A DIY Gut Reno of a “Severe” Fixer Upper Saved It from Tear-Down
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“Labor of love” doesn’t even really begin to describe the mid-century modern house that’s home to Helen Stickler, a filmmaker turned graphic designer turned custom jeweled chandelier creator. “I started looking for a place to buy in LA when I moved here from Manhattan’s West Village in 2004, right at the beginning of a huge bubble. I watched with despair as prices climbed higher month after month, until I could no longer afford a thing,” Stickler begins of her house hunt, which she estimates took her to see at least 100 homes in person as well as hundreds more online. “It was really helpful to look at so many places because I knew what a dollar could get you in Los Angeles.”
Although the more hilly neighborhoods in LA tend to be pricey parts of town, in 2008 Stickler came across a neighborhood called City Terrace, an area that she says still had some affordable homes in late 2008.
“Also, the neighborhood was full of charm. Things were still at a human scale. The biggest buildings on the main boulevard were the church and the library, instead of chains like Starbucks and Target,” she describes.
“Cut to the Great Recession, and housing prices had fallen by 40% from the peak in Los Angeles,” Stickler begins. “On Thanksgiving day 2008, I was showing a friend how the real estate website Redfin worked. I pulled up a new listing in City Terrace as an example, not knowing it would soon become my home. In a tiny corner of a photo, I could see exposed shiplap and wood beams on the living room ceiling. That’s what initially caught my attention.”
“When I did go out to visit the house that I eventually bought, I knew within 20 minutes that this was ‘the one.’ The house was well within my budget because it was a severe fixer. One contractor told me to tear it down, and another described it to a mutual friend by simply shuddering,” she admits. “However, I could see the value. It checked off all the boxes of things that I was looking for: price, views, freeway close, private, gated, parking, large lot, mid-century, and completely untouched by flippers. I wanted to put my own stamp on it.”
Fifteen years later and Stickler says there’s not a single room in the home (or under and around it) that hasn’t gotten a DIY treatment from her. “This whole house is pretty much a DIY hack,” she explains. “I have done work in every single room, the yard, and the basement. I’ve even learned how to do plumbing. When I bought the house, it had mostly updated copper plumbing, except all of the drains were the original galvanized steel. One by one, the old steel drains all failed due to rust, and I had to open up the walls and replace them (tub, bathroom sink, kitchen sink, and laundry).”
“The open floor plan kitchen/dining area was the biggest project. When I moved into the house, there was a wall between the kitchen and living room, and I wanted to open up the views to the kitchen, so we took that wall down. Once that wall was gone, I had to figure out a way to separate the kitchen and create a distinct dining area. I built a peninsula with cabinets on the kitchen side, and a bench on the other. Now when seated in the dining area, there’s a full view of the picture window with the cityscape outside,” she writes.
The kitchen — which took about five years to finish — was an even bigger project. “I did all of the kitchen demo and installation myself; it was a gut remodel. I opened it up to the studs and put in a new framing for cabinet support. I even built the plumbing for the kitchen sink and hooked up the dishwasher myself.”
PAINT & COLORS
- The sellers of my house patched up all the cracks and put a fresh coat of BEHR Navajo White throughout the house, and it suited me fine so I just left it that way.
- I used a dusty rose pink for an accent wall behind the bed. This was from a pint of paint I picked up on clearance at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, ages ago.
- For the office paint colors, I used vintage Formica swatches from a 1950s salesman sample ring. I chose one called “Putty Gray” for the wall and “Signal Red” (kind of a dark orange) for the ceiling and had the Home Depot Paint Department match the swatches. I wanted authentic vintage colors, so using an old sample was a great way to do that. I loved using the vintage sample ring because my feeling about color is that it is better to have fewer choices — then you have fewer decisions to make.
- The mid-century three-seat sofa and matching “Elena” loveseat designed by Roger P. Wood were originally purchased by an art director in the ’60s, from the legendary LA store KASPARIANS. I became the second owner when I bought them at a Laurel Canyon estate sale run by Olli’s Estate Sales. It was $1500 for the pair + U-Haul rental to get them home.
