From the outside, it looks like a Ruston cottage with cedar shakes. Step inside, though, and the little 1940s house has gone to Hollywood — taking grandma with it. With bodacious glittery art deco wallpaper, chrome fixtures and an apple-pie kitchen, the house at 5121 N. Pearl St. is a perfect example of something Tacoma contractors Wren and Willow love to do: remodel a house in historic character. And, with an upcoming workshop with the Historic Preservation Office, they want to teach you how to do it, too.
“I have a passion for history, understanding what was going on (when a house was built),” says Laureen Skrivan, Wren and Willow’s president, who’ll co-present the workshop with architect David Boe. “I really like reusing items so they don’t end up in landfill. And I love film noir. That’s what’s fun about this house — I feel like I’m in a film noir movie.”
When you renovate historically, it’s so rich.
Laureen Skrivan, Wren and Willow
Draped over a bedroom chair with the glitzy-teal palm frond wallpaper behind her and a black-and-white tiled bathroom glimmering just beyond, Scrivan does look the part. All she needs is a feather boa.
Instead, she’s helping her staff with cleaning supplies and last-minute checks as they finish up trim and polish metal cabinets in time for this weekend’s Tour of Remodeled Homes. Run by Tacoma’s Master Builders Association, the tour gives folks a chance to see Wren and Willow’s renovating philosophy in real life — an 800-square-foot cottage that’s been painstakingly taken from a bad ’70s redo back to its original post-war charm.
In Thursday’s workshop, Skrivan will explain not just why houses look better in period style, but the details of how to achieve it.
The first thing you’ll notice about this house, once past the new oak floor and walnut-stained trim of the living room, is the kitchen cabinets. Jadeite green and gleaming, they’re made of steel, with rounded edges and metal handles — vintage 1940s cabinets found at Earthwise Salvage, sandblasted and powder-coated.
“During World War II, they had a lot of steel factories to make aircraft and munitions,” says Skrivan, who has always loved historical research. “After the war, they thought, ‘What can we do with all this steel?’ So they made cabinets.”
Fitting the cabinets to the existing kitchen was like a giant puzzle for her carpenters, Skrivan says, and involved sourcing an enamel-look sink, a modern line of gray Formica for the countertops and someone who knew how to install them with the old-school metal edges. But it was worth it.
“They’re a treasure,” she says. “It’s cool to repurpose things, but they also have a history to them.”
So many people buy, say, a Tudor home and try to turn it into a Tuscan villa. It doesn’t work.
Laureen Skrivan, Wren and Willow
Skrivan added other historic elements to the kitchen: a new wallpaper in postwar print of repeating baby blue flowers and ruddy apples, a vintage 1942 Wedgewood stove refinished with a marbley interior, a new 1950s-look refrigerator with sleek chrome handles like the trim of a Ford Thunderbird, and a gray linoleum floor with a rectangular “rug” and apple-print diamonds cut out and inset by hand.
The effect is homespun, just like some of us might remember from our grandmothers’ kitchens. Jutting off the kitchen is a former washroom. Skrivan has converted it to a pantry/scullery, with a giant metal sink and floor-to-ceiling black-and-white art deco tiles — like Grandma would want in her new Hollywood home.
The glam continues in the back part of the house. While the front was built for Asarco workers in the 1920s, another 400 square feet was added in the 1940s (you can see the ceiling height difference in the main bathroom). That means cozy — but historic homes often do, and Skrivan knows every trick. Nestled into the dusky pink-and-black tile of the main bathroom is a stacked washer-dryer, with a custom-built shelf on rollers making the most of the remaining 8 inches of space. Original 1940s recessed lights combine with an antique medicine cabinet and pedestal sink. In the master bathroom, the glamour gets upped with sleek-lined art deco chrome covering everything from the door handle fixtures to the sconces to the air vents original to the house.
And while one bedroom gets the teal Casablanca look (complete with a chrome-edged ceiling fan), the other gets a silvery-gray wallpaper that Greta Garbo would love (it literally glitters under lights).
Some clever storage solutions have made the most of the home’s three closets, and Skrivan, who will live there temporarily until Wren and Willow converts it to a company showroom and AirB&B, has actually relished the downsizing that a 1940s house entails.
“It’s one of the things I love about this house,” she says. “These days people want smaller. They’re downsizing, getting back to the things our grandparents lived with. It’s amazing when you have a challenge of space, you think outside the box.”
Finally, there’s the exterior of the house, where — true to historical detail — Skrivan has replaced the original cedar shakes with new ones, and fitted working shutters. She even poured a kind of mottled concrete, visually similar to that used in the 1950s and ’60s, outside the covered porch.
So if you buy a historic home, where do you start finding out how it should look?
“Google advertisements from the period,” Skrivan advises. Kitchen items, living room furniture, all the things that would have been sold for homes at that time. You might have to look up old newspapers, or it might be online, but you’ll get perfect visual images of each room’s style, along with details like mitred trim (used in the 1940s, after the butted trim of Craftsman style) and faucet style (the Ruston kitchen has a soap bar holder built in). Look in the library for books about the period (Tacoma’s Northwest room is a mine of visual information), and start digging through history to understand how life was at the time. See the resource list in this story for companies that make modern items in historic style.
“So many people buy, say, a Tudor home and try to turn it into a Tuscan villa,” Skrivan says. “It doesn’t work. But when you (renovate historically,) it’s so rich.”
Tour of Remodeled Homes
What: Master Builders Association presents nine remodeled homes.
Where: Puyallup, Tacoma, Gig Harbor; see website for locations.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Includes: Wren and Willow 1940s cottage, 5121 N. Pearl St., Tacoma.
Information: 253-272-2112, mba-tour.com.
‘Your House has DNA: Remodeling historic interiors’
Who: Wren and Willow with architect David Boe.
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
Where: B Sharp Coffee House, 706 Opera Alley (Court C), Tacoma.
Cost: Free, with refreshments.
Want to find historic details for your home, or modern versions of them? Try these places:
Earthwise Salvage: 628 E. 60th St., Tacoma; 253-476-7837, ewsalvage.com.
The Habitat ReStore: 4824 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma; 253-627-5626, tpc-habitat.org.
Tacoma Lamp Repair: 1524 Tacoma Avenue South, Tacoma; 253-566-9037, tacomalamprepair.com.
MODERN HISTORICAL ITEMS
Rejuvenation Lighting: Also fixtures, 2910 First Ave. S., Seattle; 206-382-1901, rejuvenation.com.
Daltile: 6020 Sixth Ave., Seattle; 206-763-3004, daltile.com.
Johnson Millwork: 2319 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma; 253-472-5900
Seabrook: Find locations at seabrookwallpaper.com.
Bradbury and Bradbury: Wallpaper online at bradbury.com.
DEA Bathroom Machinery: 495 Main St., Murphys, California; 800-255-4426, deabath.com.
Big Chill Retro Appliances: 877-842-3269, locations at bigchill.com.