House Lessons: Renovating a Life with Erica Bauermeister
Jun 01, 2020
Erica Bauermeister usually writes fiction. She's the author of novels such as "The School Of Essential Ingredients," "Joy for Beginners," and most recently, "The Scent Keeper." But she's also just written a memoir about a house. One she bought quite awhile ago and has been working on ever since. Or, as you're about to hear, the house has been working on her. The book is called "House Lessons: Renovating a Life," and it's very inspiring because she's used her home to help her become who she's wanted to be.
INTRODUCING A NEW, FREE WORKSHOP BY LITTLE YELLOW COUCH
BEFOER AND AFTER PHOTOS OF ERICA'S HOUSE
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Zandra Zuraw: Erica Bauer Meister Welcome to style matters. It is so great to have you here. I feel like I'm talking a little bit to a celebrity because you're a real life author of novels. I've interviewed many authors of interior design books, but you're my first fiction author and I sort of I mean, I have crushes on fiction authors. So, wow, I'm talking to a real life author.
Erica Bauermeister: I know I know how you feel. I mean, when I was writing house lessons, which is a memoir, it's about events that happened. Most of them happened before I was an author and I really like you, you know, I would
book readings and just sit there with my jaw on my chest and then you realize these are all regular people.
Zandra Zuraw 6:23
Well, you are very much a regular person in this memoir, which makes you feel very approachable and relatable, even though now I know you're also this fabulous fiction writer with a wonderful book out the scent keeper. Who, which, y'all if you haven't read it yet, you got to get your hands on it, but we'll talk about that later. Let's talk about house lessons renovating a life. This book was so good and I knew I was going to love it in the prologue because you are this storyteller and you drew me in right away with this. Story of your mom looking for the perfect Christmas tree. But I wonder if you could set the stage for us at the beginning of the book at a little bit after the prologue. I'm wondering where were you mentally and emotionally when you and your husband and your two young kids started poking around in Port Townsend, Washington?
Erica Bauermeister 7:22
And that is such a good question. Because one of the things about this book is this all happened because I didn't know where I was. I had no idea where I was. I was 42 years old. I had a husband, I had a 10 and a 13 year old so we're just entering adolescence, but in a particularly spectacular way because we had spent the two previous years living in a small town in Italy. It's actually very remote which is heart being so desperately hardly hard hit by the by the Coronavirus right now a beautiful place that is so family oriented, so roots oriented. He has such a beautiful way to live. And we had returned to the United States. And this country felt so fast so temporary, everything was zipping around. And
Zandra Zuraw 8:14
this year in Seattle, which is sort of the mecca of fast moving tech, so after like
Unknown Speaker 8:20
it Yeah, exactly. Sorry. Go ahead.
Erica Bauermeister 8:22
No, no, no. And, you know, we we moved back to, to our house that is, this was sort of this rambling craftsman, dark front living room, there was no natural place to gather the way we'd had in a very small apartment we lived in in Italy, and the kids just kind of blew off to their rooms and into adolescence. And I'm standing in the middle of all this going, wait, what the heck just happened? You know, we'd had this idyllic family life. And, and I'd lost it and I was, uh, you know, I, I was in this weird situation of being an aspiring writer. I had a PhD. In English, and I'm a stay at home mom and the heck am I? And in Italy, if you're a stay at home mom, you are revered. And in the United States,
it is not so much.
Erica Bauermeister 9:10
No, it's like, well, you didn't have anything else to do. Okay, fine. And so I'm just spinning and my husband says, Well, okay, let's, let's just look for land, let's deflect your, all your eggs to a different direction. Let's keep you occupied, but in a way, that doesn't really mean we have to move anywhere. Okay, and so we started looking for land on the Olympic Peninsula, which is is very wild, very large piece of land to the west of Seattle. And so we're driving around, but we kept going back to Port Townsend, which is on the tip of the nipple Olympic Peninsula. It just is this cool old Victorian seaports when uh, for architectural II preserved Victorian seaports in the United States. So less than 10,000 people incredibly cool architecture. And so we're driving around and we happen upon this wreck of a house. That is not For Sale, and my husband, I turn and look at each other and go, that's it.
