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Our Tri-Level Split: Entry and Coat Rack

Dear Renovation Diary,
My task list has had a bit of a snowball effect, in that these minor transformations have been fueling my motivations as our kitchen makeover looms.
On the ground level of the split, and sandwiched between our kitchen and garage, is our entry. I don't have anything grand planned for the space. In the interest of full disclosure, this narrow foyer is used more as a bag drop, collection spot and shoe area more than anything else. 

(With Miss Maddie's furry boots at the door ... but let's focus on the coat rack in its "before" state.)
This is a photo of the in-progress. The gray walls replaced a beige paint color, the ceiling got a coat of white paint and we painted the existing door white as well. The switches and outlet covers have also been replaced with white ones.
I love that coat rack. It saves space and is completely functional. After we finished the bathroom and linen closet, I moved forward to our entry to begin this small project.
I taped around it, removed the hooks and began to strip the sheen off the wood surface. This strip of wood would receive the same treatment as the linen closet, and since I had plenty of supplies left over, the budget was practically non-existent.
(The after - crisp, contemporary and modern.)
(Each family member has their own hook!) 
Though it may not seem like much, that wood piece still required an entire weekend to properly refinish. I also appreciate the fact that posts of this nature are probably more for my benefit than others', since I pull a lot of motivation to keep going when I review these transformations.

Related Posts: Property & Exterior, Upstairs Bathroom and Upstairs Built-In
Next up is flooring, trim and baseboards. We will be purchasing a new floor vent too. 

Our Tri-Level Split: The Upstairs Built-In

Dear Renovation Diary,

Though Split Levels come with the drawback of small closets and bedrooms, ours has a hidden gem.

On the top level, we have a built-in with multiple shelves that can store a surprisingly large amount of necessities. I’m not certain if this is original to the 1992 construction, but my suspicions align with that possibility since the cabinet doors are identical to the kitchen’s. 

Here is an in-progress shot of the hallway. The kids’ bedrooms are on this level – with Landen’s straight ahead and Madelyn’s to the right. The bathroom door is to the left (taken before we started on the bathroom remodel). You can see how much of a space-saver the built-in is, and how well the empty space was utilized for storage.

(The doors were removed so I could refinish them. See what I mean about how
much stuff I can store in there? It's so useful!)

That tone of wood was originally carried throughout the house – doors, trim, cabinetry. It seemed to really date the home. It dimmed the sunlight that came in through the windows too. 

Going from dark to crisp white was a challenge, as it required the use of a liquid stripper to remove the sheen and prep the surface for paint. Four coats of paint later, I was still struggling to achieve even coverage. I used a Rustoleum enamel with a finish that would match our baseboards, however the tone of the hardwood was just too dark and it became quite the job.

I finally achieved the coverage I was aiming for. Then, I had to apply it to the cabinet surround. Considering how long the doors took, I was not looking forward to this process.

I let it dry and set for an hour, then started painting. This actually covered a lot better than the doors, and went on a lot smoother and easier. 

We hung the doors with the new hinges but screwed in the original handles, and I shut the door on this two-weekend project.

And a fun before/after picture:
Cue the margaritas.

Our Tri-Level Split: The Upstairs Bathroom

Dear Renovation Diary,

I am taken aback by the “shock and awe” less than 50-square feet can inspire in someone.

Unfortunately, I could not find a lot of the “before” photos I had taken of our upstairs bathroom.

Before, the bathroom was completely functional and the layout was convenient. Somewhere in the home’s history, an additional doorway was added to allow access from the Master bedroom. Because it can be marketed as an “en suite,” Nick and I aimed to give this bathroom a serene, spa-like appeal.

We did nothing to change the bathroom’s footprint. We utilized its strengths by keeping the original tub surround, large mirror and vanity. The vanity hardware and doorknobs were reused as well.

The largest impact came from the new paint. We carried the same gray-and-white color scheme, and thanks to the skylight, natural light fills the room and reflects off the surfaces. During the day, we do not even have to turn on the light.

I refinished the vanity using a Rustoleum Furniture Kit (color is Espresso). But mostly, my main contribution to the renovation was chasing parts for my husband.

