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The Bailey House: The Original, On-Screen Fixer Upper

From the very first scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, the Bailey home sets the tone for this holiday classic.  Snowflakes falling and light shining out of the windows, this home instantly makes you want to know more about the family who lives there.

The house at 320 Sycamore is the original, on-screen fixer upper.  Mary Bailey takes it on, and has always known that it is a diamond in the rough.  Being designers and remodelers by trade we totally understand the draw of a home with good bones, that is need of a little love.  We got straight to work and started thinking about what we might need if we were charged with restoring or remodeling this crumbling, Victorian beauty. 

The Bailey house would technically be classified as a “Second Empire Victorian”, and was most likely built between 1860 and 1880.  Which means by the 1940s, when It’s a Wonderful Life takes place, this house would have had one heck of  a “honey-do" list……..

Let’s get started with what would probably be on the remodeling to-do list!

If we needed a new newel post:  You know the one, that George picks up and kisses as he blasts into the house after his journey with Clarence.  

Since this large, turned beauty would have been hand-made when this house was built, we would start with a good, local craftsman, or in our favorite, local salvage yard.

 

If we needed new light fixtures:

It’s a bit hard to see the details, and Mary seems to have improvised (a quality we totally admire) and suspended a camping lantern in the space when their original honeymoon plans fell apart.

If she eventually wanted something a bit more permanent than the Coleman-style lantern, we might suggest:

 If we need a new front door:

Since the Bailey home has sidelights and a transom, we would need something with all the Victorian bells and whistles.  It is hard to see all the details in the shadowy shot of Ernie welcoming George home, but I think we could find a door that would be worthy of their home.  This door and transom combo checks all the boxes, with its stained glass and molding details.

If we needed a new fireplace surround:
When this home was built, the fireplace would have been a primary heating source in this "drafty, old house", and a focal point of the large living room.  Victorian fireplaces were often dressed with overmantels, and the Bailey's is no exception.  Working on site, talented tradespeople would have combined turned and carved elements to make this fireplace a stunning, vertical, architectural element.  Often we can find these at local salvage yards, but the proportions are rarely what we need to fit the space we are working with.  Locally, we love using Brunsell Lumber and Millwork for creating all of these custom details.  They have helped us design mantels and overmantels out of any species of wood.  Since the Baileys live in New York, their fireplace surround would have probably been made from cherry or walnut.

If we needed a new roof:

Well......how would you feel about robbing a bank?  ;)  The steep pitch of the Bailey’s mansard-style roof would send many roofing contractors running, and a slate roof is undoubtedly an expensive endeavor.  The longevity of a good slate roof is incredible, so often they are well worth repairing.  Often, most of the individual slate tiles are in tact.  Being fireproof, waterproof and made of natural materials, you can see how slate roofs have loads going for them.  if you need help finding a supplier to help supplement your slates or repair the roof you have, there is a state-by state resource of qualified contractors here:  http://slateroofers.org/directory.html

 

If we needed new wallpaper:

Of course, we are at a bit of a disadvantage, as It’s A Wonderful Life is in black and white, but Mary’s choice for the foyer & stair wallpaper looks to be a modified toile pattern.  Which only adds to our opinion that this movie is totally amazing!  

A similar option to Mary’s pick could be found here:

 It's A Wonderful Life is all about second chances, for George Bailey and the house at 320 Sycamore.  As designers, we love giving great homes a new lease on life, and you know we could go on and on and on about Victorian trim spandrels, flat-sawn balusters and door pediments, but we are guessing you just might have a movie to catch....  

Happy Holidays, and Happy Remodeling from all of us at Nest!

  • DuAnne F. Edwards

    December 08, 2018 | 05:54 PM

    Love the new way to look at “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Such a classic & loved you sharing some of the aspects of the history of such a house. It always looked like it was “falling down” & beyond hope——but Mary and George just keep plugging at it. The love for a family home in the remodel seems key! Thanks for sharing!
  • Olivia Fulton

    December 05, 2018 | 11:43 AM

    Love this! This is one of my all time favorite Christmas movies and it is interesting to look at the perspective of the house and what it would look like in a remodel of today.


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