When This Curator’s Fixer-Upper Brought Her to Sad Tears, Her Dad Stepped in to Renovate
The challenge? Make a choppy layout feel welcoming.
Published Nov 7, 2023 1:10 AM
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The first time art curator Amy Ellenbogen laid eyes on her Scarborough, South Africa, home in 2021, she was smitten. “We wanted a fixer-upper. It ticked all the boxes, and I imagined all the potential,” she recalls. The move was overdue: She and her husband, Willem Badenhorst, had been hoping to buy a house in the seaside town for seven years at that point. Without looking too hard inside, they bought the place. Once the ink on the mortgage was dry, they went back for a second tour. This time, Ellenbogen cried some not-so-happy tears. “I was completely overwhelmed because it needed such a lot of work,” she says.
Ellenbogen’s main concern was how they’d make the house feel warm and inviting because it technically wasn’t one home—it was four tiny houses that had awkwardly been combined. More important, she wanted to make sure it was child-friendly (the couple has 3 1/2-year-old twin boys, Jasper John and Montague John).
Luckily, they didn’t have to search far for help: Ellenbogen’s father, actor and playwright Nicholas Ellenbogen (or as she calls him, Big Red), has experience renovating. When Ellenbogen was a kid, she remembers her dad falling in love with run-down houses that he strove to bring back to life. She also remembers her mom, Liz, an actor and theater director, crying similar tears of frustration upon seeing the fixer-uppers. But Ellenbogen got through it all by practicing patience. “I don’t see anything as a yearlong project but rather a day-to-day improvement,” she explains. “You can live in spaces like that…you don’t have to move.”
Today, every room in the family’s home has been touched or rebuilt by her dad in some fashion. They replaced the broken tile and linoleum floors with “honest and cheap” pine boards throughout—their biggest cost saver. She chose plywood for the walls for similar reasons: It’s affordable and exudes warmth. Grandpa also chipped in when it came to making life at home more kid-friendly by gifting them a yellowwood bench for the bathroom so the twins can reach the toilet (it’s the same one Ellenbogen had when she was their age).
For Ellenbogen, there was no question as to where to splurge: art. As an avid collector herself, her display is ever-evolving. “I rehang my house every six months,” she admits. It’s not unusual for her to give an oil painting or large print to a friend who is over for dinner just so she can make room for something new. Her biggest tip for curating a dynamic space? Don’t be afraid to break eye level and hang things close to the floor. “Art can get dusted and you can make it straight; it doesn’t have to be set in stone and immovable,” she notes. She also doesn’t limit herself to framed works. Textiles often find themselves in a vertical position, possibly layered behind a print or drawing. “I don’t put good rugs on the floors—I hang them on the wall,” she adds.
While the home officially boasts four bedrooms, her kids’ sole request was that the entire family sleep together in one room. They didn’t get their wish granted (they have their own space to retreat to), but for the nights they do want to be close to Mom and Dad, they can crash on camp cots next to their mattress.
During the day, the boys are out in the yard helping water the garden or playing in the library that Grandpa built for them. It’s often too loud to hear music (thanks to all the people coming in and out of the house), but when it’s quiet enough, they’ll put on Oliver Mtukudzi or NPR. Meanwhile, “I potter, sew, collage, and plan,” says Ellenbogen.