Old house journal
Renovating a home with a haunted past
It was after we moved in, naturally, that we found the newspaper clipping that reveals our new home has a haunted past. It was rumored to be the home of a local legend, “The White Lady.” While there are a few variations, the story goes that many years ago a young woman was murdered in Durand Eastman Park, and the ghost of her grieving mother haunts the area, searching for those responsible for her daughter’s grisly death. Dressed all in white and usually escorted by two phantasmal German shepherds, she aptly became known as both the White Lady and the Lady in White.
Built in 1925, nestled deep in the woods, our home backs up to the park; it’s a likely spot for a spectral residence and a fitting introduction to most old home renovation projects: terrifying. While we instantly fell in love with the house, it needed work and many years of TLC to get it to where it is now. The challenge was finding balance with its old soul and our modern ideas.
It should be noted that my husband and I are not interior decorators. I have zero qualifications except that I live in an old home that I have renovated. Feeling dreadfully overwhelmed with your renovation project? I suggest wine and crying in the shower. It’s important to get that tiny little detail out of the way. My hope is that this story will inspire your own project and maybe guide you to some local gems that helped us.
Where to begin and where not to begin
Start with what keeps you awake at night—like removing brown rattan wallpaper. It will hurt. It will be painful, and you will forever be scarred from removing volumes of wallpaper glue, but it will be worth it.
Paint is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to perk up an old space.
We also started with floors. That’s a terrible idea before your floor plan is set. There was a white carpet epidemic when we moved in. It was everywhere—on the stairs and in the bathrooms. With two kids, two dogs, and two cats it’s difficult to be white carpet people. I panicked. We ripped it all up expecting to find glorious hardwoods underneath and were disappointed. Flooring can be expensive and time consuming to install—we had hardwoods installed over a period of years. Waiting so long to finish meant another issue—discontinued material—so do it all at once if you can!
Repurpose old materials
Natalie DiMascio, a local interior designer, suggests working with the charm of an older home: “Try not to take away the original character of the home but instead enhance it with modern upgrades.” She helped guide us through our kitchen remodel, which included the usual modern amenities combined with timeless materials like soapstone countertops and a copper apron front sink.
We brought new life to a fading bar by swapping out the old top with a DIY copper sheet. An old church was getting rid of its beautiful quarter-sawn oak railing, and we placed that under the bar. Being only the third owners of the home, we didn’t want to gut it; we felt we had to respect the previous occupants, ghosts included, while adding our own improvements.
Score goods locally
Rehouse Architectural Salvage, located at 469 West Ridge Road, is an incredible resource for anything from antiques to doors and windows. We have a nineteenth-century shipping desk that, while attractive, also serves as the world’s largest junk drawer. We purchased an industrial window salvaged from an abandoned optical factory in Rochester that we placed between two rooms to add more light and visual interest.
Pittsford Lumber, in Schoen Place, is also a cool place to source your materials. I found the wood there for the zebrano shelves I made in our kitchen, which, before you get too impressed, is really just the result of me standing and sanding for hours. If DIY is not your thing, it’s still worth checking out for inspiration, whether it’s for something as small as a cutting board or as large as a dining room table.
Most old homes have the dreaded popcorn or plaster ceiling. We decided to dress one up by wrapping a plaster beam in old barn wood from Pioneer Millworks in Farmington—they source reclaimed and sustainable wood products from all over the country.
We also found old paneling from the Powers Building in Rochester, whichh was erected in 1869, on Craigslist. With a little love, we cleaned some up and added it to our living room.
Ask for help
DiMascio warns that remodeling can take on a life of its own: “Hiring an architect or interior designer may actually save you money in the end. They can help you lay out the scope of work and master plan. Also, make sure to have a reserve saved up, as old houses can have old problems hidden ‘til demo!”
We picked the brains of design-minded people and started perusing design websites like Houzz and Remodelista to get new ideas.
What we learned
Be prepared for surprises: One day you’ll come home, and your stairs will be gone. Everything will ok. There will be exposed brick. Yay!
It always takes twice as long as you think it will.
Unless you enjoy setting yourself and your loved ones on fire, never ever remodel your kitchen during the coldest winter of the century. Don’t remodel your kitchen in winter, period. Never renovate your bathroom when you are seven months pregnant.
Renovating is an adventure. It takes time and all of your money and sanity along with it, but it is so deliciously worth it. When you start to doubt yourself and question what made you want to buy an old haunted house in the first place, remember that there is wine and cheese and much to be grateful for—you have a home that now holds all of your blood, sweat, and tears.
And what about the White Lady? Do we feel her ghostly presence? That depends on the night. A previous owner, the late Henry Rohrer, once said, “The White Lady becomes a reality midway through a martini.” We tend to agree with that.
Noelle d’Estries is a freelance writer based in Rochester.