In 1999 our 6-year-old daughter declared that she wanted a dog—a real dog, a dog-dog, not some wild, jumpy puppy with razor teeth. At a humane group’s kennel, we fell in love with Haskell, a middle-aged yellow Lab who’d been found wandering in a park. Haskie never jumped. He was a canine gentleman, regal and loving, though slightly reserved, as if having been abandoned once had taught him not to risk giving his whole heart again. He bore other scars from his mysterious earlier life; he stole food, scarfed garbage, and, most problematically, tried to kill any small dog that got too close. We learned to make shrieking retreats from clueless neighbors, drawn by his sweet face to urge their tiny off-leash terriers to “go say hi.” Once the crisis passed, we’d apologize, adding, “He’s a rescue dog. He has issues.”
Everyone understood. Later, that’s how I explained the house.
Instant epiphany: We could afford our dream house by sort of buying it on time—taking something no one else wanted and gradually making it nice.
Who buys a home with cracking walls, low ceilings, a dead front yard, and rooms painted mustard and psychedelic green? With a battered, crooked kitchen that looks like an old ship’s galley, and a dining area so dark that a light sensor bulb always shines? According to the child, who by then was eight, parents who were heartless and possibly insane. When we closed escrow in late 2001, she was inconsolable.
Of course, the rational explanation was money. My husband and I craved something bigger than the post-war cracker box we’d owned for a decade, something with character, on a street with less traffic and more trees. Since we hoped to find all these things on the combined income of a state school professor and a freelance writer—in West L.A—our quest was essentially hopeless. Then, maybe a year into the hunt, a 1920’s “fixer” we’d considered buying until we read its terrifying inspection report reappeared on the market, all shiny from a remodel by a developer who’d also doubled the price. Instant epiphany: We could afford our dream house by sort of buying it on time—taking something no one else wanted and gradually making it nice.
Fixer Upper from Hell: The Rescue House
No one else wanted the place we bought. A well-dressed crowd arrived at the first open house (“charming storybook country!”), took one look, and split. It wasn’t just the lurid paint. The house was actually two dwellings, one a 1930’s cottage, the other a 1920’s English that had been located elsewhere, condemned in the ‘60s to make way for the Santa Monica Freeway, and moved; a large den joined them. Aesthetic oddness abounded. The rooms sprawled backwards, following a sloping lot down, down, down, and nothing matched. Some exterior walls were stucco, some shingle, some wood. Floors were mahogany in front, oak in the rear; there were two heating systems and three styles of window.
“Improvements” made by the sellers, professors who’d won appointments elsewhere then rented to a succession of hard-partying students, made no sense, either: a sad single line of track lighting in the darkest room; a bidet wedged into a bathroom barely big enough for its toilet. What the realtor called “settlement” cracks in a bedroom wall turned out to be evidence that the house was slipping off its foundation.
Before me stood an unloved mongrel of a home, facing bulldozer death and pleading for a chance to become the house of my dreams.
But it was twice our current 1,000 square feet and set back far from the street. In a central courtyard, shaded by a towering (neglected) pine, the city seemed to retreat. And it was old. My childhood, passed in the bland pastel rectangles of a post-war SoCal tract, left me longing for the solidity of age, and, along with the murk, this house was rich in “vintage” detail—fireplaces, built-in bookshelves, curving plaster walls, and leaded-glass windows. Yes, the place was falling apart, but I’d been hooked, the way one can be at an animal shelter, when out of the desperate, barking hordes one pair of eyes locks in. Before me stood an unloved mongrel of a home, facing bulldozer death and pleading for a chance to become the house of my dreams. I wanted it to save it.
Living in Funk
Most people who take on a rescue house have deep bank accounts or DIY skills; we had neither. “Gradually” fixing our place turned out to mean years of living in funk, with brief, furious bouts of renovation whenever we got some extra cash or credit. In 2002 we raised multiple ceilings, painted the mustard and green rooms, and added moldings, skylights, French doors, and an immense dormer window overlooking the courtyard.