Zandra Zuraw 10:05
Oh, I felt that way too. That's amazing.
Erica Bauermeister 10:08
Yeah. He said it first, and the kids are just looking at it, like, flip the cog, you know.
Zandra Zuraw 10:15
So you were so your mindset is I, I've lost my own footing, because you were ensconced in Italy. And this this, we're a culture really puts families sort of at the center of life. You come back, you don't know what you want to do with yourself. You don't you've got these kids that are about to become teenagers. And so you decide let's get a new house. I mean, you know, I get that I can relate.
Erica Bauermeister 10:42
If you've lost your footing What better than to buy a house with no foundation? I mean, yes, the symbolic irony is huge here.
Zandra Zuraw 10:49
Right. Well, and and that kind of leads me to my second question, which is the ways in which humans and buildings have this interconnected Witness, you talk a lot in the book about all these different philosophical approaches that different architects have had, all the way back to Greek, ancient Greece. And so many of them talk about how buildings affect us. We don't just inhabit them that they, they leave their mark on us as well, which basically, I think is what your whole book is about. And I was wondering if you could give us some examples of the way in which you experienced this interconnectedness?
Erica Bauermeister 11:30
Well, I mean, there's there's sort of this strange psychic connection that the house and I seem to have where I would ask for things and they would show up. I mean, that was kind of amazing. But more in terms of design concept. I really do believe that the layout and designs of our houses can affect who we are and who we can become. So to give you an example, I'm a really introverted, shy person. I'm very happy being a writer just sitting in my room by myself. I would like to be a more social person I admire social people. And the thing about an American Foursquare is that it is those four main rooms on the first floor. They are all interconnected very naturally, they're kind of these partial openings between each room. They're no doors, so you flow from one room to the next. And so the result is a very open feeling that feels very social. It invites parties and invites gatherings and yet it doesn't have that giant amorphous great room feel where shy people get really scared because there's nowhere to hide, right? So, you know, a Foursquare it just feels like, like, the house is a friend that's got your back, right, there's always going to be a place for you to kind of observe what's going on as well as participate. And so for me, it's turned me into a much more social person, because I can move through it easily people move through it easily. It never feels stilted.
And then the other thing thing was our kitchen, which we ended up doing something that is fairly traditional on HDTV these days, which is you blow open the kitchen to the dining room. Right, right. But in our case, we always had these oddly shaped kitchens that were difficult for more than one person really to do any meal prep. And, and that worked just fine because I tended to guard my role as the cook.
Zandra Zuraw 13:22
Right, right. I'm like that to know that in the kitchen. Yeah,
Erica Bauermeister 13:25
well, you know, if I'm going to have an identity, and I'm still looking for that identity, so I'm going to be the cook, right, but I really wanted to change that too. And so when we, and because the house was a complete wreck, and was full of seven and a half tons of trash, and we basically had to clean all that out and start from scratch. That gave us a lot of flexibility. And so we took the this room, which we've called the yuck room, it was kind of a storage room, and we changed that to the kitchen and opened it to the dining room. And but it was a big square and so we were What I told the architect, as I said, I want to four but kitchen which, right? I want for people to be able to cook without banging their butts. And that's exactly what we've got. And now, boy, it's just amazing how many people can cook in that kitchen and how it's changed me as a mom as a cook as a person. So I really do believe that we can both, you know, consciously change our houses to change our behavior, but also work with the houses that we've got, in order to make our lives better.
