.
Hammers began swinging in late September. Within two days, all the dreary wood paneling was gone. A week later and the wall separating the living room and kitchen was gone, too, replaced by a large beam that ran the width of the house (a second support beam was added in the basement). More walls came down as well, and within a month all memory of the original house was gone.
If you're like us, you watch shows like Property Brothers or Kitchen Cousins, where a crack team of contractors can completely remodel a kitchen in a few days. It's not quite like that in real life. It was another month before any new walls were framed, another month to get drywall and new windows installed, but each little addition felt like an evolution.
Before winter came blowing through, cabinet maker Dan Casey had finished and installed the kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities and office book cases. Floor installation and paint was next. A dim light began to glow at the end of the tunnel. We’d been told we’d be able to move in by the holidays, but Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went. Then Valentine’s Day. Then Easter. We finally made the move in early April, but as of this writing a few things still need to be done (though the punch list is short).
Exactly one year passed from the time we made the first offer on the new house until we closed the sale of our old one. One quick year. Now all that's left to do is paint the exterior, landscape the yard, begin designing the pool....
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.