Fireplace Before & After!

I went through ALL of my house photos, and this is the absolute “best” photo of the BEFORE fireplace, i.e. working within the constraints of the PO’s “vision” for the fireplace he installed (which is SO not original to the house), and how I tried to make it work for us, at least temporarily.

And here below, finally, after 9 loooonnnng years, is the AFTER fireplace, matching the original view as closely as possible for an apples-to-apples comparison.

It’s hard for me to believe that this is the same firebox; it almost looks bigger in the “after” photo, but we actually minimized it and tiled over the metal box as close as possible to the opening and vents. We also painted the brass accents with heat-resistant black paint which makes it look less dated.

The drum table/tall coffee table in the “before” photo has been moved to a dead corner in the living room near the foyer and behind the rocking chair (which is in the lower left corner of the photo). It’s been kind of an awkward piece of furniture but it came from my maternal grandparents’ house and I’m sentimental about it. The low, round mid-century coffee table in the “after” photo came from Pete’s family cottage. No one else wanted it, and I didn’t want to see it go to Goodwill so we took it. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, and it was a little too blonde for my tastes, so I had a piece of tinted glass cut for it and I think it works really well here with our curved sofa.

Another thing that was an unintentional “bonus”: we had the wing chairs, which originally belonged to Pete’s grandparents, reupholstered in the sage green fabric, which I absolutely LOVE, when we still lived in the old house. But I wasn’t 100% happy with them next to the wall color I chose for the living room, until we tiled the fireplace. The greens, grays and golds in the slate tile surround really seemed to bring it all together.


The black radiator screening allows heat to escape and we can easily remove it to access the radiator, which was impossible to do before. The screening also ties in with the firebox and helps “ground” it a little more. The tall, shallow shelf (shown here) where we had to accommodate the air intake vent for the fireplace worked out fine. Most books fit without overhanging, and since the chair is in front of it, it’s not noticeable.

To conclude our little before-after tour, another cottage “throw-away” is the little side table (one of the legs is shown in the photo above). It was a beat-up thing that my sister-in-law didn’t want up there, so once again I took it home. I bought a small sample jar of paint at our local Ace Hardware for about 5 bucks in a Pomegranate color which matches the little “cherry” in our living room art glass windows. It’s a great punch of color and can easily be moved around wherever it’s needed.

Finishing the Bookcases

I fully intended to keep up with the blog this year but obviously that hasn’t happened. I even missed our 9th “House-iversary” in June— sigh. Now that summer is almost over, I’ll really try and catch up. I’d also like to change the site design from this generic one, since that’s (part of) what I do professionally. But first things first.

We haven’t done a ton of projects this year, which is kind of nice, because there just aren’t the multitude of must-do projects on my list anymore. There are certainly plenty of things I still want to do but these days I seem to let other things in life take precedence.

Enough of that though! Let’s start where I left off and catch you up on the fireplace remodel.

When I started to research how to approach this project, I first looked into buying ready-made bookcases and adding trim to make them look built-in around the fireplace. I definitely wasn’t going to do an IKEA hack with Billy bookcases or use laminate wood veneer. It had to be with REAL, SOLID wood.

Last fall I was buying some art books at a used book store in Evanston (which sadly, is no longer) and asked them about their bookcases. They told me about 57th Street Bookcase in Evanston (also in Chicago) so I immediately went there and talked to them about options. They were very helpful and have beautiful, sturdy bookcases at reasonable prices.

I did get some general pricing for buying their standard bookcases vs. custom to fit our space, and while still reasonable, after more research I decided it was something we could handle ourselves and save more money. They finish their bookcases with 3 coats of Danish oil and butcher’s wax, which is why I decided to do the same with ours.

We got all our wood from Skokie Millwork, a family-owned business that has been around since 1949. I happened to go to high school with one of the current owners. It’s the same place we got all our wood for the attic renovation, and I would highly recommend them for all your woodworking needs—they are good, honest people who know their stuff!

We essentially built 4 separate bookcases: 2 narrow ones to flank the fireplace and 2 wider, upper ones to sit on top of the mantel on either side of the enclosed chimney stack. As I did my research for bookcase construction, I discovered the Kreg Jig, which I hadn’t heard of before (where the heck have I been?!). It worked great in building a solid bookcase with tight joints.


Unfortunately I don’t have much in the way of photos as we were building them. In addition to blog writing I’ve been lax with blog photographing, and these are all from my iPhone (which I inadvertently had set to “video”, so I had to capture a frame from each 2-second video. D’oh!).


