The tall, narrow commercial building constructed in 1909 sits inconspicuously amongst others in the downtown Miller Beach area of Gary. But one of its doors opens to a surprise: Upstairs, where Nuco and Camela Villanueva dwell, is bright, awe-inspiring, innovative.
It has to be. With just 600 square feet of living space, it rivals any tiny house featured on TV and surpasses most in achieving a spacious feel. The couple bought the building a year ago and has clearly enjoyed making their apartment lovely and livable, incorporating their interests, artistry and energy.
"We've lived in an apartment for years," says Camela, "Cami" to her friends. "So this smaller space is fine."
Still, it's 600 square feet, a challenge no matter what, yet it displays a delightful mix of the practical and the unexpected, achieved with inexpensive finds and an eye for style. Camela's visage and conversation reflect vibrant energy. "We want to travel! Japan is one of the places we want to go, so we're saving money and not accumulating too much stuff."
She found an apartment-size stove at Yesterday's Treasures Antique Mall & Artisan Gallery in Chesterton. A small refrigerator fits under the kitchen counter (a wide table against a wall, with a small sink). The simple, small, round table for dining—purchased from the original owner at Chicago's former Merchandise Mart—sits against a wall separating it from the stairwell. The apartment is a long stretch with an L-shape at the end. Two banks of four very narrow lockers against one wall provide the only closet space. It's practical, yet between the two sets of lockers the couple placed a narrow door with metal lattticework. It's accents like this that add interest and a sense of space.
Of the former original Miller Beach library, now 108 years old, "Its bones are really good," says Camela—and some of those bones were visible. Someone had begun a renovation, but there was no drywall, no HVAC, no bath.
But the history of Gary had intrigued Camela for some time, and when she and Nuco investigated the inexpensive properties, "We liked the Miller Beach area and this 1,300-square-foot commercial building. There were windows and the flooring is solid," though it took 30 passes with a sander to get through layers of paint to reveal the lovely, original maple flooring that provides a light canvas for the place.
Downstairs, a business owner had "changed the building's whole facade," Camela says with regret. She brightens as she adds, "But the original tin ceiling is in good shape," and she and Nuco want to restore the downstairs inside and out.
Nuco owns the Studio One Chicago tattoo business in the Windy City, where the couple lived and Camela owned Revival A Go-Go vintage store. She plans to reopen her store this spring downstairs in their Miller Beach building, with antiques and "lots of books—I want to buy and sell books! It's so much fun being a curator." Nuco will have a separate area there for a second tattoo store and space for him to paint in the Japanese style he loves.
Camela has her husband's artwork on her arms—softly colored roses, vines, a pretty little snake. "See how the colors are done? It's special," she says, proud and happy.
Of the move from Chicago she muses, "I had a little bit of an epiphany. I wasn't really creating new memories. I wanted new surroundings for inspiration and Miller Beach is a neat little enclave. We like the community, and the properties we like are affordable." Living three blocks fom the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a plus for this couple who has poured such energy into their new-to-them home.
She adores finding vintage treasures; some of them here are from Re-Used Depot in Mayfield, Illinois, including the lockers, fireplace mantel, pedestal sink, and Japanese-style soaking tub. Other, local finds: the curved coffee table, two guitar pick tables, an arch lamp. Like the sofa, all have wood bases that coordinate the living room area.
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All the while, Camela speaks in the breezy, friendly way that is her free-spirited self.
Deep windowsills were created by framing the interior perimeter to cover walls of original, exposed plaster with drywall. It expanded the space and preserved the integrity of the building, and spray-foaming the inner wall space keeps the abode warm in winter. Another, more arresting advantage of the deep-set windows is space for Camela's plants. Nuco put multiple shelves in each window, now filled with varied pots of plants, from cactus to ivy. There are so many throughout the apartment that Camela, with irrepressible cheer, exclaims, "Let's count them!" She does, and announces, "One hundred thirty-four! I didn't include the air plants, though." She notes the healthful aspect of having plant life indoors.
Between the top of the stairs and a window is a large, vintage Indiana map, its hues of orange and yellow echoing the cheerful vibe. Some wall spaces are empty of any adornment, making the spaces seem larger, though in the living room area are two long 1960s scrolls of tiger images. There are real animals: two tiny dogs and one large one.
An L-shape at the far end of the long living space provides an alcove for the bedroom, just room enough for the 1960s Kent Coffey bedroom set of full-size bed, a dresser, and nightstand. Yet ingenious use of the space allows for such quirky accents as a large, Japanese koi fish-shaped kite in an opposite corner. Tucked in amongst the window plants here are natural elements like a whole puffer fish and small animal skull; the entire delicate, curled-up skin and fanged head of a small, jade boa constrictor rests on the dresser. Walls in bright yellow lend a cheerful vibe.
The effect is not a mish-mash of "stuff." There's a mod, restrained style and room to move, to live, to breathe.
Camela loves vintage lamps, so two round, enamel ceiling lights near the kitchen area are from an airplane hangar. In the entryway stairway ceiling, two vintage globes hang from wood panels and each has large flower petal-shape bases her brother, Rob Christopher, fashioned from veneer woods for guitar making he'd found from a former tenant at Camela's Chicago store. Owner of Emotive Reclaim, "He's sooo talented!" Camela says. One wall in the stairwell has framed posters of the indie movies Nuco favors.
At the top landing, another find: a buddha. "I see it when I come home and it's peaceful; it symbolizes a calmness," she says.
Off the kitchen where there was just a roof, a wall had been extended to create a porch, a storage area for now. The couple plans to enlarge it and install another staircase.
Mornings find Camela at a corner of the sofa, where she reads and meditates. "The sun comes in, it's very quiet, and it seems like the Earth is very still," she says of the space. It comes as no surprise that she has taught yoga and practices it.
Their little home "feels like a secret space because you'd never know it was here from the outside," Camela says. "It's our first winter here; it feels like we're setting a tone, for a healthy lifestlye and to nurture ourselves."
It seems to be working. "My husband says, 'I can't wait to get home.'"