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Ahhhhhh, the first days of a new year! The promise! The potential! The overwhelming need to try to start things off on the right foot, as though your actions at the beginning of the year probably-definitely-certainly will inform the rest of the year and, by extension, your entire life. Isn’t it exhilarating?
For me, the new year always brings with it a certain feeling of dread over the things I failed to accomplish in the previous year. I love performing the ritual of listing out goals in January, forgetting all about them, and then later using them to feed my end-of-year self-loathing about all the things that I haven’t actually managed to complete. Then I roll those items over into the next year, so what starts as an actionable plan to finally pull my life together inevitably just creates more evidence that I have not, in fact, pulled my life together. But maybe this is the year! Who’s to say! Because I’m kicking it off with a big grown-up someday project that has, heretofore, rolled over as a goal from year to year but has not actually gotten done.
WELCOME TO MY HALLWAY, A MERE 6+ YEARS AFTER MOVING INTO THIS HOUSE. Allow me to explain.
My house is a big project, as we well know by now. And I’ve done a lot of work on it. But I’ve also neglected this space because it’s not an actual living space—just a large area you pass through to get to the living spaces. Like most typical side-hall layouts, this hallway runs from the front to the back of the house and contains both the stairs and access to all the main rooms. So I’ve told myself that it’s a project for another time since it won’t functionally change how I live in the house, and so I just have to wait.
The problem is, it makes me feel very bad, what with its abandoned paint samples and general rattiness. It’s like a monument to that final 10% (OK, maybe more than 10%) of work that’s so hard to get yourself to actually do, and it’s the FIRST thing you see when you walk in and the last thing before you depart. Added to this is the palpable sense of indecision, which is somehow scarier than the actual work? I generally think I’m a decisive person who knows what they want, and this hallway makes me question that idea every single day. I’ve been stumped for years, which makes me feel worse and more insecure and less capable of just making a decision!
So let’s end the madness. Right here right now. It’s 2020 and I have HAD IT.
To be clear, a lot of work has already gone into this space! It’s easy to forget, so let’s take a little trip back in time.
This is almost exactly 7 years ago, from the first time I saw the house! About 5 feet beyond the grand front doors was this big 1970s wall, covered in fake wood paneling with weird windows and a hollow-core door. I had been OBSESSED with this property listing but there were only a few photos and they were, unsurprisingly, horrendous, so I don’t think I was expecting this. Note also that both doorways to the current living room (left) and the enormous someday-living-room (right) are covered over in plywood, and that little tiny sconce on the wall was the ONLY source of light in the entire space.
BUT THEN! Once through that crazy “vestibule” I was hit with this gorgeous unpainted newel post and banister and I fell in love.
At the back of the staircase was this other 1970s wall, which provided the entrance to the first floor apartment.
At the top of the stairs was yet more 1970s fun and excitement! The door served as the entrance to the second floor apartment, and the entire upstairs banister was obscured by wood paneling to create more of a wall. They stopped the wall about 1′ short of the ceiling, for light I imagine?
It did not work especially well, because this hallway was DARK DARK DARK. So very dark. The upstairs space was also extremely narrow, in addition to being so so dark.
I’m unclear on whether the previous owners were just being kind of lazy when they built these additions or if they were concerned about preserving the house, but either way…the plywood-covered doorways still maintained the doors on the other side, none of the trim work had been removed or even really cut into, and I felt confident that the original banister would be hiding underneath the paneled walls. And it was! All of this was really very lucky and I’m so thankful they didn’t destroy the house in the process of dividing it up.
First order of business was opening up those doors again! It was so exciting.
And then the “vestibule” had to go too! Returning this space back to its original layout and scale was the stuff of old-house-renovation dreams! Immediately the house felt so open and airy, like it could breathe again.
Upstairs, I did in fact find the original banister relatively unscathed. The upstairs hall has no windows and is just generally pretty dark, but opening everything back up really helped.
