My Greatest Antique Restoration Project to Date

The 19th-century house outside of Riga, Latvia, the top two floors would become our home.

During my third year of living in Estonia I met and began dating Egils, a Latvian man. As a working partner in a publishing house in Riga, Latvia, he didn’t have my flexibility of location—or relocation, as it turned out—so for a year my daughters and I split our time between Tartu, Estonia and Riga, Latvia. Gradually, however, the bright lights, cosmopolitan lifestyle of the big city, and a desire to incorporate Egils into our family seduced us away from the small university town that we’d called home for four years.

In the autumn of 1999 we committed to a life in Riga. Egils gave up his rental property, I closed down my flat in Tartu and together we bought the upper half of a, ahem, mansion—or so it was considered when it was built during the Tsar Russian era—located minutes from the city center.

There is a reality that I need to address for anyone unfamiliar with how the Soviet powers viewed wealth—a word very broadly defined—and the subsequent culture that they created, once in power.

After the Soviet occupation, property that even hinted of grandeur was considered a reminder of a despised ruling class that was now gone: exiled to Siberia, executed or, if they were lucky, deported. Magnificent old properties—residential, religious and commercial—were scorned and degraded by the authorities and the people quickly followed suit. Ancient cathedrals were used to store livestock feed and farm machinery. Palaces were used as schools, where children threw basketballs at beautiful, ornate, stucco artwork on ceilings, receiving points for destroying angels’ faces, roses and other precious artwork. Meanwhile, people were allowed to live in residential buildings, such as the one in which we purchased space—but the residential properties were treated with the same disrespect. It was not by default, but by design that these properties should be completely destroyed during the Soviet occupation; had this occupation lasted longer than 50 years, this goal would surely have been reached. But somehow many palaces, cathedrals and homes survived—often in dreadful condition—but salvageable if one had enough imagination, money and time.

Unbeknownst to us—prior to buying the second floor and attic of the house I’d fallen in love with—the once-magnificent home was originally ordered built by a Latvian patrician called Bukvard in 1870 and was designed by the famous Latvian architect Janis Fridrihs Baumanis. The grand home served as a single-family dwelling for the first 50 years of its existence and was last privately owned, from 1921 until the Soviet occupation post-World War Two, by Maria Zeberga (née Wait)—a member of the shipping magnate Wait family. During Soviet times at least seven families lived in the home at one time. Three families, alone, lived in the upper half that we purchased, at which time the attic—which we turned into living space—was not inhabitable because it was used to raise pigeons.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The sight that greeted me on my first ascent (on a ladder that had not been introduced to OSHA) into the attic was frightening as well as breathtaking. It resembled the Yuriatin country house in “Doctor Zhivago,” upon Laura and Yuri’s arrival. The entire attic was completely silent with every square inch dripping white. Unlike the beautiful fresh snow that covered the house in the movie, however, the attic of our house was covered in … well, it was inhabited for decades by pigeons; you do the math.

The building was in such a state of disrepair by the year 1999 that even the real estate agent shook her head in disbelief of our choice. Egils had a laundry list of the luxuries we could walk into if we bought a new build: a dishwasher, fast Internet, ceramic tiles … OK, how about indoor plumbing, unbroken windows and an actual heating system? He presented some compelling arguments. I had my own list, however, of what this 19th-century house would offer us that a new build could not: A 130-year-old interior brick walls just waiting to be exposed; 13-foot ceilings, ceramic-tiled wood stoves that had warmed old bones and babies throughout long Slavic winters during three separate political occupations … and a space that held the memories, dreams, hopes, laughter and tears of more than a century of living, tucked safely inside of its walls and old pine floors—none of which lived in new builds.

The original kitchen. I could complete this project blindfolded with one hand tied behind my back, I kept telling myself.

Upon removing the old brown wallpaper, we exposed newspapers from the 1950s. I was overjoyed with this discovery; but quickly realized that I’d only begun my careful walk back through history. I gently peeled through the layers—each layer revealing a prior decade. The last paper that I was still able to read was from 1921—written during Latvia’s first independence.

I assured everyone around me—most importantly Egils, who was signing on the dotted line (since as a foreigner I was not permitted to buy property in Latvia)—that I’d restored many antiques in my day and built several homes; I could complete this project blindfolded with one hand tied behind my back. But in those hours, just before I fell asleep, with no one around to convince, I wondered if I’d finally bitten off more than I could possibly chew.

With some notable reservations, in the autumn of 1999, Egils signed the necessary papers and we became the extremely stressed-out owners of the largest antique restoration project I had ever tackled: around 1,400 square feet of grand mid-19th-century construction in not so grand post-Soviet Latvia.

