When most people do a major remodel of their home, everyone expects the face-lift to make the house look like “a new person.”
But when your home is located in a historical district, the options are fewer and more restrictive. In that case, the idea is to make your house look the same, only better. And that’s exactly what Max and Cay Nielsen were able to do with their century-old home in Boise’s East End.
The Nielsens knew what they wanted. They have lived in the house for almost 36 years. They moved there from Hyde Park with two toddlers. They loved the neighborhood. But now that their kids are grown, they (somewhat ironically) wanted more space.
“We raised our two kids in this very small house, and when the grandkids started coming, we really knew we needed more space,” Cay said.
“Many people downsize,” Max said. “We went the opposite. Just so we could have more opportunity for spending more time with our family.”
But the process of going from 1,400 square feet to about 2,700 square feet (plus another 1,000 square feet for a garage/workshop and bonus room) was a long journey.
The Nielsens’ Idaho roots go deep. The grandkids are fifth-generation Idahoans. Max’s grandparents lived in Kuna, while Cay’s great-grandparents lived out in Eagle. It turns out that their daughter-in-law’s family homesteaded next to Cay’s back in those early Eagle days.
“So three or four generations later, we mix it up,” Cay said.
Meanwhile, the house itself is also more than 100 years old, built around 1912 or earlier.
And it was time for that face-lift, Cay said.
It was something they had planned for, though.
They had owned the house to the east of them since about 2000 — it had already been part of Max’s family for a long time — and they liked the idea of keeping it in the family, at least for a while. (They have since sold it.)
In the 1990s, the Nielsens had also purchased the home to the west. Originally the first house on the block, it was even older than their house. With it, they created a cozy cottage, which they use for short-term rentals. It was remodeled in about 2000 with the idea of living there during the remodel of their own house.
“The plan was to dig out the basement, add a garage and enlarge the kitchen,” Cay said. “A basement was our only option to expand.”
“And we wanted a basement,” Max said.
As with many homes, it had seen a couple of remodels over the years, basically a second bathroom and an expanded bathroom. But the house needed some more updates. And they wanted a garage.
“We weren’t just going to build a house without a garage,” Max said. With the required workshop, of course, and that small 300-square-foot bonus room.
Max is an employee of Micron, and the couple was on what they call the “Micron travel plan” for a few years, spending a lot of time overseas. But when they came home, they found an important change in their neighborhood. In 2005, their house had become a part of the East End Historic District.
Anyone who lives in a historic district already knows how challenging a remodeling project can be. There are rules, restrictions, hoops to jump through, more restrictions and resistance from neighbors who fear the character of the area will change too much. It can be an exhausting negotiation process.
They had already crossed the first hurdle. After waiting nearly 30 years to become part of the Warm Springs Water District, and at some expense, they had finally been approved to join the geothermal system so famous for this part of town.
“That was the tipping point as far as I was concerned,” Max said. “I wouldn’t even consider (the renovation) unless we had the opportunity for geothermal.”
The annual heating cost is now about $500, and it heats the home, the floors, basement and garage. A small lap pool is in the drawing stage. (There is a backup heating system just in case.)
“It’s quite nice to get up and have warm floors,” Cay said.
The travails of getting the project approved are another story. The formal process required getting everything lined up just right, wrangling out all the construction and materials details, and a formal presentation that required several hearings, including a final appeal with the Boise City Council, which approved it.
“In this whole process, we had the most wonderful neighbors supporting us,” Cay said.
In the application cover letter, Cay summed it up like this: “Simply put, we want our dream home in our beloved neighborhood.”
From the beginning of those first filings through the remodel, the process took nearly two years.
The Nielsens realized from the start that it was going to be a challenging project. “That’s why we hired the designer we did, and that’s why we hired the contractor we did,” Cay said.
The contractor was Gary Beck, owner of Beck Construction, who was known to the Nielsens, and has done similar work. The residential designer was Catherine B. Scott. She and Max had gone to school together as kids, and she was their obvious choice to help in the transformation. Scott and Beck have worked on many projects together since 1986. Scott knew Beck had the know-how to interpret the whole process.
You have to have the right person, Scott said, or “you’ve got nothing. You’ve just got a mess.”
As a residential designer, Scott’s role fell in between that of Beck’s construction work and the interior design expertise of Betsy McFadden, who worked with the hard surface items, like wood patterns, lighting, etc., especially in the kitchen and bathroom.
“We truly had the best team,” Cay said. “This was a difficult project and without that team, I don’t think we would have been able to get the results we did. We would not have had this.”
The design process itself was actually pretty easy, Scott said. It matches the original floor plan, which is a “shotgun” house, a standard floor plan of the time. It starts with the living space and moves through the dining area with the kitchen at the back. The bedrooms and bathroom are off to the side. That area became a master suite instead of three small bedrooms. And doors were added to the house to connect to the garden.
But it was still a complex project, Scott said. One of the biggest challenges was to build a basement and to determine just where the stairs would be placed. A basement was the only way to add square footage to the home. A second story could not be added because of the historic district provisions, nor could the home and garage exceed a certain percentage of the lot.
The other challenge was that the home was not of the best construction to begin with. A lot of homes from that period were built on a shoestring budget.