I can’t forget about stripping ALL THAT WALLPAPER. It appeared to be a couple layers of wallpaper, and that green and gold pattern was actually painted with some kind of patterned roller. It was separating from the original plaster all over the place, and it all had to come down to restore the walls. Fun fun! So messy and sticky and slow.
Later on, I had the radiator moved away from the stairs and closer to the front door (if you really want to know, I actually put the hallway radiator in the dining room and the dining room radiator out in this location in the hall), other plumbing re-routed into the walls, and electric roughed in for new lighting! Then I tore out the ceiling, which had already been replaced with drywall that was poorly installed and even more poorly finished—it just made more sense to take it down and start over, especially since the living room and dining room both got new ceilings at the same time!
New ceiling! This was also the first time I hired Edwin—who knew what THAT would turn into?!
Finally, I did have some good sense to hire out skim-coating the walls, which was a huge job that I still would not want to attempt today. This left smooth and hole-free walls, ready for a little finish work and PRESTO! Restored hallway!
Except that’s not really what happened. All this major work occurred years ago at this point, and then progress in here just hit a total stand-still as other things were attended to. Eventually I did get my act together and throw a coat of primer on the walls, because I was sick of getting covered in white dust every time I swiped against the raw joint compound.
And that’s how it’s been for the last few years. Generally ignored and neglected. Being treated as a landing zone for materials and supplies as they round-robin their way in and out of the house. Waiting.
Well, I’m done waiting! I’m so tired of it looking so lousy in here, and so tired of apologizing to guests and sheepishly telling them the house is a “work in progress” as they walk in the front door and take it in. That feeling? It does affect the way that I live in the house. Negatively. And it occurs to me that if this space was “finished,” it wouldn’t matter so much what’s going on behind a few of the doors where rooms are in various stages of renovation, because the overall impression would not be one of a total construction site. This all sounds so luxurious, so I just have to make it happen!
I don’t think I’m easily overwhelmed, but yet this all feels extremely overwhelming for two main reasons. Maybe they sound familiar:
- The scale of the project. It is not really a room and yet there are—count ’em—13 doors in this hallway needing various levels of restoration work (think missing hardware, alignment issues that don’t allow them to close, sloppy old paint jobs, etc.). There are also 17 stair treads—all painted—and 57 spindles—all with some paint on them but not enough to justify painting them—and three transom windows and miles of painted trim and a lot of wall and ceiling surface area to contend with. Oh and the floor needs some patches where radiator pipes have moved around, and eventually a full refinishing.
- COMMITMENT PROBLEMS. How many years should it take for me to decide what I want to do? APPARENTLY ALL OF THEM. While my typical attitude toward painting is usually “hey, it’s just paint!” (i.e.—the easiest part of renovating and the least problematic to change down the line), this is SO MUCH WORK (see item 1) and SO MUCH PAINTING that I really don’t want to face redoing it any time soon. Which has created all this internal pressure to get it right the first time, which has led me into an insecurity spiral of uncommon proportions.
So I’ve been thinking long and hard about how to overcome these obstacles and get my butt in gear. I thought if I told you about them, it might help you work through whatever version of this hallway you have in your life! Unless you don’t have one. Think you’re better than me?! Ok fine. You are.
First, I finally cleared everything out. That stack of drywall had been there for years, and now it’s waiting in the other room. Hooray.
Next, I evaluated what actually needed to be done. I’ve had hallway blinders on for so long that I didn’t really have a list, and like most painting projects, it isn’t so much about the painting itself but all the prep that has to happen first to get a nice result. This list quickly became very daunting, so I turned to my default strategy: break up the project into parts so I don’t completely lose my mind! Sometimes you have to take it in smaller chunks to keep things feeling manageable, which I often forget is an option. Not everything is a strictly all-or-nothing endeavor, Daniel!
So. First I will tackle the upstairs hallway. It probably needs the least work? And getting it squared away should help motivate me to keep going. That, or I’ll just get completely burned out…but at least I will have accomplished something.
