Back to the '20s

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for eight years. She can be reached at KathyPrice@aol.com

You can't blame Kirk Sayala for his orderly life.

When Sayala's wife, Wendy, once asked, "Who was the super-organized one in your family, your mom or your dad?" he replied, "Both." Later he would say, "I never had a chance."

Kirk's penchant for planning and his engineer-like thoroughness were splendid attributes when he decided to buy a home and, a few years later, to remodel it.

The house project started in 1991, more than two years before Kirk, a sales manager for a mirror company, and Wendy, an independent rep for a home furnishings company, were planning to marry.

"I'm looking five or six years down the line," he told his real estate agent, explaining that he wanted something modest for himself, a fixer-upper even, in the Long Beach area that he could restore and add onto as his family grew.

At first he looked at small California cottages and thought: Is there space in the yard for adding on? Could I add a second story?

Finally an agent suggested he buy a duplex, live in one half, rent the other, and then convert the whole thing into a single-family home when the time came.

"That started percolating" in his mind, he said, until he found the perfect specimen in a quiet Belmont Heights neighborhood of large trees and classic tile-roofed two-story stucco duplexes that were built in the 1920s.

Though the neighborhood has a well-groomed look, this particular duplex had always been a rental and had been neglected.

The tired look of the place prompted a few comments. Kirk's dad said it looked like a motorcycle mechanic's shop. A friend said: "I applaud you your vision, but I just can't see it."

No matter. "It was certainly fine for me," said Kirk, who moved into the 1,200-square-foot top unit and began planning the remodel of the downstairs, which had an identical floor plan of living room, dining room, kitchen to the left and two bedrooms and a bathroom on the right.

Full of Antiques

In his vision, the downstairs would one day be full of antiques, which he started collecting and storing in the garage. And the downstairs kitchen, which had been dismally remodeled during the 1970s, would be restored to a 1920s charm in either Craftsman or Spanish style with blue and yellow accents.

"There was definitely a long-term plan," Wendy said. "The idea was to restore it and make it look original." The planning, purchasing and hoarding continued until the Sayalas were married in 1993, two years to the day after escrow had closed on the duplex, and Wendy moved in with her daughter, Megan, now 9.

A year after the wedding, the downstairs tenant moved out, Wendy found out she was pregnant and the couple decided to start on the renovation.

One of the most noticeable improvements was painting the home's dour mustard-yellow exterior. Once the new white paint went on, Kirk recalled, "I literally had neighbors coming over and saying, 'Thank you. Thank you.' "

Accolades continued when he "literally ripped everything out" of the frontyard and redid the landscaping. "There wasn't much to rip out," Wendy said dryly, recalling "rock-hard dirt, a couple of ugly plants and dead grass."

Inside, the improvements came at a slower pace, especially the task Kirk took on: stripping "layer after layer after layer" of paint off the generous moldings, which were intact.

"I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on them, maybe thousands," he said, estimating that it took at least 40 hours of labor per doorway. To refinish the original oak floors, he hired professionals.

The biggest plans were for the narrow kitchen with its dropped ceiling, fluorescent lights, linoleum floor tiles, aluminum windows and plain cabinets. "It was a classic 1970s kitchen," Wendy said.

For the growing family, enlarging the kitchen was critical.

Kirk's plan was to remove the bank of appliances and cupboards on one side the kitchen, cut through a wall and appropriate a large walk-in closet of an adjacent bedroom. That space would became the kitchen's new walk-in pantry.

For new closet space in the bedroom, which would become Megan's room, the couple installed one of the magnificent antique armoires they had collected.

Other details of the kitchen included yellow and blue tiles around doorways, pine cabinets, wood windows, white tile counters and back splash and rugged Mexican tiles on the floor. "So we don't have to freak out about it getting destroyed," Wendy explained.

Kirk planned the kitchen thoroughly for two reasons: First, it's his nature, and second, he heard that making changes during construction drives up the cost of remodeling, and he wanted to avoid that.

Rough plans in hand, he approached several kitchen shops for assistance in determining the proper heights and standards, making the cabinets and installing the new kitchen.

But in shop after shop, he got no respect for his own vision. "The attitude was: We'll tell you what to do. They had a formula for kitchens: A, B, C."

But that didn't sit well with Kirk. "I generally don't want anyone to tell me what to do."

Eventually he called on the Kitchen Studio in the Naples area of Long Beach, where he found people who "were really receptive. They wanted to work with my plans." Through them, he found Golden Eagle Construction and contracted with the company for the $70,000 remodel.

Once the construction started, the family retreated upstairs, letting the workers saw and pound during the day while the family was at work and school. The idea was to have minimal disruption of family life. "It was perfect," Kirk said. "We didn't have to deal with it."

The downstairs remodel also included rescuing the bathroom from its 1970s remodel and infusing it with 1920s elegance. That was accomplished by hanging an Art Deco lamp, installing a pedestal sink and laying pink and black tiles on the floor, halfway up the wall and in and around the arched bathtub cove.

Though the bathtub cove came out beautifully, it was difficult for the contractor to even understand what Kirk wanted. Finally he got it: "Oh, I know what you're talking about. We've taken out dozens of those but never put one in."

Later Kirk overheard the tile workers, who had trouble cutting the tiles for the curved part of the cove, swearing, "We'll never do another one of these and if we do, they'll pay through the nose."

He just chuckled: "I always wanted a coved bathtub."

The downstairs remodel was complete and the family moved in in October 1994, just two weeks before the couple's son Kyle was born. "It would have been a nightmare if he'd been early," Wendy said.

With the family settled into the "new" downstairs, the remodeling crew moved to the top unit to turn the kitchen into a large master bathroom with a 5-by-8-foot open shower that always catches the eye of Kirk's buddies. "Wow, it's like being at the gym or something," one said.

Connecting Stairway

Otherwise, the top unit has been left as it was, with a portion of a wall removed to let the interior spiral stairway connect the upstairs with the down. Upstairs, the couple uses the living room--with its arched picture window overlooking the neighborhood--as the master bedroom and the dining room as Kirk's home gym. In the top bedrooms are Kyle, now 3, and his new brother Gregory, 1.

Even though the house looks complete, Kirk said there are still tasks to be done, like refinishing the risers on the stairway and redoing the backyard patio.

"I can't imagine anyone with an older house not making it a continual project," he said.

But the rest of the work will have to wait; other priorities have taken over.

"I haven't gotten much done," Kirk said, "since the boys were born."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°