See How I Transformed My Dated Living Room into a Dreamy Hangout

published Feb 22, 2024
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There’s a point in all my renovations that I look around and think, “What have I done?” — and I have to be honest that after the crew tore through the front room of the 1883 shotgun-style house my husband and I lovingly dubbed Cherry Pop, there was a real moment of oh noooooo. With wood-paneled walls (painted purple and putrid green), a drop ceiling with a 1980s ceiling fan, and stick-on faux parquet flooring, we definitely weren’t going to move in as-is. But we had less than two months to get this house ready before the moving trucks came to our old place, and just painting the paneling wasn’t going to get this space where I wanted it.

On a chilly early spring day when the paneling, crumbling plaster, and ancient wallpaper all came down and only a scary-looking brick wall remained, it seemed impossible that this would become our living room. But it did, and we absolutely love it. Here’s how it all came together.

Credit: Dana McMahan
Credit: Dana McMahan
Credit: Andrew Kung

We took the opportunity to start from scratch.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in renovating old houses that have had deferred maintenance is it’s best to just tear everything out and start fresh. It’s tempting to try to cut corners, but it ends up taking more time and costing more money — and in the end everything has to go. So on day one we start a full demo. Even still, I try to save money where I can, and I thought we’d only be exposing the brick on the (covered-over) fireplace. Then I tapped some of the plaster next to the fireplace with my toe … and it crumbled. 

That made it obvious the plaster had to go, too, along with the drop ceiling, the fan, and the small closet (the last owners used this as a bedroom, but we didn’t want to waste the space’s gorgeous eight-foot-tall windows on a bedroom!).

Credit: Dana McMahan
Credit: Andrew Kung

We highlighted the high ceilings with fresh paint.

Even though the rooms in this house are on the small side, the 12-foot ceilings give them a grand sense of scale. To boost that larger feeling, I opted to use the same color palette through the entire house other than the bathroom, starting with black on the ceilings and trim. Black was a bold choice, but with so much height, I wasn’t worried about making the rooms feel cramped.

We used Benjamin Moore’s Deep Indigo in a flat finish on the ceiling and satin on the trim (most of which we had custom made at a local millyard to resemble the original trim we found behind the paneling, which was mostly unsalvageable). On the walls, we used Benjamin Moore’s Boudoir, a romantic dusky pink that looks completely different in different times of day.

Credit: Dana McMahan
Credit: Dana McMahan

The whole remodel aimed to play up the old house character.

Since we had no choice but to take down all the old plaster, we leaned in on the brick and had the entire wall restored. The brick was absolutely stunning, and we were very lucky that it was actually in really good shape, so it only needed a cleaning and a couple coats of a sealer.

The floor wasn’t in great shape, and the owner of the flooring company tried to convince me not to keep it. I’m so glad I resisted. Yes, there are imperfections galore, but I think the scars and knicks hold the story of the house. The floors have a warm glow that makes the room feel so inviting. 

Credit: Dana McMahan

The furnishings are a mix of old and new.

We were furnishing this house almost from scratch because when we sold our previous home, we sold most of our old furniture along with it. With that extra cash we were able to invest in a couch we’ve dreamed about for years: a buttery leather Chesterfield. That sofa, the lamp, and the side tables were the only new pieces.

We shopped vintage for the two 1960s side chairs by the new sofa, and in the corner placed a super-cool antique carved wood cabinet that we brought from the old house. A couple of vintage mirrors leaned on the wall and a big, happy monstera by the window completed the scene. 

Credit: Dana McMahan
Credit: Dana McMahan

A couple of statement pieces brought the whole room together.

Although I’m a maximalist at heart, I’m taking this move as a chance to try out being a little more minimalist. And the room itself — with the brick, the plants, the wonderful old floors — felt like its own art, and didn’t need much. But I couldn’t resist a couple of “wow” moments, including my first-ever original art piece (a gorgeous find from Heather Ward Miles). 

The last touch was a mantel shelf, which required lots of hunting at my local architectural salvage store before I found the perfect thing: an old slate shelf that originally was used for a mantel. It also weighed, no joke, as much as a person. But my husband and a handyman were able to secure it to the brick, and it looks like it was always there. 

Was I scared that first day of demolition? Oh yeah. But now, when I walk into the living room in the evening, the golden-hour light pouring through the big windows onto the lovely floor and brick wall, I’m so happy we kept going.

If you want to see more of my Cherry Pop home remodel, check out our vintage-inspired kitchen renovation, our luxurious bathroom renovation, our dreamy entryway renovation, and our sophisticated bedroom renovation.