- Pair of mid-century chairs from Danish Modern LA (bought in 2009, when they had their first storefront on Sunset), $120 for the pair.
- Empire shape chandelier, titled “LAX” custom made by me. This chandelier design is a tribute to the glass tile wall murals in arrival terminals 3, 4, and 6.
- A large mid-century modern “floating” wall shelving unit with cabinet was an estate sale find in Stanton, California. Free, on the last day!
- Two Danish modern “flower” lamps, teak, spun Lucite and brass from eBay and Craigslist. Around $40 each (a long time ago).
- Vintage mid-century modern triangular starburst mosaic side table, estate sale find, $350.
- Vintage white CP-17 tire planter on walnut stand, by John Follis for Architectural Pottery, circa 1960s. Estate sale find, Fullerton, CA, $40.
- Walnut and marble round coffee table, handmade by my father, Tom Stickler, in 1968.
- Oval mid-century modern wood grain Formica dining room table with black tulip base, vintage BURKE. I found this table and six vintage fiberglass shell swivel chairs for $60 at the Habitat For Humanity Re-Store in Anaheim.
- Birch bench banquette seating with leather cushions and storage inside, found on Craigslist, Ventura. Handmade. This was one long bench, but I cut it into two pieces and fit them at an angle to form an L shape. I believe I paid around $60.
- Mahogany bench, designed and hand-made by the late television game show host Allen Ludden, circa 1950s. This was a gift to me from the estate of Betty White (Allen Ludden’s widow). Over the years he and Betty had used it as a coffee table and seating, and the bench spent its later years in the pool house. It has a few water circles on the surface, which I did not attempt to erase because who knows, it could’ve been from Lucille Ball’s martini! I love the history of the piece, and I’m so honored to have it.
- Vintage Viking glass vessels from various estate sales.
- Chandelier, custom made by me. This was my first chandelier. It features more than 2000 vintage Austrian 14mm Swarovski crystal beads and thousands of vintage beads (mostly from old necklaces). The frame was made in Western Germany and was salvaged out of a Laguna Beach condominium. The original owner-builders of the entire condominium complex were the stars of the ’50s hit Bonanza.
- Vintage 1960 steel Geneva Kitchens cabinets with original two-tone paint (pink on top, aqua on bottom), sourced on Arizona Craigslist, $900 + cost of truck rental and gas to bring them back, totaling around $1500.
- Vintage General Electric “cabinettes” under-cabinets with sliding waterfall glass doors, and built in lighting. Sourced from Craislists in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
- White mid-century modern half-round open steel shelving by Republic Steel Cabinets, circa 1950s. Craigslist, Cathedral City. This was part of a large set; I believe it was around $400 + $200 truck rental.
- Vintage 1967 French door, bottom freezer fridge designed by Sundberg-Ferar for Sears. Found on Phoenix Craigslist. It was $50 for the fridge and $300 to haul it back home.
- Vintage 1956 “Fold-Back” two-burner cooktop by Frigidaire for General Motors from Craigslist and was a gift (I did some consulting on the value of a vintage steel St. Charles Kitchen and the owner gave me the stovetop as thanks).
- Vintage turquoise vinyl Cosco swivel stool, Craigslist find, $30
- Vintage globe light is from a church in Diamond Bar, circa 1970s, Craigslist Free Stuff
- 18” Dishwasher, Frigidaire, bought used from Craigslist, $200
- Dracaena plant, gift from the estate of Betty White, in a vintage yellow Gainey Ceramics pot (estate sale find) on a walnut Modernica stand
- Vintage mid-century modern Rosewood Danish modern queen bed with attached floating nightstands, designed in the ’60s by Sannemanns Mobelfabrik K/S, made in Denmark. Estate sale find, $900.
- Vintage mid-century modern “Rectangle” planter in white glaze by David Cressey for Architectural Pottery. This was a gift, circa 1960s.
