A couple of weeks ago the Sunday New York Times T Magazine had a photo feature on a “nonrenovation renovation” of an 1850s building in Manhattan‘s East Village by its owner, the designer John Derian. “The Makeunder,” read the headline: “When it comes to renovation, John Derian believes that less is more.” The article – whose text and, more importantly, great photos you can see in a slideshow here – goes on to explain that this style maven has preserved as much as he can of the “patina” of the place, which had a bohemian past. While he spruced up the scary bathroom and kitchen quite a bit, he turned the original sub-floor into the real floor and refused to expunge the colour left on the walls by the smoking habits of former residents. “Think of it as an exquisite, exceedingly subtle face-lift,” writer Lynn Yaeger says, “only instead of jowls and droopy lids, Derian intends to preserve a plank floor that creaks with the wisdom of the ages and patch a tin ceiling contemporaneous with the Tin Woodsman.” Have a look at the photos and see what you think: I find some of it a little off-putting, but much of it quite beautiful.
Could this be a recipe for the Manse? (I already know Raymond’s answer: NO!)
But I wonder if a “makeunder light” might be just the ticket. For instance: while my brother John was waxing on during a recent visit about how it would be “fun” to fill in some cracks in the plaster in the Manse’s main bedroom, I was thinking to myself, “That is not my definition of fun.” Now, inspired by John Derian’s place, I’m thinking maybe we want to just leave those cracks be. The plaster in general in that room is in great shape; one could say that the cracks just add a bit of character.
Likewise, while the wooden floors throughout the upstairs would probably look beautiful and shiny and newish with refinishing, is there something to be said for retaining the various paint jobs that have been done on them through the years? Not to mention the linoleum mats dating from the early middle of the 20th century; those mats were what was on those floors in my childhood at the Manse, and they were still there when we peeled off the bad 1970s carpeting several months ago. I have to say I have grown quite attached to that linoleum and would be very sorry to see it go.
Unfortunately, though, there are lots of places where the damage caused by the installation of “newer” (we’re talking the mid-1970s here, mind you, so not all that new) finishes, like wood panelling and acoustic-tile ceiling, is severe enough that the original “patina” is going to need some major repairs, if not outright replacement. For instance, we pulled off a few of those ceiling tiles in the kitchen, and it looks like the process of nailing in the wooden slats to which the tiles could be attached has absolutely trashed the original plaster ceiling.
The chair rail of the wainscotting in the kitchen was yanked off so wood panelling could be installed, and we would most certainly want to replace that. And the wainscotting itself – not to mention the plaster walls above it – is full of nail holes thanks to that ghastly panelling. (Which, I must add, was installed at the behest of my family; in the early 1970s we were quite thrilled to get wood panelling, which was considered just the thing in those days.)
Anyway, it’s interesting to think about what parts of the Manse could be left alone in the renovation to come, even though they might not look like they belong in Canadian House and Home. Because, let’s face it: tastes change, and sooner or later everything old is new (and stylish) again. Just ask John Derian.
Or, for that matter, Leonard Cohen, who wrote the ultimate tribute to imperfections – and cracks:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything –
That’s how the light gets in.”
Let’s give Leonard a listen, shall we?