Zandra Zuraw 14:30
I want to just say one more thing about this, this idea that you bring up all the time about how the house affects you is that the other thing that these architects would would say that you would refer to throughout the years throughout the centuries is that beauty is a part of the equation to that it's not just about the steel and the concrete and the wood. It's about the beauty of things. And I wonder if you could just talk for a second about about that and how you experienced beauty As you were rebuilding this home,
Erica Bauermeister 15:03
yeah, you know, I think that was actually there's a long time long, long time ago architect called vitruvius. And he had his three principles of architecture, which basically come down to stability, utility and beauty. Yeah. And I mean, that's, that's my catchphrase. I was gonna have that tattooed on my wrist. I would like my whole life to involve stability, utility and beauty.
Zandra: Wouldn't we all?
Erica Bauermeister Yes, yeah. No, it just makes you know, and I think that is such a great way to approach any kind of House Renovation is just to look at it and say, okay, both what is the design that you started with? So that's the thing about a renovation is a renovation is not a restoration, where you're trying to go museum quality back to what the house originally was, and it's not a remodel, which is whatever the heck you want to do. Right? A renovation to me is very much an interrelationship between the house That was built. And in our case that was in 1909. And the needs that the owners current owners have, yeah. And to me, that all comes down to respect, you have to respect the original character of the house. So what happened was, we did have to take down that Jimmy, which did break my heart and have the stones. I've used them for other purposes. Yes. And
Zandra Zuraw 16:24
I don't want you to give away where No, I won't.
Erica Bauermeister 16:27
But I kept them for years until I had a place to use it. It was just right. But what happened was, that house when it was built in 1909, was probably built off Sears kit plans, faces South that beautiful chimney kind of ugly, ugly fireplace on the inside. And it blocked a gorgeous 100 mile view. And so when we took the chimney down, we're feeling really bad, really bad, but all of a sudden, it's like, oh my gosh, that's beautiful. You know, that's not a bad replacement. And so what happened was our architect, he was so brilliant. So what he did was he made the opening for the French doors that took the place of the chimney. And he made sure they were the same width as the partial openings between each of the rooms between the living room and dining room, dining room, kitchen, and then eventually dining room and sunroom. So that there was this beautiful feeling of that one more opening of the house into the world. And so I thought it was a really great way to do something that was different. And yet, you know, it was a love letter to the house at the same time, and I think that's really important.
Zandra Zuraw 17:40
I want to go back to the trash that you started talking about. The house basically had been inhabited by hoarders and there was some, some discussion that you had in there about this whole idea of hoarding, and it really made me You know, we've had this sort of fascination with it sort of like it's a car crash and you're driving by and you can't help Look, watching a train wreck kind of thing. And yet I think you've talked about there's a little bit of a hoarder and all of us sometimes, you know, that really isn't about things other than being afraid to let go of your trash it's or your stuff. It's, it's, it's can be pretty deep. And then hear so okay, we're seven and a half tonnes you've already said that seven and a half tonnes of trash that you have to get rid of it was a huge, huge part of you claiming this house for yourself, I think. And then you also when you did finally sell your home and Seattle had to dig out of your own pile of possessions and that was another sort of big emotional upheaval, I think. What are some of the things that you took away from both of those major clean outs?
Erica Bauermeister 18:48
Well, the things hold a life lessons and I think that's what's so important. You know, I I read through at the time that I was doing the first clean out. I was reading I think his name is Zorro. And Bob is he ba lbs and he wrote a book called soul space, which is kind of a precursor to Marie Kondo in some ways, and he really did an amazing job of kind of, he would it was almost like he would do a psychological evaluation of people based on the things in their home and where they put them and then read the research I did on hoarding made me realize how much our possessions are our identity, and that can be for good or bad. And I think that, you know, I love the idea of, you know, choose the things that spark joy, but one of the things that soul space really kind of made me pay attention to is let go of the things that are holding you back that are, you know, a person you never really needed or wanted to be, you know, like one of the one of the things I talked about in the book is I shredded my dissertation.
Zandra Zuraw 19:54
Yes. Tell us that story. Good one.