Because this is a reflection of his skill, his patience and his handiwork. He laid the flooring, installed the new countertop, cut the holes for the new sink and faucet, added the new toilet and put up the baseboards and trim. I cannot get over the impact the vessel sink and contemporary faucet has on this bathroom, which were his suggestion, and one I completely agreed with.

The sweat equity kept our renovation total to less than $1,000. The flooring purchase was our largest expense, but we bought enough to install it in our kitchen, stairs and basement landing.

When we showed the kids the result, Landen’s expression spoke volumes. “It feels like the bathroom of a mansion!”

I don't think I could love it more.

Using Ghost Tours to Explore a Historic City - Savannah, GA

(Staircases in Savannah take on a new level of creepiness,
especially when they descend into the basement.)
Dear Travel Diary,

When Nick and I traveled to Savannah a few years ago, I booked a couple of ghost tours.
Now I know what you're thinking ...
But the main reason why: access. The tours gave us access to areas of historical buildings typically off-limits to the public. I was curious. I wanted to see as much as possible. I hated being cordoned off by 'No Trespassing' signs or barricades. These tours allowed us to bypass all of it without threat of being ticketed.
(Moon River Brewery is reportedly the site of a makeshift hospital for children suffering during a yellow fever outbreak. This creepy old staircase lead to the third floor, but it was physically unsafe for us to ascend.)

(Just look at the craftsmanship of the era. This room was on the second floor of Moon River,
where employees are often too fearful to go due to a vengeful ghost.)

Whatever beliefs you may hold regarding the paranormal, I do not think ghost tours ought to be completely discredited. They can provide a wonderful insight into the city's history, the prominent figures, and stories that have turned into city legends that may explain why or how the place came to be. They are a great exposure to the past, an era folded into the passages of time, and one very different than the one you live in.

(The tree-lined path on the historic Wormsloe Plantation site was hauntingly beautiful.)

Of course, one of the tours was filled with such far-fetched claims of ghost activity, to which I responded negatively, and our tour guide was not happy to find a skeptic on HIS tour. (Side note: I'm what I call an Optimistic Skeptic - I keep an open mind, but try to find an explanation.)

The second tour was much more respectful to the fact that a claim is a claim. There is often little to no documented proof to back it up, however - there are dozens of witnesses who felt or saw the same thing. After the tour guide tells the story, she asked the crowd, what's your takeaway? The tour was an intriguing blend of history with these stories, and we were allowed to linger or explore a certain area to make our own determination.

Even Nick, who is very logical, was interested in what was discussed as we stood on the property; especially when the focus was the Revolutionary or Civil War.
(The basement of Moon River Brewery.)

... Which I think is where such tours can find their success. Get people talking about the history, what you know to be fact, show them the location, but leave it for them to decide. It all points to the notion that life is not always black and white. What lies within the gray area, is still a mystery to explain.

Especially in a city like Savannah.

How a Pair of Clogs Changed My Life

Dear Diary,

Once upon a time, a pair of handmade Swedish clogs came into my life and opened up a world of possibility.

I do not remember the "when," likely because it feels like it has always been there. I've met extraordinary people - people I consider to be my close friends. I've experienced incredible opportunities as well, from writing copy for the company, to modeling their products, to representing them at trade shows, to seeing firsthand how they are made in Sweden.

It's true, the old saying - a pair of shoes can change your life.

Sandgrens Clogs has a longstanding history of creating its iconic styles in the passed-down tradition of forging each pair by hand.

For this reason, each pair is unique. They are comfortable, versatile and incredibly durable - shoes that withstand the revolving door of fashion trends, and regular wear. In fact, I wore a pair of clog heels to my sister's wedding, and last the full day in them. I just cannot say that about a pair of pumps or stilettos.

And I'm grateful for it all, not only for the bump in my shoe collection. I learned a lot about myself, about time management, about perspective. I've learned to jump in headfirst the moment I feel myself being pulled, and never look back. It's improved my confidence, helped me grow as a creative writer, expanded my personal communication skills, and taught me to always consider the potential. Though the vehicle came in the form of fashion, the function of such lessons has benefited so many facets of who I am today. And it continues to inspire me.

Beautiful things start happening when you step outside your comfort zone.

What inspires you?

