The Sorensen family of Shorewood lives in a home made happy by wood.
Jay, wife Laura, twin sons Anton and Aleksei, 16, and daughter Annika, 12, relax in the warm light cast from oak and pine floors, built-ins and moldings.
And then there’s the 100-year-old silver maple that stands sentinel in their backyard.
It’s almost as if the wood gives off a sense of gratitude for the care that Jay and Laura provide. When the couple bought the 1921 house in 1992, it was what Laura describes as “an ‘other-house.’ Not a farmhouse, not a Colonial, not a bungalow, not an Arts and Crafts. An ‘other.’ ”
That meant that the Sorensens weren’t limited to one decorating style, but the interior woodwork was also “other” than what they wanted. “Every stick of inside trim was once covered in seven layers of paint,” says Jay.
Are we finished?
The couple’s original idea was to simply strip the built-in china cabinet in the dining room and leave the rest of the woodwork painted. But then, says Laura: “I was on my back stripping the built-in and I started crying. It was so beautiful, and everything else was white.”
That’s when the refinishing campaign really started. “The plan was to strip the first floor, but it looked horrible so we did the upstairs, too,” says Jay.
Refinishing pitfalls included rotten 70-year-old trim that had to be replaced; the couple searched the area to find matching lumber. But the result, after three years of stripping and staining, was a 2,100-square-foot home filled with amazing woodwork.
Outside, more beloved wood welcomes guests to the Sorensen home. That giant silver maple, one of the largest in Wisconsin, “defines the backyard,” says Jay. The tree has been gently cared for, trimmed and cabled to keep its branches from splitting. Jay taps it every spring and its sap, which is made into maple syrup, provides pancake toppings for family breakfasts.
Laura happily gardens around the great tree’s shade and roots, using containers for her flowers. A wooden pergola with slate floor and hanging lights creates a space in the backyard that’s great for entertaining.
But caring for wood wasn’t the only task that the Sorensens faced when they bought their home. Luckily, Jay, president of the IdeaWorks Company airline consulting firm, is also a self-taught handyman who finished many of the jobs himself, including wiring, carpentry and plumbing.
One of the major projects was upgrading the electric fireplace into a fully functioning natural and gas fireplace. “In the 1920s homeowners were switching to central heating, so to celebrate they’d put in fake fireplaces with electric logs. We wanted a real fireplace,” says Jay. He put in marble finishing around the fireplace to accent the vintage built-in cabinets that flank it.
Laura, a classically trained pianist and a teacher at Indian Hills Elementary School, felt she wanted professional decorating help after she failed at her attempt to paint the dining room walls an acceptable color. “I’m color challenged,” she says.
The decorator repainted the dining room a deep rusty red, painted the then-mustard kitchen an off-white, and an upstairs bedroom buttercup yellow.
The house also needed more work to make room for the growing Sorensen family. A previous owner had built an extension that included a family room that opened into the kitchen and an extended area in Annika’s bedroom. Laura and Jay knew the family would need more bathroom space, so they made two enlarged bathrooms from one, “stealing space” from an original bedroom, closet and hallway.
Jay took on more remodeling, including removing a “useless” linen cabinet at the top of the second-floor stairs and replacing it with a linen cabinet he built. Together the couple tackled less-than-perfect plastered ceilings in upstairs bedrooms by covering them with Anaglypta wall coverings – a thick material with an embossed pattern that can be painted.
Today all major remodeling is done, and the house boasts a family room, living room, formal dining room, kitchen and half-bath on the first floor. The second floor holds two bathrooms and three bedrooms. The finished basement has an office and a sewing room with space for exercise equipment.
Laura and Jay took some time recently to talk more about their home.
Q.How did you choose this house to buy?
Laura: We made a wrong turn. We knew we wanted a fixer-upper with a dining room and at least three bedrooms. We made a wrong turn when we were looking for houses one day and saw a “For Sale by Owner” sign. After the walk-through we knew: “This is more than a starter home. This is the one.”
Q.Jay, how did you become such a handyman?
Jay: I’m not sure. I have been somewhat mystified by it myself. My dad would show me how to fix stuff, but we never had projects as involved as I got into. We had a workbench at home and I would mess around on it. I love watching “This Old House.” I guess I’m just naturally inclined to do things with my hands. I’m a national park junkie so this summer I’m taking the boys out to North Cascades National Park in Washington and we’re going to be renovating a ranger cabin. I will enjoy the work because I enjoy teaching my sons how to paint, drywall and plumb. They’re going to enjoy it.
Q.How would you describe the style of decorating in your house?
Laura: “Traditional Comfortable.” I don’t want it to be a museum piece. I want it to be a place where you can plop down on a chair and have a glass of wine.
Q. Describe the color palette you used.
Laura: Each room is different, but basically earth tones: deep green in the foyer, teal in the living room, deep rose in the dining room. I wanted color. I wasn’t afraid of color.
Q.How would you describe your home’s personality?
Laura: It’s a happy home. When he was in third grade Aleksei wrote a poem about it: “I hear the laughter in the living room/ I smell the bread in the kitchen . . . ” We love having friends and family over. We can always find something to celebrate.
Q.Do you have a favorite piece of furniture or art in the house?
Jay: The wooden shelf with carved leaves and grape clusters. There’s a story in my family that there was a Russian count on my father’s side of the family who carved this.
Laura: The built-in oak cabinets that flank the fireplace. That’s what cinched the house for me.
Q.What advice do you have for anyone remodeling an older home?
Laura: Realize that an older home always needs something done for it. Also, come up with a timeline for remodeling or it never gets done. We decided on a couple of months for the dining room and we got up at 7 a.m. and would work on it until 10 p.m. Also, do your remodeling room by room. Don’t have the whole house as a construction zone.
Jackie has put together a great article. What would you like to also have learned from this article? Just ask in the comment section
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