Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Destroying and Preserving Original Architectural Elements

So we've discovered that our apartment has both original architectural elements- and destroyed elements.

One of the things we love about our apartment are the original details.   We think it was built around 1910 and it has some charming features.  My favorite - the curved staircase with it's unique railing (but definitely not up to building codes in the US!  A small child could easily squeeze through that railing and fall from the 3rd floor all the way to the 1st).

9 3/4" tall stairs!!!

BTW - The stairs are incredibly steep, but we've gotten used to them. With 34 steps to the living room and 14 more steps to the bedrooms, it's like our own built in stair master!

The apartment also has the original pocket doors between the living room and dining room - with glass panels above to let the light through.  We rarely use them, but they're still a nice touch.

But with those beautiful features, we were surprised that the trim in the apartment is so plain.  We have tall ceilings and beautiful chandeliers, but everything else is really simple.  That seems so odd.

And then we found the answer to the mystery.  I went in the first floor apartment and saw these beautiful plaster ceilings.  Aren't they amazing?

They told me that the owners of our apartment wanted to make it look more 'international' and decided to tear out the ceilings and all the trim around the fireplace.  The contractor came downstairs, sobbing, because he was so distressed to have to rip out the original ceiling.  It was in perfect shape and he thought it was criminal to destroy something so beautiful.  But the owners demanded he do it - and now we have boring, plain ceilings.

Can you believe it?  I'll never understand why someone would destroy such beautiful architectural elements.  We like this apartment so much - but think it would be so much nicer with all the original details!

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Culture Shock: Sinterklaas is Coming to Town

Yes Virginia, there is NO Santa Claus here.  Kind of hard for an American to understand.  But instead of Santa - we have Sinterklaas.

And Sinterklaas is a lot different than what we're used to.  He's skinny.  He seems quite stern (not the jolly fat Coca Cola Santa as one of my coworkers put it!).  And he rides a white horse.  (If you have a few minutes and want a laugh, you can listen to this David Sedaris version of the Sinterklaas legend.)     I'll try and give you the highlights from what we have learned since living here:

  • Sinterklass lives in Spain and travels to the Netherlands every year in a big ship at the end of November.  The story dates back to 353 AD, when he was a Bishop in Turkey.  Hence the hat and robes.
  • He's accompanied by lots of helpers - Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).  It's funny to see everyone with their faces painted black and curly wigs!  And the Piets seem to have a very good time!  There is a lot of racial tension regarding Piet these days, but the story we've been told is that they've turned black from going up and down chimneys helping Sinterklaas deliver gifts.  
  • If you're a good little boy or girl, you can put your shoes out near the fireplace (or heating vent if you don't have a fireplace) and Sinterklaas, his trusty white horse and the Zwarte Piets will deliver gifts on December 5th.  Children usually put out some wine (I like this legend) for Sint and carrots for his horse. 
  • If you're a bad little boy or girl, you can be beaten, thrown in a sack and carted back to Spain (seriously, not our Coca Cola Santa's style!  Coal in a stocking is pretty mild in comparison). 
  • December 5th is the big gift giving day and is usually accompanied by a family dinner that evening.  And unlike our American holiday,  the gift giving is rather low key (~$25 value), with more focus on family and getting together.  You typically write a funny poem to go with your gift and read it aloud.
Sinterklaas's arrival in Amsterdam is a huge event, with a big water parade.  Everyone goes out on their own boat to accompany him on his trip.  We decided to go join the festivities this past weekend - what an amazing sight!!!

The weather doesn't always cooperate!
 The Zwarte Piets have their own boats, complete with a band and lots of fun.

Children dress in costume to watch the festivities and there is a LOT of excitement.  They sing Sinterklass songs and the Piets roller blade through the crowds to keep everything lively. (PS - for those of you that are fans of the original Miracle on 34th Street, the little Dutch girl sings the Sinterklass song).

Following his arrival on shore, he rides his white horse during the big parade through the city.

And the Zwarte Piets ride on parade floats.
The Piets entertain the crowd by giving the children Pepernoten - a small ginger cookie that's a specialty of the season.

