Tuesday, August 24, 2021

That Old House #SheilaConnolly @mysterydenizen

LUCY BURDETTE: I am so happy to introduce you to today's guest, Julie Williams. She is the daughter of our much-missed old friend Sheila Connolly, and she had the bittersweet task of finishing Sheila's last book, THE SECRET STAIRCASE. Welcome Julie!


JULIE WILLIAMS: I grew up in an old house. My parents bought a three-story Victorian from the 1890s in a suburb of Philadelphia when I was a toddler, and there we lived until I was 18 — at which point they moved into a three-story Victorian from the 1880s in a far exurb of Boston. The first place was a real fixer-upper, but my parents were very handy people (a trait I sadly did not inherit), perfectly capable of learning the basics of electrical wiring, caning chairs, hanging wallpaper, repairing insulation, and a bevy of other home repair tasks, from books and endless episodes of “This Old House.” Norm Abram and Bob Vila were our household saints. To be honest, I found the show deathly boring as a child, but I've lately come to appreciate all the answers and helpful advice it offered. In a confusing and tumultuous world, I truly do want to learn the best ways to weatherproof an attic. (Not that I have an attic. But if I did — it would be so weatherproof.)


My mother's taste ran toward the Victorian inside the house as well as outside. Velvet drapes, uncomfortable antique couches, elaborate lamps, and loud floral wallpaper? Yes, yes, yes, and check, please! She decorated our home in a style you don't see much anymore, and I loved this about her — she could follow an idea through in all its details, so that the whole room hung together. Here she is in the front parlor of our house, sometime in the late 1990s:



(Notice how the wastebin is covered in extra wallpaper? Now that's what I call attention to detail.)


I looked up our old house on one of the big real estate websites recently. It's not currently on the market, but there are a dozen photos from the last time it was, about five years ago. I don't know if the look of the interior reflects the recent owner's aesthetic or that of a realtor who staged the place, but hoo boy, is it ever not my mother's taste. Most of the walls are painted a bright, modern white — unless they're painted a muted, modern slate grey; there's a breakfast bar with stools in the dine-in kitchen; and in the main bedroom, front and center, sits a utilitarian brushed-aluminum bedframe. It's all quite, as my mother would pronounce, "mod-rin." (At least they left the stained glass window panels on all three floors — those simple pops of color apparently remain charming even to the most contemporary of eyes.)





But then again, clean and spare is the look now! Many people like to gaze around a room and not see so much — how can I put this? — complication, so much visual detail. Encountering such a stark decorative difference reminded me of this photo I took a few years back in a neighborhood in Chicago, where I live now:





I posted it on facebook with the simple caption "Strange Bedfellows," assuming everyone I knew would agree that the house on the left, a simple and handsome worker cottage built in the late 19th or early 20th century, was far superior in style and feeling to that boxy behemoth on the right, built circa 2015, occupying the corner lot (to the exclusion of any lawn whatsoever) next door. A friend, perhaps not catching my drift, replied, "I love the place on the right! Watched it going up a few years ago." Which stopped me in my tracks! I had to cock my head, let go momentarily my bias toward the old and the decorative, and consider the charms of contemporary shapes and shades. I'll bet whoever lives in the house on the right really likes it. (At least I hope they do — it must have cost a pretty penny.)




(Here's another case of "strange bedfellows" in Chicago — a common sight these days!)



In The Secret Staircase, Kate Hamilton embarks on an ambitious project to save her hometown of Asheboro, Maryland by turning it into a "Victorian Village" historical tourist destination, beginning with the stately manse of Henry Barton, a 19th-century manufacturing magnate. Because Barton's house has sat untouched (aside from basic maintenance) for the last 100 years, Kate has a decision to make: to update or not to update? The house has all the wonderful charms of Victoriana — elegant velvet furniture, dark wood, stately proportions; and all the drawbacks of it — impossible to heat, a bear to dust, and fussy in every detail. Kate wants to fix up the house's large kitchen so as to make it functional for events, but not at the expense of its character and educational value as a remnant of another time. Oh, and then the contractor finds a hundred-year-old body behind the kitchen wall, and... Well, things get complicated from there.


