“And what is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days,” opined poet James Russell Lowell. Perfect days, I think, for a little outdoor project.
I painted a couple of beat-up chairs on just such a day last year. We found the chairs in our former rental house, and the property manager told us when we moved in, “They’re yours now!” One chair had been sitting outside through many rain storms from the looks of it. The seat had a crack in it. The other was stashed in the basement, covered in cobwebs. But whenever I encounter solid wood furniture that has seen better days, I see a potential paint project.
I sanded these beauties and swished on a couple of coats of Fusion paint. First the back spindles were painted in Sterling gray and then the rest of the chairs was painted in Raw Silk. I find the subtle contrast of two similar colors preferable to more dramatic color choices, but you do you.
I draped a quilt top on one of the chairs. The unfinished quilt top was gifted to me from a former parishioner who believed it belonged in the church. It is quite old, I’m guessing from the early 20th century, and each of the white blocks features the name of a woman (and a few men) who belonged to the Methodist congregation at the time. I agree with my benefactor: the memento belongs here.
As I have mentioned many times here, I am repeatedly impressed with the way a couple coats of paint can improve a hunk of wood. The hardest part is the waiting between coats, and even that’s not so difficult when you can enjoy June’s gentle breezes.
The story Pauleen Le at CBS 58 worked up about Church Sweet Home casts a flattering light on our renovation project in a way my amateur photography on this blog or the black-and-white shots in my memoir never could.
To see Le’s Sunday Morning show story, click here. It’s worth five-and-a-half minutes of your time just to hear the church bell and creak of the door into the sanctuary. If you’re a regular reader who hasn’t had the opportunity to visit this little Methodist Mecca/Phoenix from the ashes in person, this video will satisfy your curiosity. The drone shots gave us a look even we have never seen of our house!
At one point in the video, I say “And we did it!” In a story about us and our house, that’s absolutely correct, but I feel compelled to credit here the workers and skilled craftsmen who helped us: St. Johnny, You-Can-Call-Me-Al, Reroofer, the Michelangelo drywallers, Glimfeather the plumber, Low Talker the painter, the spiral stairway proprietress, the electrician, the Lighting Savant, the expert at the glass store, our friend at Home Depot who rented us a floor sander twenty times, the guys who poured the driveway, the man who operated the crane that dropped the rafters for the Garage Mahal, several relatives who helped us in various ways, and many others. We did it, but we didn’t do it by ourselves.
Check it out, and let Pauleen Le know if you like her story. Thanks to her and her team, too.
Before and after photos are satisfying. In the same minute, you see the agony of the mess along side its potential: the thrill of victory. Plus, there’s a little spot-the-difference mystery. Is that really the same person/pantry/porch/plastic surgery patient?
But I think the subject of the before and after photos finds them even more satisfying than just any old viewer. Because they know the work that came between the before and the after. As I prepare to launch Church Sweet Home, the memoir based on this blog that has depended heavily on the power of transformation, Tyler and I have been reflecting on our favorite before-and-afters of our church conversion project.
Tyler’s favorite before and after transformation is so obscure, I haven’t shared photos of it until now (and it wasn’t easy finding these shots among the 10,000 photos I took of the renovation). His favorite transformation is the back egress.
Here’s the before:
Originally, the only back door in the church was below ground level. This would never do for Tyler’s vision, which included an attached garage. We needed to get from the garage into the house without having to go through the basement. This transformation required many things: relocating the wires that anchored the power pole, jack-hammering the concrete steps to reroute them inside the garage, building a garage, removing the lean-to, cutting a doorway, and building a walkway over the stairway.
This walkway is what Tyler is most proud of—that he thought of it at all and figured out a way to make it happen. The walkway could have been built of wood, but its depth would have intruded on the headroom over the stairway. Instead, he had a steel fabricator make a bridge that was inches shallower but still strong enough to convey a person over the stairway.
Here’s a look at the before-and-after from inside the church:
A closet originally filled the space where the back door was cut.
Now my favorite transformation: the headboard in the master bedroom.
Tyler built a new wall on the right side of the window seen above. Then he and my stepson built a half-wall, an idea for a headboard that I saw on an episode of Fixer Upper. Tyler then created a feature by nailing on wood we salvaged from the basement. It came in a rainbow of distressed colors; all it needed was a couple of coats of clear polyurethane.