We couldn’t afford to move out during construction, so for months all three of us huddled in one bedroom, hacking from drywall dust. The project was designed and managed by a contractor friend, brilliant but bad with the bottom line, and to whose every suggestion we said “wow, yes.” The result was spectacular, but left us 30 percent done without a dime to go farther. Six years passed before we took on the dead garden. Because the lot had never been properly graded the task required massive excavation and construction of retaining walls, and our money melted into the earth.
In 2010 we tackled the little kitchen, whose electrical quirks and cabinet-doors-falling-off had become a daily source of grief. The same contractor friend produced a wood-trimmed, sun-struck marvel, roomy enough for cocktail gatherings, with beautiful views of the cleaned-up courtyard through new French doors leading to a new deck. It was a kitchen that matched my dreams, and (again) emptied our bank accounts.
The Final Improvements
More years went by. We all got older; our daughter’s high school, then college, graduations came and went. Gradually, the tiny “master” bathroom crumbled, until one day the tub rusted clear through, draining water under the house. We had no choice but to take on the final improvements. Before we gave in and hired our contractor friend again, we got a few other bids. The first man walked through the house, traveling down, down, down to the rear, where he looked in horrified wonder at the claustrophobic room, fitted with its ancient tub and sewer vent pipe.
“It’s a rescue house,” I told him. “It has issues.”
It’s been 16 years since we bought our dream house on time. Haskell the attack-Lab is long gone. His death, in 2004, was brutally sudden, and after two painful, dogless months, we returned to the humane organization where we’d found him and adopted Casey, an eight-week-old chow mix. He also turned out to be a dog with issues, chief among them primal fear of the Goodyear Blimp, which sometimes flies overhead on clear evenings. Pinta, a small Rottweiler found on the streets of South LA, came later. She cowers when we fasten anything around her neck.
My husband and I have lost our parents and grown gray. Our daughter became an adult, got a job, and moved. She’s a traditionalist whose taste runs to neat, two-story Colonials, but, over time, she came to at least tolerate the rescue house.
No More Fantasies
It’s become a lovely place—airy and striking, with that huge dormer window framing the nicely trimmed courtyard pine and a front yard that’s a fragrant native plant paradise of hummingbirds and bees. The kitchen is great for parties, the new, sky-light topped master bath is twice its previous size. Around us, our once-modest neighborhood appreciates by the second.
I’m grateful for it all. Given the state of the world and our professions, and how little attention my husband and I paid to making money when we were young, we got far more than we had any right to expect.
The irony is that my fantasies about the house are gone. I’m not leaving anytime soon—we took so much time to re-do the place that I’m damn well going to enjoy it. But during the last remodel, for the first time ever, I thought how nice it would be to chuck it all and move somewhere brand new, with big closets and windows that close snugly, their hinges free of paint. Maybe all the banging and demolition piles wore me out. Maybe there’s no dream home to be had once a child has gone, leaving her parents with empty rooms and creaky knees.
Maybe there’s no dream home to be had once a child has gone, leaving her parents with empty rooms and creaky knees.
Or maybe, like a lot of people drawn to “rescue,” I got things wrong. The desire to save something seems saintly, but it’s also selfish, a lust for control and power. Good animal rescuers know that the impulse to be a hero just starts the journey, which is almost always harder than you expect: the “misunderstood” shelter bully turns out to be a genuinely jerky dog; treating the sagging overbred mama runs up four-figure vet bills. The transcendent moment when that cage door opens to freedom inevitably blurs into the everyday. The sad-eyed puppy snatched from the euthanasia red list becomes a dog whose poop has to be picked up like any other.
My rescue house has become the place whose counters I wipe, whose floors I sweep—just where I live. I gripe at its quirks the way I do when Casey yanks me hard in his blind, blimp-induced panic, when the millionth attachment of her leash sends Pinta quivering into a corner; I also marvel at how far it’s come. It’s the foundling I chose and raised, and now it’s mine.