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Designing with Victorian Warmth and Scale... on a budget

Updated on September 13, 2014

Victorian Era Dilemma

When I took on the designing of a Victorian era home in Stewart County, Georgia, I found myself in quite a shock to discover that much of the house was in it's original condition. I will post other articles about the unique challenges often faced when remodeling or repairing historic edifices, but for this article, I'd like to illustrate the scale and design of Victorian era homes, and how we addressed a unique challenge in this one on a shoe-string budget.

When we arrived at the dining room in this lovely home, we discovered that the former owner opted not to use modern heat and air and had given to the use of an attic fan and box fans in the summer, and to burning wood in the fireplaces in the winter. Seeing as how there was a fireplace in each room and they were all in functioning condition, we decided to make this one a focal point. Unfortunately, when the carpet was put down, a light coat of some kind of "tar" was applied beneath it, which near about made getting the rug up impossible, and it made refinishing the floor a ridiculous feat. We had to use chemicals to remove it, and it burned the wood, making it reluctant to receive stain. The good thing is, that beneath all the rubbish in the photo, and a carpet that had been practically glued to the floor, there was a two inch thick Mahogany floor that we could rescue and keep.

Later there will be an article on rescuing those old floors once they have been burned by chemicals. For now, we're going to focus on the design of this old dining room.

Introducing the Elephant in the Room

When redesigning a historic home, attempting to stay true to the era on a budget and making it a comfortable space in our time, let's face it, there are going to be unique challenges and you just have to deal with it. This room had wood slats for walls, sixteen foot tall ceilings and was built like a barn. After much deliberation, we decided to keep the scale and grandeur of the room and make this a real formal dining room that a house of this age deserves. We used a "Wine" colored satin paint on the walls to "bring the space in" and "warm it up", and refinished all the molding so that the dark mahogany finish blended with the doors and the floor. We then began working on a way to use the fireplace to restore the grandeur of the room. The decision was made to create a "faux" stone chimney and install a brass chandelier. The elderly lady who had the house before was a victim of debilitating Osteoporosis, and had only single bulbs with pull chains hanging from the ceilings, at about eye level. This made it very difficult to see in these large rooms and so naturally lighting would have to be addressed first.

We then began working on the area between the two doors, to create our faux chimney. Using sheet rock mud, we spread a thick layer of mud, making sure to cut and jut the mud in places, or pat it with a natural sea sponge to make it look more rocky. Once we had a 4'x4' square done, we could simply take a finger, and outline what we thought the rocks would be shaped like. We continued to do this until we had filled in the entire area between the two doors as shown below.

Wall Paper Solutions

At the top of this room, there was a small strip of hard wood molding that separated the top two feet of the wall from the hard wood crown molding at the top of the wall. We were unsure why that was there, but decided to capitalize on it. After refinishing the moldings in dark mahogany to match the rest of the room, we looked at wall paper. Wall Paper was heavily used back in the later 1800's so we elected to get some patterned wall paper and apply it to that top section. (For the purpose of the photos you may see it spread over the table later like a table cloth.) We found a pattern that had Victorian era angels on it. Unfortunately, to get the paper at a real bargain, we had to purchase some that had the angels printed in the wrong direction, but we just cut it long ways to make sure the angels were all upright.

Hanging Light and Painting Rocks.

We hung the chandelier quickly to give us plenty of light to paint by, but did not take the single bulb down right away. This house was still on fuses when we did this upgrade and the electrical had not been reworked yet. Once we had adequate lighting, we assembled some paint. We used an assortment of browns, for the shading, but for the base coat, we rolled on a satin coat of Behr paint, in the color "Khaki", making sure not to let the roller sink into the cracks. We wanted those to remain white. This was the base coat for our rocks.

Then using 4 quarts of different browns, as dark as "Espresso", as light as "Desert Sand" and in between with two plain browns, one redder than the other, we used a natural sea sponge to dab light and dark places on the rocks. If the paint seemed heavy, we used a damp terry cloth towel to blend it in and pull off the heavier shades. We tried to consider the lighting and put the dark espresso color to the bottom left of the rocks, and then get lighter as we worked our way up and to the right of each rock. Once we were finished, we took an assortment of cheap art brushes and dabbed a few spatters of espresso here and there to make them look more like rocks, then outlined a few of the left edges to give them definition. We also used some white paint to make sure all the cracks remained white. It was literally impossible to do all that sponging and not get anything in the cracks so in the end, it was best just to apply flat white paint to the cracks,

With the painting complete, it was time to make sure this feature lasts a long time. We put a coat of "no-gloss" lacquer over it. Polyurethane would have yellowed the rock surface, but Lacquer typically remains true to the paint color.

When finished, what we had was a grand room, with gorgeous lighting, a cozy warm feel and one heck of a focal point! And we did it for very little expense, staying true to the budget and to the era of the home.


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