The headwall was dressed up with some church-window wall art on the shelf. The space is lit with chandeliers we found in storage when we demoed the church. I cleaned them up, spray-painted them and lit them with new lightbulbs. Tyler tracked down a couple of old bank safes on Craigslist, and they became our nightstands.
The room also has a tray ceiling. Rope lighting is tucked inside, and Tyler can change the color of the lighting with his smart phone. Very romantic! This before and after is my favorite because it’s just so pretty.
If you’re a fan of before and after transformations, check out the Before & After tab on the blog for lots of satisfying projects we accomplished around the church.
It required fresh thinking to turn our church’s unique architectural features into functional elements of a private home.
Every church conversion is different. Here’s our translation, in alphabetical order:
Altar: a structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices and votive offerings are made for religious purposes. The altar in our church was removed when the congregation exited.
Altar piece: an altarpiece is a picture or relief representing a religious subject and suspended in a frame behind the altar. The altar piece on our church was a red velvet curtain, which we used as a furniture blanket and drop cloth before it met its end.
Altar rails: a set of railings, sometimes ornate and frequently of marble or wood, delimiting the chancel (the part of a church near the altar, reserved for the clergy and choir). I really wanted to repurpose this, but I lacked the creative thinking; we dumpstered our altar rail.
Bell tower: a tower which contains one or more bells. Our church’s bell, estimated to weigh 600 to 800 pounds, was returned to functional in the reno.
Bell turret: the ornamental feature above the bell chamber. This is the most distinctive exterior feature of our structure. We reroofed it and kept it intact.
Church kitchen: a place of welcome, where congregants join to share fellowship, celebrate joyful events, or sustain one another through moments of pain or suffering. The kitchen in the basement of the church was deconstructed. When we take up the basement remodel, we plan to install a new kitchen.
Corbel: a piece of stone jutting out of a wall to carry any superincumbent weight. We had wood corbels in the sanctuary of the church. We removed them, and they await inspiration for re-use.
Portal: a main entrance, on the church facade, sometimes highly ornamented. The original portal to our church, beneath the bell, was ornamented. When the entrance was moved in the 1940s, the dooryway was, shall we say, rather plain. We installed new doors and exterior lights, bringing back some of its glory.
Baptismal font: an article of church furniture or a fixture used for the baptism of children and adults. Like the altar, the baptism font was removed when the congregation exited.
Confessional: a cabinet-like unit in a church used for conducting confession. Catholic churches have confessionals. Methodist churches do not (thank goodness).
Pulpit: a small elevated platform from which a member of the clergy delivers a sermon. The pulpit was removed when the congregation exited.
Pews: a long bench with a back, placed in rows in the main part of some churches to seat the congregation. The pews were gone when we came along, but we brought one of our own, salvaged from a church in Belvidere, Illinois.
Sacristy: a room in a church where a priest prepares for a service, and where vestments and other things used in worship are kept. In our church, this was a closet, which was removed to install the back door.
Sanctuary: a sanctuary, in its original meaning, is a sacred place, such as a shrine. Also known as a haven, by extension the term has come to be used for any place of safety. The church’s sanctuary is now our great room, housing the kitchen, living room and dining room.
Spire: a spire is a tapering conical or pyramidal structure on the top of a building, often a skyscraper or a church tower. The original spire on our church was damaged or removed mid-century. But we found a new one at a flea market and installed it on top of the bell turret.
Stained glass: glass that has been colored by adding metallic salts during its manufacture; the colored glass is crafted into stained glass windows in which small pieces of glass are arranged to form patterns or pictures, held together (traditionally) by strips of lead and supported by a rigid frame. Our church had no stained-glass windows, only etched glass transoms, which we preserved.
Sunday School room: a room or rooms in a church where teachers tell Bible stories and help children do craft projects. We found the cutest little tables and chairs for Sunday School on the second level, which we donated to Habitat for Humanity’s Restore. An older, historical children’s chair was gifted to us by one of the congregants; I repainted it and it finds a home in the second-story playroom under the eaves.
Our belfry has a little room on the second story beneath the bell.
The space is about 8 feet square. Not big enough for a bed but it would make a huge closet (in fact, the space beneath it on the first floor is a closet).
We chose to build a closet elsewhere on the second story so the belfry room could be something else. I toyed with making it my office, but the window (which was covered up when we purchased the church) is too high to see out of when seated. I decided it would make a great library. We haven’t finished the work, but the space has been much improved.
