I always knew house renovations were a rite of passage. My friends did it after marriages, divorces, or for the thrill of change. But this is my very first time at the reboot rodeo!
I am not an HGTV fan, or a shelter magazine reader, an amateur decorator, or even a house flipper for the fun of it.
My home backstory is different. 35 years ago, my dad Ed Sabol was retiring as the President of NFL Films, and I insisted he not go to Florida — which at that time was considered the land of the “nearly dead.” Arizona was a new safe haven. He loved golf and flying single-engine planes, and my mom loved Southwest art and the cactus landscape. They both lived in a Japanese inspired home they built and decorated just outside of Philadelphia.
I had been living in a NYC Upper East Side apartment for 22 years but was looking to get out of the East Coast. The West seemed best for me … at that time. My brother Steve Sabol continued to run NFL Films and lived in New Jersey, but he was game to visit Arizona, and like me felt anything was better than them going to Florida.
My parents designed and built this second home for comfort — not showtime. It had a hint of adobe to it with stucco curved walls everywhere and wood latilla ceilings. I personally had no interest in any of it other than living in the small guest house with a Kiva fireplace and the smell of mesquite.
The house was built in 9 months — my dad was on site almost every day. He moved in on May 1st of 1987 and slept on a mattress on the floor. From then on, he would return to Philadelphia for a month or two each summer. Originally, we looked at the Arizona home as a winter retreat, but it soon became our primary residence, our home. Dad and I loved it here. At the time, he was 71 and told me this would be his last move and his last house. Now that I am 75 I can see why.
My mom remained in the East nine months out of the year, she preferred Philadelphia and loved her house in Villanova. She would come and enjoy Arizona’s pleasant winters with us, then head back home.
I think they stayed married for 72 years because of their living arrangements. My brother remained in New Jersey and came West to visit.
My parents spared no expense building a uniquely designed and noteworthy house with simple desert landscape and a full-size lap pool. It is situated in a gated community at the base of a boulder strewn mountain with a spectacular view of the valley.
The interior was more loft than luxury. Very little furniture as the whole feature was the view. An entire wall of giant sliding windows looking down over Scottsdale, Phoenix, and the distant Superstition Mountain Range.
It was a retreat. It had magic. You came through the front door and all you saw was “The Valley of the Sun” spread out before you.
My parents were the first in my experience to establish a “great room” in lieu of a living and dining room. The spaces were big (4000 square feet) — two large master bedrooms, a spacious kitchen with stainless steel countertops, and the great room combining the pool table, dining room, bar, computer/desk and sitting area. Again, this was not a fancy display of postmodern fixtures and furniture — no sofas or multi levels of marble countered glitz.
It was very 1987 in their choices of natural wood cabinets, grey Formica countertops, and mauve tiling in the kitchen and bath. There were no showboating sunken tubs or free-standing rain curtain showers. I remember thinking the small intercom boxes (which never worked) and the burglar alarm with a touch-tone keypad seemed so futuristic at the time. The alarm went off daily at 3 PM — we soon disconnected it. But the box is still on the wall looking very “Burt Reynolds/Boogie Nights” by now.
The great room has one big round table and six swivel chairs with wheels. My parents loved the idea of “Club House” comfort. There was no television/entertainment center with modular sofas, no coffee table and chairs. In the early days we barely had a computer for the desk, and no one owned a cell phone.
Time moved on.
Both my parents had died while living with me in the house, and my brother succumbed to brain cancer eight years earlier. Life changed. We were an extremely close family. I found that to be an energy blessing in today’s world. But becoming a “lone survivor” felt different than the concerns people projected onto me. I came from a family of eccentric artists.
We were extremely united, but deeply individual. I was unique in that, unlike my folks and brother, I had no interest in creating “a space” for myself. I had always been bored by home improvement or interior design. I preferred the idea of living in a hotel and let it all be curated by others. Recently friends suggested I sell the house and go immediately into an assisted living high-rise with deluxe amenities. But Covid has taught me one thing: Elevators are OUT OF THE QUESTION!
Ironically, that idea didn’t even occur to me. In fact, living with ailing parents in this terrific house through Covid proved to me that this was the sanctuary I was meant to live in. By the way, I never once converted the house into a form of home hospice for dying. My parents (despite wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and hospital beds at times) wouldn’t stand for that.
