Before Heidi Harmon became mayor of San Luis Obispo, she was a community organizer for more than 10 years and an artist for 20. Both passions converged in a petite San Luis Obispo Queen Anne cottage.
Harmon and partner, winemaker Lawrence Brooks, purchased the 1899-built, 700-square-foot structure in 2010. “I generally like things that are older, with a lot of inherent charm and history,” she said.
But the house was in “pretty bad shape,” she noted, with few improvements since around World War II. So the couple took on a host of upgrades, such as replacing the foundation, electrical system and plumbing. They restored the look of the exterior, preserving the intricately carved trim and sourcing single-paned windows. They saved what they could, including an old, granite hitching post.
Inside, the restoration included replacing the hardwood floors, replicating period trim and raising the ceiling to its original height. Harmon purchased 10 chandeliers for the house, all vintage.
When it came to decorating, Harmon took more creative license. Her artistic instincts took over, drawing inspiration from a multitude of sources.
Sometimes that inspiration came from the history of the house. The original owner, Teresa True, was a single mother who supported her three children as a seamstress and by washing laundry, said Harmon.
Harmon, who enjoys expressing herself through clothing, carried a garment theme throughout the house. Some stand alone as art pieces, such as vintage dresses that are on display in the dining room and bathroom. There is upcycled clothing, like white vintage slips that became sheer curtains with a rod and a few simple clips. “They’re especially beautiful when light is coming from behind them,” she said.
Harmon has long been an avid collector of furniture, art and décor, paying little mind to the provenance or value of pieces, but rather to what she deems beautiful, interesting and meaningful. Some pieces come from friends and family. Others are purchased from swap meets, garage sales or Craigslist. Each space in the house contains medleys of these collections.
In the living room, for example, one vignette is anchored by a Victorian sofa that Harmon found at a garage sale for $50, then spent much more to have it reupholstered in mustard brocade.
Behind it is a striking wall collage of art, artifacts and photos. It includes her own three-dimensional art pieces, art from other local artists, vintage dolls, religious icons and photos of her grandmother who was a dancer. “Most of it I have a special connection to,” she said.
As an artist, Harmon is fascinated with the human body, so the human form is the subject of many photos, paintings and sculptures in the house. A collection of anatomical models and drawings inspired a medical theme in the bathroom where she uses a dental cabinet to store jewelry and perfume bottles.
The master bedroom has a romance theme with a wall covered in dozens of wedding photos — some gifted by family and friends, some unearthed at garage sales. Vintage wedding gowns and paintings of brides and grooms round out the theme.
With such a small house, Harmon and Brooks found creative ways to expand their living space. The 350-square-foot carriage house is used as a guest room and office and has a “magical Big Sur cabin feel,” said Harmon. In the backyard is a tent large enough for a daybed — a bohemian retreat often used by guests.
Another living space is the front porch, which is the perfect venue for Harmon’s community organizing. It has become one of her favorite places to enjoy morning coffee or a casual meal, and a way to engage neighbors and passers-by.
“It’s such an underestimated space for community building,” she said. “The whole house has been great for that.”
MIX YOUR RUGS: Heidi Harmon likes to layer vintage rugs for a lush, rich look. This enables her to use rugs of many sizes, rather than having to fit a rug to a specific space.
CAMP OUT: The canvas tent in Harmon’s back yard is sturdier and more attractive than the typical portable tent. It was custom made by Colorado company Davis Tent.
UPCYCLE YOUR THREADS: For a not-off-the-shelf look, consider using vintage clothing and textiles as window coverings. Possibilities include sheer white slips, scarves, bed linens and tablecloths. They can be sewn into curtains, or simply clipped to a rod.