“When are you going to fix your layout?”
A few weeks after my husband, Dane, and I had closed on our first home, we were making small talk with a chatty real estate agent at the dog park. She’d been inside our house with clients; she was pleased it had finally found new owners, despite the challenges of a short sale. And she didn’t hesitate to issue us some unsolicited design advice: At some point, you’ll have to open things up. Trust me.
Our two-bedroom house in Grant Park isn’t a shotgun house, exactly, but it’s a peculiar cousin to one. The house is skinny and long and cloven in two, lengthwise: one long hallway on the right, and off to its left, a series of small rooms. While we aren’t exactly sure when the house was built (thanks to a fire inside a records department), some sleuthing has led us to believe it dates to around 1905.
Between the submarine-esque layout and, inexplicably, a finished attic sans stairs, our house is a little odd. Compared to other old houses modernized in the key of HGTV, ours feels dark, choppy, and perhaps a bit awkward. Or at least, it felt that way in the beginning.
Back then, we too felt the need to knock down a wall or two, to combine our two small front rooms and “open things up” into one grand, airy, 21st-century space. After an architect gave us a wildly expensive quote to do so, we questioned the idea. If we really wanted to make that many changes, why not just buy a different house or build our own? Why treat this 115-year-old home like a very expensive Lego set?
That spring, we unpacked the boxes and watched the previous owner’s bearded irises poke their green shoots out of the mulch. That fall, we got married. We hosted Thanksgivings, cookouts, and a steady stream of overnight houseguests. We learned which of the rooms was houseplant-friendly and which was most conducive to spending an entire Sunday supine on the couch. (The first and second rooms, respectively.) We even added stairs—not the grand staircase we’d envisioned but no longer the rickety pirate ship’s ladder that tumbled out of the laundry-room ceiling, either.
We never spoke again about gutting those walls, though. And we didn’t feel the need to make peace with them as a necessary inconvenience, either. Instead, we came to appreciate what they gave us: a sense of structure and order that a light-flooded open concept, frankly, never could. One room for cocktails and company; another for Netflix binges and greasy takeout, each with its own distinctive personality and purpose.
“Why treat this 115-year-old home like a very expensive Lego set?”
I’m grateful we didn’t have the means to make those changes to this creaky, lovely old house, because to do so would be forcing it into something it simply isn’t. Take a scroll through Zillow, and you’ll see them: the historic homes whose character has been aesthetically flattened to please our modern taste for convenience (and, apparently, our distaste for rooms). Our house has been here for more than a century. And as long as we’re here, the walls will be too.
As for forcing guests to awkwardly traipse through our bedroom to get to the backyard? We won’t be remodeling that, either: Turns out it’s a whole lot easier, and cheaper, to simply make our bed before company comes over.
Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who has contributed to the New York Times, Curbed, and Atlanta magazine.