From Shit to Shinola

Warning: if you have a weak stomach, uneasiness about feline excrement or if you are easily offended by some of the milder curse words in the English language, I suggest you don’t read on.

One man said: “the nicest part about that house is the attic.”

Another commented: “Um.”

Hardly glowing endorsements. From the front, she’s ugly, but tolerable.

From the back she’s under-maintained and forgettable.

Ah, the split level. A 1950’s post-war darling. Home – á la Peter Brady.

Image by TV Time Warp. All rights reserved.

Hardly one of the greatest examples of America’s design vernacular, but workable.

She’s our new project. Yep, that beauty is bought and paid for with a bank’s money. To borrow a phrase often heard during Brady Bunch reruns- but wait, there’s more.

You might ask (or you might not) why do I use From Shit to Shinola to characterize this project? Remember how I said that we are happiest when creating something new? Well, this qualifies as an “are you all cat-shit crazy?” kind of example.

I’ll get back to the shit part in a minute. First, we have heard it all our lives, but what is shinola anyway? Other than a well-known euphemism for the word ‘shit’, it is also a brand of shoe polish from around the Great Depression through the post-war boom.

Photo by Caleb Clark ( All rights reserved.

Recently, I discovered that this vintage brand is being reborn by a bunch of visionary guys and now serves as a new symbol of watches, bicycles and leather goods made right here in the U.S.A. In Detroit, as a matter of fact. They are rebirthing an American classic in a city which has been stripped of its former glory. And, I think it’s pretty damn cool.

So, that’s the shinola. I promised we would get back to the shit.

She is a humble house on a great piece of land. She has been forgotten. But, she also contained a literal shit-ton of cats and they had been forgotten too. We snapped this photo on one of our first visits. Worthy of note, it was a hot and steamy summer day.

This is merely a glimpse, I will spare you the rest. It was everywhere. On the walls, on the floor, old and new. And by ‘it’, I mean shit. It, along with all the other sights, smells and insects that come with numerous, forgotten and cooped up felines. Fortunately for you, the Internet doesn’t have smell-o-vision. Perhaps Al Gore is working on that in his garage as I type. Meanwhile, you will have to trust me – the smell was unbearable. On one visit, I lasted 45 seconds inside. On another, contractors were covered in flea bites after taking only a few measurements. On every visit, the real estate agent had to stand outside.

So, by ‘shit’ I mean that it is literally on the floor of this, our new house.

Let’s recap with this explanation from one of my favorite movies of all time, The Jerk:

Wait, wasn’t Mike Brady an architect? Wait, I know an architect, or two. That’s an unplanned parallel. Anyway, I’ll wrap this up now.

New project.

Brown split level.

Shinola is vintage shoe polish being reborn as leather goods and non-motorized transportation in the Motor City.

Shit is on the floor.

The nicest part about her is the attic.

I know an architect.

We are gonna tear this thing apart.

But first, a design. Not just one, but countless iterations.

1 – The design done while in a Paris one-room apartment – Go Up. A 2-story Austin modern.

[revisions, revisions, revisions]

How much again?


2 – The one done throughout the night before closing – Get ‘Er Done. Traditional.

[revisions, revisions, revisions]

Affordable, but nothing interesting or worth doing here.


3 – Level it. Sell the land.


4 – Spray Febreeze, slap up some paint and hope they have a vision.


5 – Since we are being unsuccessful, maybe we should put the kids in charge.


With each of our previous solutions, we had forgotten the most important principle. Respect the context. Only a little bit the Peter Brady part, but much more the site itself.

6 – One more design done throughout another sleepless night – The Modern Split Level.

Now, that works. That works just right. We have the vision now. Get ready to jump into the trenches.

From Shit to Shinola

So how does this fit into our best next? At the end of last year, we had decided to move to Boston. Pack it up and move East. Then, there was an incident on that hill in Africa and things got all caddywhompus. We got real. Eventually, dreams of sailboats and lobster rolls were eclipsed by thoughts of snow shovels and six-week long pool seasons. Then there was a Gypsy Summer.

We have cleaned out the closets and emptied the pockets of our life. Now, we will take our time, respect our context and get to the greater solution. The true colloquial phrase is “you don’t know shit from shinola.” Maybe we don’t know shit from shinola. Maybe this will be a disaster. But, maybe, just maybe – it won’t.

First up: the biohazard team. Bring on the guys in special suits.

Stay tuned.


5 Comments on “From Shit to Shinola”

  1. Michael Moore says:

    The only question I really have is do you know the difference between shit and shinola?

  2. samlowephoto says:

    Damn. Your eventually-freshened garage is SO gonna need a few of those lovely steel Shinola bikes.

    From Gypsy Summer to roll-up-the-sleeves and Be.

    I. Am. Digging. This.

  3. Marilyn Read says:

    The dated phrase is ‘doesn’t know shit from Shinola.’ Shinola is a brand of shoe polish, but something tells me you know that now.
    Love your writing style.

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