Taking a hands-on approach

Mom tackles renovating Illinois home by herself


Kathryn McBride visited the emergency room only once during the three-plus years she single-handedly rehabbed her Queen Anne Victorian home in southwest suburban Brookfield, Ill. And that was because when she was spraying the marble tile in an upstairs bathroom, she ignored the instructions to use the product in a well-ventilated space. Not able to breathe, she ended up in the emergency room.

No falls from ladders, no broken bones, no gashes from sharp-edged tools - all those hazards women think will happen to them if they dared this on their own.

Not bad, as "for the most part I did most of it myself, except for work that needed plumbers and electricians," says the first-time DIYer. "One of my brothers helped me put up light fixtures, but that's about it." She taught herself to use power tools - "table saws, miter saws. Every kind of jigsaw. Anything you can imagine," she says.

She stripped and sanded and stained all her kitchen cabinets, put in the granite tile countertops, took down and rebuilt walls, put up paneling, put down floors, redid a 1960s psychedelic bathroom, and designed and created stained glass for cabinet doors and windows.

Today the turreted two-story 12-room house with 10-foot ceilings dating to at least 1895 is a lovely and warm gem. The finished interior could be the pride of any interior decorator. She achieved a look that quietly evokes the era of the house, but is warm, comfortable and very livable by today's standards, lacking the clutter and stiff formality of the original.

That is in contrast to the condition it was in when she bought it. (Her property covers three lots and includes a two-bedroom coach house, a rental, in the back.) The kitchen and bathrooms were functional but outdated. There were myriad layers of old wallpaper and paint requiring months of fierce attack to remove.

Many other single mothers can relate to McBride's concern she might not have adequate funds for her daughter Tori's college tuition when the time came. This was why McBride took on what she calls her "second job." She would work all day as a graphic artist, and when she was up in the middle of the night painting, she kept herself going with the inner mantra: "It's for college, it's for college."

"I felt overwhelmed some of the time," she admits. "If I got it done now, I would have done a better job, because I'd have the experience. The hardest part in doing things yourself was holding things like crown molding and nailing it up yourself." That was until she discovered the adhesive product Liquid Nails and bought a nail gun.

Another thing that kept her going: She tacked up pictures from magazines of how she envisioned each room "so I knew where I was going and what I wanted to have done."

She took on the dining room first. Here she found the walls were done with plastered-over chicken wire, a technique used in the 1940s. That came out, and so did the curved steel beams used for the archway to the living room so she could square off the arch. The living room is circular, thanks to the turret. At one end is the original fireplace that McBride didn't want to rip out, so she reclaimed it with porcelain paint. "I think it is important to keep original elements for whoever comes after me," she says.

The entryway of the home now contains floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the staircase to the second floor. For a window on the landing, McBride made stained glass with the theme of a Maltese cross, an emblem used by the medieval Knights of Malta, a cross whose arms look like arrowheads pointing inward. Each point, she says, represents a different quality of a knight - such as loyalty, generosity, reverence for God.

In the updated kitchen, a large Tiffany-style lamp McBride bought is the central focus. She created a matching stained-glass piece to go across the top of the kitchen window. She modernized the kitchen with a stainless-steel refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave, but kept a large commercial stove and oven from the 1950s. She stained the kitchen cabinets a dark mahogany.

On the second floor, her blue and white master bedroom is a serene and personal nest in the turret. She furnished it with the first new bedroom set she's ever bought, a four-poster dark mahogany bed and carved dresser.

Her daughter's bedroom is furnished with bunk beds and huge stripes on the wall, but typical of a teenager, the decor is always in flux. A third bedroom, office and bathroom with a whirlpool tub complete the second floor.

"Now with the equity that this work has brought me, thanks to the growth in housing market prices in addition to my home improvements, I am hopeful that my daughter will be able to attend any college that she would like," says McBride. "It has truly been a blessing, giving us a home we love now, and assuring a bright future for Tori. She can either use the equity in the house or sell it to pay for tuition. I don't know what the future holds, but one way or another, she can go to school."

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