She was built in 1874, and survived the great 1906 earthquake. She’d had only a few owners, and the one before us had renovated her in 1968 and hadn’t touched her since. When we moved in, her roofs were leaking. All four floors of the house, including the 12-foot-high ceilings, were painted in the heyday of putrid pea green. The appliances in the kitchen were—you guessed it—avocado. Downtrodden mustard yellow shag carpeting embarrassed the living room and carried the insult up four flights of stairs. Stained voile curtains hid her gorgeous curved bay windows. The house was, in a word, tired. Each time I toured her, I thought, Oh, but she has great bones.
The widow who owned her had spent the happiest years of her life in the house and, believing she owned the Taj Mahal, priced her accordingly. The house had been on the market for a year, with no serious offers. “Go for it,” our real-estate agent encouraged. “Offer what you can afford.” And so we did—in fact, beyond what we could afford. Disgusted, the widow threw the papers in our agent’s face. That was pretty much the end of things. We went away heartsick. We pined. We looked at 60 other houses, but nothing else spoke to our souls. Sometimes in the evening we’d buy ice cream cones and park stealthily across the street from her, wishing she was ours.
Some months later, a week before our wedding, as all our crazy relatives were about to converge, the call came. If we signed that day, the widow would accept our price. We signed. And that was the last time we had a good night’s sleep for months. We enjoyed our wedding, of course, and the honeymoon, but my most poignant memory of the trip is sitting in our lovely hotel room in Venice, overlooking the Grand Canal, two writers trying to make sense of bond fluctuations in The Wall Street Journal, deciding if we should lock in the mortgage rate this day or that. We were so innocent back then. We thought she needed just a little work.
And so began years of living and writing alongside roofers, carpenters, plumbers, the tile guy, each with crises and dramas worthy of a novel. The painter we hired for a week stayed for two months. Cesar became part of the family. But first he had to rid the house of what we affectionately called “the pea of green.” This proved more difficult than any of us imagined. Try as he might to paint the living room ceiling white, the color underneath kept seeping through. “Jesucristo!” Cesar would mutter, dipping his roller and attacking the miasma yet again, while religious programming blasted in Spanish on his paint-specked radio.
Back then, in 1993, we thought it would take a year or so to return her to glory. That was before we put in a garage—months of drilling construction leading to the day the cement finally hardened and we drove the car in, only to have the floor bottom out. The whole thing had to be redone. Eighteen years of living with our Vic, her problems have become our problems, her eccentricities our own. So we now call her our 30-year project. Thirty years is a long marriage. Next up: the kitchen. Renovating it is surely going to kill me. In my mind’s eye, I can see how great it’s going to look.