House TalkN is a fun lookiloo at houses, houses, houses. It will answer pressing questions like, "When folks build a McMansion on a small lot, what are they compensating for?" or "Was the real estate agent drunk when they staged this house?" or "Why don't the Smiths' ever leave their drapes open when I am on a harmless walk-by?"

Saturday, April 28, 2012

HouseTalkN With Amy Armstrong

I am excited to kickoff the new series "HouseTalkN With..." - a lookiloo at how local movers and shakers live. While we all enjoy the aesthetics of homes, what really counts is how we live in them. I have teamed up with fellow house nut and journalist, Julie Wurth, to explore how local folks make their houses a home. 

When my good friend Kerry asked if I wanted to collaborate on a series of blog posts about notable people and their houses, I had two responses:
1. YES!!! Because I am addicted to houses, and so is she. And she is quite the fun magnet.
2. Hysterical laughter. Because as I may have mentioned a jillion times, my house isn't exactly magazine-worthy.
You might describe it as "comfortable." "Relaxed." "Kid-friendly." Or, if you are one of those mean girls, "cluttered" or "a mess."

When we decided to kick off this series with the clever and talented Amy Armstrong, my intimidation level rose just a smidge.
Amy is what we call "a force." It was her determination that made Larkin's Place a reality, the YMCA's wonderful new recreational facility for children with special needs, named for her beautiful daughter Larkin, 6. She also is mom to a teen-age son and 2-year-old twins, and her quick wit makes her a favorite among Champaign-Urbana's bloggers and "Twitterati" (@Momologist).
So I figured her house would be one of those perfectly organized showplaces that put me to shame.
Turns out Amy's house is also kid-friendly, in an uncluttered sort of way, and not intimidating at all.
Walk into the foyer of her spacious contemporary brick home in Champaign's Robeson Meadows, and you see a comfortable, kid-style living room to your right, and a dining-room-turned-playroom to your left.
A chaise and two plush animal chairs make up the prime seating in the living room, where Larkin loves to watch her favorite DVDs (they've gone through six copies of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"). The windows are curtainless, so Larkin can enjoy the wide-open view. The artwork? Framed drawings by son Chase during his primary-school years.
In the dining room, the Empire-style mahogany table that once seated eight has given way to a pint-sized kitchen, Little People and toys, toys, toys. The buffet serves as a bookcase and toy repository. The "Mardi Gras" chandelier (she swears the pop of purple, amber and blue is "gorgeous") is in storage in the basement.
Amy shrugs: "It just doesn't work right now. One day I'll bring it back."
Her favorite family photos still line the walls of the dining room and the rest of the house. An oversized black-and-white wedding candid of Amy and Andy. Portraits of Larkin with her older brother, or the twins. Collages of the kids everywhere.
Amy read somewhere that the best way to instill self-esteem in children is to wrap your home with pictures of them at different ages.

A framed poem about children hangs in one entrance to the kitchen: "I never saw it coming," it begins. "Their love - their souls as big as the moon - the way their laughter fills up every part of my heart...."
The house is organized for children, and particularly Larkin, who has both Down syndrome and a seizure disorder known as Lennox-Gaustaut syndrome.

Gates are positioned to block off the kitchen, if needed. In the doorway between the kitchen and family room, a bar holds a swing used as therapy for Larkin. The back-and-forth motion that has soothed many an infant also helps her with communication and spatial orientation. The minute Larkin gets in, she starts talking or smiling.
Larkin's favorite snacks - pretzels and Cheetos - are kept in a central spot in the kitchen island, so she knows where they are and can sign "more" or "eat."
"She has to indicate what she wants, but I make it easy for her to communicate," Amy says. "The way the house is set up, it allows her to self-advocate."
But the house has plenty of adult touches, too. Like the ornate painted chest in the hallway. Or the giant man-cave-like TV above the family room fireplace, which magically appeared when Amy and the girls were vacationing in Florida. Andy thought maybe she wouldn't notice.
Nearly the entire downstairs has been remodeled since the Armstrongs bought the house in 2003. They ripped out the cream carpets (with a mauve border, no less) and put in hardwood floors. They pried off the gold sponge-painted fireplace surround to find slate underneath. They gutted the kitchen down to the studs and installed custom hickory cabinets and tile floors. The "before" pictures, Amy says, are "horrifying."
"We went for materials that would keep Larkin safe but still be pretty and functional," Amy says.
The only area left to tackle is the master bathroom, which retains its '80s vibe with white laminate cabinets and a giant whirlpool tub.
Surprisingly, much of the house has a neutral palette, with pops of color.

safety trumps purdy
Amy manages to balance family life while keeping up with current research and news.
All while keeping a sense of humor...

"Children with disabilities need a soothing environment," she says, describing her style as "imperfections mixed with fun."
She's happy that her house can just as easily accommodate 10 kids for a party or a few friends relaxing over a glass of wine.


  1. I hate to clean and love to have a clean house so when we picked the (what do you call it? finishes? yeah, let's use that) finishes for this house, I made sure they were as cleanable as possible. Very few nooks and crannies, clean lines, lots of tile and stone. All of these were good choices for our crew of animals as well who are not at all tidy. :)

    1. Finishes...look at you and your fancy decor talk!
      Yep, a gang of children, sports nuts and a dog make my white love tricky...

    2. Oh yeah, I get that often (comments about my fancy decor talk). It's just something I have to live with. bah ha ha Thanks for sharing at our party this week.

  2. I like the "human interest" twist to this. What kind of schedule are you hoping for? Once a week?

    1. Thanks, Kirby! This is going to be a summer series, but I ran this one early because Amy's brainchild, Larkin's Place at our new YMCA just opened.
      Stay tuned...

  3. what a great post Kerry, love the sweet photos. :) thanks for linking up!

  4. This is such an awesome idea for a series Kerry and what a wonderful way to kick it off! Amy sounds like an incredible woman and the love she has for her family is so obvious. Thanks for sharing this with us! :-)

    1. Thank you, Vanessa! Amy is a force to behold! I love to see strong women building a better world for not just their own families but for all of our families!

  5. Most of your posts with multiple photos have broken links to your photos. Does everyone have this problem or is it just on my end? Would love to see your photos than what I actually can.

    1. Oh, No! So sorry to hear that! Do you mean you can only see partial photo?
      Anyone else?
      I will investigate!

  6. what a lovely article about a lovely girl and her sweet family.... nice job.

  7. Amy has a HUG heart and a loving HOME....a true dedicated mom, wife, business women! She is one of those people smiling and ready to take on any challenge.

    1. That is right on the money! I love that Amy is such a force and that she does it with such wit!

  8. What a lovely story and a beautiful home!

  9. Amy is so beautiful! Thanks for sharing this!

  10. Cute pictures and cute post!! We loved having you come to our "Strut Your Stuff Saturday." We hope you'll be back again soon! -The Sisters


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