Then I will tackle the stairs”“a massive project unto themselves. I painted the bottom three treads black years ago to see how I liked it, and the verdict is: I HATE IT. Black treads often/usually look GREAT, but not only did the dogs and I quickly wear through the paint, I’ve finally made peace that I just CANNOT have painted floors in this house. They are destined to always look dirty—no matter the color—and I just simply cannot deal. Does that dog look like someone concerned with keeping dirt and fur off the floor? Because he is not remotely concerned. I am outnumbered in this regard and it’s a battle I plainly cannot and will not win.
Obviously, these stairs once had a runner. I’m actually pretty sure they’ve always had a runner, meaning that the paint build-up on other edge of each tread is…immense. So many layers. And I have considered a runner, but I actually don’t think I would like that option much better than painted stairs from a functional standpoint, and it would cost a fortune.
Which leaves me with…I’m going. To Strip. The treads. And I WILL SURVIVE IT. I used to get really hung up on whether to stain the treads to try to match the banister or the floor, but honestly? I think leaving them natural pine and then letting the sealer enrich them to whatever wood tone they want to be is going to be just fine. I’m testing out various chemical strippers to try to avoid lead exposure and endless hours of scraping and sanding, although I know scraping and sanding will inevitably be part of the process. I think I will be extremely happy with this result, and I’ll just divide and subdivide the process to keep it feeling achievable. A little bit at a time is the name of the game!
And then, finally, I will tackle the first floor hallway. And then it will be so so nice. I can’t wait to strip that transom window over the bathroom door at the back of the hallway! And put a doorknob on the bathroom door. And finally make what’s behind that door into a bathroom. Ha!
So now that I have a decent idea of the how, I just needed to commit to some daunting choices like color and fixtures and stuff. Easy, right? Fun, right? WRONG.
FOR INSTANCE. These samples have been on the wall for so long that I no longer remember what they even are. I did not label them because I figured I would tackle this in a timely manner and therefore would still have the benefit of my memory.
I think where I’ve gotten hung up on these decisions is the fact that there are a lot of options that would all look good! Hallways can be a great place to have some fun with some amazing wallpaper, and they can also be a perfect opportunity for dark and moody colors and interesting arrangements of art and some bold, whimsical choices. I’ve felt like there’s a simple solution that I know will look nice—white-ish trim, grey-ish walls, and black doors all around—but that I’d somehow be betraying myself or the house or everyone on the planet by just going with the simple solution. But sometimes classic and simple and—sure, maybe a little boring—is all you really want, and all it takes is the confidence to hush whatever’s telling you it’s not good enough and commit.
So I guess my basic rule is this: if you feel PASSIONATE about a bold decision, MAKE THAT BOLD DECISION. But if you feel on the fence, or like you should but your heart’s not really in it…there is nothing wrong with the most obvious choice. I’ve always felt like paint should complement whatever else you have going on in a given space, but it shouldn’t be the dominant choice. In other words, if you’re relying on the color of your walls to make or break a space, you’re probably doing it wrong—try to think more about lighting, rugs, art, objects, furniture, and architectural detail.
ANYWAY. Upon revisiting these samples that I’ve walked by everyday for years, I finally realized that none of them were really right, but that doesn’t mean the general direction was wrong. I can get a few more samples! Or 17 more!!!
Picking paint based solely on a paint chip rarely works out the way you want it to, so getting actual samples and painting big swatches is KEY. I like to narrow down by a process of elimination, and then paint more samples of the finalists in different areas to see how they work in different lighting.
So. I wasn’t kidding—I literally got 17 samples mixed. The women at the paint counter at Lowe’s are some of the nicest people ever for humoring me in this endeavor. And the craziest thing happened—I ACTUALLY THINK I MADE A DECISION. ACTUALLY SEVERAL DECISIONS. BEHOLD.
A mood board? FOR A HALLWAY? LIKE I SAID, 2020 IS WILD. Here’s what I’ve got!