I had the honor of finishing the book's edits to move it into its final form for publication, after my mother died last spring, and as I worked on it, I thought of our old houses — both of them, in different stages of life, in different states. I felt a new appreciation for all the work my mother and father put into those houses, over many years. I thought fondly of my mother's abiding love for Victorian houses: their grand proportions, their practical peccadilloes, and their old-fashioned, fussy charm.





What about you? Do you love old houses — all that dark wood, and luscious fabrics in saturated shades? Or do you gravitate more toward simple elegance — the spare, Scandinavian look? Or somewhere between, or outside of these styles entirely? Inquiring minds want to know. And does anyone still watch “This Old House”?





Link to book at publisher 

Link to book on Amazon 


Find Julie: 

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IG: https://www.instagram.com/mysterydenizen/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mysterydenizen


49 comments:

  1. Julie, I’m so sorry for your loss . . . it must have been difficult to finish your mom’s book, but it sounds like an amazing story.

    This is so interesting . . . I really like old houses much more than the modern styles, but I hadn’t ever really thought it through the way that you’ve explained it . . . .

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    1. Thank you, Joan. It was interesting to have to really stare at that picture and try to figure out what I was responding to, positive and negative... Honestly, I'd like to see the inside of both the cottage and the giant cube!

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  2. Welcome to the Jungle Reds, Julie! I far prefer old houses and have lived in a half dozen of them since I moved to Massachusetts. But my decorating tastes, while not stark, run to simple and unfussy. In fact, the first thing I did on closing day for my last two houses was go in and take down all the flouncy curtains.

    Being willing and able to learn how to do home improvements is so important. I remember that Sheila was always diving into some new project.

    I loved the book, as you're aware, and know it will soar. (Hey, everybody - stop by the Wicked Authors blog on Thursday for my interview with Julie!)

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    1. Thanks, Edith! Someday I will learn to hang things on the walls with this blasted drill... One thing at a time.

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  3. Welcome Julie and congratulations on the book release. I was lucky to get an early copy of the book and enjoyed it.

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  4. Julie, I'm so sorry for your loss. Your mom was such a lovely person, and she had so many talents and interests. It must have been a bittersweet experience to finish her book.

    We moved from a graceful old house, built in 1939, to a new one that I designed. I tried to keep some of the details we loved most: built-in bookcases, a wide foyer, hardwood floors, and a cheery fireplace. It's modern, but it has a mix of furniture styles, what is referred to now as "brown" furniture, antiques collected when they were cheap, or inherited from relatives. A cherry buffet, mahogany tables, a couple of Mission pieces, mixed in with upholstered pieces. Lots of oriental rugs. Old or new, I prefer a home with personality. If it looks like a Pottery Barn catalogue shoot it is a bit too stark for me.

    The wallpapered wastebasket, though! I would so have done that back in the 90's.

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    1. Karen, did you notice the sewing machine case (I think) next to the wastebasket?

      Julie, did your mom sew? What were some of her projects?

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    2. I noticed the sewing machine too and wondered the same things.

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    3. I saw that, too! And I think I wallpapered more than one wastebasket in my youth.

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    4. My mom was a capable seamstress -- and we had a lot of sewing machines around the house, though most never got used. A big Singer cast-iron pedal model was my bedroom side table for many years... But where my mother really excelled was knitting. She liked to knit while watching football, and she could execute any elaborate cable pattern. I was always impressed!

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  5. Julie, I'm so thrilled that you were able to be the one to finish your mom's last book and that publication day is here. I got to meet Sheila at a book signing on the Cape with Edith Maxwell and Barbara Ross. Getting to talk about Ireland with someone who actually had been there was a real thrill for me and I've been enjoying catching up with Sheila's various series.

