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My Benicia fixer-upper

The most beautiful ugly house in town
by admin on April 7, 2011

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When Melody and I decided to move to Benicia twenty-two years ago it was about getting a water view, but we were of limited means, so I knew our best strategy was to buy the worst house with the best view we could find. Of the two of us, I was the only one with passion for this particular strategy, but she sensed my enthusiasm for throwing myself into a “fixer upper” and trusted me. It was years later that I learned that her challenge during our house-hunting had been to relax and have faith in me and my vision, even if she couldn’t see much past the grease-stained yellow vinyl floor tiles or the duct tape being used to finish the corners of the sheetrock in the kitchen.  

If I saw a house that had potential, I would return with a ladder to go on the roof to check out views from the future second story addition as my realtor stood in the yard below fretting over my safety. Inside the house I jotted a map of the floor plan and used a tape measure to quickly get some key dimensions so that I could happily plan remodel strategies at my drawing board that night.

In the spring of 1989 the economy was good and there were really only two houses available in town that met my standards as affordable with a water view. We chose the one on West K Street because it was near the Ninth Street Park and was a bigger basic rectangle of a house for us to carve up into something better.

A trip to the County Assessor revealed that our house was originally built in 1885, though decades of remodeling had completely stripped it of any charm it may have once had. It was now characterized by metal siding that had highly exaggerated “wood grain” embossed throughout each piece. There was 1970’s lava rock in the front and cardboard wall paneling throughout the interior. All these cheesy touches made it easy for us to tear the house apart in order to make it into something different.

After our escrow closed I carried my wife over the threshold into the stale aroma that permeated our new home. Thus began our life as homeowners and three years of construction in which we moved our mattress from one dust free enclave to another depending on what phase we were demolishing or framing anew. Bathrooms were phased in and out. One of them doubled for a time as my closet. The kitchen counter was wiped free of sawdust before beginning dinner. We worked evenings and weekends. We got a dog.

I knew Melody was game for rigorous adventures ever since we spent a big part of the previous year happily touring North America while living out of a small camper shell on the back of my pickup truck. Having a construction site to camp in was a piece of cake after that.

The day the plaster ceiling came down

I dare say we actually thrived in this endeavor. I finally got to shape a house into one of my own, and my industrious wife got to have a project for her considerable energies. I can see now that we were sort of an ideal team in this regard.

The hundred-year-old house had its quirks, like studs spaced eighteen inches on center instead of the now standard sixteen, which meant the four foot construction module used in products like sheet rock required many more custom cuts. We started saving the antique square nails as souvenirs until we had so many that we lost interest. The original minimal kitchen was kept in place at the back of the house until the new one was made functional.

When I look back on it now, I tend to remember the adventure of it, not so much the struggle, though there was a particular hammer blow to a thumb that had me shouting many bad words very loudly. Loading all the sheetrock upstairs ourselves was a sweaty affair with much huffing and puffing, but we did it happily because that’s what was needed.

Mostly I love the quixotic memories, like how our first Christmas tree stood in the corner amid the exposed old dark lumber as if we were living in some cabin. And how our cats, adventuresome little kitties at the time, used the half-completed framing like a jungle gym. With our dog Nimby we could have major fun with indoor fetch by throwing some cut off piece of wood the entire length of the house through the open framed walls.

I got pretty good at knowing what TV weather forecasters to trust, especially in the autumn of ’90 leading up to the day we tore off over a third of our roof and left a massive gaping wound in the side of our house. I was strangely proud as I stood there sharing beer with my two laborers as curious neighbors walked by to look. We dodged a weather bullet and had our addition framed up and roofed before the rains came, but I still remember being speckled lightly by tiny sideways-moving raindrops one blustery day while sitting on my couch in the mostly-finished part of our house. It was just surreal enough without being a real threat. I liked it.  

It helped that we were familiar with construction techniques and became versed in the ways of things like compressor-driven nail guns and water-cooled table saws for tile. I developed strongly held opinions about what types of “Sawzall” blades were the most useful (bi-metal 9 inch inserted upside down.) We subbed out some specialty work like texturing the drywall, but did a staggering amount of the work on our own, much more than I would ever be willing to do now that I’m on the high side of fifty. Doing so much to create my house sure helped complete my education as a residential architect. Invaluable training for sure.

Whenever we finished some notable construction detail we often proclaimed it to be “the most beautiful thing in the house” because our eyes were constantly drawn to admiring it, whether it be a handsome front-porch post or a resplendent oak stair rail, at least for the next few days until some new “most beautiful thing” took its place.

There is a family photo of a very pregnant Melody painting baseboard right after I had quickly installed it, a set of chores that immediately precedes arrival of carpet which is the step that always seems to transform a construction site into a home – which then was quickly followed by the birth of little Gwenna, the new Most Beautiful Thing in the house. I’m happy to report that nesting impulses had been met! We had a house that was complete (at least in all the areas that counted) and fit to raise a family.

I’ve heard that remodels are a source of marital stress for some, but I can tell you our adventure in remodeling brought us closer. It’s all in the attitude, and whether the both of you share the dream. If there’s an imbalance in the desire for the change, there’s a possibility that one of you then becomes “responsible” for the upheaval. Current economic conditions have created a buyer’s market in which deals on fixer-uppers are available for adventuresome couples who want to use sweat equity to take them up an extra notch. It can be the adventure of a lifetime. To those of you about to remodel, I salute you.


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