It was exactly a year ago I started the renovation on my family’s 36-year-old Scottsdale home (see “My first time at the reboot rodeo!,” “When Things Falls Apart,” “Everything Must Go”). I vowed this would not be a remodel but a facelifted tribute to my family. My “Graceland.” It was never about gutting it and starting over for a resale. It was called a “Reno-fresh,” which included a complete new paint job, updated kitchen, brand new wall to wall carpeting (I was tired of the “industrial Berber” — so now if I fall, I could bounce).
None of this was easy in the time of COVID. I figured it would take three months but knew it would take longer. And I allowed for price gouging and “no shows.”
I learned fast that today’s contractors are rock stars. With the recent Phoenix housing explosion, there really aren’t many renovating “experts” and none of them want to stick to a project that long. Everyone is triple booked. I didn’t have a “makeover team” the way Martha Stewart or a lot of the HGTV stars have. I winged it and got roughed up a lot. But I was warned. It was a real lifetime “initiation” and as Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
I had no choice.
In the beginning it was great seeing the house changing before my eyes. Stripping it of all the memorabilia and art was a major detox. And while friends were concerned that I was going to end up living in a mausoleum of family ghosts, I never saw it that way. I wanted to re-curate the memories and put them back up. I was “re-souling” my house. Same cast of characters, just a different time slot.
I had read somewhere that the “future can’t be built until we build a foundation for it out of our past.” I was blessed with a great past and wanted it around me. Plus, the house itself had “great bones” (better than my own) and deserved to be restored, not leveled.
I was aware that I lived in a community of newly developed postmodern — white glass boxes complete with “metaverse” rooms, car wash garages, liquor tasting libraries, two-story aquariums, recording studios, golf simulation spaces, outdoor kitchens, fire pits and cold plunges of ice. This is the current wow luxe property explosion. What recession?!
My house is a 36-year-old Adobe with stucco walls, beehive fireplaces and fungus-stained outdoor tiles. It is built in a curve, like a boat. Most of the younger contractors couldn’t deal with the off scaling. One of them marched into my living room and announced that “the house was really too complicated and old to work on. Why not gut it?” My response? “So am I,” and asked him to leave.
I ended up with a contractor who arrived on a motorcycle with a holster of tools he never used. He went around the house borrowing my tape measure and hammers. I stuck it out with him — barely. He was licensed (some are not) and talked a good game. In the end I was scared “to break up” with him until I found a replacement, and by then it had become too late. I was stuck with the poison I knew.
I rarely saw him after a while. He would contact me once a week via FaceTime and even directed his subs via the phone. When I called him out on his lack of “on site” visits that are crucial for communication, he yelled at me and said, “I can’t hold your hand through this process. You should move out of your house and live at a spa for two months.” I didn’t move, but maybe he was living at a spa.
I ended up living on-site in a DMZ zone for close to five months while supply chains delays ruled. My temporary kitchen was the sink in my guest bath, and a mini fridge and microwave in a small laundry room. I was game to camp out as I wasn’t in the 115-degree summer, although the thrill was gone.
Remember, it was the summer where every workman had to take a COVID test in my driveway and masking was dicey. My dog ended up with PTSD from roaming around for his food and bed. But that’s the saga of renovating. I accepted it, but finally lost my soul and my patience in the process. I put up with weeks of no shows, late arrivals and early departures for other job requests.
I blame COVID for the passive aggressive rudeness and rage. But I wondered about the future of home building with this behavior so rampant. It seemed like plumbers and electricians were MIA the most. When they did show up (mostly with complete body tattoos, bolted earlobes, ass crack revealing cargo pants and Crocs!), nobody knew exactly what was expected and they too resented the FaceTime direction. Three of them told me they had to leave early for their ketamine treatments.
In the meantime, I did manage to retreat to my mom’s room to stay while they worked on my house. I have to say everyone who has an extra bedroom should try really staying in it for at least 10 days. It is like a getaway; in that it gives you a different perspective on your home. A totally unique point of view of the bathroom and view out the window. You might learn something.
Basically, I realized that no real professionals or “adults” in the home building world exist (at least not in my world). And I am not talking about booking via Angie’s List. In the end, everyone is an amateur looking for “clicks.” Not even!
By August we got through the worst. I loved my new kitchen even though I don’t cook. Just to get back to real plates and not paper cups and bowls.
The head contractor did tell me how crucial a new front door was. His version cost $20,000 and was a glass structure with a screaming coyote on a mountain on it. I told him our working relationship was over and he left on his motorcycle with the trail of vape pen smoke in his wake.
At this point I decided to reconnect with the house’s original architect. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that from the start, but I didn’t realize how treacherous this scene was.
His name is James Roberts. I tracked him down and he agreed to come out and just take a look around as he hadn’t seen the place in 35 years! So last May he arrived (not on a motorcycle) and sat down on the terrace and told me great stories of my mom and dad and how much he enjoyed working with them.
“You are only as good as your clients,” he assured me. In creating the house, he insisted on following the surrounding boulders and “dropping the house into the land — just right.” Jim is an artistic environmentalist in his designs and almost a geologist in his execution. He walked around the lot with my dad and suggested to him that he turn the house to face west toward the Superstition Mountains and Phoenix Valley rather than face the nearby Pinnacle Peak.
He was right. The view out the main picture window to the expanse of a setting sun. As Jim saw it: “The west is always the direction of hope … the whole idea was to walk through that front door and be pulled out to that giant panorama. You don’t even notice the living room. Your eye travels that far and wide and then the payoff is your pool at the foot of that view. A total sanctuary.”
I immediately begged Jim to design the front door even though I knew he was “strictly” retired. I think he saw my desperation and had some compassion (I did call him the “godfather of my house”) and thank God he said yes. He sent the rendering in a month and it looked great but who really knows. He found a workman, Oscar Rodriguez, to make and install it. That took seven months.
Meanwhile, I waited and lived in the house — wondering if it really felt all that different since going through all that Sturm und Drang. I did get rid of a lot of stuff and recalibrated as I put things back in the exact same place. My folks were great art directors of their own stuff. But did the house change?
It wasn’t until this past March 25th when the door actually arrived that the whole feeling shifted. It took them all day to install this heavy dark brown metal and striated glass design. It looked spectacular in person — and it replaced a wooden door that was vintage 1980’s “Boogie Nights” pine. The old door was completely destroyed from the desert heat; and finally off its hinges.
By the end of the day, the house felt transformed. After all, the front door is the threshold; out with the old, in with the new. It truly closed the door of an entire era.
Jim had told me he had my dad (Ed Sabol, president of NFL films) in mind when he created the design; the handles are shaped like a football and the lined glass inserts look like a football field. What is amazing is how the door clicks like a vault when you go in or out. But the most important aspect is how it introduces that view from the moment you open the door.
My mom died 18 months ago in the house and wanted her ashes spread under her favorite cactus, which I did. But before she “left,” she wanted to give me the keys to the old front door as a symbol. Unfortunately, we could never find them. Instead, it was Oscar who gave me the keys with a little prayer, “May you return to your home with the present enhancing your past.”
Nowadays I rarely leave my house. It is finally mine, and has it all.
Door to Door — I finally made it!