By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
An orchid sits nestled in the windowsill of Tess Banion and George Wanke’s bedroom in their Old Town condominium, its pink flowers illuminated by the rays of a late March sun. Visible in the window even from outside on Green Street, the 30 blooms appear like a candle in the dark, a sign that says, “Yes, you are welcome.”
The orchid wasn’t always there. Banion and Wanke moved to Alexandria in April 2021 from Lawrence, Kansas to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren, downsizing in the process. Their one-bedroom Old Town condo is an exercise in creativity, as they have found a way to make do with less. While they had a balcony with herbs and flowers in Kansas, they now have flowers sprouting in window boxes throughout their Alexandria home. The orchid is the crown jewel, having started as a twig after sustaining damage in the move.
Like the orchid, their home started small but has blossomed into something beautiful.
“You take advantage of everything you can,” Tess Banion, an author and filmmaker, said. “… I think the strategy is ‘have fun, be creative and don’t give up.’ What can we do to make this better?”
Banion’s condo is split between a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living/dining room area and an entryway. The living/dining room, which contains a couch, T.V. and two tables – one for more formal dining and one that functions as both a work space and everyday place for meals – takes up the most space. It’s not too big or too small – it’s just enough.
“[People] do say it’s cozy, which is a codeword for ‘not real big,’ but that’s ok. I wanted it cozy,” Banion said. For Banion and her husband, the space is exactly what they were looking for when they moved to Alexandria.
“We didn’t want to spend a ton of money on fixing up something or getting the high end anything. We wanted to be able to enjoy our life, have a cushion and get something that was moderately priced that was also excellent,” Banion said.
That’s a tall order, especially in Alexandria, but Banion and Wanke found a place that fit the bill. Prior to buying the condo in February 2021, Banion said she hadn’t even been able to tour the place in person. Her husband had come for a visit and shown it off to her over Zoom. Even through the digital veil, Banion said she knew it was the right fit. The first thing that caught her eye was the entryway.
“That is so important to me to have this feeling of an entryway,” Banion said. “You can greet people. You bring them into your home.”
The elements that for some people would have seemed like inconveniences were selling points for Banion and Wanke. There was only one bedroom, and the kitchen is small enough that opening the dishwasher blocks egress and ingress.
“I think it’s all about expectations. If you come in thinking, … ‘We’re going to make it perfect,’ nothing’s perfect,” Banion said. “If you wanted perfect, you wouldn’t get a 6’x8’ kitchen. But in truth, the way it has worked out, it is perfect.”
It helped that Banion and Wanke had downsized before. When it comes to “stuff,” the objects that clutter a space, Banion and Wanke are used to letting go. In their previous condo in Kansas, there was a fire in the communal storage area, destroying the items they had stored there, which included photos, camping gear and golf clubs.
“The sad part was that we lost some memorabilia, pictures and stuff like that, that we had stored. That was heartbreaking,” Banion said. “But my husband went and found his golf club and he looked at it and he just threw it. I said, ‘Oh honey, you’re really [upset.]’ He said, ‘No, I’ve just never been able to putt. To hell with that thing.’”
Instead of embarking on expensive renovation projects to completely reshape the space, Banion used simple design concepts. None of the furniture in their condo goes down to the floor, allowing them to both show off the dark wood floors and make their condo feel more spacious.
“It was all about keeping it airy and light and making it appear bigger than it is,” Banion said.
The walls are also covered in art from friends, family and Paul Flinders, the artist who illustrated Banion’s novel “A Parting Glass.” Flinders’ creations depict childish figures with large heads and wide eyes, reminiscent of something out of a Tim Burton film. One piece portrays Elizabeth, the protagonist in Banion’s novel. Together, Flinders’ illustrations provide the condo with a little bit of edge and mystery.
The placement of paintings and furniture is strategic and designed so that there are different stylistic pockets of the home that feel holistic yet diverse. One corner of the living room has an orange chair with a lamp behind it that Banion said is meant to be reminiscent of a 1950s beauty salon. Meanwhile, the dining room table with its patterned chairs and overhanging chandelier is a “French area,” Banion said.
There is always something to look at in Banion and Wanke’s condo, and because of its size, each piece of furniture and art stands out and makes a statement.
“Have fun with your space. Be creative, try different things. I don’t expect people are going to like everything that I have,” Banion said.
The most significant and expensive change to their new home was the tiny kitchen. Banion and Wanke swapped out the traditional refrigerator for a set of undercounter refrigeration units and a freezer. They installed a smaller stove, took out some shelves and maximized counter space. With less refrigerator space, Banion said she and her husband have to think rethink some things that most people take for granted, such as how much they buy at the grocery store.
“Living in a small space means you use everything you can, and you get smart about, all right, you just stop in the store every couple of days for milk,” Banion said.
Other than the kitchen, the other place Banion has invested in is her writing space. The chair at her writing desk, which is located in the bedroom within sight of the orchid, is one of the most expensive pieces of furniture in the condo, according to Banion. Although she enjoys writing at coffee shops, Banion said the creative sanctuary at home helps a lot, especially as she has started work on a new book.
“What I do find is when I get in and I start writing, I could be there two hours and I wouldn’t even know it. It would be like a blink,” Banion said.
More than anything, moving into their cozy condo has helped Banion and Wanke realize what matters most to them and their lifestyle. They are three miles away from their daughter, within walking distance of King Street and happy with what they have. Downsizing can be uplifting.
“Why be so picky? I’m 71. Do I want to spend [my time] being unhappy that I don’t have a parking space? Just think about it as that’s a few steps that I can get in that might help me live longer. Living small, you have to embrace that,” Banion said.