Anyway, we still had some leftover trim from the attic remodel, so we were able to use that to finish the bookcases, matching the window trim design. I applied the Danish oil and Butcher’s Wax, which was basically just wiping onto the surfaces and buffing with a soft cloth. Tedious, but not difficult.

The photo below, from February, shows almost all our books in place. Since then I’ve finished putting them all in place and rearranged them a bit.


The camera battery is charging right now, so in my next post I’ll take more photos and also do a before/after of the living room. It is QUITE the change!!

Bookcase Progress

It seems like our progress on the fireplace remodel has been super slow, but considering I had to stain about 50 feet of birch plywood, I guess we’re not doing too badly.

We’ve had to hold off on the tiling the mantel section until we install at least the bottom bookcase sections. We added the pencil trim pieces around the firebox and that finishes it nicely. I can’t wait to grout and get that part over with!


We decided to use a wide piece of birch plywood on either side of the fireplace that would also serve as one side of the bookcase. It’s notched at the bottom to sit on the framing, which in turn sits on the baseboard radiator.

On the left-hand side, we had to notch it at the back to route around the air intake vent for the fireplace. Too bad it was placed where it is because there was enough room to go straight back along the firebox. We’d have to replace brick and cut a new hole through the face brick exterior to do that, so we figured out a workaround for the bookcase instead.


To hide that duct we’ll make the bottom shelf shallower, about 9″ instead of 12″ deep, cutting a backer piece to fit the inside of the bottom shelf and secured in front of the duct. It’ll be a tall shelf too, about 14-15″, so I’m not sure if I have tall skinny books to camouflage that, but I’ll figure something out.


The girls are not going to be happy when they lose their cozy little den. We’re going to put radiator screening at the bottom and trim it with woodwork to allow heat to escape.


Last weekend we finished installing the right side, and I’m hoping to finish the left side plus the upper sections today. It’s coming along!


Happy 2016!

Happy New Year everyone! Even though I usually prefer to stay at home for New Year’s Eve, we went to a party for a change of pace and had a nice time. Over the past several years I have also been hosting a New Year’s Eve Day brunch with a few friends, which I did again this year (Pete is usually at work). I have to say this year probably lasted the longest ever and we had a great time…which made it hard to keep the energy going and get to a party, but I had a short power nap and second or maybe third wind. 🙂 Most of those same friends were at the same party, so we just kept it going.

Anyway, New Year’s Day was a day for rest and relaxation so no projects, and it’s been nice to enjoy a fire in the almost-renovated fireplace the past few days. We had removed the glass doors from the fireplace a while back to spray paint the dated brass look with heat-resistant black paint but haven’t re-installed them yet (I think I still need to do some touchups), and I kind of like the fireplace without the doors. I’m sure it wastes energy so we’ll reinstall them, but I do like to smell the wood.

Yes, we have the fireplace tiled (I chickened out and waited for Pete to come home that night), except for the trim on the mantel and around the firebox opening. It only took us about an hour to do everything except for a few tiles that had to be cut. We changed our minds a bit on a couple things too.

We were going to create a hearth at floor level with the tile, but I decided to buy a half-round fire resistant rug from Plow & Hearth in a charcoal color. For one, I wasn’t crazy about putting something semi-permanent on the hardwood floor in front of the fireplace, and I thought it’d be nice to be able to put the rug away when the fireplace wasn’t in use. Secondly, by setting a tiled hearth on the surface the floor wouldn’t be completely level, and I wanted to maximize floor space.

The other thing we decided against was tiling the flat surface of the mantel area around the chimney stack. We decided a wood surface would look nicer and be flatter/more even than the tiles (because the tiles are natural slate, there is some variation in thickness). By eliminating those two tiled areas, we saved some time and money.

I’m sure you’re all anxious to see the progress, so without further ado and to start the first post of the new year on a high note, here is a quick shot:


I think for the first time ever I was able to arrange the living room furniture in a way that makes sense and feels right. More on that later, because right now it’s time to run some errands and get ready to work on bookcases!

Can You Smell That Smell?

In addition to accomplishing most of the goals I set out to do this year, there are some things that come up over the course of the year that you may or may not have control over. For instance, we also demo’d the pool table, which wasn’t on the Goal List, as well as stripped, cleaned and painted the back door, which I decided to do on the spur of the moment one weekend.

