Our house had pretty humble beginnings that did not include a designated dining room. The layout on the main level was very, very simple – just three rooms in total. The house did not have indoor plumbing when it was built in 1885, and the kitchen in the rear room was still very simple and unimproved when we bought the house in 2000. It held a cast iron sink with a drainboard, and not much else.
With this small a footprint, the rooms had to serve multiple purposes – living and sleeping and eating. Eventually indoor plumbing was added to the house – and a very tiny full bath was installed in the corner of the middle room on each floor. The fixtures were cast iron, and very old. Nothing in the house, save the trim and mantels and floor, was salvageable. The floor was questionable.
We set out to create a family home here, and connected the first and second floors, and then up to the unfinished attic that had been exposed to the elements for decades. We were able to create some really beautiful and functional spaces in many of the rooms – designing them and building them over the course of the last 23 years. The sacrificial space has been the dining room – an awkward shape that we inherited – necessary for installing modern plumbing that we all enjoy on a daily basis (showers and toilets are great!) and also necessary for connecting the house in a way that doesn’t involve going outside again from floor to floor. Particularly great on days like today when it’s a sunny and humid ninety degrees outside and we have a tornado watch in effect until 10pm. Again, no complaints there. Toilets and stairs are our friends.
We love stairs so much that we decided to add a third one to connect the basement to the house for the first time – particularly in severe weather (see note above). So now we have even less floor space in this room – although the hole sits directly under the stair above, which wasn’t really very useable space. We did shrink the footprint of the full bath that sits in the corner of the dining room as much as possible, while still positioning the wall with the main plumbing stacks and vents from attic to basement. The resulting space is a pretty little half bath. Do I love that it’s right in the dining room? No. But it’s also used ALL the time, and is super functional for our family.
The resulting room just doesn’t scream “dining room”. It has no beautiful features – no symmetry, no historic features, no immediately apparent zone for a gracious table, some chairs, a pretty light fixture – let alone a credenza or hutch or whatever else you might find in a dining space. Does a house need a formal dining room? Not at all. But our house also doesn’t really have an eat-in kitchen either. We’ve had a table in there for awhile, but it’s also tiny, and awkward and in the way. So our dining room really needs to be our primary eating space, and it is actually an important space. Our family loves to eat. We love to cook, we prioritize eating together, we eat mostly at home, and sitting down around a table would likely rank at or near the top of objectives for this house. Which is why the lack of a functional (first) and beautiful (a very close second) room for this activity has been this nagging annoyance positioned squarely in the heart of our home. I have endless sketches and notes on this room – it’s something that I’m constantly thinking about, and one of the things I’m most excited to “solve” with this project. The kitchen is an exciting component of this final big renovation project, but the dining room is more challenging and just as important to me.
Initially it was a fine little dining room. We had a small table and chairs in the center of the room, but with the half bath and landing in the back portion of the room, the table location was actually right past the opening to the living room. So we were always walking around the table, and it was an easy place to dump things. Eventually we just shoved the table to the left to get it out of the way, and then it just looked sad with a bare bulb above it. But now that we have a new stair to the basement, we can’t have a table in this location at all – it’s just not wide enough to move around.
The other thing about this room is that it’s very dark. There’s one window, but our neighbor’s three-story house is just 7′ from ours, so this is the darkest room in the house. We initially painted it a very deep eggplant color (it was 2000, so that was sort of “in”), but almost immediately repainted it, and this taupe color wasn’t anything special. It’s now a very light gray, almost white, and we just walk through here and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Three additional things to note: 1. the stair design will be getting a major uplift as well – at the tail end of this project. It will tie together all four floors with one cohesive design. And no more black. 2. The original pine floors are absolutely shot in here. They cannot be refinished, and there is no subfloor. So we’re replacing all of the floors on the main level with a lighter colored, period appropriate herringbone flooring. That should seriously lighten things up.
And 3. the opening above replaced a former small door between the front and middle rooms. We widened it, but should have also installed that header much higher – in line with the existing transoms in the kitchen and living room exterior walls, and the existing windows everywhere on this floor. So we’ll be raising the two openings in this room during constructions and installing interior transoms to bounce some more light from the north and south into this room. (If you look at the photo below, the opening to the living room will be the same height but the top of the overall opening will be in line with the window – so the top window casing and corner rosettes will be the same height. The difference between the two will be a glass transom.)
