One thing about Mary Beth Renaud’s new place: It instantly felt like home. Right down to the bug-and-butterfly wallpaper she had never really liked in her childhood bedroom.
She and her husband, Robert, felt good about buying her parents’ home in Carthage, N.Y., when the older couple retired to a town nearby. Her siblings were pleased the house was staying in the family, and the property offered an expansive yard and pool.
But the Renauds, both artists, had their own designs on the 1930s-era home – ideas sometimes jarring to her parents.
“Every time we did something to the house, it was like, ‘Wow, that looks nice – but it was fine the way it was,’ ” she chuckles.
Welcome to the crossroads of design and emotion, where people who take over their childhood houses can spend years.
Make yourself at home. If you can.
People who inherit a house can find themselves blindsided by memories and unable to part with their parents’ things. Those who buy the family home face the balancing act of putting their stamp on it without alienating Mom and Dad.
After veteran designer Lynn Cobb and her late husband bought and renovated her parents’ home in Norfolk, Va., her mother demanded to know the identity of “that ugly woman hanging over the fireplace.”
Her mother had never said a word about the painting – a copy of an Old Master portrait – when it hung in Cobb’s former house.
There are no definitive statistics on the number of people who end up in their childhood homes. For some, it’s a good deal, or a way to honor parents’ attachment to the home.
Others simply feel the pull of the place where they grew up and sense “an opportunity to reconnect and sort of find oneself,” says Clemson University sociology professor James McDonell.
That opportunity came – with high ceilings and hardwood floors – for Robert M. Stenhouse in 2001. After retiring early from his technology sales job, he spent the next few years renovating and reflecting in his nearly century-old childhood home in Greenville, S.C., having bought out his siblings after their parents’ death.
By turns he reconstituted plaster and wrote “Taste the Red Clay,” a 2003 novel about a man who plumbs his family history while fixing up his old family place.
“It was kind of a catharsis, in a way, in working through the house and the past,” says Stenhouse, who preserved such features as claw-footed bathtubs while expanding bathrooms and building a backyard deck. “A lot of memories come up.”
They do for RJ Breeden, too. Eight years after moving into his childhood home in San Clemente, Calif., he still occasionally catches a whiff of his late father’s aftershave.
The restaurateur has thoroughly updated the 1965 house, from replacing windows to adding a roof deck that affords a view of the Pacific Ocean. He selectively kept evocative objects – his late mother’s glasses and plates in her favorite red, for instance, but not her red carpet.
“I transformed the house from being my parents’ house to being my house,” says Breeden, who also bought out his siblings.
But, he laughs, “I still do burnouts all the way down the street.”
Some people who inherit childhood homes struggle to sift through furniture and their sentiments about it.
Erika Goldman and her architect husband, Charles Giraudet, have reinvented much of the Brooklyn brownstone where she grew up. The changes have been both sweeping – the couple uses some rooms differently than did her late parents, who rented out some of them – and painstaking, like the paint removal that unmasked stenciled friezes from the 1840 house’s early years.
Still there is some of her parents’ Danish modern furniture mingling with the couple’s own stuff. Goldman feels some rooms are overcrowded but can’t bear to exile her parents’ pieces, contenting herself with giving them a new context.
“On the one hand, I wanted to be free of ghosts … but on the other hand, it’s hard to let go,” the publishing executive says.
Putting family possessions in storage can be a start in parsing mixed feelings, says Lancaster, Pa.-based designer Sharon Hanby-Robie.
If parents can be consulted about renovations, should they be? After all, no one who’s paying a mortgage wants to feel like a teenager asking for the keys to Dad’s car.
Designers do advise some effort to make parents feel that their taste and stewardship are respected: arranging a portrait or walkthrough video of the home before changes are made, or keeping a few things they prize.
Such mementoes lend a space “personality … and you maintain that legacy,” says designer Kerrie Kelly, who lives with her sister in their late grandmother’s former condominium in Sacramento, Calif.
Before their grandmother died, the sisters renovated extensively but highlighted her ukulele collection and other curios they came to appreciate through her reminiscences.
Back in Carthage, about 80 miles northeast of Syracuse, Mary Beth Renaud has altered both her house and her parents’ perspective.
They gasped when she painted the cherry-wood kitchen cabinets a creamy yellow to harmonize with Venetian plaster that had replaced dark paneling. But they eventually embraced the new look, says Renaud, who works at an advertising firm.
The ultimate proof: When she ditched an old cast-iron bathtub for a Jacuzzi model, “my mother said to my father, ‘How come we didn’t do that when we lived there?’ ”