Creative coverings for difficult spaces

My house is 106 years old. It was built before indoor plumbing, in an architectural era when “storage” was probably considered a frivolous waste of space. Or, more likely, 106 years ago people had less “stuff” to store. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Craftsman homes are famous for beautiful built-in bookcases and abysmally small (or nonexistent) closets. Our house has two little closets, each measuring approximately 3 x 4 ft, with a doorway measuring 24 in. wide. If you’ve done any remodeling, you’ll know that 29″ is the smallest “standard” door size, so without dropping $$$ on a custom closet door, we had to find an alternative means to hide all of our stuff.

The yellow blob on the closet floor is an exercise ball that our Aussiepoo popped during an enthusiastic game of pounce. It’s waiting for the day I feel inspired to get a bike kit and patch it. This could take years. Note also a bag of kitty litter. The point is that this closet is messy and personal and I don’t want the contents to be public knowledge. Except that I just posted a picture of it on the internet.

Old houses require creative solutions to privacy problems. Take our attic, for example. We remodeled our unfinished attic several years ago to be a man cave/craft cave/guest suite, complete with ensuite half bath. The house was never meant to be two stories, so the ceiling is very low. We found an antique wooden door that we planned to dog-ear to fit our funky non-rectangular bathroom entrance.

I’m so pleased with myself! What a clever solution to our sloping ceilings!

Shortly after that photo was taken, we realized that it was absolutely 100% impossible to install a door in this opening, because it couldn’t open more than 30 degrees without the highest point hitting the sloped ceiling. We discussed every possibility: could we have saloon-style doors that open in the middle, but don’t reach to the ceiling? How about a door that folds down on hinges, and then swings open? We had run up against unforeseen (or naively uncalculated) problems like this before, and we always found creative solutions. What to do with a bathroom that could not possibly have a door?

Voila! French boudoir meets Craftsman.

Yep, curtains. It’s not as private as a door, but only a little less so. We’ve had numerous overnight guests, and none of them have refused to use the guest bathroom for lack of a proper door. The curtains are secured to the trim via cute drawer knobs.


The skylight next to the bathroom door proved a similar logistical problem. While great for airflow, it faces south and lets in a lot of early morning summer light. If you like rising at 4:30 a.m. in July, then this sleeping space is perfect. Most people don’t, so I had to find a way to make a shade for the skylight. I learned that skylight blinds are at least $400 a pop for the most basic and ugly venetian blind, and they head up steeply from there. Skylight coverings are a challenge, because you have to find a way to keep the curtain from dangling straight down (because gravity).

My solution was inelegant, but definitely serves the purpose. I used two lightweight tension rods braced vertically along the window, and sewed a curtain with casings along both sides. A simple tie keeps the shade neatly gathered to let the sun in during the day, but it can easily be pulled down for sleeping. I used the same fabric to create a Roman shade for an oddly squat window in the dormer.

So back to the closet. You obviously know where I’m going with this. I found some fantastic twill fabric on Amazon that picked up the robin’s egg blue on the office walls, the taupe on the accent wall, and my lime green recliner. Instead of a traditional curtain rod, I used a piece of weathered bamboo from my backyard that has been used as a trellis for pole beans for the past few years. The bamboo rod ties in the Japanese kimono on the opposite wall. Black curtain clips made for easy hanging.

You'd never guess there was a deflated exercise ball and a bag of kitty litter in there...

You’d never guess there was a deflated exercise ball and a bag of kitty litter in there…


How old is ancient?

In the United States, there are neighborhoods and individual homes that are designated “historical.” Bellingham, my hometown, sprang up between 1880-1910, so most of the historical homes are late Victorian and Craftsman era. The historical designation is intended to preserve the architecture of the period and presumably prevent beautiful old houses from becoming run-down college rentals with 1960s kitchen makeovers. I’m a lover of architecture, especially homes predating the 1930s, so I understand the allure. My own home was built in 1908. It is not historic, however, and I’m grateful.

Historical homes have to submit rigorous plans to the historical preservation society before making any changes to ensure that the change is in keeping with the original features. This could include anything from paint colors, to fixtures, to the material of an exterior stair banister (wood vs. iron, etc). The historical designation raises the value of the home, and in some ways makes it more desirable, especially to people who care about such things. However, my brother-in-law owned a historical home and was thwarted by his historical neighborhood association when he wished to build a 2nd floor bathroom for his pregnant wife, since the home’s only existing facilities were located in the unfinished, unheated basement. Their plans were not approved.

There’s a pretense about the whole “historic” designation, an assumption that the architecture of the designated historic period trumps in importance everything that has been designed and built after…it also discounts the significance of everything that came before. Before Bellingham boomed at the turn of the century, it was the home for the Lummi Indian tribe. What makes a Craftsman house more worthy of preservation than everything that happened on that city lot prior to 1900?