Our Tri-Level Split - The Property & Exterior

Dear Renovation Diary,

We purchased our Tri-Level Split in April 2012.

(Since we all love a good before/after comparison, this is from the original listing.)
(Debating on an accent color ...)

(The final result - the snow from a recent accumulation has melted.)

Unfortunately, there were no historical mysteries to uncover about our home. There were no fun, aged photographs found behind walls and no microfilm to pour over at the library. We didn’t have to conduct research on what architectural style the home’s construction followed either.  

One look and you know – Split Level. Obviously.

Our Tri-Level Split was built in 1992, and they seem to come a dime-a-dozen in the Twin Cities suburbs. They are e-very-where

Having emerged onto America’s suburban landscape in the 50s and 60s, the style was immensely popular because it was considered “fresh design.” It was thought to be more grand than the bungalow-style homes, yet very appealing because it could be built on a smaller lot. With plans derived from Ranch-style homes, which were inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s infamous designs, Split Levels had the appeal of dividing public and private spaces with a strategic half-staircase.

Plus, Split Levels were affordable. And they still are, considering half a century after their boom in popularity we purchased ours for a fraction of its worth.

Though the design is no longer considered modern, and it is still considered practical.

The Perks of Owning a Split as a First-Timer

In our home, the great room does feel more spacious than it truly is, thanks in part to the cathedral ceiling. The layout has a casual feel as well, which is a draw for young families. And I would certainly consider our staircase to be the home’s focal point, as it is the first feature to greet you as you enter the home. 

The main living space is open concept, so it’s ideal for entertaining. If I’m in the kitchen, I still feel like I’m a part of the celebration because it’s all contained within the same space. If I'm preparing dinner, I can still keep an eye on my kids when they're playing.

The Drawbacks of Tri-Level Ownership

It’s rarely a home style requested by home buyers.

That’s due to the Split Level’s drawbacks – small closets and small bedrooms. Plus, most Split Levels showcase hardly any architectural details. It’s very basic, with the purpose solely to provide shelter.

Plus, I’ll admit it – I don’t like going up and down the stairs. Despite the drawbacks, at the end of the day, Split Levels remain an option of consideration due to attractive pricing.

The Next Chapter

While we put a lot of work into the house, we did nothing to overhaul the home’s existing footprint. Fresh and updated paint made the largest impact on the home, and we had a new roof and new windows installed. It is difficult to add curb appeal to the exterior of Split Levels, simply due to its haphazard layout, but we made it work with the canvas we had.

We'd definitely market this as a family home – the cluster of bedrooms on the top level is ideal for young children, and I appreciate the privacy of the lowest. The open concept great room is ideal for entertaining and family time as I mentioned above, and our property has the added benefit of a large yard. 

(Another photo from the original listing - everything the light touches is our kingdom ...)
(The backyard shed as it looked the day we moved in ...)

(A fun in-progress picture of the shed upgrade ...)

(The new shed basking in the glory of fall colors.)

While home designs today have increased in square footage and grandeur, I do think Split Levels are generally underrated. It is one of the best ways to start the journey of homeownership, especially if you’re on a budget in a high-priced neighborhood. Utility costs are also low as is our homeowners insurance, and we are in a good school district.

Most importantly, our Tri-Level has taught me invaluable lessons while serving as our home base.

So Why Do We Intend To Sell?

This house met all of our criteria - we wanted an attached garage, at least 3 bedrooms, open concept and a large yard. I have absolutely no complaints about it.

Unfortunately, we live 6 hours from our closest relative and average an overnight guest a month. We do not have a dedicated space for people to come stay with us. Over time, we've also realized we need a separate office, with doors. And I miss having a full basement. Our Tri-Level has a crawl space, however I've kapowed my forehead into the low ceiling so many times that I'm over it. Okay, maybe that last sentence was a bit of a complaint but you get the idea.

What do you think of Split Levels? Would you turn away from their possibility?

I intend to post room tours with details of each of the 3 levels of the home. Stay tuned!

Update on Bucket List #32: Visit all 50 States

Dear Diary,

I’m almost halfway through my quest to visit all 50 states as posted on my '101 in 1001' list.

