By Lorin Drinkard
In 2003, newlyweds Alex and Wendy Santantonio took the plunge and purchased an 1880s fixer-upper row house in Old Town Alexandria. Their blog, Old Town Home tracks the couple’s DIY adventures and various home improvement projects as they have transformed their “undecorated, lifeless bachelor pad,” into the Alexandria row house it is today. We caught up with the Santantonios and asked them to dish about their favorite projects and design tips in the interview below.
Wendy and Alex, thanks so much for agreeing to share about your home redesign experiences with our readers! Did you have any idea what y’all were getting yourselves into when you bought your 1880s row house back in 2003?
(W) Definitely not. The house looked like an undecorated, lifeless bachelor pad when we purchased it. We knew there were many, many projects ahead of us, but had no idea how long it would take or how personal the restoration and renovation would become. The longer we live in our home, the more we feel it’s our responsibility to restore and preserve this piece of history for future generations.
Did either of you have any trained experience before taking on this project?
(A) We had some experience to build on. I spent time working at a window restoration shop and for a general contractor during summer breaks in college. Though I was a true grunt at the window shop, I learned a ton while working for the general contractor …Wendy and I also had a lot of experience painting. My parents hired us to paint their office building on summer breaks as well.
It’s been a little over 8.5 years since you began your Old Town Home restoration. What has been the best part about the whole process? And the worst?
(A) For me the best part is the sense of accomplishment and pride I feel in restoring an historical piece of our nation’s fabric. I also love the ability to take a step back at the end of a project that has turned out pretty nice and say “Wow, look at that. We did that!” The worst parts are the unexpected roadblocks and the projects that don’t turn out the way we intended. We’re amateurs after all, so every project is a learning experience …
(W) I agree completely!
And how do you find the time to juggle both having careers and working on your home?
(W) My day job is in marketing for a global trade association. And though I’m not a formally trained decorator, I do offer hourly design consultation in my spare time.
(A) I’m a software developer by day and DIY renovator/blogger by night. Juggling both roles is probably the hardest part of our whole adventure … but it all comes down to budgeting the time we have by balancing work, renovations, blogging, and life. I think we could probably be done with our renovation by now if it was all we worked on, but we’d be so burnt out that we couldn’t appreciate what we’ve accomplished. So instead we take our time, try to appreciate the life and home we’ve created, and work our hardest to make sure we’re doing the best job possible.
On your website, you mention that your home was a “‘working class’ Victorian in the historic district of Old Town, Alexandria, [and] was built circa 1886.” Or thereabouts. Due to your home’s vintage condition, have you found there are aspects to redesigning and improving it that are more challenging than say, a home built in the last 25 years or so? If so, like what?
(A) There are two primary aspects that make the work we do more challenging, but both are well worth it for the home we have. The first is the requirement to run any significant exterior or structural alterations through the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review (BAR). The BAR reviews proposed alterations for period appropriateness within the historic district. The review process can be intimidating since you are asking for permission from others to make changes to your house (we don’t have an HOA of any sort), but as long as you do your research and proper prep work, and the changes you are proposing are reasonable, there typically isn’t an issue. The second aspect that adds a layer of difficulty is the unexpected finds we’ve uncovered during projects. These are often due to the many prior renovations that have taken place in our home, and range from unsafe wiring hidden within walls to structural elements that were hacked apart by plumbers 100 years ago.
You also mention your mother had a horrified look on her face when she first visited your home back in the day. What are your family’s thoughts on the progress the Old Town Home has made over the years? Have they changed their mind about your townhome purchase?
(W) (laughs) I see you’ve done your homework! Over the years and with more and more completed projects, I have to say we’ve convinced my parents that purchasing our fixer upper was a good decision. They’re very interested in the work we’re doing and are very proud of us. I don’t think they understand why it’s taking so long, though.
Your blog, Old Town Home, is a chronicle of the “adventures and disasters” of your home restoration. What have been a few of your favorite adventures? And some of your worst disasters?
(W) As far as adventures go, I never thought I would spend my Christmas holiday walking around a landfill, or live through hurricane Isabel stripping a cabinet in our basement, hoping the power would stay on! By far the worst disaster was discovering massive structural damage to the back of our house, thanks to water and termites. We spent a large portion of our savings hiring a contractor to correct the issue, but the end result was a much more open kitchen and sun porch layout.
(A) I think my worst disaster experience was the day I finished taking a shower and walked out of the bathroom to the sound of dripping water downstairs. It seems a main waste line clogged with vines will cause a backup that will force gallons of water out of cracks in unsupported cast iron plumbing and into a ceiling cavity beneath the bathroom. That was the last time we used that shower, and it only took us about two years to replace it with a beautiful and functional guest bathroom. Ugh.
Y’all have done everything from glazing windows to removing lead paint. Is there any area of home improvement you’ve yet to tackle? What are some of the remaining projects you have lined up for 2012 (and the years to follow)?
(W) After we complete the vestibule, we’ll be renovating our master bathroom. This project, along with building custom storm windows will likely take us through the end of 2012. After that, we’ll move on to our kitchen and eventually one day renovate our basement. I have dreams of an intimate wine tasting room down there … but we have a long way to go.
(A) I can’t think of anything we haven’t attempted in some capacity. Maybe digging out the basement? I used to be very intimidated by so many projects, but the more we learned, and the few things we hire out, I’m convinced we can do anything ourselves. Sometimes we just need to ask for a little help from our friend, like when moving a 400-plus-pound cast iron bathtub we purchased off of eBay.
Wendy, you have a great blog post about your design philosophy – one unique item in every room. Is this a philosophy you’ve applied in regards to restoring the townhome as well? How have y’all preserved the uniqueness of your home throughout the process?
(W) Yes, this is a design philosophy I live by, when designing my home as well as clients’ homes. Back in the day, our apartment looked like it came right out of the pages of a catalog – totally cookie cutter. Once we purchased our home, I knew I wanted to incorporate unique items in each room that are one-of-a-kind. These items, combined with original architectural details of our 1880s home, make it more interesting in my opinion.
What kind of feedback have y’all received from Alexandria residents and beyond [including in the online/blog community]?
(A) Overwhelmingly positive. Friends, neighbors, family, strangers – so many people have such nice things to say about the work we’re sharing. It is refreshing to share such a major part of our life and have it be so well received. I know it may sound corny, but working on the blog is really putting our blood, sweat, and tears out there for everyone to be critical of. The fact that our work has been met with such a positive response feels great and really reaffirms exactly why we’re doing the things we’re doing.
For tools, supplies and other home décor items, do you have any local Alexandria/Northern Virginia stores where you like to shop?
(W) In Old Town specifically, we frequent Random Harvest, Red Barn Mercantile, Walker Home and Old Town Hardware on a regular basis. I also love shopping for antiques and second hand items in Lucketts, Virginia.