Then there’s the basement closet. As you may already know, part of our basement was finished by the PO with a bead-board wainscoting. It’s not the real stuff, of course, but it’s fine for the basement and I have no plans to change it.

There is a fairly roomy closet that was created with the space directly below the front porch. I think back in the old days this space was used as a root cellar (or probably for hiding moonshine during the speakeasy days!).

In there, it was completely covered with the bead-board, wall-to-ceiling plus ceiling.

Everything was well and good for a few years, but eventually it started smelling musty down there and I just knew it was coming from the closet. One time Pete tried to get a peek at what’s going on and discovered that the bead-board was glued to plywood and had a difficult time just cutting a small hole in the wall. Sigh, really?!

Finally last month I think we were doing something with the fireplace and we went to the basement for some reason. It was smelling mustier than ever and next thing you know we started tearing the closet apart.

It wasn’t easy. In fact it totally sucked. Bead-board not only glued but also nailed to plywood, which in turn was also glued and screwed to the studs. It was not only impossible to tear off the bead-board, but the bead-board had to be torn off in order to find the screws holding the plywood to the studs.

Eventually, we prevailed. So, what was going on here?

Well, number one: paper-faced fiberglass batts. If it were me, I would NOT insulate a basement with fiberglass batts because of potential moisture issues, but instead go with rigid foam or spray foam insulation. You can see the paper on the left looks a bit damp and mildewy.


The next thing we found under the insulation was on the front wall and had us a bit perplexed.


WTH? It looks like some kind of valance, painted green on a thin piece of wood. We can only assume it was used as a shim for some reason? In any case, yes it was definitely moldy along with several of the studs.

The brick foundation looks to be in decent shape, and now that it has been over a month since we got rid of the offending parts it smells much, much better.


So now what? I always thought it’d be kinda fun to turn this closet into a wine cellar and I think it would look great leaving the brick exposed…but a) like I need another project; and b) like I need to stock up on wine?!

2015 Accomplishments

Even though we didn’t seem all that productive I’m feeling really good about our accomplishments in 2015!

The number one and two projects on my list—and major thorns in my side—were finally removed! (A big thanks to my wonderful husband, Pete, who was instrumental in removing said thorns.)

I have yet to post the final FINAL shots of the bathroom remodel, but I love it every time I walk in the room. You can read the general overview from our 8th House-iversary post in the meantime.

Technically we’re still working on the fireplace project, but I was just happy to get rid of that stone and leave it bare for a while. I think it helps to mull over a remodel like this if time allows between project stages because I’ve gone through several possible design scenarios over the past several months before making a final decision.  We’ve made great progress in recent weeks and hopefully we can finish the project in the next few weeks.

Most of the tile is installed, except for the trim pieces, and we have the birch plywood for the bookcases. I worked on measurements last night and we’ll work on building the boxes over the holiday weekend. Nervous but excited!

Number 3, installing glass in the laundry room door, was also completed! That one seems so long ago now, I can’t believe it was a 2015 project.

The next one, re-painting the master bathroom was not done, so off it goes to the the 2016 Goal list.

I get partial credit for the next, Refinish woodwork in remaining first-floor closets. I still have the breakfast room closet to do but the others are complete. The breakfast room closet has gotten a bit messy and disorganized so this would be a good weekend project in the near future.

I still need to paint the linen closet, and we also still need to repair the walls and paint the hallway, which was the last goal on that list. Both can be done at the same time, but I’ll have to convince Pete to do the mudding and sanding since he’s so good at it!

All-in-all I think it was a good project year and I have to say there’s really nothing major left to do (at least on the interior)—yippee!

‘Twas the Day Before Christmas Eve

And I’m about to tile the fireplace!

Apparently my busy summer went into a busy fall and now what is supposed to be “winter” (it’ll be a balmy 60° in Chicago today!).

I was going through photos this morning to see what, if anything, we’ve done in the house since I last posted in August. Except for tearing out the basement storage closet (more on that later), yeah, we’ve pretty much done nothing.

Of course that doesn’t mean I haven’t been planning or researching some project or another, because that’s what I do!

The most obvious project is the one that always demanded attention and has sat, stripped of its stony veneer since spring.


It started a few months back when I was trying to figure out the manufacturer of our existing zero-clearance fireplace, the one that the PO installed. There were no markings that I could find, other than a warning sticker about minimum clearances, so I googled that in quotation marks, et voilà, I found it! We have the Majestic WM42SX Heat Circulating Fireplace.