Moreover, although turn-of-the-19th-century houses are considered old in Washington state, on the east coast they mean nothing at all. My friend recently bought a colonial-era (17th century) cape farmhouse in New Hampshire. And in Europe, structures are even older. Very old buildings are frequently renovated and added onto; walls are knocked out, double-pane windows are added. The ancient evolves to embrace the new.


The Mitla ruins in Oaxaca, Mexico, show some clear evidence of this evolution. The city of Mitla was built between 450-1350CE. In the photo below, you can see the rough mortared stonework typical of the early Classic construction, topped centuries later by a layer of unmortared stonework in intricate geometrical designs. And on top of those pre-Hispanic structures, the Spanish built the Church of San Pedro in the 16th century (though they tore down much of the original structure in the process).

MitlaThe photo below shows the impressive evolution of stonework among the Zapotec people. You can see how much the artisans improved at their craft over the centuries. Look how tight and intricate the stonework is! You can’t even slide a piece of paper between the stones.

No mortar!

No mortar!

Monte Albán

The ruins of Monte Albán, also in Oaxaca, are even more ancient than Mitla, dating from 500BC-750CE, and archeologists believe it may have been the first urban center in the Americas. The structures are all built in the same style, and there is evidence that the site was very deliberately planned according to astronomical markers. Despite the city’s cohesive building plan, it evolved in function and significance over its 1500 year existence, first adding ductwork and dams, then later adding fortifications, suggesting that its role changed from a site of sacred rituals into an urban center. Because nothing stays the same.

MonteAlbanValley of Fire

At about the same time the Olmecs were beginning to carve off the top of a mountain to build Monte Albán in present-day Mexico, an early people in present-day Nevada visited the orange sandstone rocks northeast of Las Vegas (now Valley of Fire State Park) and left thousands of petroglyphs carved on the soft canyon walls. We can only guess at the narrative those people were telling, since historians can only venture educated guesses at the symbols’ meanings.

Can you see the stag?

In light of a story so ancient and enduring, a piddly 100-year-old house seems very temporary.

Thanks to Where’s My Backpack for the travel theme, “ancient.” Here are some other takes on the theme:

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  2. Pingback: Travel Theme: Ancient | Geophilia Photography
  3. Pingback: Travel theme: Ancient | Through the Eye of Bastet
  4. Pingback: Ancient, Abandoned, and Repurposed | The Retiring Sort
  5. Pingback: Travel Theme: Ancient | Getting the Picture
  6. Pingback: Ancient and Abandoned | Canoe Communications
  7. Pingback: Travel theme: Ancient | Bams’ Blog
  8. Pingback: Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Ancient | That Montreal Girl

Work Around the World

The travel theme this week at Where’s My Backpack is work, which is a great theme because most of us spend the majority of our lives doing it. I’ve been privileged to glimpse the private (and sometimes public) work lives of many people in my travels. Sometimes their work is oriented toward the tourist trade (like craft vendors and tour guides); other work is colorful and loud, and meant entirely for the locals (like the street vendor below). I’ve watched people in Nairobi go to desk jobs similar to the one I hold now, and others in rural Kenya work to grind their own flour for an evening meal. The photographs below capture a few people working across cultures, from urban to rural and everywhere in between.

This meat seller fries some cecina (pounded seasoned pork) for a tlayuda.

This meat seller in Cuajimoloyas, Oaxaca, prepares her grill, while pounded meat hangs like a curtain to dry.

This street performer works the crowd in the Zocolo.

This street performer works the crowd in the Zocolo, Oaxaca City.

Making chocolate at Mayordomo in Oaxaca City.

Making chocolate at Mayordomo in Oaxaca City.

The photos that follow were taken in Kenya in 2004. They are scanned from 35 mm prints, and I so greatly wish I could go back and take these photos digitally!

My friend Judy processes her maize harvest and separates the chaff.

My friend Judy processes her maize harvest and separates the chaff.

A girl grinds sorghum on a large stone mortar.

A girl grinds sorghum on a large stone mortar.

This woman embodies the African woman, carrying the load of the world on her head and back.

This woman embodies the African woman, carrying the load of the world on her head and back.

Judy prepares supper in her earthen kitchen.

Judy prepares supper in her earthen kitchen using sticks of wood for fuel.

Students study diligently on a Saturday afternoon.

Students study diligently at St. Michael’s Secondary School (Nyandema, Kenya) on a Sunday afternoon.

This last photo was taken at the Richmond Night Market in Vancouver, Canada. This guy was grilling haddock, and he looked like he really enjoyed his job.

Here are a few other interpretations of the theme:

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  2. Pingback: TRAVEL THEME: Work – fathersunny
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  4. Pingback: (Loosely ^_^) Travel Theme: Work | Locating Frankenstein’s Brain
  5. Pingback: Confessions of a Business Traveler | Peaks and Passports
  6. Pingback: Travel Theme: Work | That Montreal Girl
  7. Pingback: 2-22-14 Travel Theme: Work | The Quotidian Hudson