“I don’t just renovate,” says Nicole Curtis, the 36-year-old star of Rehab Addict. “I restore old houses to their former glory.”
She’s a willowy blonde with the body of a pinup model and the determination of a drill sergeant—and she can wield a nail gun as well as any man, if not better. That may be part of why she got her own TV show on the DIY Network, but the real reason was her passion: She loves old houses and has made a career out of restoring—not just “fixing up”—the fine old Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Beaux Arts, and Greek Revival homes of Minneapolis, where she lives. In the midst of the Rust Belt’s urban decay, there is little Nicole with her nail gun, her iron will, and not much money, pushing back against the evil forces of modernity and lovingly stitching back together the broken bones of these ruined beauties.
No, she doesn’t do it for the money, because there’s not really any money in it. There’s just enough to let her do what she wants to do, and indeed feels she must do: save and make pretty again the withered old wrecks that were once the pride of Minneapolis. And she does it her way: not with materials bought at Home Depot or one of the other big-box stores. Everything is reclaimed, reused, and true to the period of the home she’s reviving.
Yes, that’s the word: reviving. Like a doctor who brings a crash victim out of a coma. Because Nicole has some kind of sixth sense the rest of us are lacking, a psychic link to the past, an affinity for these lost places that have fallen into disuse, betrayed and forgotten. Looking at her in action, I am reminded of a passage from Louis Bromfield:
There is a kind of aura about every house I have ever entered, so strong that I believe I could tell you a great deal about the owners after ten minutes spent within the walls—whether the wife was dominant, whether the family was happy or unhappy, and almost exactly the degree of education and culture and knowledge of the person who built and furnished and lived in it.
Nicole has that same telepathy at work. A normal person looks at a dilapidated house built in 1877 and sees a pile of junk. Nicole sees the life of that house; she feels its history like the rest of us feel the wind blowing in our hair. And she understands something that every architect, every real-estate agent, every human being who doesn’t live in a cave somewhere should understand. In the words of Bromfield,
Houses affect the lives and the character and happiness of people who live in them as much as all these things affect the houses themselves. I know of houses which have caused divorces and deformed the lives of children growing up in them, because they were badly planned for the personalities of the people who have occupied them. I know that almost any reader who has lived in many houses has had the experience of hating certain houses, partly because of the aura left by predecessors and partly because of the stupidity or harshness of the house itself.
The houses of the modern era—the McMansions, the jerry-built cardboard boxes of the lower-middle class, the soulless “planned communities”—aren’t homes, at least not in the sense that they impart to us a sense of place. Indeed, they exude the exact opposite: a sense of placelessness, of floating in a void, unanchored to anything real. They are simply four walls, a roof, and a mortgage.
This bland uniformity married to shoddy workmanship perfectly reflects the spirit of our age: a characterless indifference that eventually collapses in on itself.
Yet all around us are relics of a bygone era that had different values and, therefore, a different architecture. Instead of the sharp angles of “modernity,” these houses had gables that curlicued and flowed. They had porches in those days, often encircling the house, where families sat and actually talked to one another on those long summer evenings as the sun set behind hundred-year-old trees.
I’ve seen Nicole Curtis on a crane repairing and repainting the rotted out “fish scale” siding on the face of a late 19th-century house. This is something that no contractor would ordinarily do. Normally, you’d just cover it up with aluminum siding and forget about it. Not Nicole: She actually replaced the damaged fish scales by making her own and then climbing up there, nailing them in, and painting them. She’s a perfectionist—and, more importantly, she’s a purist. This is somebody who, when repairing an old stairway, goes 20 miles out of her way to find just the right vintage ornament to crown the newel post.
Born in Detroit, she returned there this past summer to take on her first project in the area: the restoration of a duplex on the city’s west side. As forests of weeds invade what had once been a great metropolis and Detroit slides into bankruptcy, there’s good ol’ Nicole, standing on the steps of her latest acquisition—an Arts and Craftsy-looking 1927 Tudor duplex—declaring, “A single house can turn a neighborhood around.” There she was replacing window glass—“Just getting rid of these bullet holes is going to make a world of difference!”—and wondering aloud what crime was committed in the course of making that mysterious burn in the middle of the living-room floor. Just getting the city to sell her the house was a Kafkaesque ordeal, but once she got it she also had to get permission to bulldoze the house next door, which had been gutted by arson.
Ah, but it was all worth it in the end, as the neighbors turned out to help with the painting, and over 600 people stood in line for an hour to see the picture-perfect results.
With her tools, she scrapes off the detritus of the present, peeling back the plastic overlay to reveal the old wood underneath. All the modern “improvements”—the vinyl windows that can’t be fixed when they’re damaged; the cheap “Made in China” fixtures; the hollow fiberglass doors, as empty inside as the society that produced them—are swept away, demolished by those skinny little arms swinging a sledgehammer. And in their place arises the essential soul of the house, its cornices and stained-glass windows restored to life by some miraculous process of architectural faith healing—Nicole’s faith in her own vision of a past that, if it never existed, should have existed.
Restoration: It’s what conservatives are all about. It is what they dream of, but Nicole Curtis is actually doing it. She doesn’t write manifestos. She doesn’t try to convert anyone. She doesn’t run for office. She takes direct action.