Sunday, April 7, 2013


The Story:

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of family holiday gatherings at my Aunt Mary Jane and Uncle Eugene’s house. Auntie and Uncle Euge, as we affectionately call them, built their tiny cape cod home in 1955, in my little hometown of Mt. Healthy, Ohio. It originally had just five rooms on the first floor: two bedrooms, a living room, one bathroom, and an eat-in kitchen. My Uncle later renovated the upstairs attic to create two bedrooms for their son and daughter and they converted the second bedroom on the first floor into a dinning room. Eventually, he finished the basement to make a family room and second bathroom.

Aunt Mary Jane and Uncle Eugene's house in Mt. Healthy, Ohio
My mother was the youngest of four children and between them they had sixteen children of their own. All of us would gather at Auntie’s house for the annual Christmas Eve party as well as other family events throughout the year.  Whether is was a birthday party, bridal shower, or baby shower we happily celebrated together underground. The festivities were always held in the basement because it was the only room in her house that was large enough to accommodate the crowd of adults and children who at that time numbered Twenty-five. In addition, my mom’s cousin and her family would usually drop by at some point during the celebrations to join in the fun.

As a child, I was particularly enthralled with this idea of a finished basement. The basement at our home was unfinished and resembled a dark cement dungeon. It was filled with stored items, the washer and dryer, and my father’s odd collection of hobbies. Although, it was a great place to roller skate, it had no warmth or charm. To be completely honest it was a bit creepy and the plethora of spiders and the dripping floor drain was a source of childhood anxiety for me.
My favorite red, white and blue chair
On the other hand, my Auntie’s basement was a mid-century Early American wonderland. It had bright red carpet and comfortable swiveling chairs decked out in fabrics printed with eagles, American flags, and Liberty Bells. The sofa was bright blue and wood paneling covered the walls. A black iron Ben Franklin stove stood in the sitting area warming the hearts and hands of many cold children just in from the snow. Sometimes the stove got so hot that we would all shed the layers of holiday clothing in which our mothers had painstaking pressed and dressed us.

As the years went on and we all grew up, married, and had children of our own, we still gathered in the tiny basement and oddly enough the small but open space seemed to grow with the family accommodating additional generations with ease. We never seemed to care how tightly packed we were as long as we were all together eating, drinking, and making merry.

Now that I am an adult, I realize that although Auntie and Uncle Euge are not architects or designers, they seem to have an extraordinary gift for making use of every inch of space. They were extremely clever and resourceful in turning utilitarian aspects of the basement into attractive and useful areas to facilitate entertaining large groups of people. For instance, the washer, dryer, and utility sink were located right next to the door that walked out to the back yard. My uncle built a nifty removable, stained wooden top that fit neatly over the washer and dryer to create a countertop. It had a tall backsplash that masked the operating knobs of the machines. The makeshift counter top also held a curtain rod and Auntie sewed a cute full-length skirt that attached to the rod, camouflaging the washer and dryer below. This well constructed yet economical solution, transformed the laundry area into a wet bar for family parties.

Another clever creation was a half-table that was built in under the stairs. It served two purposes. It blocked off the dangerous area under the staircase where the head height was compromised and it created a perfect place for my aunt to place snacks for the party. In fact, Uncle Euge was a milkman by profession and used to get many boxes of Ester Price candy from the people on his route as holiday thank you gifts. (For those who might be too young to remember, the “milkman” was the person who used to deliver fresh milk from the dairy to your house twice a week and place it in a box on your front porch.) Auntie was inundated with so much candy that she placed huge dishes of the delicious chocolate on the table under the stairs and we kids were permitted to eat as much of it as we wanted. So you can only imagine sixteen kids hyped on candy chasing each other in the basement. Uncle Euge really saved our heads with his inventive table.

The furnace and water heater were also located in the space. Uncle Euge ingeniously cloaked the area in wooden garden lattice that was stained to match the wall paneling. The perforated lattice kept the unsightly appliances out of view, but allowed for the masking to be built close to the furnace with out compromising the ventilation. This maximized the space in the tiny basement and a gate-style door allowed easy access for maintenance.
Stained wooden lattice hides the furnace and water heater
The bathroom contained a shower, toilet and sink. It was just large enough for function but not so large that it was imposing in the small space. Of course, Auntie had chosen a coordinating Early American themed, red, white, and blue wallpaper to keep the little space perky. The placement of the bathroom in the center of the long wall of the basement acted as a natural divider between the sitting area and the pool table and helped to define those zones.