Erica Bauermeister 19:56
Um, you know, I had I had gotten my PhD in literature. I I was not, I was fine as an academic but I was never comfortable. It was never me. I always wanted to be a writer and going to graduate school felt like a way to legitimize that. So I always I always joke I did what john Irving in one of his books called gradual School, which is you go into you gradually learn, you can stop, right? And so here I had this dissertation that was this manifestation of this person I no longer was, and it's sitting in this filing cabinet down in the basement. I mean, it's it's traveled from my desk to upstairs to test it. Finally, it's like in the back corner, right? Right. I can't, I can't shove it out much more. And, and I find it behind all of the old you know, tax records. And I just thought, are you going to carry this with you to one more place? And I thought, No, I'm gonna let myself go. I am going to be you know, I'm a writer now. And so everything that came out to the house in Port Townsend I actually unpacked the box and put it in Place and if it didn't fit, I put it on the front porch and let it go. You know, and so this house has this remarkably peaceful feel. And I think a lot of that is because, you know, nothing came in, you know, there whenever anybody moves, you always have what we call the Oh, for God's sake box, you know, you just, you just, it's like you don't know what to do with it. So you just want what's in the box, right? And I, I had exactly one small box that I owe myself.
Zandra Zuraw 21:27
Erica Bauermeister 21:28
It was, well, you know, when you've cleaned out seven and a half tons of someone else's trash, you get a little maniacal about it.
Zandra Zuraw 21:34
I love that you basically made space for the person you are now. I think that's one of my favorite things about this book. You're just a few years older than me, I think and it was so refreshing to me to hear from someone who is creating this life. Post kids that there is this whole other life that you still have because my kids are, you know, my oldest is a senior in high school and you know, you could just see them leaving And it's coming. And then you think, okay, now life's over. And now I mean, it's not even that I'm that attached to being to caring for them necessarily. It's just that it is your identity for so long, and you've made room for something else.
Erica Bauermeister 22:14
Yeah, I mean, I don't think it'sat all coincidental that my first novel wasn't published until I was 50. And I kind of had to work through all of those things. And, and the house really was such a big part of that. It was really, you know, doing the physical labor, the sledge hammering, all the toxic stuff we dealt with. And, you know, I think that, that that really allowed me to figure out who I was, you know, apart from what my parents had expected me to be, or what school expected to me me to be or what even my culture expected me to be. And there was something so liberating about that, that I just it I don't know. I mean, this house. I saved me so many times. So many different parts of my life.
Zandra Zuraw 23:01
It's so it's a real relationship that you have.
Erica Bauermeister : Yeah, really is. Yeah. I want you to tell us another story that's in the book, that I don't want to talk about the end of the book, because it's such an interesting way that things have developed and that, that you've gotten to where you are now with your house and living in it. But sort of midway through the book, there's this huge long section that's about raising the house up. And and tell us a little bit about how did you come to the decision that it needed to be raised? And then what was it like working in a house that was I don't know how many feet off the ground. It was six, nine, something like that. Yeah. And how crazy that was?
Erica Bauermeister 23:48
Yeah, and, and I think we have to clarify, because we're speaking and not reading that we mean raising up not raising like leveling. Sorry. Yes. No, no, I mean, I do it all. The Times.
Zandra Zuraw 24:00
It's like yeah, raising it lifting up.
Erica Bauermeister 24:02
Yes, lifting it up. So which is just such a strange thing to do? Yes. But we had no choice. The foundation what had happened. And this is a good life lesson for all you homeowners is that the previous owners had not replaced a downspout when it had broken off. And it was on the south east corner, which is the downhill corner. And so all that water had run down the side of the house and then underneath the house, the house, the foundation had none of that horizontal footing to it, including the fireplace and the chimney did not have a footing either. And to top it all off, it was built on filled dirt which no one knew. And so as the water comes down, it washes out the smaller parts that kind of particle parts to the filter and the house started leaning. So when we bought it, it was six inches lower in the back than it was In the front, and there was a good chance that it was going to fall into our neighbor's downhill neighbor's yard. So and there was a crack that was over three feet long and about a half an inch wide that ran through the foundation. And that is not the kind of crack you want to deal with. And so we had to lift it up. I was down in the orchard a lot digging out pulling out a lot of IV because it was too scary to go in the house. Yeah, it was up there kind of creaking in the wind, you know,
Zandra Zuraw 25:24
and sake and how long was it up in the air?