    I'm not much for antique homes or decorative touches but once in a great while I will catch a bit of This Old House as I flip through the channels and come across an old episode.

    I'm looking forward to picking up my copy of THE SECRET STAIRCASE to spend a little more time with your mom's storytelling.

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    1. Thanks, Jay. I hope you will enjoy the book. And the occasional episode of This Old House can be oddly comforting. You never know what you might learn!

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  6. Julie, welcome to JRW and congratulations on the completion of your mother's book. This community has mourned with you and I know everyone is excited that this book is coming.

    We watch This Old House a lot in this old house. Our home is a mid-century split that has a bit of charm but many drawbacks. My husband has done some of the work but lots of things have been done for us, mostly by very good contractors. The bedrooms are small. Our kitchen is small. Our dining room is small. The stunning living room with huge windows overlooking a big green yard sold the house to us. We have been here since 1984.

    Update: Everyone, thanks for your good wishes. Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Tropical Depression Henri did not flood us again in spite of 2 anxiety ridden, nail biting days of downpours. The family room and porch are almost dry and we will pick up Kenai later this morning, he's been boarding since the flood. The whole region is a soggy mess and temperatures will be around 90 with high humidity until Saturday.

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    1. I agree -- big windows and a generous yard are an excellent selling point. Glad to hear you have made it through the worst of the weather.

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    2. Glad to hear you are okay and drying out, Judy!

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  7. Julie, congratulations on publishing Sheila's last book! As a child, I lived in a 1920's house my parents worked on every weekend. "Hey kids, we're stripping wallpaper this weekend. Invite a friend over to help!" Or, "I need a skinny kid I can boost between the walls holding a coax cable for the kitchen fan." Yup, I did it.

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    1. The little helper! I think I mostly sat on the sidelines and complained. But it was always interesting when my parents would be threading electrical wire through a wall, and they'd have to yell back and forth between floors to figure out what was going on. :)

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  8. Julie, I loved this post! I do love old houses, and when anyone asks me where one of my books is set, my answer is "in a house" - because that's what's usually fundamental about the setting. I was a fan of Sheila's work, in awe of her productivity and work ethic - looking forward to reading this. Thanks so much for sharing.

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    1. Thank you, Hallie -- I hope you will enjoy the book! I do love a house as the fundamental setting of a book.

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  9. I love that you were able to finish your mom's book. I met her at Malice several years ago and she was so nice to me and my mom. Very excited to read this book.

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  10. I love the architecture of old houses - the details and accents. But I have to admit that when it comes to decorating I'm a bit less frilly. Not Scandinavian-spare, but not pure Victoriana either.

    It's wonderful you were able to finish your mom's book.

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    1. There are, of course, many shades between the Scandi look and high Victorian! Luckily for us mortals. I hope you will enjoy the book!

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  11. So happy that you were able to finish your mother's book and that the Victorian Village series will be a trilogy.

    I love Victorian architecture and I love seeing rooms and homes done to period. As for your strange bedfellows photos--I could only wonder why zoning laws aren't more sensitive to the overall architecture of a street.

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    1. I would be interested to know about how the zoning works too -- sometimes the new construction feels very random, with the old and the new literally touching each other on one block. But I do love it when people really take the care to maintain the old places and keep them vibrant. I hope you will enjoy the book!

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  12. Glad you were able to put your mom's book to bed, so to speak. I'm sure she would be pleased and I can't wait to read it.

    I just figured out that with one brief exception when we rented an old farmhouse, I have always lived in a new house. That is several new houses. Years ago while looking for a new lake house we saw this little house that probably started as one largish room and was added-onto over the years. The floors sloped somewhat and there were lots of little nooks that didn't make much sense but it was the coziest place I have ever been in! Too bad the price wasn't as cozy so it wasn't for us. But I often think about that little blue house on the lake.