The Ben Franklin stove with raised seating hearth
The charming Ben Franklin stove, that warmed us on so many Christmas Eves, was elevated off the ground on a cement block hearth. Uncle Euge extended the raised hearth along the wall and Auntie sewed a colorful cushion, which provided much needed additional seating for party guests.

There was a niche created by the foundation jutting out under the front porch. My uncle seized the opportunity to make a storage closet out of this seemingly unusable space. Here they housed stacks of board games and puzzles. My cousins, my siblings, and I were amused for hours playing games like Clue, Monopoly, and my personal favorite.....Mouse Trap.
"Auntie" and Uncle "Euge"
Auntie and Uncle Euge are now in their upper 80’s and our family has finally become so large that the amazing expandable basement can’t hold us anymore. Many of our own children are grown and married and many of my siblings and cousins now have grandchildren. We have had to rotate the gatherings between family members with larger houses and we still all gather together several times a year. I feel very blessed that my family has remained close but I have to admit that there is still a part of me that longs for that little red, white, and blue basement.
Sixty-seven year old Philco Refrigerator
My aunt and uncle have taken such immaculate care of their things and many of the same basement furnishings are still there today. The basement stands as a monument to bygone times when patriotism was chic and family moments were treasured. In fact, Mary Jane and Eugene still house in their basement, the original refrigerator from when they were first married over 60 years ago . The best part of the story is, that the refrigerator still has the same light bulb. It has never been changed, never burned out, and it still works. A true testament to people who made the most of what they had and shared it with their loved ones.
The original light bulb still works!

The Design Topic of the Week:

Going Under Ground: Elevating Your Lower Level

My fascination with the finished basement has stayed with me through the years. As a teenager I envied friends who held high school parties or sleep-overs in their finished lower levels and as a young mother with small children I longed for a space where the kids could play that gave us breathing room and toy free areas upstairs. 

When we built our first house we were a childless couple coming out of an apartment and  we thought our new starter home was more space than we would ever need. But within three short years we had two children with a third on the way and very soon the walls and toy clutter started closing in on us. My husband's parents and a few siblings lived out of town and we were frequently hosting overnight visitors. Once the baby arrived, we would no longer have a guest bedroom. It was at this point that we started exploring options to finish the basement.

The walkout basement was a bright space and luckily we had had the forethought to put in nice french doors that lead to the outside when we built the house. On the suggestion of the builder, we had also roughed in for a future bathroom. We hired a contractor to finish the space and build some practical features that would suit our lifestyle as a young family. We added an extra large closet with shelves to store bins of toys out of site and a bathroom was built with a shower. This would accommodate our overnight guests who would sleep on the pull out sofa in the television area. There was a wet bar with cabinets and countertops, a computer desk area, and a space that held a children's table and chairs for the kids to work on art and craft projects. I used an antique dresser to house the many dress-up items that my girls loved to play with. I tried to take a page from Auntie and Uncle Euge's book and create a space that would function well for daily life and allow for easy entertaining.

When we built our second house, we had become so dependent on our underground multi-pupose area that we knew it had to be a priority from the get-go. So we included plans for a finished basement in the initial blueprints. We included many of the family-friendly features from the previous basement like a wet bar, bathroom, and storage closets. However, our kids were a little older now and we had more emerging interests and desired uses for the space. My husband had longed for a billiard table, poker table, and large screen TV to bro-mance his pals, so space accommodations were made for this. I had become interested in fitness and both of our daughters were dance students, so we added a room with wood laminate floors and a mirrored wall to provide a space for these activities. 

Although our first basement renovation was well suited to our lifestyle at the time, the dropped ceiling, furnishings, and decor of the space still had a quality that felt a little substandard to finishings upstairs. In the new home I really wanted to elevate the basement design to feel more like the rest of our house. I not only wanted a useful space but a welcoming room that made us want to spend time there. So many times I hear people say "I don't really care about what goes in the basement, after all its just a basement and I don't really go down there very much." I believe that if you treat the space like it's as valuable as any other space in your home, the whole family will use it and enjoy it.

I am not suggesting breaking the bank, just that you give the decor the same level of thought as you do aboveground. Fun and unique furnishings purchased at discount stores, garages sales, or even hand-me-downs can create a terrific look at a great cost savings 

Here are a few tips to help you elevate your lower level:

