Rachel’s East Hills History Lesson

published Jun 20, 2015
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(Image credit: Mike Hetu)

Name: Rachel Lee
Location: East Hills; Grand Rapids, MI
Size: 1,560 square feet
Years lived in: 9 months; Owned

When I told a mutual friend that I was photographing Rachel Lee’s house for Apartment Therapy, that friend said, “Her house is cool as hell.” Upon entering Rachel’s house for the first time, I immediately agreed. The wall colors, the white outlines, the arched doors, the collection of globes: I had found my new favorite house.

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(Image credit: Mike Hetu)

Rachel is the Director at the East Hills Council of Neighbors. East Hills is the historic neighborhood between Heritage Hill and Eastown with borders of Fulton (to the north), Fuller (to the east), Wealthy (to the south) and Union (to the west). Rachel’s family owns two hotspots on East Hills’ Wealthy Street border: The Winchester and Donkey Taqueria. She is definitely an active member of the community.

(Image credit: Mike Hetu)

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: Vintage Modern. This house and I were meant to be together. I was incredibly lucky to find this home in the neighborhood I love. During the 1920s, two sisters lived here. One sister had a wealthy gentlemen caller and he renovated the entire house for them, which is when this house was made beautiful. The former owner lived here for 50 years and maintained the house with few updates. Of course I wish they had left the red velvet rope banister or some of the elaborate wallpaper from the 1920s… Anyway, the former owner’s children sold the house and I told them to leave whatever they didn’t want. (Lucky me, as I was gifted many treasures.) As a historic preservationist, this is the most perfect setting in which to move. Oh, the joy I felt after ripping the dark red carpet out (that covered 90% of the house) and finding gorgeous oak wood floors and tile in pristine condition. It was like a dream.

Originally I was going to paint the interior various tones of white to honor my love for mid-century modern design. But after nudging from a good friend (thanks, Jason!), I went for a darker tone in the living room to showcase the trim. Because of the amazing light that floods the house through each leaded glass window, I was hooked on deep colors for every room.

The majority of the historic Grand Rapids photos displayed throughout my house are from extensive research at the City of Grand Rapids Archives. As a local history nerd, my salon wall of historic photos is a great conversation piece, showing what our city was like before Urban Renewal. I celebrate my city and state throughout the house.

Inspiration: Love, peace, a learning environment, and placemaking. By filling my house with things that I love, my house is always a place of happiness and peace. My house is an extension of myself. There are consistent themes present that my family is passionate about: vintage furniture and collectibles, mid-century modern design, family, local Grand Rapids history, cartography, my love for my state of Michigan, art, community building, travel, multimodal transit, and supporting local businesses and artists. I love my city so much I named my children after two Grand Rapids streets, so of course I’m going to have maps and globes all over… Proud nerd!

Favorite Element: The leaded glass windows, the architectural details, the 1920s light fixtures, the archway with the floor to ceiling mirror, watching my children interact and discover the learning tools around the house, and the bathroom wallpaper. What you don’t see in the photos: all the built-ins in the kitchen and the closets. Thank you, House Goddess!

Biggest Challenge: The more I worked on my house, the less stuff I wanted in it. The beautiful lines and the architectural details didn’t need all the extra pieces of furniture I bought. After the house was painted, I started getting rid of stuff that didn’t bring out the natural beauty of the house, as well as pieces I didn’t love. I would pick up an item and if it didn’t have a connection to my house, my family, or my happiness, I got rid of it. I finally have the house the way I want it to work for my family, besides adding a couple floor rugs. Always a work in progress.

What Friends Say: “You want me to move that artwork again?!?!” I’m so thankful for good friends who helped me hang artwork (sometimes the same piece three times), pick out paint colors, organize, gave me honest opinions, and entertained my kids while I was working on the house. It truly takes a village…

These reviews were not paid for with Brewery Vivant beer:

“Rachel’s home marries elegance and class with warmth and comfort. It is a great novel of Grand Rapid’s history and a beautiful representation of the craftsmanship that once was.”

“Timeless and filled with character. Every room tells a story. Chic and welcoming.”

Tears! I have such great friends who love craft beer.

Biggest Embarrassment: My basement. When I moved in nine months ago, it was raining. I told the movers to put bins and boxes in the basement that I haven’t looked at since the move. If one of my goals is to truly live in a sustainable house, part of that means not having a basement full of items that I no longer have use for or need. I could be doing something different with that space but I can’t see it right now with all those boxes and bins in the way. I’m saying it out loud that by the end of this summer, my basement will be cleaned out. Done deal.

Proudest DIY: The floors. I ripped out most of the carpet myself and, with the help of my brother-in-law, took out every staple and nail. Thank goodness for loud music and silly mind games. Also, arranging the house to be the perfect home and learning environment for my family and giving myself time to do it.

Biggest Indulgence: The paint and paying someone to paint. Thank goodness for people who can paint without having to use tape. Such talent!

Best Advice: Fill your house with what you love and it’ll be a place of happiness and peace.

When selecting paint colors, take the samples outside. Do not believe the paint color under bright fluorescent lights. Save yourself time, money, and your sanity by buying samples of paint to test on the walls. Observe how the sample paints work with the natural light as it moves throughout your house. I also let my kids pick out the color themes for their rooms so they felt involved in the process.

If you start storing vintage chairs at other people’s homes, stop. Admit you have a vintage-chair-buying problem and deal with it. Make the beds and try to pick up before leaving your house in the morning; you’ll thank yourself when coming home later because of the million other things you have to do.

My secret to taking two little boys vintage shopping without breaking anything? Let them put a couple treasures in your basket right away and if they start acting up, start taking their things out. Works like a charm.

It helps to have a GSD partner who is also working on his or her home. (You know, someone who “Gets Sh*t Done.”) A GSD partner keeps you motivated on a Saturday when it’s beautiful outside and you’re deep into a house project and the calling of a social life that doesn’t include multiple trips to the local hardware store tempts you. A simple text to your GSD partner and you’ll find yourself back on track.

Dream Sources: I build relationships with vintage shop owners that I frequent so they contact me when an incredible piece comes in. I’ve learned from them when estate sale or garage sale shopping, follow the vintage shop owner “code.” Craigslist has been a huge source for me. I found a lot of my favorite furniture pieces while picking up a different piece of furniture from Craigslist and convincing the owner to sell me the other furniture pieces I spotted. I found the 1970s naugahyde couch when picking up a matching barrel chair. Always be looking… One of these days I’m going to roll up to a garage sale to find an authentic Eames Lounge Chair for $50. Buy the chair, honor thy code.


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


(Image credit: Mike Hetu)


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Thanks, Rachel!