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    1. That is always interesting, when you can visually trace the additions to a house over a century or more. That's actually part of the plot of this book -- a simple old farmhouse eventually becomes the grand mansion of the local tycoon. I hope you will enjoy it!

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  13. Julie, so sorry for the loss of your mom. But how wonderful that you were willing and able to take on the task of finishing her last book! What a gift for us readers!

    I love old houses, the older the better. I love new houses--interesting architecture. Anything, really, but cookie-cutter McMansions. As for the period details in the house itself or decorating--I am so not a fan of frilly, over-the-top Victoriana, it's just not for me although I know people who love it. I like to see the evolution of a house--remodeled, redecorated--one that expresses a vibrant home, a livable space.

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    1. Thank you, Flora. And I agree -- some of the newer house styles are very interesting, if they're designed consciously and with interesting details. I hope you will enjoy the book!

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  14. Welcome, Julie, and thank you for completing your mother's book. That had to be either a wonderful moment of connectedness, or a real emotional beating. My sister and I are currently trying to get my late husband's books back into print, and I'm afraid she's doing all the heavy lifting because I. Just. Can't. So, Kudos to you!

    I love old houses, but those Victorian interiors are just not my cup of tea. Even the styles and designs championed by William Morris, in rebellion against Victoriana, can be too fussy for me. A few years ago I bought a basically untouched 1960 brick ranch-style house, complete with pink walls and kitchen. It isn't sleek mid-century cool. I think of the style as more bunkhouse baroque--lots of wood, lots of cabinets and valances with curvy trim. It was probably considered French Provincial.

    Bit by bit I have been turning it toward my own more tailored tastes. The ruffled faux-bordello light fixtures are gone. The walls have been repainted. Barbie's Atomic Dream Kitchen--pink Formica countertops and backsplash, pink dishwasher, cooktop, double wall oven, and vent hood with Cadillac fins--has been parted out to vintage appliance dealers.

    At the same time I'm trying to honor the house's roots. The very old (possibly original) wall-to-wall carpet is gone, as is the screaming pink shag, but I have installed true-to-period hardwood floors. A lot of the fussiness is gone, but it's all better suited to display the original art I own. In the end, it will be an eclectic style that suits me down to the ground. I'll live here happily until it's time for the next owner, who will probably go through the house saying, "Why did she keep that?" And, "What do you mean, the pink appliances are gone?????"

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    1. The pink ranch house sounds adorable, Gigi! There's an instagram account I follow that's all about the candy-colored, elaborately tiled old bathrooms... It's a look! I like the sound of customizing your place more to your liking over time. And yep, of course every owner is going to look cockeyed at what the last guy did. Oh well!

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  15. Congratulations on bringing this work to Sheila Connolly's friends and fans. She was beloved for her charm, knowledge, enthusiasm, and craftmanship. Her books, her projects, her Irish cottage adventures live in our hearts. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you for reading, Cheryl! I know it meant a lot to my mom.

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  16. I met your mother a couple of times at RWA gatherings in NY. The last time I was her I was on the receiving end of one of her amazing hugs. I grew up in the East NY section of Brooklyn. All the homes I lived in were from the 1800's to the early 1900's. (my family was in real estate). Yes I still watch This Olde House and still enjoy learning new things from them. I miss your mom every time I look at the C shelf of my home library, seeing all her books there in series order and by date of publication. (yes I'm crazy). I know you've honored her memory by doing the final edits and we all know it will be truly up to her standards. Thank you so much.

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    1. Wont let me edit. The last time I SAW her.

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    2. Your shelving abilities sound impressive! And I'd love to see some of those old 19th century Brooklyn buildings, if they haven't been totally gutted by now...

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  17. Julie, congratulations on bringing THE SECRET STAIRCASE to completion - every writer dreads the idea of leaving a work unfinished; you've done a service to your mother and to her many, many fans.

