Woodworker Stan Hain and ceramist Carol Gouthro are true working artists, and their Highland Park home is a testament to their talents.

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“LABOR OF LOVE” is an interesting little idiom: nicely alliterative, sure, but perhaps a tad clichéd and sometimes, you sense, possibly not exactly literal.

But when Carol Gouthro tosses that out to describe the tremendously involved (and inspiring) remodel she and her husband, Stan Hain, have pulled off on their 1910s bungalow in Highland Park — suddenly there are no better-suited words in the world.

Carol, a ceramic artist/instructor, and Stan, a woodworker/cabinet- and furniture-maker, paid $84,000 for the 800-square-foot home in 1991. It was, both agree, a funky little fixer-upper: falling plaster, bouncy floors, fractured ceilings.

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“We thought from the beginning we’d do something, but we couldn’t afford it,” Stan says. They started 15 years later, having weeded out “a whole bunch of bad ideas.”

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They aren’t completely finished yet, but they already have majorly transformed their home by adding 700 square feet of space (by bumping out 12 feet and up another story), and expending an amazing amount of labor, together.

“We did the actual physical work,” Carol says. “Stan did all the architectural drawings for the new addition. He made all the cabinets in the house. We drywalled, replastered, painted, mixed our own colors. I made the kitchen tiles. Stan made the bathroom vanity, laid all the floors, did the wiring and framing, and designed and built the maple ceiling in the upstairs bedroom.”

That’s a partial/modest summary. They also installed an indoor staircase to the basement studio/laundry (after gutting the basement to set up the studio), relocated the door to the kitchen, turned the front bedroom into a festive office with French doors, created a hallway to the guest room (formerly the master bedroom), redid the structure under the floors and built a colorful wood shop for Stan in the backyard.

(They did accept some help: Contractors handled the foundation and roof work; a friend did the plumbing; a few friends helped raise the upstairs walls and beams; and, Stan says, “The Seattle Building Department saved my butt a couple times.”)

It was an extensive project (in scope and duration) and process (in creativity and sacrifice), but not a terribly expensive one. Stan says a $60,000 loan “covered the majority of the remodel. It would’ve been three times that if we’d hired it all out.”

Stan built the vanity in the master bathroom, which is open to the top-level ceiling. The Honduran mahogany in the countertop was left over from an art project, Stan says; the mirrors are painted black for “his ‘n’ hers patina.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Stan built the vanity in the master bathroom, which is open to the top-level ceiling. The Honduran mahogany in the countertop was left over from an art project, Stan says; the mirrors are painted black for “his ‘n’ hers patina.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

With that in pocket, he says, “I took six months off work and worked seven days a week the whole time, with maybe three days off. We ate out one night in six months. We had a stove that rolled on wheels. We had to save the money.”

“We made choices so we could do this,” Carol says. “When we gutted the kitchen and bedroom, Stan slept on the couch, and I slept on a pad next to the couch for five months.”

Adds Stan: “And we didn’t kill each other.” (Ahh. There’s part of the “love” part!)

Stan and Carol live frugally, and that shared perspective factors into their thoughtful design choices, from the treasured collectibles used as décor (vintage lamps, old locks, tiger hats from China) to the materials they selected — especially, it seems, underfoot.

For the kitchen floor, the couple spent maybe $100 on discounted vinyl-tile remnants from Major Brands, Carol says. “Some were yellow, gray, black; we started laying them out.” Stan then randomized a pattern on the computer, and the result is brilliant, unique and eminently them. “We couldn’t afford anything else,” Carol says. “We like color. It was fun. It looks like plaid from the ’70s.”

In the dining room, where Stan built a cozy window seat, a rectangle of repurposed old linoleum from the basement serves as authentically historic flooring (and a great conversation piece). “It’s probably from the 1930s or ’40s,” Stan says. “Rooms in the basement had been rented to GIs after the war.”

Materials for the master-bedroom floor cost about $400, Stan says. They had run out of money and were going to settle for a temporary floor, but after three coats of oil-based floor finish atop 2×2-foot squares of medium-density fiberboard, “People say it looks like leather.”

It looks beautiful. It looks like a lot of labor. It feels like a lot of love.

“Everything in our house is part of us,” Stan says.

“We’re never leaving. Never, ever. It’s all been fun,” Carol says. “We had big dreams. We had to wait till we could do them. I come home, and I’m so happy to be home. I never want to leave. We feel really lucky.”