Erica Bauermeister 25:26
Three plus months? Yeah,
Zandra Zuraw 25:28
right. It's crazy. And then you had the roofers that couldn't get in forever. I mean, if anyone anyone who's renovated all house it's it's this classic right? Everything that you don't even think of that could go wrong does go wrong, and you guys weathered every storm. I know it wasn't always didn't always seem like you're going to while you're in it, I'm sure but and yet,
Erica Bauermeister 25:49
you know, here's the thing. I think in the midst of all of those, if you are paying attention to your house, there are such gifts along the way. You know, they're such chances. Learn about the house or yourself or you know that that three months where nothing was happening, and then there when the roofers didn't come that was that it's kind of like the pause. We're all in right now, you know, where things are kind of scary, but you have that time to sit back and think about what's important to you. And some really important decisions got made during those pause time. So even though they were intensely frustrating, they were also remarkably fruitful. So it's worth you know, looking for that other side as well.
Erica Bauermeister 26:30
Oh, that is so well put. And something that I'm interested in talking about on this podcast more and more is this idea of slow style that does include so much self reflection, and you know, just not trying to always push so hard but sometimes just letting things happen and then seeing where things fall and, and you talk about changing how you parent because of the house and you talk about you know, you became an author This house and change this a partner and as a wife and as how you viewed yourself I mean, there's so much growth and evolution that is intertwined with the house that that is why I just love this book so much and I think that's why everyone listening is going to really really grab hold of it and relate to it because I think that that's that's really what life is all about I think is kind of figuring out where we've been and who we want to become.
Erica Bauermeister 27:34
And I think the other thing that changed as I you know wrote this book different times
Erica Bauermeister 27:40
in said keeper, the novel that I wrote, it's all about the sense of smell and and there, they talk a lot. I talk a lot about perfume, having top middle and bass notes. Yeah. And I think that you know, at the longer you wait on writing about something, the more you get to the base notes, and by the time that I got to that point I was thinking, Okay, I've written the top notes. Those are the stories, you know, I know the middle notes, which is what I learned. And now I want the base notes of what everybody can learn from situations like this. And that's what really led me to start bringing in a lot more architectural theory and, and my experience as a real estate agent, which I did for five years. And, you know, I really wanted this book to feel in some ways, like a collage between theory and personal and just a darn good story. But I wanted there to be that ability for people to step back and say, I can apply this to my house. And I'd never thought of looking at my house in that way. And when I get letters from people saying that they're now looking at their houses differently that
Zandra Zuraw 28:48
makes my day I got Of course, yes. Oh my gosh, that is you have absolutely summed up what I took away from this book. I want to wrap up by asking the question, I Ask all of my people on the show, which are almost always designers. And the question is why does style matter? style to me is not just about choosing decor, it's about what you choose to bring into your home and live with. And like I just said, kind of who you who you want to become. And so for you as a writer, as someone who is not a designer, but who has now really spent so much time thinking about home. What have you gotten out of this long, deep exploration and attention that you've paid to the concept of home? How would you answer the question, why does style matter? Or maybe just why does home matter? Mm hmm.