- Vintage mid-century modern AC-17 planter in yellow glaze by Gainey Ceramics, La Verne, CA. From an estate sale in Redlands, CA, $40, circa 1960s.
- Vintage mid-century modern jardiniere planter in yellow glaze by Gainey Ceramics, La Verne, CA. From an estate sale in Studio City, CA, $40, circa 1960s.
- Both tall dracaena plants are estate sale finds for $40 to $60
- Vintage Danish modern Rosewood vanity and bench, gifted, from a set that belonged to my parents, circa 1970s
- Vintage green shag rug, estate sale find, $5
- Flokati area rugs, vintage, from my mom
- Turquoise leather corner banquette; I found the banquette in the garbage and reupholstered it with some leather I stripped off a couch I got from Craigslist Free Stuff
- Turquoise mid-century modern hanging swag lamp, estate sale, $40
- Pair of custom made pink chandeliers with brass piping and brass wall-mounted dimmer switches, made by me
- Vintage mid-century modern walnut and Formica L-shaped desk with a return, by Vista-Costa Mesa, a Division of Dictaphone Corporation. Estate sale find, around $100 to $150.
- Steelcase Think Mesh Back Task Chair, this chair is discontinued but can still be found used for around $350. I got it at the same estate sale as the desk for $50.
- ”Earthgender” ceramic table lamp by David Cressey. This is my number-one favorite estate sale find. I got it for a mere $150, and I’ve only seen one other like it online. It sold on FirstDibs for $3200.
- Vintage mid-century modern glass-front cabinet, teak. I adapted this to hang on the wall. Found on Craigslist Free Stuff many years ago.
- Vintage Yellow Gainey and Turquoise Bauer pots, estate sale finds, $40 and $5, respectively.
- Vintage CHANEL display box, brass and glass. My parents attended a department store auction when I was a little kid, growing up in Kentucky. This is what they bought for me and I love it.
- The console table in the office is something I put together myself with a hairpin stand and a long plank of wood, both of which I picked up at estate sales and refinished myself.
- The vintage, Danish-made daybed is the first piece of adult furniture that I ever bought. I got it in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1997 along with a matching chair for $120. The chair disappeared when I lived in New York City, much to my regret. I didn’t have space for it in my studio apartment, and I actually traded it for a bottle of Champagne — but I never got the Champagne. I’m still kind of mad about that!
- Cork tile flooring. Found on Craigslist (Goleta) and I installed it myself.
- Vintage mid-century modern Cosco Step-stool. This is a classic MCM item. They still sell a “retro” but new version that’s a little older-looking, design-wise. Mine stood in Betty White’s kitchen for more than 60 years. I also have her kitchen bulletin board which she painted to match the mustard colored step stool, and embellished with felt cut-out flowers. Both were gifts from the estate.
- Art: Framed Theatrical Poster for my 2003 feature documentary Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator, from distributor PALM Pictures. Poster designed by Shepard Fairey.
- Art: Framed “O.G RIPS” large original Serigraph by Shepard Fairey, gift from artist, 2019.
- Art: Two vintage circa 1996 & 1997 silkscreened posters (one with postcards included in original layout), for my 1995 documentary about Shepard Fairey, titled Andre The Giant Has a Posse. Gifts from artist. Also New York Underground Film Festival, inaugural year poster which featured a still from my short film, Queen Mercy.
- Various framed items: A few old photos of and articles about me; thank you letter from Hillary Clinton (she used something I wrote during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, in her book What Happened); thank you note from Betty White (in 2021, I restored a faded photograph of her late husband, Allen Ludden, as a gift); Emmy nomination plaque for a Safe Sex campaign I created for MTV in 1999; the aforementioned Betty White kitchen bulletin board.
- Chandelier “LAX 2” custom made by me. This chandelier design is also a tribute to the glass tile wall murals in arrival terminals 3, 4, and 6, and it is for sale, price upon request through my website’s page for it.
This tour’s responses and photos were edited for length/size and clarity.
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