“When we started this, we were doing a remodel, and we ended up doing a whole house,” Cay said. “There is not one piece of the house that’s not new.”
Well, except for a couple of pieces of wood in the attic rafters. “Just two,” Max said. Cay also kept her beloved bathtub.
The original plan was to redo just the back third of the house. But when they started to replace the windows, they immediately ran into a problem.
“Once we removed the windows, there was hardly anything left of the structure,” Cay said. “There was nothing holding the house up.”
“There weren’t any structural headers over the windows,” Scott said. “The studs were randomly placed at best. They took a little liberty with the spacings. It was really, really substandard building. In a perfect world, you could tear the house down and start over. But it isn’t allowed in a historical district.”
While the first plan was to take down the back third, there was little choice but to take down two-thirds of the home. The roof and the walls were too inadequate.
“More and more of it just kept tumbling down,” Scott said.
The Nielsons’ daughter, Erika Prosser, had grown up in the house, and when she saw what an “ugly little box” it looked like all stripped down, she told her mother she almost cried. She had never realized how dilapidated the house really was because her mother had always made the home so warm and welcoming.
And so the studs were replaced one at a time, piece by piece, including the clapboard siding.
“They took what was original, and they re-created it,” Cay said. “I think that’s why when you walk in here, it still has that very same feel.”
“It was a delight how it turned out. I couldn’t be happier with it,” Scott said. She particularly likes the front elevation of the house. It looks more like a well-cared-for older home than something that had seen major renovation.
“I think what we achieved here is that it still has the feeling of a small, comfortable bungalow,” Cay said. “From the front of the house, you hardly even see a difference.”
“When we got all done, through all the years of planning, through all the mayhem, you’ve got a beautiful house that fits its historical period and fits its neighborhood,” Scott said.
“The quality workmanship is easy to see and to enjoy,” Max said. “It has been very well received by the neighborhood.”
“We’re both happy,” Cay said. “I have a beautiful kitchen … and he has his garage with a little shop in it. Doesn’t every man want a garage?”
Max also loves having a basement with an entertainment room, while much of the rest of the family has an affinity for Cay’s culinary skills. She likes to bake.
“My kids refer to it as Nana’s Bistro,” she said.
Even 8-year-old grandson Soren Nielsen appreciates the new house.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “It doesn’t have the slivers it used to.”
After all, what kid doesn’t like to slide across wooden flooring in his socks?
Neighbors walk by and admire the home and are often heard saying how they would like to do the same thing to their own house. During the growing seasons, the front white garden also sets the yard apart. Cay likes her gardens and has a background in floral design. She uses her outside plants to give seasonal accents to the inside of her home as well. Backyard landscaping will be the focus of the next phase, along with the small geothermal lap pool, and finishing the garage bonus room.
But it seems to be unanimous. The project was a success.
“At the end of the day, the consensus is that this is a very beautiful house,” Cay said.
“It’s so much more relaxing,” Max said. “In fact, I don’t even like leaving in the morning.”
And what does their daughter think of the finished work?
“She wants to move back in,” Cay said.
Dusty Parnell is a freelance print, radio and print journalist who has been working in the Treasure Valley for about 25 years.
The project team
The work it took to re-create Max and Cay Nielsen’s home in the East End Historic District of Boise could not have been done, of course, without the expertise of several hardworking and talented people.
It started with Residential Designer Catherine B. Scott, who created the updated but historic design, followed by the project’s contractor, Gary Beck.
“He was like a puzzle-maker,” Cay said. She said he was quiet and methodical, and she would sometimes find him standing in the home just studying how the reconstructed home would go back together piece by piece.
“Gary would come in and lay it out, and Gordon Beck and Tom Kassis (Beck’s master carpenters) would execute it,” Cay said. “It was quite amazing.”
The Nielsens give a lot of credit to Beck and his proven first-rate subcontractors. The original fireplace could not be created due to the original inferior and crumbling firebrick, but it was replaced with native sandstone and is now the centerpiece of the living room, thanks to B&B Masonry.
Betsy McFadden of McFadden Design Inc. in Boise played an important role with interior surfaces and lighting, and the work of Jennifer Baldwin Design helped finish it off with blinds, carpet and wallpaper.
“The only sub chosen by us was Signature Painting because of previous excellent work done for us,” Cay said.
Here are the rest of those involved:
A-1 Heating & Air Conditioning
CB Tile & Stone
Greco Hardwood Floors
Far West Landscaping (Stacy Schafer)
Cay’s decorating tips
Cay Nielsen has a classy, understated decorative style she uses to accent her home with fresh floral creations. Beginning in 1995, she had a small floral design shop within Greens ‘n Things called The English Garden. She favors European-style arrangements. Christmas traditions at her home include a wreath for the door and a tree gathered by the family in the Idaho City area.
“I’m not a fan of overdecorating for the holidays,” she said, adding that she tries to make her creations as natural as possible. She gets inspiration from her own gardens.
“Go out into your garden and pick from it,” she advises. “I go around the yard and clip the evergreens and clip the berries. And I use fresh fruit in bowls.”
Her decorations are always seasonal, and she plans her gardens with that in mind.
“Be inspired by your own surroundings,” she said.