Erica Bauermeister 29:43
You know, I love the idea of stepping back and looking at style and home from a really a much broader perspective. So when I was a real estate agent, you know, I would have clients come in and they would say, Okay, I need three bedroom side shoot two bathrooms and blah, blah, blah. You know, they list off. Yeah, logistics, right practical things and it's okay. Well, let's slow down. How do you want to live? Like, what what aspects of your life? Do you want to nurture? Do you want to bring forward? Do you want to be more creative? Do you want to be more social? How do you use? How do you want to use the space because you might not need three bedrooms, you know, you might, you know, room sometimes can be used for a double purpose. But what's important, you know, is that is that we think about who we want to be. And so there's this wonderful quote by Winston Churchill, which is we shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us. And I would add to that we get to shape them again to if we want, but it's kind of this dance, right? You're a partner with your house. And the best dancing partners pay attention to each other. And they take advantage of their strengths and they find workarounds for their further weaknesses. And I think if we can step back and look at our houses and say, okay, I really want a living room where people gather, and it's just not happening. Why isn't it happening? And you know, or I just don't like spending time in my living. Yeah. Why is that, Brian? And if you can step back and say, Okay, well, how do I make it comfortable? I've got a kid who's in you know, say you've got that introspective kid, but you don't have the money to add a window seat and maybe it wouldn't look right in your house anyway. Well, you can just have a comfortable chair that's kind of their chair and put it in a corner. Not you know, like a timeout corner, but a corner that feels included, but safe. And you're going to find that kids starting to come into that room again, because they're there and maybe you don't have a fireplace. We have puzzles, it's cause it's the same thing. It causes people to gather and stay in one place. And my in my, you know, living room table isn't big enough to hold a puzzle. So I've got a big piece of plywood with her on it, when we're not doing a puzzle that goes underneath the couch. But you know, it's that idea of what do I want to Use this room for and how can this room help me do that? Because you don't, you know, we did an entire renovation, that's an incredible luxury to be able to do that. And yet, if you take the principles, the architectural principles that we use to do this house, you can apply them to an apartment, you know, that you're never going to know that you'll live in for two years, you can still, you know, you can do things like create flow in your house from room to room by thinking of each room as a chapter in a story and making sure that the color of one room leads you to the next so that you would naturally go to the next space. You know, it's it's little tricks like that, but they're not that hard. So you can do it on any level. You can do it from the maximum full renovation right down to let's get a half a gallon of paint and I can fix that problem.
Zandra Zuraw 32:53
Right, right. Well, and everything you're talking about is shift in mindset. It's not about Oh, gotta buy a different house, you gotta move this house isn't good enough, this neighborhood is not good enough that whatever. You know, I think a lot of times when we're frustrated with our, with our lives and how we are living them in our homes, we feel like we got to trash what we have and move somewhere else. And and sometimes maybe that is required. But oftentimes it's it's it's a mindset shift about how you're using it and therefore what you're surrounding yourself with. So that was so wonderfully put. Thank you.
Erica Bauermeister 33:28
Well, my dad had a phrase that he always said, which is you have to have a reason to go and a reason to leave. And those are two different things. And I think that when you're thinking about changing your house, and I would do this with my real estate clients, I would say okay, what do you need differently? And they'd say, Okay, I need a better kitchen. I said, Okay, well, what if we just put the $50,000 you're going to lose by selling your house? You know, two costs. Why don't we put that into changing your kitchen? They go, Oh, so I was really not a great No. Did you? I was not very cutthroat that way. But you know, I do think that Less we know why we're going, why we're leaving, you know, we can have this thing we're going toward, but unless we've articulated what it is that's that's missing in the situation that we have. We're just going to be flying blind. And so taking that time to step back and really think about how do I want to live in my house? And is there a way that I can make this house work better? And if not, yeah, there are other houses out there. But then you'll know when you're looking for that other house, and you recognize that you're going to know the needs that it's meeting. And that's a very satisfying feeling.
Zandra Zuraw 34:35
Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for writing this beautiful book and all of your fiction books. Are you working on a new novel
Erica Bauermeister 34:43
now? I am, I'm back to novels again.
Zandra Zuraw 34:46
Well, congratulations on this book and all of them and I cannot wait to dig into your new novel when it comes out. Thank you so much for your time, Erica. Oh, thank you.
Erica Bauermeister 34:57
Thank you, Zandra, I appreciate it.