Before and After: A Tiny, Dated Firehouse Goes from Dingy to Charming, Thanks to Thrifted Finds
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Location: Jamaica Plain — Boston, Massachusetts
Size: 398 square feet
Years Lived In: 3 years, owned
My 398-square-foot, one-bedroom condo is located in a century-old firehouse in Boston’s vibrant Jamaica Plain neighborhood. It is tucked away between a historic cemetery, an arboretum, and a major subway station. Before it was decommissioned in the 1950s, the firehouse was home to one of the city’s first automated firetrucks. The apartment oozes with original structural charm, including exposed brick, high ceilings, and wood floors. The kitchen and living area share a massive eight-foot wide arched window (the old front door to the firehouse), allowing natural light to pour in—perfect for growing plants!
Living in the firehouse was my first foray into any type of interior design. I completely fell in love with the process. I bought nothing new, opting instead to spend way too many hours visiting local second-hand shops and estate sales as well as scouring Craigslist for necessary and unnecessary goods and wares.
If my time with the firehouse taught me how to fall in love with a place, I also learned how to let it go. After my fiancée and I got engaged, we moved into her cute little apartment on the other side of the neighborhood. It is funny what love does to you. I thought I would always hold onto the firehouse. It was my first home, my first love affair with a space. But after such a deeply personal connection with the firehouse, it would have felt weird for me to be a landlord. So when I moved out earlier this year, I sold it. I was there for three magical years. But sometimes even the most wonderful dwelling place can’t be a forever home. I was not sad to leave, but I was grateful for every moment that I got to live there. And I’m glad to share it with Apartment Therapy.
Apartment Therapy Survey:
My Style: Eclectic, mid-century, industrial with a European sensibility
Inspiration: As a well-traveled academic, I have been inspired by the places I’ve been. During my time as a doctoral student in the quaint town of Bath, England, for example, I observed how to utilize small spaces. I saw how elegant design did not have to compromise functionality. I have also found inspiration in quirky cafes in Lisbon, dusty curio shops in Zanzibar, and charming-but-forlorn government buildings in Chandigarh, India.
Favorite Element: My favorite element is the kitchen island. I bought the island off Craigslist from a woman whose mom made it. I was told that the wood top came off a retired boat from New Orleans. The base of the island was from an antique piece of furniture. It was originally a beige color, but I painted it a matte onyx-black. I love the way that the black blends in with the industrial island stools and matches the accent wall. I added some old brass pulls I found in a tiny antique shop in Zanzibar. In addition to being an eye-pleaser, the island serves essential functions. It is my pantry, my storage area for cooking accoutrements, my second countertop for ambitious cooking projects, a breakfast bar, and my work desk.
Biggest Challenge: When I bought the apartment, the 68-inch wide kitchen was a bit depressing. Its layout was a 15-year-old relic from what must have been a condo conversion done in haste. The cooking area had a tiny sink and no counter space. The glass cooktop was cracked. And a behemoth stainless-steel fridge took up nearly half the kitchen area. The challenge was figuring out a way to make the kitchen functional and feel spacious and inviting. I needed counter space, storage, and a smidgen of charm. I decided that the kitchen needed to be redone from scratch.
I got the demolition done for free by giving away the original kitchen island, cabinets, and sink to a guy in exchange for the labor it took for him to remove them. I sold the massive fridge, too. This freed up enough room for a stainless-steel sink-counter combo and a 20-inch electric range.
I wanted open shelving to define the kitchen area. I found some reclaimed chestnut beams at a local salvage shop. The beams are perfectly timeworn, complete with boreholes, nail holes, and other imperfections. I sourced the brackets from a blacksmith on Etsy who told me his first love is making swords. The blacksmith also made the matching pot rack and hooks. The blue backsplash tiles are made from recycled glass. I absolutely love how the kitchen turned out!
Proudest DIY: I am a big fan of mid-century sofas. I love how their sophisticated design is defined by simplicity. I’m less enthusiastic about modern reproductions, which while widely available, are often expensive and lack the charm of the originals. So, I was pretty excited to find an original mid-century sofa frame from the former Yugoslavia for sale on Craigslist. The sofa had decent bones and I was able to refinish the wooden frame fairly easily. But the original cushions needed replacing. It turns out that custom-made cushions are really expensive—the estimates I got for six new cushions were roughly 20 times more than I paid for the sofa! My fiancée found upholstery fabric when she was visiting her family in India and got the cushion covers tailored at an affordable price. We bought foam to fill the cushions and are very happy with the results!
Biggest Indulgence: After a few months looking on eBay, I found a brand-new blue Smeg fridge for about half the retail price. Given how gorgeous it is, I took the fridge out of the kitchen entirely, placing it along the living area wall near the kitchen. It visually anchored the whole living and kitchen space, while freeing up precious kitchen real estate for the kitchen counter and range.
Best Advice: You can never have too many plants (advice from my mom).
What’s your best home secret? Tiny spaces can be tricky to keep organized. This is particularly the case for pantry items. I would suggest organizing your pantry into boxes. For example, I have a box for cooking oils and vinegars, a box for dry foods like pasta, a box for spices, and one for my daily smoothie items. Putting things in small boxes can be particularly helpful to keep small spaces organized and uncluttered. I’ve found it’s useful to give each item a ‘home’ rather than just shoving it into a cabinet or shelf, which can quickly devolve into clutter and disarray.
PAINT & COLORS
- Benjamin Moore — Onyx in Pearl Finish
- Mid-century sofa— Frame from Craigslist, cushion covers custom made from India
- Vintage wooden boxes — Yard sale
- Cubic wool rug – Vintage shop
- Wall lamp – West Elm (model out of stock, similar here)
- Large mid-century portrait of a woman – Estate sale
- Mid-century floating bookshelf – Estate sale
- Milking tool underneath fiddle leaf fig – Antique store
- Kofod Larsen Lounge Chair for Selig– Craigslist
- Chalk portrait of a dog above fridge – Vintage shop
- Italian gold side table – Vintage shop
- Toledo stools —Restoration Hardware
- Kitchen island/bar – Craigslist
- Rwandan basket above bathroom door – Gayaha Links (in Rwanda)
- Portrait of elderly Bulgarian woman – eBay
- Other paintings – Various vintage shops and estate sales
- Bed – Restoration Hardware (model out of stock)
- Black dresser – Vintage shop
- Broyhill Brasilia Dresser – Craigslist
- Three mid-century birds on wall – Etsy
- Agneta ahower curtain – Anthropologie