Here’s the room as of yesterday: it’s our temporary kitchen – the fridge will move into that gap where the boxes are, and we’ll use our half bath sink for a bit. Spending so much time in here as we’ve set up this temporary kitchen has really set my wheels turning, and I’ve been revisiting a lot of old ideas in my head. And friends – I think we have it!
Here’s an axon of the first floor house from the model I’m constantly playing in. Just imagine that I’ve lifted the top floors off and you are looking inside at the first floor. I don’t have the stair fully modeled and I’m saving that design reveal for later anyway, so you can just see the stair to the second floor and no railings. Just imagine the hole to the basement is just below it. This really helps to explain what an oddball space this is, and why it’s been tricky to think about the design in here. The lone window was centered in this room – but not with the bathroom there. The stair occupies a lot of space, and turns and runs to the kitchen doorway. Our floor to floor height is almost 12′-0″, so that’s a lot of stair treads and risers. We had to use a winder (the triangular tread) at the landing to make it work. I realize the kitchen looks like it would hold a decent table in there – but trust me, it’s not that wide a room, and you’d constantly just be navigating around it. I’m actually very excited to have all this open space in there – anything else we do in the middle in there will be slim, and moveable.
Anyway, back to the dining room – we’ve known that we’ll need to place the dining table in that inset niche, and we also decided awhile ago to build in banquette seating. But now we’ve actually found what we want to use, and modeled it, and in my mind, it’s just absolutely perfect for the space that we have.
I found the perfect banquette solution for this area in West Elm’s commercial line. Similar to the configuration below, but ours would have a third straight piece that stretches between the two curves. I modeled a pretty simplistic version of it in the model above, but I think you can picture it.
I ordered lots of different samples, but think I’m close on narrowing it down. The seating curves, but the corner pieces are actually square at the back and so it will be really easy to make these look built-in.
Creating this banquette here feels so much better than just placing a table in this same location – finally, this little niche starts to make sense! And the size and shape of it lends itself perfectly to the addition of the two signature collector’s pieces I’ve literally had taped into my sketchbook for over two decades now – the Saarinen Tulip Table, and a pair of Cherner Armchairs.
And just today, I went back to this old post on the evolution of our dining room I wrote in 2013 – and THERE WAS MY ORIGINAL INSPIRATION PHOTO!
THE ONE from my sketchbook all those years ago. Let’s do this!!
We’ll balance out the window with new bookshelves with similar detailing as in the living room. Cookbooks and other books, but also tons of vases, cake stands, artwork, dishes, family photos, etc.
The 72″ oval tulip table seats six – but I love that this still looks like it would be so comfortable to sit at alone or with another person or two. (I’m also laughing that I don’t have a door modeled in the bathroom! I promise – the toilet is not the featured item on display here! Just trying to capture a view from the stair that’s not crazy distorted.) For years I tried to make it work for more people to eat in here, but six is just fine. If we want to entertain more, we need to do that in season in the back garden – or set up a second table in the kitchen. No big deal. This house was never built for entertaining large crowds. So let’s get cozy, and read a great book over a late breakfast. You know I love it.
Here’s an axon view looking the other direction – a few things that I’m still not showing in this view – the opening and stair to the basement, the new railing design, and the integral credenza along the guardrail at the hole to the basement. It will play off the seating area across the way, but still allow for easy passage through this room – from the front of the house to the back. I’m so excited for the views from anywhere on this floor now.
And if you look closely at that view above, there’s a rectangular line on the west wall under the stair – we can actually put our projector in here and project the occasional movie or sporting event while sitting at the table. We’ve never had a TV on this floor, but it would be fun to sit in the booth and watch a Friday night flick over dinner.
The last fun piece will be the light fixture over the table. There are several spectacular options I’ve had my eyes on for years. But I’m super drawn to the Flos Skygarden pendant in matte black. (Our already purchased lights for the new kitchen are also Flos fixtures.) The inside is white cast plaster with a floral design – which is like flipping the script on an ornate plaster design at the ceiling where an original fixture might have hung in a fancier Second Empire House built in 1885. A modern inside joke. I love it.
That’s all. Wordy as promised. More dirt updates from the backyard soon – I promise. It’s been quite a summer.