Author Amy Stewart Says Goodbye to Her California Victorian

updated Apr 30, 2019

Author Amy Stewart Says Goodbye to Her California Victorian

updated Apr 30, 2019
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Name: Amy Stewart and Scott Brown
Location: Eureka, California
Size: 2800 square feet
Years Lived In: 17 years; own (well, we used to own it. We just sold the house and we’re moving to Portland.)

How do you say goodbye to a house you’ve lived in and loved for 17 years? That’s just the dilemma writer and artist Amy Stewart and her husband, Scott Brown, a rare book dealer, recently faced when they decided to sell the big Victorian house in Eureka, California they’ve lived in for almost two decades. Amy and Scott are downsizing and making the move to Oregon. “The new condo in Portland is cool, but it’s not 110 years old,” wrote Amy. To help with the farewells, she took pen (and watercolor) to paper to illustrate her favorite elements to this house. “The sketchbook is SUCH therapy. I don’t know if I will ever get over this house. I question my sanity every day for leaving such a gorgeous home.”

Amy Stewart is the author of Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities and Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects, incredibly witty, informative books (I have personally read and can attest). She’s also responsible for the delightful The Drunken Botanist, a book that explores all the ways humans have turned plants into alcohol. And no, she doesn’t only write non-fiction; she’s the author of the Kopp Sisters novels, like Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions.

The point is, Amy’s a far better writer than I am, and the absolute best person to describe the home she’s loved for so long…and why sketching was how she decided to say her goodbyes. In her own words:

Yesterday I went to the title company and signed the papers that would make someone else the owner of my house. Sitting in that waiting room felt exactly like sitting in the waiting room at the vet’s office, with an animal in my lap that I have loved for years, but was nonetheless about to put to sleep. I knew—or rather, I was pretty sure, sort of sure—that I was making the right decision, but at that moment it felt fundamentally wrong and terrible.

Half an hour later, I walked out, shaky and teary, wondering how anyone ever gets over the loss of a home they’ve loved.

I don’t claim to have the answer, but what I do have is a project. For years I’ve made sketchbooks when I travel. A sketchbook is the best souvenir ever, because you make it yourself, and it documents all those odd moments you forget once the trip’s over—the funny sign in the hotel lobby, the strange conversation next to you on the train, the mishap at the restaurant.

But the best reason to keep a travel sketchbook is that the act of drawing is its own reward. It’s a wonderful way to slow down and really observe the place. It’s also a delightful way to pass time on vacation—it’s slow, meditative, immersive, and celebratory, which is exactly how travel should be.

So this year, I decided to make a sketchbook about the house I’m leaving—a glorious old Victorian, generously proportioned, comfortable, and, after 17 years, perfectly suited to me and my husband. I knew it would break my heart to leave, and it has. I remembered Carrie Fisher’s quote, delivered by Meryl Streep after Fisher died: “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.”

So that’s what I’ve done. This sketchbook documents everything I love about my house: the enormous claw-foot tub, the attic where I write, the built-in cupboards, the old growth redwood plank floors.

I drew the light fixture I see when I wake up every morning, and the view into the hall from the living room couch. I drew the kitchen table where I have breakfast, the front porch (with its ceiling painted “porch ceiling blue,” a tribute to my Southern roots), and the garden.

My favorite page is probably the hardware page. In all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never gone around and looked closely at the original hardware in the house. As I copied down each design, I was amazed at how many strange and mystical symbols can be found on the bits of metal we touch every day: diamonds, fleur-de-lis, poppies, and, of course, the keyholes for long-lost skeleton keys.

I even drew imaginary portraits of the first occupants of this house, Emery and Henrietta Chapman. I don’t know what they looked like or very much about them, so these portraits are based on vintage photos I found online. Emery gave his occupation in the census as “painter.” I’m sure that meant “housepainter,” but I like to think of him as a man who painted landscapes, still life, and portraits of little dogs. I know even less about Henrietta, but I picture her as a woman who always wore feathers in her hat but nonetheless never managed to look very festive.

Did the sketchbook bring me closure and allow me to move on? Ask me in a year, when I’m settled in my new place and looking through this book.

I know this: It did help to have an art project. And I’m glad I took the time to give my house the attention it deserved, and to really study it closely, and acknowledge its character and beauty. This is why drawing is so pleasurable: it allows you to slow down and really look.

Anyone can make a scrapbook of the house they’re leaving, even if they can’t draw. Put in photographs, paint chips, bits of fabric, pressed leaves—anything. Make notes. Observe and record.

But why not pick up a pencil and try making some drawings? I use a Pentalic watercolor journal, an inexpensive Field Artist travel watercolor kit, and a few Micron drawing pens. It’s cheap, portable, and fun. What matters about art is the act of making it, not what it looks like when it’s finished.