  • Choose comfortable furniture and put good thought into your floor plan. Think about who will be using the space and how much seating you might need. Provide for good traffic patterns from space to space to avoid running an obstacle course.
  • Make sure you use accessories, window treatments, and artwork just like you would upstairs. Blank walls, bare floors, and naked windows are not inviting to anyone. Even children need a little more stimulation than that. Break up those walls with flea market finds or framed children's art work if you don't have a big budget.  Get creative! We bought inexpensive black frames at Michaels and framed colorful posters from shows our kids performed in over the years. We did the same with some of my husband's old records and hung them in a grouping to add life to a large empty wall.
  • If you have a seating area with chairs or sofas, make sure that you use end tables to provide a surface on which to sit a lamp and a drink. It's no fun to sit and converse or watch a movie if you have to hold your drink or place it on the floor. Again get creative! Do you own an old trunk that can be used as a coffee table or do you have hard suitcases that can be stacked next to a chair? Garage sales are a great place to find small tables for this purpose.
  • Drywall ceilings go a long way to making the underground space look more like the upstairs and I suggest doing it whenever possible. However, dropped ceilings may be the best option for you if there is plumbing or ductwork that may require access. If you need to use a dropped or acoustic ceiling, I suggest avoiding the long rectangular panels that look institutional. Opt for smaller square panels for a homier look.
  • Make sure to use doors, woodwork, and trims similar to your upstairs areas.  This will help you avoid the "We've just gone underground" shock. Crown moldings are nice but not necessary. Baseboards, however, are a must!
  • This may be the most important tip of all. Keep the lighting consistent with aboveground decor. You should try to use a combination of overhead lighting and ambient table or floor lamps. Avoid overhead florescent light boxes if possible, because they give a glaring institutional feel to a room. Can-lights provide less harsh, more focused light and can be used in many instances with a dropped ceiling. There is nothing less inviting than entering someone's basement and feeling like you've stepped into a tanning bed. If florescent boxes are your only option, make sure you have several lamps in the room to provide light.  That way you can turn the overheads off when they are not needed for task lighting.
When we moved to Pittsburgh, I knew that a finished basement would be a must for us. My son was entering high school and his older sisters had proven to me that a basement area was a necessity to living harmoniously with teenagers and their many friends. When looking for a house, however, we were presented with a challenge that I had not expected. Due to the hilly terrain of Western Pennsylvania, most of the homes have garages built in the basement to avoid overly steep driveways and that doesn't allow for the large, open, multi-purpose spaces that we had grown accustomed to. After searching high and low (literally), we finally found a home with an attached garage and a finished basement. The basement had wonderful open space with areas to fit all of our needs, but the decor was dark and uninviting. The cost of moving had broken the bank for us and I needed to find a way to use only items I already owned and to create an elevated design with the use of paint.

Here are the photo's of my Pittsburgh basement as it looked when we first bought the house. The room was a very nice size and had a good lay-out but the wainscoting and woodwork was stained brown. That with the dark green tile and even darker bar area made the room feel drab and cave-like despite the large window and glass doors. The previous owners had attempted to lighten things up with the off white walls but the stark contrast created a silhouette effect on the rooms furnishings
Before photo of the basement sitting area
Before photo of the basement bar area
There was very little artwork hanging on the walls, most likely due the suggestion of a real estate stager. However, as a new inhabitant, I felt the large space looked a bit lifeless and hollow.
Before photo of the basement billiards area
We lived almost an entire year without really touching the space because our time and budget was being spent on upstairs renovations. We plopped our old furnishings down and that was it. My husband who loves to sit and watch his favorite shows each evening on his big television was becoming frustrated with me because I never wanted to join him. We had always shared this time together in the basement at the old house and he couldn't understand why I didn't want to do it now. For me, the upstairs was looking fresh and pretty while the basement felt dark, dingy, and unwelcoming. Sitting down there did absolutely nothing for my mood, I wasn't sure exactly what to do with the large overwhelming space, and there wasn't really anymore money in the budget even if I did. So I chose avoidance!

One day, I was perusing an online design site and stumbled upon a picture of a basement. The layout was similar to ours and it had similar wainscoting painted white. The light bulb turned on! It would be a very large job but I decided to take on the task of painting out all of the dark woodwork in the room. Nine fourteen-hour days, two gallons of Kilz, and three gallons of Navaho White(Sherwin Williams SW6126) later, it was done! What an ordeal but the result was absolutely worth it.

Here you see the room as it stands today and I couldn't be happier! In addition to painting out the woodwork I took the contrast down a notch by painting the upper portion of the walls in Harmonic tan by Sherwin Williams (SW6136). The soft green hue pulls out the subtle shades of green in my sofa and makes all the furniture pop.

Adjacent to the bar, I created a seating area using an antique church pew that I bought at a garage sale for $99. The area is defined with a Persian style rug and an ottoman multi-puposes as a coffee table for additional seating. The collage of silhouettes is one of many I have in my home. Grouping the collection together in a structured way, makes a big artistic impact on the expansive wall.
The furniture in my basement is actually a marriage of two different sets of furniture in my old house. The chair pictured below was from my former basement and the sofa was from my old great room. Since the sofa was already a montage of many fabrics, I thought a few more patterns couldn't hurt. I cross pollenated throw pillows from both sets and the result is very effective.