It was a scary place when we began demolition. Filled with miscellaneous boxes and Sunday school supplies, it was dark and dirty. The room is not ducted, so it’s cold in the winter and hot in summer. We found out later that piles of animal detritus filled the space above it (beneath the bell); I can only imagine the dust and junk that fell from that space every time the trap door on the ceiling to the bell was opened.
These both look like after photos (looking back into the second story from the little room), but trust me, the little room is much cleaner in the photo on the right.
Much progress was made just by cleaning it out. Oh, the power of soap and water. We also uncovered the exterior window (it had a bullet hole in it) and replaced the boring hollow-core door to the room with a windowed door we found elsewhere in the church. Light makes the little room so much more pleasant.
Though I don’t have pictures of it, I painted the interior in the same silver gray we used elsewhere in the house. We decided to leave the original shiplap exposed, but we definitely need to build more shelves for all my books.
We will also put a little bench on the side opposite the shelving for a reading nook, but the one I have in mind needs a new paint job (a project and a post for another day).
“Oh! No, please, I-I-I’m not finished; I-I-I still have to paint them.”
~ Quasimodo in the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I’ve often written about how paint can make anything better, and I believe this strongly most of the time. I am proud of the way I transformed a beat-up dresser into a bathroom vanity.
Or a 100-year-old desk into a fresh-looking focal piece.
And especially light fixtures. I spray painted the chandeliers in the great room and our master bedroom, and also the collars for this historic lights in the Hall of History.
But alas, sometimes paint fails. Or maybe just I do as the painter. I share this failure here, lest you think every project we take on around Church Sweet Home is a home run. Sometimes, we strike out.
This lamp base has interesting marble accents, but I hated the gold leafy scroll work. It once sat in our living room in our former house. I spent a morning taping off the marble accents, and spray painted the gold parts matte black.
It was horrible (not even worth sharing the after photo). There was just no camouflaging that scrollwork.
However, Tyler used black spray paint to great effect recently on some furnishings and décor for our new winter condo. I share those transformations tomorrow on my Minnesota Transplant blog. Check in with me there if you’re looking for some lake home inspiration.
Another project we wrapped up early enough last summer to enjoy it was the deck.
Some might call it a patio. Some might call it porch. We call it the deck.
From the beginning of Tyler’s Garage Mahal dreams, he envisioned a deck off the three-season “room” (also known as the fourth stall of the garage).
When the garage was built in late 2018, it got a roof but there was no time for siding. And certainly no deck. Even the windows on the east side were simply boarded up for the Wisconsin winter.
So the first element of finishing was to install enormous four-panel vinyl windows with screens. But the siding on that side of the garage awaited final placement after laying the deck.
Excavation to ground level was first. Then Tyler and You-Can-Call-Me-Al laid the stringers (perfectly level, of course). A little corner was made to accommodate the biggest pine tree in the yard. Then they used 3,500 screws (no kidding) to secure the deck boards (the deck is roughly 34 feet long, 16 feet wide–we Go Big or Go Home around here, as regular readers are well aware).
Now Tyler was ready to add some fun to the function. He drew inspiration from this picture of a slated ornamental wall:
Tyler wanted a bit of a shield from gawkers passing by on the south side (a man likes to enjoy a beer in peace), and a wall of some sort seemed workable. I like how nice it looks. So You-Can-Call-Me-Al was set to work building a wall from this picture, not the first time our “blueprints” came from Pinterest.
Then Tyler stained everything in a couple of coats of Mountain Cedar.
The deck still requires lighting (which awaits garage wiring). But we enjoyed it a few times and it was ready for the open house last fall. At some point soon, warm weather will return and we’ll enjoy again. And soon after that, I hope, we will be able to socialize there (even though we could probably entertain at least two or three couples and still have six feet between each of us!).
I realized I dropped the ball, or maybe “dropped the spire” is a better metaphor for what happened here.
I wrote last summer how we found the perfect spire for our belfry when we went junking at “Wisconsin’s Finest” antique flea market in Elkhorn. The steel spire with Victorian era fleur-de-lis detailing had been salvaged from the turret of a decrepit late 1800s mansion in Vilas County, Wisconsin.
But I failed to show you how it turned out.
Spire before painting
Spire after painting
Spire, before and after painting
The junk spire required a bit of straightening. We had it sand-blasted before applying a few coats of rust-proof paint.