And what happens on Christmas Day?  Well, it's a bit like our Thanksgiving day.  Most families have a big dinner, but there aren't presents and everyone just enjoys getting together and having a wonderful meal.

Different?  Yes!  But also charming and a lot of fun!

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Travelogue - Kraków

While we are living in Amsterdam, we want to use it as home base for lots of European exploration. Thanks to numerous low cost airlines, it's easy and inexpensive to get around. I'm know this is a departure from my usual house blogging, but I just can't help but share some of the amazing places we have seen. These cities have beautiful art and architecture that I hope you will enjoy. 

We have been lucky enough to have already visited all the usual European destinations: Paris, London, Rome, etc. so we want to focus our trips to some of the less typical destinations. 

First up: Kraków, Poland. 

Dear friends of ours are living in London and we decided to meet up for a long weekend and explore. I haven't been in Eastern Europe in many years and was looking for an excuse to go. So this was the perfect opportunity.

Kraków was occupied by the Germans throughout most of WWII, so it was spared much of the bombing and destruction that many cities experienced. The result is a beautiful medieval city center, with a rich heritage. 

We spent hours wandering through Rynek Glowny, the Main City Square - one of the largest in Europe. With no vehicles allowed, it's a great place to meander and explore. The centerpiece of the square is The Cloth Hall. It's been a market since the 13th century (this boggles my American brain, where I think a 100 year old house is old!). They sell polish specialties - Amber jewelry, carved wooden figures, leather goods and the ubiquitous TShirt!


 At the far corner of the square is St Mary's Cathedral. Started in 1220, the towers on the exterior were built in the 14th century. We climbed to the top of the tower, to enjoy the spectacular view below. 

Inside was one of the most spectacular cathedrals I've seen. Unfortunately, they wouldn't allow photos. So you'll have to visit yourself!

My favorite part?  Every hour, on the hour (24 hours a day), a trumpeter at the top of the tower plays a short tune to signify the alarm raised by a Tartar attack, centuries ago. So the story goes, the trumpeter was struck in the throat by an arrow as they scaled the walls. So today, the tune stops abruptly as a remembrance. 

Not far from the square is Walwel Castle and cathedral. It's the most dramatic vista in town and can be seen from many vantage points at the top of the hill, overlooking the Wisla River. 

They were setting up for a big concert
The castle was established in 1038, but didn't take on its current form until the 1500's when an Italian architect was brought in to dramatically expand it in a renaissance style.  The resulting castle has a very Italian style, which seems a bit odd in Poland, but it's still beautiful to see. 

Source:  Atlas Obscura
Walwel cathedral adjoins the castle and is a beautiful combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. As you come through the entrance, there is a set of large bones dangling next to the doorway that they say have been there for centuries.  Legend has it that these are dragon bones, and It fuels all sorts of dragon themed designs in the area (evidently someone did DNA research in the bones and found they are from a prehistoric mammal.)

We also toured Kazimierz,  the former Jewish Quarter. Now a lively, up and coming area, this area was evacuated by the Nazi's and its residents were sent across the river to the Jewish Ghetto.

Today, the ghetto has this stark art installation, signifying the Jews forced to cross the river with their belongings, including chairs slung on their backs. 

The ghetto is also home to Schindler's factory - remembered in the movie Schindler's List (which we promptly watched when we returned home).  Ultimately 85% of Krakow Jews were sent to the 'extermination camps' as they refer to them. But there is still obvious gratitude to Oscar Schindler for saving as many people as he could. 

Kazimierz is also home to multiple synagogues. One of the most interesting is small one called Remuh. For the women, we had to don scarves to cover our legs and shoulders. The men had to wear yarmulke before they could enter. We discovered the synagogue was under major renovation. But the cemetery was fascinating. They had taken fragments of tombstones destroyed by the Nazi's and turned them into a wailing wall. It was a powerful remembrance of the past. 

Dizzying view down the stairwell
We were visiting Kraków during an unusual heat wave, so we decided to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines (which stay a balmy 59 degrees all the time). They were absolutely amazing and one of the highlights of the trip. An active mine from the 1300's until the late 1990's, we climbed down over 800 steps to view numerous chambers, chapels, and grandeur created over all those centuries. 