This plantation desk was purchased with money I inherited from my grandmother on my dad's side. Nanny, lived to be an amazing ninety-four years old and outlived most of her money in the process. There was just a little bit left when she passed and that was split between me, my siblings, and my cousin. My mother suggested that I buy something with the small sum that I would have forever. I chose this little desk. I have had it now for 20 years and I think of my grandmother every time I look at it.
Fortunately for my husband, the Pittsburgh house provided an area for bro-mancing just as well as the Cincinnati house did in its day. There was ample space for his billiard table, poker table, and his most prized possession; the 1970's vintage jukebox.
The thing holds the scratchy sounding 45's of our youth (and our parents youth for that matter). It was retro-fitted with a CD player. It's a very sad statement when writing about a CD player makes a person feel old. 
My husband purchased inexpensive black frames from Michaels to feature some of his collection of LP's from the 1980's, as well as colorful school musical posters from shows in which our kids performed over the years. The records play into the jukebox theme and the project forced us to clear out some old sentimental junk from our crowded storage space. It's a big visual bang for a little buck.
My mother-in-law gifted my husband with this vintage bowler hat that belonged to her father. My husband was so thrilled with the present that we encased it in glass. The manly chapeau makes a perfect centerpiece for the bro-mantic poker table.

My husband and I purchased this early 1900's jeweler's desk when we were first married as a stand  for our "thick" screen TV and VCR. (Talk about feeling old). I have placed an oversize piece of embroidered artwork above it and accessorized it with a lamp, a reproduction Eiffel Tower that I bought in the garden department of Target over ten years ago, and my favorite go-to design element; a pyramid of stacked wooden boxes.
Underneath I placed vintage suitcases that I found in my uncle's garage.
In case you haven't gathered it yet, I am a silhouette addict. An addict is one step further over the line than a collector. For my fourty-fifth birthday party my husband invited a local silhouette artist to come to our home and cut silhouettes of many of my relatives. I own so many silhouettes of strangers that he thought it might be a good idea if I had a few people in my collection that I actually know and love. Since most of my family members have an affinity for libations, I thought it fitting that their silhouettes should hold court over the bar.

The basement houses a small guest bedroom and full bathroom. I love to use interesting objects as headboards for my beds. When I first saw this hand-painted Asian folding screen at an antique mall, it screamed "Headboard!" to me.
The bedroom is clearly visible from the basement's seating area, so I intentionally pulled color and pattern into the room through the bedding to compliment the other space.

This drop-leaf corner table makes a great beside stand in this very small space. It tucks neatly into the corner and the leaf is easily popped up for additional surface area if needed by guests.
On the opposite side of the bed an antique mission oak chair serves double duty as extra seating and beside table.
This small Victorian dresser with it's crewel-stitched picture hanging above, fits nicely under the high window.

Some pieces of my grandmothers Blue Onion wedding china become art when displayed against the bright yellow wall color.
In the hallway that leads to the bathroom sits the first piece of furniture that I ever purchased. I bought this antique pie safe when I started my first job right out of college. It has had so many lifetimes in so many places that it would take an entire blogpost to tell its stories.
I made this greeting card collage myself from cards I received from well-wishers over the years and I also picked up a few during my antiquing exploits.
The full bathroom is conveniently located for use by party guests and overnight visitors using the basement bedroom.
The journey has been long road from my Auntie's red, white, and blue basement to my life in Pittsburgh. I seem to have carried with me along the way an affection for the underground spaces that so many others think not worthy of attention. I firmly believe that a well designed basement can be an asset in any home when done in a way that is welcoming and appealing. When designing your own basement use your budget to the best of your abilities to create a space that appears as valuable as the above grade areas of your home and serves the needs of your family and lifestyle. Doing this will encourage you to use the space for entertaining, daily life, and personal enjoyment. For the most part a basement is unclaimed real estate and its potential for bringing families and friends close together and reinforcing life long memories and bonds is boundless. Take a lesson from Auntie and Uncle Euge, be creative, make the most out of what you have, dare to throw parties for lots of people, and you just may be blessed with a light in your life that never burns out!

Thanks for stopping by! 

Dont forget to check out my Designerelish Crock Pot and Designerelish Pantry pages for more great design ideas to use in your own home.

Drop in next week when the design topic will be 
Decorating with collections: "These are a few of my favorite things"

1 comment:

  1. I love all these tips, Suzie. Our basement needs a major overhaul!


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