And don’t tell anyone I told you this, but you can transfer a drawing from tracing paper into your sketchbook. Just print a photo, put a piece of tracing paper over it, and trace the broad outlines with a soft, dark pencil. Then turn the tracing paper over onto a blank page of your sketchbook. Rub the back side firmly with a pencil, and the graphite will lightly transfer onto your page, giving you faint outlines with which to start your drawing.

If you’d like to learn more about sketching the world around you, look for a chapter of Urban Sketchers near you. Several artists involved with this group teach classes on Craftsy, which is where I learned some of these techniques.

→ See more of Amy’s art on Instagram.

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: Does “hand-me-downs” and “whatever we can afford” count as a style? Over the years, we’ve put all our effort into fixing up the house itself, and into art for the walls. Throughout the house there’s a mix of modern and Arts & Crafts furniture, but with Victorian light fixtures and hardware. We’ve bought a lot of paintings from our friends here in town, and Scott has a nice photography collection, all of which is mixed with art from my book covers and ephemera that drifts in from our bookstore Eureka Books.

Favorite Element: The giant bathroom (we suspect it was once a bedroom) with its enormous claw-foot tub and separate walk-in shower. I love to take baths, and I’ve cherished that tub every day since we moved in. The “Press for Champagne” button on the wall really does work! Under the right circumstances, if you press that button while you’re taking a bath, a very nice man really does bring you a glass of champagne.

Of course, the attic—my office—is another favorite. It’s a big, dreamy, private space with a view across town and down to the ocean. It’s an incredible luxury to have so much space to myself. When I first got everything arranged the way I wanted it up there, Scott came upstairs and said, “This looks just like your college apartment! You have your own place up here.” I do—it’s all mine.

Wait—one more—we have a secret closet under the stairs! It’s in Scott’s office, which is one of the second floor bedrooms. This room had a door with a window and a mail slot, so I had his name put on the window in gold lettering, and a proper letter slot put in. The secret closet is hidden behind a bookcase that swings open. We didn’t even know about it until after we bought the house.

Biggest Challenge: It’s a 110 year-old house! Every repair, every upgrade, and every renovation is three times as complicated as it would be otherwise.

What Friends Say: Our friends from out of town can’t believe we have so much space for just the two of us. It really is more than we need, but that’s the trade-off: We live in a small town, six hours from the nearest big city. We can’t order Thai food at ten o’clock at night, but we can live in a big old house.

Biggest Embarrassment: The carpet upstairs. It was old and badly in need of replacement when we bought the place, but we thought we couldn’t afford to do anything about it at the time. Big mistake! Here’s a hint: Once you move in, you’ll never get around to doing the floors. We’ve been living with that worn-out carpet for far too long.

Proudest DIY: The wood floors, without a doubt. This house was built in 1905 from old growth redwood, which means that some of the planks are over 20 feet long and over a foot wide, cut from trees that might have been a thousand years old. When we lifted up the carpet and several layers of ancient linoleum, we couldn’t believe how gorgeous the wood was. There are actually two subfloors of these enormous old planks. Scott spent months picking off nasty black glue, sanding, patching, and finishing these floors. His grandfather used to own a paint store in Petaluma, and he gave us great advice: Put down many coats of a glossy finish, and then do the top coat in matte. It gives the floors this waxy, luminous glow.

I’m also quite proud of our liquor storage wall, which I came up with myself. Because I wrote a book about booze, we ended up with quite the liquor collection. It’s frustrating to crowd all those bottles into a cabinet, because you can never see what you’ve got. These shelves take up very little space in the hall right behind our kitchen, and the bungee cords protect them in case of an earthquake.

Biggest Indulgence: Does heat count as an indulgence? I bought a gorgeous Thelin Gnome pellet stove for my office in the attic, and it is the loveliest thing in the world to sit up there in the winter, with the rain pounding on the roof and a cheerful fire in that stove. It’s perfect for the third floor—the pellets come in reasonably small bags, and you just clean it out with a shop vac, so there’s no need to haul wood up the stairs and ashes down.

Another indulgence in the heating category: When we replaced our downstairs furnace, my brilliant husband figured out a way to run one heating vent upstairs into the bathroom. Although it doesn’t get terribly cold in Eureka—temps in the winter usually stay in the 40s—the second floor can get chilly, so it’s a real luxury to have a warm bathroom.

Best Advice: Do the floors before you move in.

Dream Sources: Rejuvenation, and the old Restoration Hardware, back when it was actually a hardware store. Restoration was actually founded right here in Eureka.


Body — Sherwin-Williams Viva Gold
Doors — Sherwin-Williams Mature Grape
Porch Ceiling — Sherwin-Williams Tame Teal

Carpet tiles — Flor
Gnome pellet stove — Thelin

Paintings by — Rachel K. Schlueter; Jim McVicker; Linda Mitchell; Kathy O’Leary; Joan Gold

Overhead lamp shades — Lundberg Studios

Press for Champagne button — Etsy

Thanks, Amy and Scott! See more of Amy’s art on Instagram.

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