Replacing the monster was out of the question because of the cost of a good quality gas direct vent fireplace, and although I still contemplated removing it altogether, Pete wanted to have a fireplace. So while replacing it sometime in the future is not out of the question, it became “how can we remodel this as cheaply as possible and try to get it closer to what I’ve always envisioned”?

The installation instructions that I found were helpful in determining what I could and couldn’t do, such as keeping combustible materials a certain distance away from the opening. That meant that the wood mantel I wanted was out, unless we mounted it much higher. Since the firebox was already raised higher than I’d like because it’s sitting on a platform over our baseboard radiator, that wasn’t going to happen.

I started looking into non-combustible fireplace mantels. There were some cast concrete options, including some that looked like reclaimed wood or limestone, but they were usually either too long or more than I wanted to spend.

Eventually I ended up at the Motawi Tileworks website. Swoon! I don’t think I ever thought about creating a mantel out of tile until I saw all their gorgeous fireplace installations.

Of course my “cheaply as possible” requirement meant that a Motawi fireplace was also out of the question, so off we went to local tile stores to look at options. We ended up at the Tile Shop in Skokie where we purchased our tile for both bathrooms and decided upon a nice slate tile with subtle color changes. BTW, I highly recommend the Tile Shop—the salespeople are very helpful, they have a great selection, and a generous return policy on unused tiles.

Before that happened, however, we had to finish re-framing the fireplace and stack and smooth the textured plaster walls that used to be hidden by the stone veneer. We also had the gas line and fan switch moved to more convenient spots and added an electrical receptacle that would be close to the mantel.


Pete did virtually all the mudding and sanding, and I’m very thankful for that, because I SO do not have the patience to do it. I finished the painting (except where the built-in bookcase is going to go) and we installed the cement board last night.


I’m happy to say that the leftover living room paint matched PERFECTLY after all these years, and the quart I had to buy for the ceiling color also matched PERFECTLY. Love Benjamin Moore’s Aura paint!

I just finished laying out the tile pattern and now I just have to mix the thinset and DO IT. So I  better get to work.

If you celebrate, Merry Christmas!

Busy, Busy!

We’ve had a busy, busy summer, hence the lack of posts. After family visited and I had my little trip downstate, we went to Traverse City, MI for a few days at the end of July with some friends and had a great time. I bought a print at an art fair and we also bought a couple of handmade tiles from a local artist. We need to frame the tiles which I plan to do using our leftover attic remodel trim (I’m finding all kinds of uses for that extra trim!).

I’m happy to be home though (plus I always feel guilty leaving the cats alone with someone just coming in to feed and check on them), and I spent the past couple weekends cleaning up the never-ending clutter and tackling little things that have been bugging me forever, like trimming dead leaves off houseplants and finding a home for all the crap that never seemed to have a home.

I also went through the dresser and pulled clothes to donate and figured out a new strategy to stop myself from piling re-wearable/still-clean clothes on the chair. So far it’s working!

I dropped off things to recycle, like plastic bags, CD jewel cases and used inkjet cartridges. Many places will take plastic bags and inkjet cartridges, but there aren’t many who take CD/DVD jewel cases. I was happy to see that Best Buy takes them, although their store numbers seem to be dwindling (as I found out yesterday).

My next little project is to pull out all the various empty frames stashed in the basement closet, gather up all the things I’ve been meaning to frame and see what matches size-wise and will also look good together.

I feel much more relaxed when things like these are finally taken care of. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start which can be stressful, but once you start somewhere it tends to flow into the next and you gain momentum (and sanity!).

Antiquing Fun is Relative

Last weekend my mom and I drove downstate to my late father’s hometown to see my aunt (his sister) and meet up with my cousin and other aunt (my dad’s brother’s wife) who were driving in from Ohio.

My cousin Beth and I are only 4 months apart, and after going our separate ways for a number of years we’ve been meeting up more and more recently and have a blast together.

We’re both very nostalgic about our dads’ hometown, especially now that our aunt is the last connection there and both our dads are gone. While she’s still very spry, healthy and active, she is almost 90! She and my uncle owned a farm about 10 miles from town but she now lives “in town” in a small ranch house they built on my grandparents’ land. Their old farmhouse, built by my great-grandparents,  had to be torn down in the ’80s. I still miss that house.

