Beauty and Function In the Melding of Old and New: Our 1940s Historic Home Tour

Everyday Homes

December 21, 2018

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When we bought our home four years ago, it was in bad shape. It was over 70 years old, a vacant, leaking, neglected foreclosure, filled with dirt, dog hair, and junk. But it was on 16 beautifully wooded acres, right next door to my parents, had tons of historic charm (it was originally given as a gift from Henry Ford to his lawyer).

My husband and I always dreamed of living out in the country, and the thought of raising our kids so close to family was something too wonderful and far-fetched to even list as a pipe dream. But when we heard this house might go up for sale, we initially did nothing but laugh at the idea.

While we recognized it would be a glorious location, we also figured it would be way out of our budget and a huge amount of work even if we could somehow afford it. Eventually we had a serious discussion about what would be the most we could afford, and sighed when we realized our number was so much less than what even the land alone was worth.

So when we contacted the bank and heard how little they were willing to sell it for — the exact number we had previously come up with — we sprang into action to make the sale happen within the ridiculously small window of time they wanted. The bank said we could have it for one-third less than it was worth, if we could somehow pull together financing by the end of the fiscal year.

In a few short weeks we went from happily living in our little home in a neighborhood with no intention of moving, to suddenly owning a huge plot of land across town with a ramshackle house needing extensive work, but full of charm that lay hidden under the surface of all the grime and trash.

In the last four years we’ve become great friends with Google and Youtube as we’ve worked our way through fixing and improving as many problems on our own as possible. We’ve had to outsource a few jobs (like the deplorable roof situation and a few major utility repairs/installations), but I think if we’d known early on how much we’d learn to do ourselves, we would have been pretty darn incredulous!

I feel bad for how often I get to tackle the glamorous jobs that people notice, while my husband gets left with the hidden, more necessary work this house throws at us.

When we tore out the rotting lower cabinets in our kitchen, I did the bulk of the work installing fresh cabinets and a tile backsplash, along with making some pretty cool concrete countertops mixed from scratch.

I’m planning to put in more base cabinets around the stove, and to make new fronts someday for the top and bottom cabinets so they match, but for now I try to enjoy the eclectic look and I definitely appreciate the excellent, practical drawers.

My husband has been the one to deal with the countless utility and appliance problems, fixing as many as possible on his own. He’s changed numerous light fixtures, and replaced much of the clogged cast-iron plumbing in the house with new PVC (what could be more unglamorous or necessary than that??).

But he did get to install a beautiful high-efficiency wood-burning stove into the gaping chasm of our living room fireplace. This has been a huge blessing because our boiler broke down shortly after moving here, so the stove has been a constant source of heat and cheer through the long Michigan winters while we save to get a new central heating system.

For a couple that experienced our first married argument over how to install a light fixture back in the day, we’ve come so far. I love seeing how well our strengths and weaknesses have grown to compliment each other, both in our different skill sets and in how we approach budgeting, practicality vs. beauty, and style. We’ve built some powerful communication skills along with all these cabinets and improvements!

I started to write “in the midst of all this, we’ve been raising our family,” but I realized that wouldn’t be accurate. The truth is that we’ve primarily been raising our kids these past four years, and the house-fixing is what happens in between.

Back when we first talked about how much we’d be willing to spend on this place, our son was a one year old and our oldest daughter a newborn. We were already in the thick of family life, and we carefully thought about how immensely we’d love this house and location, while also being very cautious about over-stretching ourselves and putting financial stress on our marriage and family.

It’s important to us to have me home with our kids, especially when they’re small, so making our life work peacefully on a single income has always been a huge priority. We also didn’t want my husband to be cornered into working long hours away from us to compensate.

In the end we asked, what would be the use of this seemingly wonderful opportunity if it put our marriage and family in trouble? So by some standards, the number we came up with was low. But now we’re able to give even more glory to God for working this unbelievable opportunity out for us, and for guiding our decisions through the process.

And over the past four years I’ve seen that, also entirely by the grace of God, our conservative approach has prevented so much grief as all the house problems and breakdowns roll in – we’ve always had just enough to cover the problems, (or the grace to live with the problems till we do!) and I know if the mortgage were any bigger, we’d have a lot more to worry about.

We’ve always tried to put the peace and health of our family first, and we’ve learned so much about keeping our priorities straight while also pushing ourselves closer to our full potential in what we can accomplish with our time and money.

Today, we have a five year old son, a four year old daughter, a two year old daughter, and I’m due with a brand new little person in May. What a lot of life we’ve lived in the last four years!

While there’s still so much we’re planning to fix and improve here, I work daily to embrace life where it is (what a hard skill that is!), always trying to see beauty in the melding of old and new, and in all the hand-me-down furniture and handmade items mixed with the few things we’ve invested in.

I can see now that this house is back on its way to finding some of its former glory from the 1940s. Today, it’s full of toys and joy and light, and the noise of happy (and let’s be honest, sometimes tantruming) kids – a far cry from the dirt and gloom that used to fill it when we bought it.

I can’t express how grateful I am to have this place for my kids to grow up — inside and out, it’s got even more beauty and character than I could have imagined four years ago!

With the exception of the final photo, all photos in this article were taken by the author, Rebecca Lynch. Read more about her in her bio below. 

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