Renovating a Historic Firehouse — Part 1
The chronicles of renovating an old Seattle firehouse while maintaining a relationship
On a Thursday morning in June, I clicked open a Zillow email. The first property listed was a tall, tutor-style house. The price was in range. I clicked further. Jim, at his under-the-stairs desk, swiveled behind me at my little gasp.
“Oh, my God,” I said aloud. “Look at this place! Jim, it’s an old fire station!”
I should probably mention here that my boyfriend was a firefighter, so the idea of buying a fire station was laughable.
After four years together, my boyfriend Jim and I were struggling to combine our lives without much success. Jim, a single firefighter with no kids had grown tired of living between his bachelor basement in Georgetown, Seattle’s gritty, hipster neighborhood, his fire station (where he spent two nights every four days), and my house in a more gentrified Seattle neighborhood.
When I moved to Seattle from New Jersey to Seattle in 2005, I found my dream house. I had been widowed four years earlier when my kids were six and ten. Full of light, a view of Lake Washington, in a fun, beautiful neighborhood, the house was a perfect place to raise my grieving kids as a single, widowed mom.
We were a bit of an odd couple. We met when my kids were 12 and 16, and the relationship bloomed. His adventurous lifestyle was fun for the kids, especially for my son, who enjoyed having a guy around to teach him guy stuff. I was thrilled too. Suddenly, bathroom drains were cleared, minor repairs completed and he even occasionally put the garbage out, which was astonishing to this single mom. Jim could fix and do almost anything and it was nice to have a partner to share the workload, even if it was only a couple of nights a week.
Part of my plan was to eventually downsize after my kids went to college. With my younger a senior in high school, that time was drawing near, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave my dream house. Finances, however, looked to be making the decision for me. The taxes were skyrocketing and my fixed income was not.
As well, I didn’t account for Jim in that vague downsizing plan. In my imagined relationships, dreamed up before Jim came along, I never considered the move-in together phase. Or if I did, I just assumed he’d move in with me. I had no idea what it would mean to combine two well-established lives.
When the boyfriend doesn’t fit into your home
No matter what way Jim tried to fit himself into our house, he just couldn’t quite settle in. It was like squeezing a puzzle piece into a hole that looks to be the right shape but isn’t quite. You turn it one way and then another, and finally, just try to jam it in there with your thumb.
Jim felt squeezed. He described himself as a “welcome guest” in my home but didn’t really feel at home there. His desk under the stairs, a fairly busy corridor in our house was not ideal.
My garage, which I had given over to him in the midst of our compromise was slowly being fashioned into his dream garage, with large metal cabinets to which he attached wheels, tools moved into them, plastic tubs organized.
But in its new pristine state, the garage became a lure for my son who was rebuilding a motorcycle engine, a project that Jim had introduced him to. After two years of Jim mostly working on the engine by himself, my son finally discovered that having a motorcycle was cool and had taken a new interest in the project. Jim now returned to his garage sanctuary to find his tools in disarray or lost, plastic bins dumped and filled with old oil, junk food wrappers littering the floor. How to both encourage my son’s industriousness and teach him responsible tidy habits?
The dream home
Jim and I went for brunch one morning, trying out a new, trendy spot located in a renovated warehouse. We forked chorizo hash, sitting in a loft area overlooking a large ground floor, filled with rusty September sun.
“Look at those huge glass garage doors,” Jim said. “This would make an awesome workshop.”
I looked around more closely. Two sides of the large space were walled with giant glass garage doors that rolled up in the warm weather. We sat beneath thick, old-growth, roughly hewn beams, surrounded by exposed brick walls.
My imagination took over. An old warehouse, with a large garage area below and a funky renovated second floor for living. For the first time, I could see how Jim and I might combine our disparate lives. He with his planes and motorcycles and tools downstairs, me with my books and writing and cooking in the loft.
“Maybe we should look for an old warehouse,” I said, already pulling out my phone to Google commercial real estate.
Looking back, I laugh thinking about how many young, hipster, Seattle couples have likely uttered the exact same sentence. Excited, I took it a step further, and right then and there called a realtor friend. I’m glad I couldn’t see him roll his eyes when he heard my request.
We drove around after brunch, looking at warehouses in various semi-industrial areas of Seattle. At home, I hunted the Internet. We wandered around a strange old place with what looked like a few cool, white-washed, and brick apartments with a working train track that ran alongside the building with barely four feet of clearance.
I quickly realized we were looking for a unicorn in a hot Seattle real estate market.
We resolved to wait and buy a place together when my son went off to college in a year and a half. In the meantime, I set up a series of Zillow searches, providing glimpses into houses, workshops, and garages, and tried to picture my life combined with Jim’s and what sort of dwelling that might entail. For a year, the emails came every morning. Sometimes I’d look at them, but more often I’d delete them, not having the time.
Just a look
“Should we go take a look?” Jim asked, peering over my shoulder at the old firehouse photos on my laptop.
“Looking couldn’t hurt,” I said. We had visited the occasional Zillow wonder. We called these “Drive-bys,” and they became our version of a date, often ending with lunch or a beer somewhere. Usually, there was something a bit off about the places we visited — too close to a sub-division or highway, on a steep hill that would be difficult for Jim to maneuver his small sea-plane, no garage or workshop. Passing houses, I would point out awesome-looking workshops to Jim and he would point out funky old fixer-uppers to me. We bonded as we each learned a little about what was important in a home for the other.
“Oh-oh,” I said, as we parked in front of the firehouse and got out. I could already tell this place would not fall into the category of a “drive-by.”
Abigail Carter was an ex-pat Canadian living in New Jersey with her husband and two young children when her husband died in the attack on the twin towers on 9/11. She wrote The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow’s Transformation as a form of catharsis after her husband’s death, chosen by The Globe and Mail as one of the 100 Most Notable Books of 2008 and long-listed for the B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, Canada’s largest Non-Fiction prize. Her novel, Remember the Moon was published in 2014. Her work has also appeared in SELF magazine, Reader’s Digest Canada, MSN.com, Huffington Post, and MORE.com and on her site, abigailcarter.com. Abigail is now working on another novel about widowed people.