    I'm an old house woman all the way; I've lived in a 1820s Federalist/Greek revival farmhouse for the past 27 years, so along with all the furniture, china and art passed down through the generations, I, too am an antique! (Unless you follow the Customs Service definition of 100 years, in which case I'm merely vintage.)

    Growing up in an old pile seems to have had the opposite effect on my kids: while they all appreciate original details and interesting architecture, my oldest's fondest dream is to live in a house where you don't need special instructions to run water, open doors and turn on lights.

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    1. Thank you for reading, Julia! I might not have enjoyed old house living so much if I'd actually had to participate in any of the work of maintenance... :)

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  18. Congratulations, Julie, on finishing and publishing your mom's book. What a gift you've given her many fans.

    When I was in college I lived in a town with a lot of Victorian houses. I fell madly in love with them and my dream was to live in one. (And of course I watched This Old House religiously.) But years later, when we were house-hunting in our historic neighborhood, I discovered I didn't actually like the Victorians. They were too fussy, and the rooms were mostly small and jumbled awkwardly together. Instead, we fell head over heels for a 1905 Craftsman, and this month marks our 26th year in this old house.

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    1. Debs, now it's down to just me and the Maine Millennial, I'm beginning to think Craftsman cottages are ideal. Loads of beautiful woodwork and architectural details, but they're not as roomy and rambling as Victorians and Greek Revival. I could live happily with half the square footage I have now.

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    2. I love Craftsman cottages. My dream is to live in Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to grad school, in that kind of cottage. Well, only if future grandkids live in the area (which they likely won't...).

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    3. Deborah -- That old house sounds just right! Indeed, some places go in the "lovely to look at, don't want to live there" pile. Especially if I had to dust all the rooms in a Queen Anne or the like...

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  19. I love the character old houses have. I'm hoping my next (and last!) house will be an oldie. I am so tired of the shoddiness of modern construction. I realize I may be trading problems but at least an old house has charms new construction lacks. I'm so glad you were able to finish your mom's book. Do you plan to continue the series?

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    1. It looks like this series most likely won't continue, sadly. But it was a treat to get to work on it for this installment. And I know what you mean about the craftsmanship you find in older houses -- "they don't make 'em like they used to" is true in many cases!

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  20. Julie, what an accomplishment. Your mom was a wonderful woman and is sorely missed by all who knew her.

    As to my tastes, I've always been into historical homes. I live in a mid-century modern home, which I love. The one advantage it was over older homes? More closet space!

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    1. Ellen -- A big closet is indeed a treasure! My grandmother had a walk-in closet, which always seemed like a magical space to me. "You mean... it's a whole room... for your clothes??"

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  21. Julie - I absolutely loved this series and was devastated to learn of your mom's death shortly after I finished book 2. I was sad about the death of a wonderful author but also, I was selfishly upset that I would never know how this series ended. When I saw that the third book was coming out in August, I immediately preordered it. I was so excited when I received it - and my 9-year-old granddaughter loved the title and the cover and wanted to hear all about it. Thank you so much for taking on this project. I loved the book and only wish the series could have continued a little longer.

    As to the houses, I lived in Hyde Park (Chicago) for 7 years and saw a lot of mixed architectural styles. (Not so much in Hyde Park, but definitely in Lincoln Park and the vicinity. When I lived in a 100-year-old terraced house in Kent, England in the mid-1970s, I realized that old houses aren't all fun and games. And our house was never designed for the upper crust. But our Chicago condo was built in the 1920s, and we loved the old features, like the maid's entrance. When we moved, I salvaged the antique intercom from the hallway. The fireplace had been walled in by the previous owners - I would loved to have seen it, since the one in the building lobby was surrounded with fantastical faces. We've moved more times than I can count and have lived in all sorts of homes. Having started young and broke, my husband and I became adaptable to whatever we could afford many years ago. Houses fascinate me - all kinds of them!

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