- PAINT, DUH. I’m going with my gut, and my gut says that this space is so pretty on its own that it doesn’t need to get all gussied up—a quiet, classic approach won’t feel dated in a few years, but will really allow the existing architecture to shine. So it is decided: black doors (Sherwin Williams “Caviar”), white trim (Sherwin Williams “Extra White”), and grey walls (Sherwin Williams “Oyster White” I THINK). Grey paint is really tricky because of the temptation to go too dark (like my first round of samples), and the undertones will drive you nuts EVERY TIME. The swatch on this mood board looks like a putty color, but on my walls it has a lot of green and a little blue but somehow is still warm? I think I love it, but I won’t really know until I go for it. Obviously I will report back. After years of mostly using Valspar, I want to give HGTV Home by Sherwin Williams a shot—the paint itself is a little more expensive but coverage and durability I think are both supposed to be better, and since it’s a relatively narrow high-traffic space, the walls and moldings do get accidentally scuffed up on the regular.
- I’ll refinish the stair treads, which are old pine and hopefully will look amazing.
- A nice vintage rug in the entryway will really help define that space, and add some color and texture!
- The banister and spindles need some restoration work and stabilization, but will look more or less the same. I think the wood is mahogany!
- LIGHTING! I’ve already added the oh-so-fake-but-who-cares foam ceiling medallion, but I’ve had a little temporary bulb dangling there ever since there’s been an electrical box to power it! I AM SO READY FOR A REAL LIGHT FIXTURE. I like the contrast of a decidedly modern fixture in an old house to keep things from feeling too much like a time capsule, which led me to this fancy fancy Kichler chandelier from Lowe’s (currently 35% off!)! I’m so excited for it to be delivered so I can see it in person. It’s about 3 feet across with 8 bulbs, and I think it’s gonna look great. Eek!
- MORE LIGHTING! There are three light fixtures in the hall—one at the front, one at the back, and one over the stairs. The one over the stairs feels like the trickiest, because I want it to throw off a lot of light and feel kind of sculptural/impactful without being too in-your-face. I’m really hoping this Globe Electric number from Lowe’s (currently 40% off!) fits well, because the price is great and it’s also in the mail! It sort of feels like a modern mobile that also lights up.
- I got really excited the other night when I realized this is my moment to add traditional gold leaf house numbers to the transom window!!! I’m about to be too classy for words.
- Little details! Even though all the light switches in the hall are only a few years old, I want them to look like they’ve been there—so antique-style push-button switches it is! I haven’t used these in the past because $, but I love them and so I’m just going for it. 2020, baby!!!
- I ALSO ordered nice radiator flanges for where the pipes come up out of the floor. Currently I don’t think ANY of my radiators have them and I can’t wait for that to change!
- I *think* a little console table will fit nicely at the top of the stairs (I have a little modern one that belonged to my grandparents—the one on the mood board is kinda-sorta similar), which will probbbabbbbbly end up being where I stack dirty dishes that need to make their way back down to the kitchen after I eat my meals in bed while watching trash tv. Not that I do that!!! (except all the time).
- Finally, art! I’m stumped on art, to be honest. I have a lot of it laying around, including a couple of vintage sketch pads that I bought which are full of figure drawings. Lotsa nudes! Maybe get a bunch of them framed and do a big gallery wall?! I’m not sure. This feels so far in the future. It’s hard because there are big expanses of wall, but I think the space is too narrow for a huge piece to fill them.
SO! IT IS ON! I am shedding my old habit of beating myself up over this space and getting to WORK. I started a few days ago, and I have to say…I’m truly no longer mad at myself for not doing this earlier. The prep is always 10x what you think it will be, and this is no exception! It is SLOW SLOW SLOW so I just hope I can get it all done without losing steam. I’ll keep you updated along the way!
Are you circling back to a long-neglected project this January? Let’s hear it. I can’t be the only one!