Salt carvings

Altar, entirely made of salt

There were over 40 chapels in the mines (the miners prayed each day before starting work). The most impressive was the enormous St Kinga Chapel, which was carved by 3 miners, with no formal sculpture training. Absolutely everything is made of salt - flooring, stairs, carvings crystals on the chandeliers, etc. It was the highlight of the trip. 
St. Kinga Chapel is immense!

The Last Supper - carved in salt!

A polish version of a pretzel
We spent a 3 day weekend in Kraków, which seemed like the perfect amount of time to see this lovely city. There is so much to do, prices are amazingly low (lunch for 4 was $36) and it was safe and clean. What a nice trip!

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Design Consultation - Expanding Up and Out

When our friends, who own a famous, local bakery asked me for some advice on their house, I was happy to help (they had just finished filming a show with the Food Network when I met with them).  They had a dilemma that many people face:  they loved their 1920's cottage and neighborhood, but were bursting at the seams.  Could they expand and make it work?  Or did they need to move?  And if they stayed, they didn't want to over improve for the neighborhood.  They wanted to maintain the cozy, cottage feel that they already had.

They had updated the kitchen a few years earlier and loved the flow of the first floor.  The living and dining room worked well for them and the separate family room was a great place to relax.  However, it lacked a first floor half bath, which was something they really wanted.

But the biggest issue was upstairs.  This was the master bedroom.  And you guessed it, the likelihood of bumping your head on the angled ceiling is pretty high.  Not to mention there isn't much space for manoeuvring!

And the master closet?  Well that's it - the curtained space on the left.  They had to keep a lot of their clothes in a cubby near the top of the stairs.

So we started looking at options.  We played with multiple floor plan ideas that stayed within the existing footprint of the house.  But they really didn't give them the space they needed.  After working through some ideas, we realized that expanding out the back 4 feet on the left side of the house could gain a lot of functionality - without ruining sight lines from the kitchen or losing too much yard and deck space.  The first floor suddenly had a great powder room and their family room was enlarged as well.

Upstairs, the changes were more dramatic.  The 'before' design didn't have a lot of space upstairs.  There was the small master bedroom, a bath and the dressing room/office, with sloping ceilings that didn't leave much room to move around.  By extending the current dormer across the front, they could create a bigger home office space - an idea they both loved.  And the new addition over the family room created a fantastic master suite.
As usual, Waterhouse Builders did a fantastic job.  This was a big project and the owners had to move out for several months, while the project was completed.  But it was worth it!  The finished rooms are beautiful (I don't get any credit for the colors or furnishings - the owners just happen to have fabulous taste!).

The First Floor Changes:

The 'must have', powder room on the first floor came out beautifully.  Don't you just love the traditional hex floor tiles, done in marble rather than the usual ceramic?  And the two tone paint job gives lots of color, but isn't overwhelming with the white at the top.

The expanded family room is still the cozy room they wanted, but gives them a bit more space for furniture.  And the walls of windows look out on their private backyard.

The second floor changes:

The new upstairs hallway is a dramatic change from the old house.  We created a pony wall at the top of the steps, to make it feel much more open as you get to the landing.  Now the space is light and bright - and provides lots and lots of storage space in the giant closet.

The new master suite is a warm room with lots of light, thanks to windows on three sides.  And see how it looks out into the trees through the windows?  It's like sleeping in a tree house!

The new master bath is such a great update!  They added custom shelves next to the toilet for additional storage.  And the shower is divine, a big space with plenty of storage space and a bench for shaving your legs!  (Design note:  the shower head is out of view on the left, but you can turn on the water and adjust the temperature without having to climb into the shower and get wet, waiting for warm water.  Nice touch!)

Finally, the new extended dormer on the front of the house provides a great office space for the homeowners.  And the glass door lets them get away from noise in the rest of the house - but the glass pocket door lets the afternoon sun come streaming through.

And from the exterior?  Well we think the addition blends in seamlessly!
Front exterior - before

Front exterior - after, with new addition and extended dormer
Rear exterior - before
Rear exterior - after

Don't you love this place?

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