I’m thinking of renovating a fixer-upper: Dreaming in the Dust and Helter Shelter


After reading the two books in the title, my only response to someone considering a house renovation is “Sure, but triple the time and cost estimates, and make sure it’s done before you move in. Oh, and keep your dogs out of the work zone. The workmen will thank you.” The two books themselves are quite different. The Chrismans renovated1 a Victorian home on the shores of Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis over a two year period while the Combs modelled2 a ranch house on Bainbridge Island over eight years.

Dreaming in the Dust begins with the author falling in love with a decades old Victorian home on what was the rural shore of a lake but has now been incorporated into the city of Minneapolis and convincing her husband that they can restore it to a modern version of its previous glories. Not surprisingly to anyone who’s gone through a similar process, each task completed seems to create two new problems. As an example, cleaning the paint off the windowframes so the windows can be opened in summer’s heat leads to
     1) discovering, during winter #2, why winter #1 was so much warmer: the now freed windows are letting in drafts sufficient to render the furnace incapable of keeping up with a Minnesota winter
     2) the gaps in the windowframes, so drafty in winter, create a dust storm INside the house when several layers of paint are sandblasted off the foundation stones (this is compounded by discovering after the job has begun, that there are MORE layers of paint more firmly ensconced in the foundation than the sandblasters had originally thought…)

It’s interesting to read about the restoration of a historic house, especially since the author includes some history of the house, including a ‘madwoman in the cellar’, and copious before and after photographs gleaned from those sent her by the house’s former occupants and neighbors. That said, I’d rather have been in the Combs’ position3, as they didn’t need to do things like match 80 year old foundation stone that wasn’t being quarried any more. They only had to squeeze six kids (and the parents) into a 1950s era4 ranch house while they undid some previous work and added a floor of bedrooms in the attic, complete with balconies; they weren’t trying to put the house back the way it looked in the beginning. Reading between the lines, actually trying to live in the house while they were working on it must have been no less frustrating for the Coombs than for the Chrismans, although the specific problems differed. Furnaces fail, plumbing backs up, leaks spring out whenever there’s a drizzle…and it rains at the worst possible moment Every.Single.Time! That said, Helter Shelter is more fun to read because Combs makes light of what must have been exasperating and uncomfortable issues at the time, ranging from her husband getting a full-body rash after crawling around under the house installing furnace ducts to multiple trips to the hardware store trying to relay requests to the hardware store clerks which were incomprehensible to someone with no idea what she was talking about5.

The two books are approximately the same length, allowing for typeface and margins, but Dreaming in the Dust is a more serious take on home renovation while Helter Shelter is much more lighthearted. Taken together, however, they’re enough to make novices think twice about any form of restoration/remodelling and go back to look again at smaller homes with fewer structural issues and less work needed before habitability. If you liked the ‘old house’ aspects of Memories in a House, you might enjoy Dreaming in the Dust. If the humor in Onions in the Stew is what you’re after, try Helter Shelter, though this is a less complicated take on Island Life With Children than the former.

1i.e. put it back the way it was (approximately!) when it was first built
2i.e. rearranged the internal structure of the house
3I swear this has nothing to do with the fact that I’m about to apply for a job on Bainbridge. Really. (disingenuous look of innocence)
4comparatively new, at the time the book was written
5in fairness, I’d have to look up the difference between five-penny and six-penny nails too…

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