Beth and I both grew up in the Chicago suburbs but we cherish our memories of visits to the farm: driving the tractors, climbing bales of hay, feeding the cows, picking strawberries, playing with the dogs and cats, and also seeing first-hand how a farm operates. I’m definitely more of a city girl, but I’m grateful to have experienced country life at least a few weeks or more every year growing up.

When we meet up we always drive out to the farm to reminisce a bit and then we hit the antique stores. Unfortunately this year was a short trip so we only had a couple hours to shop (plus, our mothers were getting annoyed that we were out having fun!).

I told Beth that I was on the lookout for a vintage light fixture for the dining room (if you recall I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the light fixture I bought to replace the chandelier because of its small size), and not 20 minutes later she pointed one out that I overlooked!

I knew from my research that it was the right vintage, and it was a 5-light cup chandelier with all shades intact instead of the small 3-light fixture I bought locally. It needs to be rewired, but it was perfect and cheap: SOLD!


This is Oliver checking it out, who incidentally is a likely littermate of dearly departed Henry and Ella. He and Trixie, my aunt’s other cat, were rescued as kittens from the farm several weeks before I brought Henry and Ella home and thankfully did not contract Feline Leukemia like mine did.

I’ll get better shots later on, but once I got home I did more research and found photos of an almost identical one in its original polychrome finish here. I can’t wait to restore it to look like that! When I’ll find the time is another issue, but I think I’ll make it a fall project and try to finish it before Thanksgiving this year.


Happy 8th House-iversary

EIGHT YEARS! How time flies—I really can’t believe we’ve lived here for 8 years already (technically I’m two days early, but still)! Unfortunately I missed our anniversary last year, but we’ll just chalk that up to the 7-year itch with houseblogging, as I strayed a bit from that last year. 🙂

On our House-iversary two years ago, I did a little before-and-after of the exterior and yard since we were working on that so much at the time and the year before was a summary of yearly exterior changes.

Now that the interior has changed over the past year with my craigslist “Purge Splurge” among other changes, we’ll focus on the latest updates and how the rooms have evolved over the years.

I’ll keep this thread going in future posts, but let’s start with the most recent update: The Main Floor Bathroom.

After eight long years of bitching and moaning about how much I hated the 1990s-era blue-and-yellow bathroom remodel I finally did something about it (yes, dragging Pete with me, kicking and screaming but eventually relenting). Despite his reluctance, I have a wonderful husband and am very grateful that he puts up with me.

I would also get some opposition from a few friends who would say, “I don’t know; I kind of like it!” or “It’s not that bad!” (many thought it was an “original” retro style similar to the pink 1960s bathrooms, and no, I didn’t hold it against them). I think Pete must have paid them to say it, but I was not having any of it. I can be a little stubborn, especially when it comes to my own design aesthetics.

The first few years were focused on remodeling the attic into a master suite and “bonus” area, but starting in 2012 the bathroom was high on my Project Goal list. Along with Pete’s grumbling however, some other project would take precedence. I guess it just wasn’t time because I’m sure it would have turned out much differently had we done that early on, so no regrets about waiting.

Since I realized I need to update my Before and After pages, I plan to add additional photos and links there in the near future.

In a nutshell, here’s the bathroom over the years, starting with pre-ownership.

The owner (whom we knew as our neighbor two doors away) planned to take the green toilet with him. No problem there!

April 2007

We removed the beige basement toilet and used it here for a while.

July 2007

Trying to embrace the color scheme. With the addition of the white toilet, at least it’s looking fresh and clean.

February 2010. Trying to embrace the color scheme. With the addition of the white toilet, at least it's looking fresh and clean.
February 2010.

Enough was enough, I decided this was the year for this project, and I might as well see what the original floor looked like. I had to tear the top layer off anyway even if we had to re-tile.

January 2015

Luckily, it turned out beautiful!

Demo time!

March 2015
March 2015

Getting the walls up and everything functional before guests arrived for a weekend.

April 2015
April 2015

As of today, it is thisclose to being completed. We installed a glass corner shelf and remounted the toilet paper holder (I decided it was too far away). Pete also finished the window ledge.

June 2015

The tub deck (formerly the pool table slate) is installed now that the bathtub has been refinished. Pete caulked everything yesterday as well. We just need to finish gluing the seams and then install the shower screen door. I also need to do some paint touchups and  general cleaning, but I think we can wrap it all up this weekend and take a well-deserved break over the 4th.

June 2015

It is definitely the best House-iversary present ever!

A blog about renovating, remodeling and restoring a 1929 Chicago-style brick bungalow