Halcyon Days: Adventures in Home Renovation

Halcyon House hasn’t always looked quite so…halcyon.

Spring backyard In the story from the HER Nashville archives, you’ll read about the birth of Halcyon House (as we know it today), and the arduous labor pains felt keenly along the way: Destroyed floor sanders! Shovel fights! And a painful lesson in what happens when you try to flog an 80-year old tree to death in a sightless rage. (hint: The tree wins.) While that may not sound like good times to you, keep in mind: All the best adventures are more fun in retrospect. Because generally speaking, “adventure” is what happens when everything goes wrong.

Halcyon Days

courtesy of HER Nashville

The shovel beat-down that erupted out of our friendly neighborhood crack house that sunny Sunday morning cast a certain pall over brunch. My parents-in-law gaped, arms suspended in mid-bites of scone, as the neighbor’s prefab home disgorged two men; one spilled onto the trash-strewn pavement, while the other began roundhouse-whomping him in the small of his back.

The victim walked away, but the semblance of a tranquil home we’d laid on—like so many artisan cheese platters—evaporated in a series of resounding thwack thwack thwacks. When my husband Hal and I bought the small Victorian on Halcyon Avenue the previous autumn, neither set of parents shared our excitement. My dad recalls the exact phrase that passed through his mind when he first drove by the place, his car doors and windows tightly secured. “Holy %$&*!#@ $#!%,” he mused, taking in the broken-down eyesore we’d selected, and the surrounding neighborhood of tired old houses and seedy, barred convenience stores.

The Flush of Love

The kind of decision-making that, in retrospect, masquerades as vision, often begins as self-delusion. What is it about immediate, fierce love that renders flaws invisible? Climbing onto that spongy, particle-board front porch, all I could see was home: a life stretching out ahead of me, years of porch-sitting and sidewalk-strolling.

Never mind the pesky little details, such as the complete absence of a foundation, usable kitchen, or functioning bathroom…and the convenient, 24/7 crack house drive-thru window directly across the street.

To their immense credit, my parents feigned enthusiasm and dove in heroically to help as we tore into the place, ripping up filthy shag carpet strewn with rat poison, sledge-hammering Pepto-Bismol pink walls and popcorned ceiling that sagged like drapes, tearing out floors that sloped and buckled like black-diamond ski runs. We couldn’t afford a dumpster, so we piled broken drywall and plaster in a back room and hauled it to the dump every few weeks.

Unlike Hal and my parents, I possessed no construction, demolition or architectural skills whatsoever. So, the unskilled labor fell to me—namely, to uninstall all 51,000 staples that some conscientious soul had fired into the floor to secure the hideous 40-year-old carpets.

One brisk November afternoon, I found that one too many staples had finally snapped off a half-millimeter from the floor’s surface, and that I could endure no more. Hal handed me a broom handle as I rocketed past him, and I shot screaming into the back yard, swinging as hard as I could at a walnut tree. If you’ve ever tried something like this, you’ll quickly realize how teeth-jarringly painful it is to assault one solid object with another. Thus pacified, I quietly and humbly resumed the vital work of staple extraction.

Tree 1, Kim 0

We are not amused.

We are not amused.

On days when the chaos overwhelmed me, I found inspiration in my parents’ cheerful work ethic. Dad’s jack-of-all-trades capability and Mom’s jaunty refusal to allow immense and grueling tasks to intimidate her shamed me, driving me forth to perform previously unheard-of feats of labor. I still don’t know how we managed to suck my parents into that insane project.

And speaking of “sucking in,” this is the part where (sorry, Mom!) I must tell the story of how my mother became the notorious Cord Lady of Nashville, banned from all area Lowe’s and Home Depot rental departments in perpetuity.

Sometimes, when my mom’s extraordinary ability to operate a wide array of power tools alloys with her eagerness to launch into the task at hand, a certain degree of disaster ensues. Like, say, the destruction of a belt floor-sander by driving the machine over its own cord. Three times, three different rental agreements.

I actually witnessed the final iteration of this: on her hands and knees, tongue slightly protruding in concentration, my mom’s enthusiastic passes over the pine floor swept ever closer to the cord. The rest unfolded in slow motion: my slowed-down-record voice bellowing “Nooooooooooooo!” as the sander produced a sickening sluuuuuwrp! sound, devoured its cord, and ceased to function. My mom bit her lip and shook her fists in a silent scream of rage that, please forgive me for saying, was one of the most adorable things I have ever seen.