Tyler rented an articulating boom to provide safer access to the belfry forty feet off the ground. You-Can-Call-Me-Al enjoyed using the boom (it was easier on the legs than a ladder by far). He and Tyler accomplished some other repairs up there (Tyler remained on the ground), and early one clear Sunday morning, the spire was hauled up there.
I went to church that morning (a different, actual church with a worship service), and I specifically recall asking for protection for You-Can-Call-Me-Al. The good news is, he was fine and so is the spire.
The belfry, described as “rooted” when we bought the church, required three phases of improvements, but it looks (and sounds) beautiful now.
Now you know the rest of the story. The belfry is an exceedingly public result of the church’s renovation. Fixing it didn’t add a lot of value to the private residence, but I’m proud we pursued excellence and restored that historic bell tower to glory.
# # #
“Every person is endowed with God-given abilities, and we must cultivate every ounce of talent we have in order to maintain our pinnacle position in the world.”
~ Ben Carson,
retired neurosurgeon currently serving as the
U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
I started this blog because I’m writer. Having already written three books and thousands of blog posts, I sensed I had a great story, no matter how it turned out, and it needed to be documented.
Without knowing how it would end, I chose the unconventional approach of a real-time-memoir with the intention of turning my blog posts into a book. I’ve spent months polishing my prose and having it professionally edited, and finally, the launch day for the book Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul is coming soon. Mark your calendar: May 5.
If you’re here, reading this blog post, you’ve probably read most of the story and you sort of understand it all ends well. I have hundreds of loyal readers who cheered us on through months of dirty demolition and construction, and I am so grateful for the moral support you offered with nice comments and Facebook likes on so many nights we were exhausted and feeling sorry for ourselves. You helped pull us through.
You might be asking, why would I read this book if I followed the blog? Well, here are five reasons you might enjoy the book as much as you liked the blog:
The book has an all-new prologue about abandoned churches.
The story has a proper heart-warming ending.
All the those annoying “our story so far” and “tomorrow” teasers are gone.
You’ll find out how the real budget compares to the Tequila Budget.
If you’re technically challenged or just too impatient to click through all the blog posts, you can page through the story easily and at your own pace.
I suppose you might know some people who would enjoy the story but aren’t blog readers. Voilà, a book is a nice gift for your friend.
So stay tuned for all the information you need to get yourself a paperback or ebook of Church Sweet Home in May.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to share updates about the renovation. I have a few in the archive, and we still have projects ahead of us.
This time last week, Tyler and I were recovering our breaths from our open house, which can only be described as a spectacular success.
After two years of planning, demolition and reconstruction, we were racing to the finish to get the church into show shape. My dad hung a thousand pictures on Saturday (he says a thousand, I think it was more like 22), and Tyler sent a lot of time making the lawn look presentable. Mom arranged a half dozen flower vases with fresh flowers gifted to us by a friend, so we had fragrant blooms in almost every room. As for me, I emptied all the trash cans as my last act before accepting guests; the message, of course, is that we have functional things like garbage cans, but we don’t actually use them (it’s a joke).
Tyler estimates we had 250 people drop by in the two-plus hours we opened our doors to neighbors, contractors, former members of the church and interested onlookers. We had 105 sign our guest book. So I guess we had somewhere between 105 and 250 come to take a look at our church-house renovation. It felt like 250, for sure.
All four of us–me, Tyler, Mom and Dad– talked non-stop for two hours, and we ran the church bell a hundred times, at least. It was so nice to see people ooh and aah and to hear people say nice things about the church and our work. Among our visitors were three former pastors at the church, which was a fun and enlightening surprise.
We were so preoccupied, we didn’t take a single picture, though I know some people took a lot of them. If you’re willing to share, please let me know.
The best part was the booty we collected. We asked visitors to bring a non-perishable foot item for the Loaves & Fishes food pantry, which got its start in our basement when it was a functioning church, and our guests came through for the charity. More than 600 pounds of food was collected! Wow! Thank you!
If you attended our open house, thank you for being here, for contributing and for saying nice things (at least in earshot, ha, ha).
As for my regular readers who didn’t have the opportunity to be here, I will try to share some of the projects we finished this summer during the next couple weeks. The biggest project I finished that I’m excited to tell you about is the book I wrote about renovating the church. Much more to come on that subject, I assure you.