For most of her waking hours, Dasha Faires is the director of product development at Man Repeller. But she and her husband Dan Faires share a lifelong obsession that consumes the rest of her creative energy: completely transforming neglected spaces and giving them a new life. Their latest project is a converted schoolhouse in Kenoza Lake, New York and it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to call it a labor of love—in fact, despite the requisite challenges all renovations entail, these projects have become a cornerstone of their relationship. Here, Dasha tells the story and shares some of the DIY and shopping tips she’s picked up along the way.
Dan grew up in an old house in Arkansas—that’s how he became so handy. He and his dad and brothers fixed up their house one room at a time. Aside from renting apartments that just needed things done, and doing a lot of work on them, our first big project was a wedding venue.
We bought a late-1800s blacksmith shop in our hometown that had been turned into a hardware store. We were high school sweethearts and met there so it was very dear to our hearts.
The downtown area had just become a ghost town. We were like, “We have to pump some energy back into this place!” So we scraped our pennies together and bought the building. Dan did all the work, but because we were home, he also had help from his brothers and my dad and uncle. It was a total transformation. We don’t have it anymore—we sold it last year. But it was very much like the schoolhouse—a place where you’d be like, “Nobody wants that.” And then we made it have its little moment.
I think at this point, we probably feed off of each other’s energy when it comes to renovation projects. We met a couple last week and they were like, “Well, they say that it makes you or breaks you.” I was like, “I think it’s breaking us” [laughs]. With kids it can become really difficult. I think it would be very challenging if, for example, you had a partner who had different taste. Dan and I just know that a new place isn’t our style. I have a feeling even if we could live in a fancy high rise, we probably wouldn’t. We’d just choose our old tenement building that we fixed up because it’s more our style. A place that has a history and a soul is really important to us. We’ve lived through so many of these renovation projects, at this point, we always know that eventually it will be completed and hopefully become a place we can enjoy with friends and family.
When we first pulled up to the schoolhouse, the realtor was like, “Okay, before we go in the house, you have to sign a paper because it’s moldy and there could be spores. You have to wear a mask.” So, we signed the papers, put on our masks. When we walked in it was as if we were walking through a swamp. We could feel it squish under our feet. It was just the worst thing you’ve ever seen. It had drop ceilings. There was dated wallpaper in a lot of the rooms. One of the rooms had maroon zebra carpet. Bad light fixtures everywhere.
We walked through it, and I was just like, “This is really bad.” But there was something I noticed when I was inside—even though the space was all divided up, when you looked out the windows you saw green on all sides. There was something kind of charming about this tiny little 1.13 acres of land. It took me 15 minutes and then I was like, “Okay, I see some potential.” I was out of the house in 15 minutes, talked to the realtor for an hour and learned each other’s whole life stories while Dan basically did a full inspection. That’s very typical: I’m like, “We can paint that,” or “we can sweep that out.” He looks at the electrical, pokes his head into the attic, rips up the carpet to make sure the original floors are under there. The floors were interesting because when the carpet was put in they used a tar. We had to peel back something like six layers of carpet and tar and padding to get back down to the original hardwood floors.
For me personally, I think I need this kind of renovation work—really anything tactile—to feel creatively complete. It’s the reason why I love the ceramics we have in the house, too. As much as I love everything digital, and working at a digital media company, at the same time I have to be around nature. It doesn’t have to be fancy or extravagant, it just has to be comfortable and have some kind of ambiance.
The thing that keeps us from getting overwhelmed by these projects is, honestly, just being crazy and loving them. I think it’s become addicting for us to take things that were really undesirable to normal people and turn them into a lovely environment. Now, we walk into the schoolhouse and start a fire, read a book, and drink some tea.
That said, the house is definitely still a work in progress. Dan started renovating on one end of the house and has worked his way to the other. In some of the photos, you can see that the walls in part of the house aren’t plastered yet. He’s doing all the work himself, but it’s not done yet.
I feel I’m definitely different from my husband in that my husband wants to do this house with only his two bare hands. He wants to get no help. That would be easier if, let’s say, we didn’t have children. When he’s working on the house by himself, going literally at a snail’s pace, it puts me in the city with my two kids by myself, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m definitely like, “Who can we get to help you?” I’ve already met two local handymen that I’ve given him their numbers, and he won’t call. Every time I bring it up, he gets super-annoyed. I know that if he keeps doing it with his own two hands it won’t be finished until probably the end of 2021. We’re coming up on three years of renovating this house.
The original gut was a lot of work for Dan and his brother. They slept outside in hammocks in the middle of winter, which was very true to their southern roots. Once that was done, I think you could start to see this place has incredible bones. I remember the first time I walked into the one room when it was finally open, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is why we bought this house.” We could see it.
Photos via Dan Faires.