Mom bit her lip and shook her fists in a silent scream of rage that, please forgive me for saying, was one of the most adorable things I have ever seen.

Unable to afford simultaneous rent and mortgage payments and the cost of renting multiple sanders, we moved in while still deep in the throes of chaotic renovation. December 9, 2000, our first night in Halcyon House, boded ill: nine-degree air rushed in through human-sized holes in the “kitchen” and “bathroom” floors (purely theoretical, as these rooms were functionally nonexistent); our new kitchen appliances clustered on a plywood-patched section of fire-damaged dining room floor, a plastic drywall-mud bucket stood in as a toilet; and just as we went to bed that night, something huge and taloned clawed its way up the inside of the wall right behind our bed. Matters could only improve, I told myself, balancing over the steaming bucket that night. Halcyon House arty

States of Entropy

In the months and years that followed, we gradually transformed the demolition-derby interior into a reasonable facsimile of a livable home. We affixed garage-sale mantels to scarred walls, excavated a walled-in brick fireplace, painted over the pink, and (Joy!) installed a toilet.

Meanwhile, the social turbulence (and charm) of a pre-gentrified 12South swirled and pulsated outside our walls. A nearby halfway house emitted characters like Pete, who hauled around a ruined guitar case and pounded on doors at odd hours, demanding tools and sandwiches. Herb, who lived in someone’s shed, danced and sang down 11th Avenue most afternoons. I sometimes miss them, as I miss the magnificent homemade pies that Miss Johnnie May used to deposit on our front porch and the constant vigilance of Mrs. Vinsang, who always knew whose dog had escaped and who had come knocking in our absence.

The social turbulence (and charm) of a pre-gentrified 12South swirled and pulsated outside our walls.

I will certainly miss the many items in our yards and cars to which passers-by helped themselves in those early years. But despite my torn sympathy for the former inhabitants of the neighboring crack house, I do not miss the miserable human drama that unfolded there: multiple SWAT raids, an exploding car, the disgusting maltreatment of dogs and fellow humans, and at least one shovel beating.

I’ll never forget the night the place burned down. Please keep in mind that no one was injured, as I confess to you that we neighbors assembled on the opposite corner and toasted the end of an era, clicking our plastic cups full of jug wine. Don’t judge us too harshly. Can you imagine our surprise when the proprietor’s homeowner’s insurance rebuilt the damn thing later that year?

It’s the Economy, Stupid.

Alas, economics did the work even a fire could not. A modern showplace featured on HGTV has risen from the crack house’s ashes. And all-terrain strollers and mini-rock stars walking purebred dogs have supplanted Halcyon Avenue’s (mostly harmless) crack house and halfway house denizens.

While sitting on a blanket, watching a friend’s band perform at Sevier Park one evening last summer, I marveled at the changes a decade had wrought. A horde of toddlers danced and did cartwheels on the lawn. Stylish young couples slurped gourmet popsicles and lattes. Was this progress? I suppose it depends upon whom you ask. With each new development project, hosts of my neighbors clamor both for and against the irrevocable pace of change; and the disagreement often, sadly, breaks down along lines of race and class, longtime and new residents.

Halcyon garden Buddha

Halcyon garden Buddha

I wish there were some category of change that felt like progress to everyone, but change doesn’t seem to work that way. For good or ill, I’ve learned (mostly) to accept what comes—monstrous new houses, trendy restaurants, boutiques I can’t afford—much like I wantonly embraced the Charlie-Brown Christmas-tree house we chose, initially unlovable to all eyes but mine.

Compared to the half-million dollar mansions going up in our neighborhood these days, even the renovated version of little Halcyon House seems nearly as flawed as it did in its salmon-pink-wall and shag-carpet days.

But what hasn’t changed is my blindness to those flaws. Now, when I look around, all I see is home, and history. I see my family’s hands everywhere—in the curtains my mom stitched, the stained-glass transoms and sturdy shelves my parents created, the backyard deck Hal built, the lush garden Mom and I cultivated … and, most impressive of all, the dramatic absence of a single staple in our glossy old pine floor.

This article originally appeared in HER Nashville magazine in April, 2011.

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