I immediately consulted an architect: A woman who was sensitive to our lifestyle and needs as well as admiring of older properties. Her final drawings were glorious and I was proud to have cooperated with her in returning the space to something of beauty and elegance. Initially, I had no intention of deviating from her carefully drawn blueprints. But a strange thing happened on our way to completion: As the project became less of a building and more of a home, it seemed to develop a voice—demanding more light, the exposure of more old wooden beams and quirky angles for all to see. And I was glad to accommodate these demands.

I had entered and adapted to many peculiar surroundings and experiences at this point in my life, but as I entered the most massive reconstruction I’d ever done, with only former Soviet tradesmen—called Masters—to rely on, my ability to adapt was stretched to new limits.

Soviet Masters all seemed to share a few fundamental assumptions: work should be fun and engaging at all times and done at their own pace; furthermore, employers should respect this work ethic. My Masters also felt it prudent for them to sleep in our home—in sleeping bags—to assure they got to work on time (a very loosely defined term). Initially, I struggled—on many levels—with this Master and Me relationship.

The new kitchen seems to be light years away from the original kitchen.

One of the new rooms with the refinished interior.

Initially I admired their philosophy. It was probably a superior way to navigate through life. After all, one spends the better half of one’s life working; therefore work should be enjoyable and done at one’s own speed, right?

My admiration, as well as my understanding, waned drastically, however, when I realized that after six months of construction—and my cousins arriving from America in three weeks—we had no useable kitchen, no door on the only working bathroom and the new roof wasn’t yet fully finished so we were living beneath glorified saran wrap in many areas. What I did when faced with this reality is almost beyond my comprehension today (ah, hindsight): I believed the primary Master when he assured me that, although the first six months appeared very unproductive, I was going to see some major progress in the next three weeks. In fact I would be shocked when I saw how quickly things were about to get underway. And just in time for my cousins’ visit.

Three weeks later, my cousins arrived to no kitchen and still no roof. There was, however, a bathroom door installed in less than eight hours.

In spite of what seemed like an absolute nightmare, at the time, we had a wonderful visit and my cousins still, amazingly, consider my unfinished project—complete with Masters camping out in our kitchen—to be a highpoint of their lives.

After a professional sanitization of the attic and about three years of construction, three quarters of the attic area became living space—a master bedroom ensuite with a sauna, office space for two, a sitting room, a meditation alcove and a plant alcove. The additional attic space created an overlook into the lounge area from the upstairs sitting room and created 20-foot cathedral ceilings in the downstairs lounge. In what had served as living space for three families (on the first floor of our space), we removed several walls and created a kitchen, dining room, lounge and two large bedrooms.

The attic, which was once covered in pigeon, er, drippings, is now a half loft and half master bedroom suite.

The new skylights in the kitchen chased away the Soviet-era gloom.

The exposed original brick does wonders in offering a contrast to the newly plastered walls.

We stripped the darkly painted floors and waxed them until the sun from each window and skylight reflected back at us from their rich golden patina. Upon removing the old brown wallpaper, we exposed newspapers from the 1950s. I was overjoyed with this discovery; but quickly realized that I’d only begun my careful walk back through history. I gently peeled through the layers—each layer revealing a prior decade. The last paper that I was still able to read was from 1921—written during Latvia’s first independence. I sat on the floor, in the midst of the horrible mess I’d created, and attempted to decipher the ads and bylines from more than 80 years before that day. I thought of the family who had lived in my home, full of hopes and dreams for a bright future, in their newly independent country. I thought of how their lives would come crashing down a mere 20 years later. Isn’t it odd how little meaning time has when you’re looking through historical archives collected over many years, or old family photo albums that encompass several generations or old newspapers plastered in layers—nearly a century of time—on crumbling walls?

After exposing as much old brick as possible and replastering the rest of the walls, replacing the roof and installing 13 large skylights, building a modern kitchen, two bathrooms and adding every personal touch we’d ever dreamed of having in a home, our home was completely unrecognizable from its former dark and gloomy Soviet life. And although quite different from its original form, it was flooded with light and the joy that fills any home shared by children, pets and a loving family.

It was an amazing project that frequently stretched me beyond what I considered myself capable of. At times I considered fleeing back to Estonia and living in my tiny two-room flat in Tartu. At other times—like when removing the old newspaper from walls—I cried with gratitude and felt honored to have been allowed this undertaking: to bring this once grand building back to being a joyful home.

Holly Morrison, a writer who now lives in London, has lived abroad for 17 years. She now lives in London with her Latvian husband, Egil. You can read her blog The Accidental Immigrant.

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