Covid for many was a harsh experience of isolation. But living in the desert already inducted me into isolation. And losing my family in the house didn’t spook me — instead the house proved to me I needed to make it my primary relationship. The house presented itself a worthy survivor as well.
I decided I didn’t want to remodel the house, I wanted to make it a tribute to my family — my “Graceland.” Not to gut it, or start over, or wipe out my history. Nor would it be just a basic “renofresh” (sounds like an awful sport drink).
I heard about renovation horrors; contractors promising you the world – then not delivering and charging you triple the money while taking forever to complete. The severe inconvenience of living in rubble for months and ending up with a great house but in three lawsuits that last for years. Oh, and with inflation and slow deliveries I was warned that I wouldn’t get what I wanted anyway. Best to just remodel to add value to your house and move immediately — to a high rise.
That scenario scared me as I don’t have the time or patience for any of that. Though this is my virgin attempt at home improvement, I was pretty cut and dried about my decisions and visions.
Contractors are rock stars — especially in Phoenix with the current explosion of housing.
I didn’t go for any big names. In fact, I chose my team (kitchen contractor, painter) quickly. We did onsite interviews and I watched them simply react to the house and listened. I didn’t check social metric, reviews, or recommendations. I didn’t do astrological profiles.
Painter Matt Seymour (owner of Gary and Sons Painting) walked quietly and thoughtfully through my house and was in awe of the latilla ceiling and the need to smooth down the rough stucco walls with primer rather than costly sandblasting. He clearly loved the house as is and was excited about working on it.
The kitchen and front door will begin a bit later, and Aaron Bishop (Aaron Bishop Construction and Design) has already taught me about stone countertops. And though I loved the stainless steel, it makes more sense to redo the main countertops with quartz. We will be able to re-use the existing stainless-steel countertop for the island. No need to replace the appliances, as they have recently been updated. Aaron loved the classic natural wood look of the rest of the house (Burt Reynolds — remember?) and was able to source custom cabinetry to maintain that look.
Getting started was hard. I started clearing out in January. March 21 was the “lift-off” day. It would be a “war maneuver” as Matt will be working from the back of the house and move forward filling, fixing, taping, cleaning, and painting as they went. My guest house will be last, so I am living in the midst of it all — in the trenches. I was apprehensive at first dumping all my stuff in the middle of the rooms under tarps and living with bare walls and nail holes. I thought it would disturb me as much as the Ukraine war visuals.
So far though, it has been a totally different experience. The house has the energy of anticipated renewal, a far cry from my previous worries and fears.
Though I started with a timeline of finishing by Memorial Day, and the invasion of the heat of the Arizona summer — I let all that go. I just let the house re-invent itself in its own time. It has its own birth schedule. I stopped watching the nightly news of death and destruction since something profound was literally going on in my own living room.
It’s only been a week, but each day, every hour, the house keeps mutating before by eyes. I still don’t really go anywhere since Covid — I am still quasi house-bound — but I don’t sense the raging renovation tsunami that was predicted. Even my dog Sunshine likes the “visitors” and attention and is a bit confused but realizing change is good.
The painters so far have been serene, focused, and quiet — like Zen masters. No boom boxes blasting heavy metal music (all earbuds now) and no ass cracks showing from drooping pants.
In one week, the house has been stripped of light switches and sconces. The structure is laid bare. But I am in awe of how great it all looks — empty. As Matt said, “The sign of a great house with good bones is if you still love it when it’s stripped.” It seems my dad nkew what he was doing, and I feel his presence every day. He would have loved this! (No doubt by mom will make herself known as we put the art back up on the walls).
I have been aware of the constant change in the light and vibe of each room. This has been a real “workshop” for the soul — not just a home makeover.
And as a dear editor pal warned me: “You just got started. Take a breath. Let the house talk to you with each turn. It’s a giant process that keeps moving. Let go a little.” As I looked at the beauty of the wall patching and switch taping and spackling, I am so glad it is the house going through this “facelift” — not me. After all, the house has a stronger constitution.
But more importantly, it has better bones than I ever did.