Thus far, I’ve crossed off:

1. Wisconsin – I was born and raised here, and Madelyn was born here
2. Minnesota – current residence
3. Illinois – got married there
4. Iowa – where I met & got engaged to Nick, graduated college & had Landen
5. Michigan – but wish to explore Traverse City soon!
6. New York
7. New Jersey
8. Georgia 
9. South Carolina – but wish to explore Charleston
10. Texas
11. Montana
12. Wyoming
13. South Dakota
14. Tennessee
15. Washington – but wish to see more of Seattle
16. Colorado – where we honeymooned
17. California
18. Nevada
19. Arizona
20. New Mexico
21. Hawaii – but wish to explore more of the islands
22. Missouri
23. Florida

And I've traveled to 3 countries so far (#worldtraveler, ha!) - Canada, Sweden and Denmark.

Reviewing this list only fuels my wanderlust further. I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list!

Bourbon Butcher Cocktails - Farmington, MN

Dear Diary,

After the ONE Walk, I took my grandmother and mother to Bourbon Butcher for Happy Hour.

I was excited to share it with them - first for the ambiance; second to make a "3 generations" memory.

I ordered the same delicious New Zealand-born Sauvignon Blanc as last time. My mother ordered an Old Fashioned, and my grandmother chose a frozen Gin and Tonic.

Apparently, it was a two-step process to enjoy:

The mug's contents had the consistency of a margarita, over which she poured a sweet concoction we assumed was grenadine. She had to pour slowly, pausing to stir and blend the ingredients. She seemed to enjoy the taste of her fancy drink!

(The family matriarch - 3 kids, 10 grandkids and 8 great-grandkids! I'm certain my grandpa, who passed away in 2001, was cheering her on in this moment.)

We also ordered cheese curds.

For my readers outside the Midwest (and especially those outside the state of WI - which I can differentiate since I was born and raised there), not all cheese curds are created equal. Luckily, Bourbon Butcher nailed the just-right combination of melty cheese, air-fluff fried crispiness and a sweet dipping sauce that perfectly complemented our cocktails.

More than a treat savored at a State Fair, cheese curds have come to found a heritage, thereby symbolizing and entire region of a nation - the Midwest.

We stayed for 3 hours before reuniting with my husband and kiddos back home.

It was a fitting stop to our day - while the JDRF ONE Walk fills us with the hope that a cure is eminent and we feel like we are contributing to its discovery, we wish such a thing wasn't necessary to pray for. Always choose to look for the good though, and in this case - I have a healthy T1D warrior and a new story to tell about our time together at Happy Hour.

First, visit their Web site and peruse the posted sampling of their menu. Specials change constantly, so it's best to browse in-person, but you still get a delicious idea of what the kitchen prepares. Truth? Bourbon Butcher's speciality is their bar menu of unique cocktails and vintage sodas. The food merely helps to clear your palette and fill your stomach. I would however, consider their lunch menu for a fulfilling meal.

Then, arrive - and might I recommend a table close to the bar? It is the restaurant's design and conversation-starting focal point.

Peruse the page-upon-page of signature cocktails (our waitress referred to the menu as "the library"), selecting the one that best appeals to your taste buds.

And pair it with the cheese curds. Though you are in the Twin Cities, you're a mere 45 minutes from the WI border, so it's influence is apparent within its taste. You won't regret the spike in your cholesterol levels.

9 Things That Surprised Me About Sweden


Dear Travel Diary,

Nick and I had the absolute privilege to travel to Sweden during the Midsummer holiday. It was my first time visiting the country, my first time traveling outside North America and my first time experiencing 24-hour daylight. Being such a newbie, in addition to getting a little too excited about my passport stamps in Copenhagen, I must confess to a few things that surprised me about my experiences:

(Our train car en route from Copenhagen to our final destination in Sweden.)

1. You have to pay to use a public restroom
After a 10+ hour flight overseas then a 4-hour train ride after downing the largest cup of to-go coffee I could find in the Copenhagen airport, I was faced with a dire emergency when we arrived at our destination. So while waiting for our ride I ducked into what I thought looked like a public restroom, only to discover the door was locked. It would not open until I deposited 5 Krona into the coin box. I was nearly in tears when I told Nick. He suggested I try talking with the clerk in the convenience store across the street. I walked in, I smiled, and I explained my situation. Without knowing exchange rates, I offered him a couple dollars of American currency. He became very excited, proclaimed he loved Americans, and gave me 10 Krona so Nick and I could use the restroom. I insisted he keep my money offering - perhaps out of desperation, perhaps because he was genuine; but it was really hard to read the conversation. 

