Restoring Our 1917 Foursquare: Before and After, Under / Over Stairwell Closets (Normal, IL Architectural Photographer)

Nathan and I love our money-pit of a house, a 1917 American Foursquare, situated in an ideal location in Normal’s Highland Historic District within walking distance of the Constitution Trail, Uptown Normal, and our son’s future elementary school. We are slowly chipping away at little projects we can tackle ourselves, while saving, planning, and stockpiling ideas on Houzz for the big things down the road (i.e. new bathroom, new kitchen).

When we bought the house, it had been vacant for a year. The fenceless yard was a jungle, fascia paint was peeling, tile was sagging in the bathrooms, and multiple layers of wallpaper was peeling in much of the house. But, as soon as we saw it for the first time, we knew it was our house. While neglected in more recent years, prior owners still had the foresight and historical appreciation to preserve the original trim, stain, and hardwood floors throughout. And, importantly, it had a dining room large enough to fully extend our heirloom dining table.

After we moved in, some of the practical challenges posed by old homes quickly became realities. In this post, which will be the first of a series in which I show before and after images of our various projects, I will show you how we solved one of the classic, although somewhat unglamorous (ok, mundane) annoyances of old homes: impracticably shaped and small closets, smooshed under or over stairwells.

With four levels, we have two such closets: one near the main entryway in the hallway leading to the kitchen, and one in what in what’s intended to be the master (but we use it as Rawley’s room so he has space to play).

I had to live in our house for a while and reconfigure the closets in all sorts of ways before I figured out the best solutions and found the best products. When I was researching options, I didn’t find many helpful ideas online, so I hope this post will save someone else some time and energy!

If you live in a cold or temperate climate, you understand that closets matter-especially entry/coat closets. So, to kick this home-reno series off, here’s the nitty gritty; please don’t judge us based on what you see in our closets. 🙂

This is how the under-stair entry closet looked when we took possession of the house, and then again shortly after moving our things in:


Pegboard held cleaning supplies, and two clothing rods went across the wall, one in front of the other. Once both racks were full, accessing coats on the rear rod was a total pain. Shoes were in a jumble on the floor, in a hanging organizer, and in another door rack. Hats and gloves were in big crates on the shelf, which were hard to reach and impossible to see into (at least for short little me). Vacuum and other supplies in front of the clothing rods blocked access to coats and hats and gloves. In addition to all of that, it needed paint and plaster repair, and the vintage light fixture had paint all over it, because someone didn’t take the time to take it down whenever they put up the last sloppy coat of paint.

In general, this closet made us cuss a lot, and wasn’t easy to use with guests.

The first thing we did, after removing the pegboard and shelving, was hire our favorite local painter to repair the plaster and paint, and I personally scraped the light fixture until it was good as new. (Paint color – Apollo White, California Paints)


Instead of putting hats in bins, I ordered some low-cost accordion hat racks and hung one up high on each side of the closet. We replaced only one of the 14″ deep shelves after repainting, adding felt pads to the bottom so we could slide it easily as needed. Instead of bulky, opaque, fabric bins, I found narrow and deep, clear, acrylic bins at the Container Store, and ordered one for each family member’s hats and gloves, plus one extra. Now we can see the contents and find things more quickly.


Instead of rods, the renovated closet uses triple-swivel hooks, in an antique brass finish that matches other original hardware in the house. These particular hooks can be folded flat when not in use. On the door, instead of a shoe rack, we now have an elfa mesh (platimum) door system (also purchased at The Container Store) that contains some of my camera gear, keys, the random hat or wallet, handbags, and even a briefcase.


Scarfs hang on a scarf organizer, and instead of a pile of shoes on the floor and more hanging on the door, I found a perfectly sized shoe rack, again at The Container Store, that holds up to 50 pairs of shoes. I added 4 Boot Stands for my tall boots, which sit on the floor.


When all this was added up, we suddenly had a functional closet with plenty of space to walk all the way back to the shoe rack. We can find our things, and I am no longer embarrassed to have guests hang their coats in our entryway!


Next up was the over-stair closet in Rawley’s bedroom, which is supposed to be the master bedroom (in theory). While large enough for quite a bit of storage, the closet is configured in such a way that makes it totally impractical for two adults to share it, and since it’s over our main stairwell, the floor can never be leveled.

Similarly to the entry closet, when we moved in, the clothing rod went right across the closet just inside the door, which meant you had to push aside the clothes in order to access all that storage space and shelving in the back. While fun for kids to use as a cave, it wasn’t so fun for me when I was trying to get something out of there. The paint and walls were in terrible shape; the trim need caulking, and the light fixture was basically a hole in the ceiling with a bulb and chain, rather than a switch, casting little to no light into the back of the closet.



We prioritized renovating Rawley’s room, so that we could move him out into another bedroom before we need it for a baby (more on that another time). So, we emptied his closet and moved him into the future baby’s room, and had our trusty painter come in to spruce it up.


Once caulked, repaired, and repainted, rather than replacing the rod across the doorway, we installed an inexpensive but very sturdy Rubbermaid Fast-TrackRubbermaid Fast-Track adjustable closet system along the length of one side wall, using the 12-inch shelf so it wouldn’t protrude out too far into the closet.

Our favorite local old-home electrician moved the light fixture into a center location deeper into the closet for more even lighting and added a wall switch to replace the pull cord (via the walk-up attic). We found art-deco style switch plates that almost exactly matched the existing ones in the bedroom for the new switch.


We painted the closet with California Paint’s Peyton Place (walls, treads), but used a slightly darker color from a rejected paint sample bottle called Beauport Green for the risers, to help hide the inevitable scuff marks. I added a rug at the top of the closet for comfort during hide and seek, and non-slip stair tread pads to protect the paint on the treads from wear and tear.


Now, Rawley can easily find clothes and toys and books on the back shelves, we have extra shelf space above the rod for storage, and I can walk into and our of his closet with ease! After this facelift, it’s a closet that can grow with him and provide plenty of hanging and storage space for a teenager or adult.

I’m hoping to share more posts in the (near!) future about other transformations, including the backyard/fence, the basement renovation, and kids’ rooms makeover. Those should be a bit more charming that the closets, I hope. 🙂 If you like before and after posts like this, check out my previous ones about our bungalow in Bloomington, and mid-century pint-size ranch in Phoenix.



About Mosaic Collective, LLC

I am Holly Baumann Ambuehl, founding member of Mosaic Collective, LLC, which was founded in early 2017 and is based in Central Illinois. I own and operate Mosaic Collective with my partner in business and life, my husband, Nathan. Mosaic Collective, LLC houses our rental property, my consulting contracts (with the nonprofit and public sectors on various work), and also my commercial and portrait photography business, which has been doing business as Holly Baumann Photography since 2008 long before the formation of our LLC. My blog posts feature client work, but I just love to write, so I also write about owning a business, food and drink, travel, and sometimes, my personal life! I am always honored when clients trust me to capture their vision, and equally so when my readers converse with me about what I've photographed or expressed here. I hope we'll have an opportunity to collaborate professionally and/or become friends. I'd love to hear what you think! - Holly
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2 Responses to Restoring Our 1917 Foursquare: Before and After, Under / Over Stairwell Closets (Normal, IL Architectural Photographer)

  1. edillow says:

    Love this, and am looking forward to the whole series! Renovating old homes is my favorite : ) I am almost done with the attic overhaul in our 1906 house. It’s been sucking my soul but now that I’m almost done I’m thrilled! Your woodwork is just gorgeous. Hot closet tip: throw away all your plastic hangers for grownups and buy wooden ones… cheap and hugely uplifting!


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