With the bulk of her budget spoken for by big repairs, this do-it-yourselfer got resourceful, refreshing her old home's existing features and sprucing up secondhand scores.

By Maria V. Charbonneaux
January 27, 2020
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There were a few times over the past two years of renovations that Des Moines-based decorator Ruthie Jackson might have had doubts about buying a 1935 Colonial that needed major updates. Like the time water from the upstairs shower rained through the ceiling onto her toddler son below (who clapped with joy). Or when carpet was lifted to reveal termite-damaged floorboards. Or when the HVAC needed fixing during a hot Iowa summer.

But the home had the ZIP code, floor plan, and architectural detail of her dreams, plus only two other owners in its 80 years. Ruthie, husband Greg, and kids Emmeline and Everett were not afraid to take on the project to turn it into their forever home.

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Big-ticket repairs left limited funds for decorating, so Ruthie's resourcefulness became the home's saving grace. Neighbors' castoffs and pieces that belonged to the previous owners found new life in her hands. A thrifting network of her mom, sister, like-minded friends, and followers of her Instagram account messaged her about finds. Her trusted tool kit of double-stick duct tape, gel stain, and Rub 'n Buff took care of the rest. "There's freedom with a small budget. It's easier to make decisions when you don't feel like you have to commit for a lifetime, and there's less fear to paint or add details," Ruthie says.

Her love for switching things up means the Jackson house will always be a work in progress, but Ruthie is proud of the evolution. "Daily incremental progress adds up to a big transformation," she says. Ruthie often uses her home as a lab for clever, budget-savvy design ideas. One example: She covered the back of the living room bookshelves with vintage wallpaper (an eBay find that echoes the sofa) held in place with double-stick duct tape for easy removal.

Ruthie created a mercury glass effect by covering sheets of Mylar paper with light, uneven coats of metallic gold spray paint. Between each coat, she flicked water on the wet paint then blotted with a damp sponge for texture. She installed it like wallpaper above the fireplace.

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To cover the staircase, Ruthie cut and stapled five indoor/outdoor runners in place. "Adding stair rods helps hide the seams," she says.

Courtesy of Ruthie Jackson
Adam Albright Photography Inc

The long room had ample square footage but needed freshening and a thoughtful furniture arrangement. Once the carpet came up, Ruthie thoroughly scrubbed the floors, patched small holes with wood filler, and blended flaws with a coat of coffee-color gel stain and a top coat of high-gloss wood-floor restorer. Furniture groupings divide the room into two zones: a sitting area by the fireplace and a game table on the other end. Identical striped rugs connect the spaces.

Ruthie found the sofa using one of her favorite tricks: Craigslist email alerts. "I like to be specific: 'Pottery Barn Chesterfield sofa.' The listing showed up in my email, and I pounced," she says. The cushion fabric was slightly pilled, so she smoothed the surface with a razor. Ruthie updated the chairs by painting the seat upholstery with chalk-finish paint and applying sealing wax over top.

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Black chalk-finish paint and wallpaper taped behind the shelves updated a traditional hutch that belonged to the previous owners.

Courtesy of Ruthie Jackson
Adam Albright Photography Inc

Rather than rip out the knotty pine paneling in her dining room, Ruthie applied Gray oil-based Gel Stain from General Finishes. It goes on thick, making it ideal for vertical surfaces, and dries to a rich, even finish.

The color on the walls (along with Rust-Oleum Charcoal Ultra Matte Interior Chalked Paint on the ceiling) and refreshed furnishings were all Ruthie needed to transform the space. Polishing the brass and cleaning the crystal on the chandelier renewed its sparkle. Ruthie acquired the dining table from the previous owners. The style was more '60s country French than Ruthie likes, so she modernized it by painting the legs with black chalk-finish paint and screwing on gold feet (a trick she repeated on the hutch). Blue-and white peacock pattern curtains lighten up the dark walls.

"When you need to work with pieces that don't match, a dark color on the walls makes everything feel cohesive," Ruthie says. The dark table and chairs blend with the walls, and the vintage patterned rug underneath pulls everything together.

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After the doorway was widened, Ruthie had the cabinets reconfigured to create a peninsula. Before painting the cabinets (Benjamin Moore's Black Forest Green), Ruthie popped the decorative molding off the doors. Ruthie applied metallic Rub 'n Buff wax for golden accents on a mod all-black light. Black ribbon trims basic Roman shades on the windows. Ruthie used more double-stick duct tape to secure it.

For $200, a local metal fabricator wrapped a double thickness of plywood in stainless steel for the peninsula countertop. Brass corner plates ($6 on Amazon) cover sharp edges. Ruthie built benches for the eating area out of leftover butcher block and hairpin legs. Seat cushions hung from hooks serve as backrests.

Courtesy of Ruthie Jackson
Adam Albright Photography Inc

The wet bar niche features midcentury-era glass-front cabinets that Ruthie loved. The metal interiors were a dated harvest gold, so she modernized them with Antique Gold Rub 'n Buff on the backs and peel-and-stick wallpaper on the sides. Butcher-block countertops, a subway tile backsplash, and new hardware connect the space to the kitchen.

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