I never realized just how much you can get for free (bathrooms, refills, etc) in America until I left the country.

Also - the toilets in Europe are like a closet rather than a stall. Full walls. On all four sides. 

2. Grocery shopping was an adventure!
Sweden bans the majority of the crap on the shelves of American grocery stores because it doesn't meet their high health and quality standards. We recognized very few brands; Lays and Doritos being two (side note: Cool Ranch Doritos are called "Cool American" overseas). And unfortunately, save for a very slim Swedish vocabulary, Nick and I do not speak the language. We were, however, able to find a store employee who spoke English, understood Nick's dietary needs, and helped us select the best gluten-free products. 

All of their bottled water is carbonated! It is very hard to find still water (key label wording there) because their tap water tastes exceptional.
(There wasn't any air conditioning - we'd open the windows but with 24 hours of daylight it made sleep difficult; and we'd blast the hotel-supplied fan. It was hot and bright trying to sleep.)

3. Bigger is not always better
This emphasis was especially seen in the size of the living space and our hotel room. We had a very nice room at a historic hotel in Kalmar - a queen size bed, a sitting area, a wardrobe, kitchenette, and bathroom was configured into a space no bigger than Landen's bedroom. You take only what you need and nothing more. 

4. The Swedish consume a lot of coffee - like, A LOT 
... And that's coming from someone who enjoys coffee! One night, while Nick and I sat on a patio (during midsummer, so at 10 pm it was still broad daylight) drinking cocktails to unwind, patrons at tables nearby sipped coffee. It was too late for me to consume caffeine because it'd keep me up all night. 

While in Europe, I got to drink Cuban wine. That trade embargo really closed Americans off from incredible things. Now, I don't intend to sound insensitive to the plight of the Cuban people under dictatorship and what the revolution did, but I also believe the embargo benefited no one. It remains one of my dreams to travel and explore the island of Cuba.
(As you can see, Nick and I did the majority of our exploring at night. Or at least, what you call "night" during midsummer ...)

5. That there was life prior to 1776. 
We explored the grounds of a castle built in the 1300s in Kalmar with its cannons still pointed into the bay to safeguard its harbor. It makes you realize just how "young" a country America is. It also makes you realize how isolated North America is from the rest of the world, considering we are separated by a major ocean. The castle we toured had incredible architecture and engineering considering the centuries it withstood.

6. They're fluent in multiple languages, and are so humble regarding their English. 
I felt like such an asshole for only speaking English, which is more a reflection on me than them. Americans view the English language as superior, and therefore close their minds off to learning others. However in other countries and even specific business sectors like aviation, English is considered universal. Do you see the difference there? I fully intend to learn a few more basic phrases in Swedish before my next trip.

7. Wine is cheaper than soda at restaurants.
8. Everything is within walking distance, or people ride their bike. 
The highways were EMPTY - no one used a car until it was time to retreat to their summer homes for the Midsummer holiday. We had an electric Prius in Sweden that we drove around Kalmar and PĂ„ryd and were often the only car on the road. 

Also - Celsius and the metric system really threw me off. Why does America insist on being so difficult?! Again, it's the whole superiority complex ...
(We happened to be in downtown Kalmar when the Swedish soccer team played its elimination match in the World Cup. They unfortunately lost, and I've never seen a major city go from bumpin' to ghost town in 5 seconds flat. This photo was taken just before midnight - look at how bright it still is.)

9. You savor. 
I confess to overscheduling my day into oblivion, so when I experienced Fika in Sweden, I felt out of place. Fika loosely translates to "take a break," and I witnessed an entire factory shut down at 2 pm for a coffee break that included sweets and a lot of conversation. Yes, people need to work in order to afford their essentials but their emphasis is on living life to its fullest with the people in it.

I cannot wait to take my children to Sweden. I believe allowing a passport to help raise them will unlock their minds and their curiosity.

Traveling cashes a cultural paycheck we all can benefit from.