Home & Garden

Empty nesters turn kids’ rooms into their dream space

Nora and Ted Weinreich have converted the bedrooms of their three kids into a grandkids' room, pictured here, a guest room/eclectic art room and a man cave/den for Ted.
Nora and Ted Weinreich have converted the bedrooms of their three kids into a grandkids' room, pictured here, a guest room/eclectic art room and a man cave/den for Ted. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

In the movie Failure to Launch, when the 35-year-old character played by Matthew McConaughey finally moved out of his parents’ home, his father — portrayed by Terry Bradshaw — immediately turned McConaughey’s newly vacant bedroom into his dream space: a “Naked Room.”

When artist Gregory Pitts’ son left the family’s Davie home to begin his adult life in Las Vegas, Pitts also wasted no time taking over his son’s boyhood digs. But Pitts had a tad different vision for the abandoned upstairs bedroom with skateboarding posters plastered on the walls.

The 50-year-old immediately rescued his old DJ equipment from storage, wiped off the dust and set up his entertainment man cave. The place where a teenager dreamed about the future became a place where Pitts and his buddies now escape for a few hours each week to reminisce about the good old days of the 1980s. They drink cocktails, smoke cigars and listen to his eclectic collection of “vinyls” that include the Scorpions, Miles Davis and Luciano Pavarotti.

“It was a cool project, but I think it might be tougher to do for mothers with their empty-nester syndrome,” Pitts said. “They might think, ‘Oh my God,’ my kid won’t come back if I take over their bedroom. But when kids come home these days, they would rather couch-hop with friends.”

It’s a dilemma faced by many Baby Boomers. For every childhood bedroom that is vacated as a son or daughter leaves home to make his or her mark on the world, there are parents left behind wondering what to do with the idle space.

Some leave it as is, at least for a few years. A deserted bedroom becomes a sort of shrine to their child — with trophies on the shelves, pictures taped to the walls and 18 years worth of stuffed animals and kid mementos strewn in closets and stuffed under beds. It’s a place to sleep when the grown child returns for holidays, vacations and extended visits after failing to find a job.

Single mom Debbie Cabrera, 51, left her only child’s bedroom alone the first time she left home to attend the University of Central Florida. That was good because her daughter, Gabriella, returned to live with her in the three-bedroom townhome in Doral as she earned her master’s degree.

The second time, Gabriella has likely left home for good. She’s engaged and beginning a dream job as an occupational therapist in Orlando. Cabrera said she knew this was the right time to reclaim the space.

So the mint-colored bedroom — which evolved from a princess room with a sleigh bed fit for a sixth-grader to a young adult’s sanctuary with Buddhas, Flamenco dancers and framed images of her and her boyfriend’s world travels — became an income generator for mom.

Cabrera is renting the room out to her personal trainer, partly in exchange for home training sessions to help with her breast cancer recovery and overall health.

“It was a little strange at first to go home and not be able to stay in my room,” said Gabriella Cabrera, 26. “A third party now was in there. I came home and automatically opened the door, and thought ‘Oh my gosh.’ I saw Hello Kitty stuff everywhere. But honestly I am happy because it is for my mom’s benefit. There is now somebody at the house, which is good company for my mom and piece of mind for me.”

Cabrera also transformed the guest bedroom with a simple trundle bed into her dream home office/creative space. With the help of a friend, an interior designer from Texas, they livened up the space with color and fabric with bird patterns. A pillow that says “Relax” completes the makeover. And in the family room downstairs, she has converted part of it into a semi-secret home gym with mats, weights, hula hoops and yoga balls that stash away. “We just can’t hide the elliptical machine,” she said. “It’s too big.”

Sara Tayte, founder and head designer at AID — Interior Design Miami, asks clients in a questionnaire about what they would do in a dream space if money and space were no object.

The list includes: arcade, wine room, Air B&B rental room, gym, craft room, design studio, yoga and meditation space, home library, giant closet and makeup room, recording studio, photography studio, smoking room and home movie theater.

One of Tayte’s clients in South Beach originally wanted to convert their son’s room into a guest room, but after discussing their needs it became clear there was a better plan.

“They were setting up a massage table in the living room and dining room,” she said. “And they said they hardly had people come overnight and would hardly use a guest room.”

So the bedroom became a massage room with a massage table, different color mood lights, candles and a warmer for hot stones used by masseuses. “It turned out beautiful,” Tayte said.

It has taken time since her two daughters moved out for good, but slowly, Rhonda Victor Sibilia turned one of their bedrooms into a guest room and now she is in the midst of transforming the other’s bedroom into a sports-themed space with memorabilia of the Hurricanes, Gators and Seminoles, as well as NASCAR, a sport loved by her new roommate, “significant other” Bill.

“I did have the empty nester parent’s syndrome for a while: holding onto their junk, excuse me, their precious mementos,” she said.

Harry Potter and boy band posters, drinking vessels, sorority memorabilia, painted glasses, balloons on sticks, dried flowers and other vestiges of youth that survived being scraped off the walls have been preserved, mostly by being shoved in closets.

The new space in her West Kendall townhome has two chair backs from Sun Life Stadium’s renovation, as well as pennants, sports bobbleheads and sports figures. “We tried to make it tasteful,” she said.

For years, Ted and Nora Weinreich also kept much of their three children’s childhood stuff when they left home. There were comic books, science projects, love letters, school notebooks, trophies and the like.

“They all wanted us to keep their stuff, like a memorial,” Nora Weinreich said. “We thought: ‘Let’s just leave it.’ We wanted them to always come home. But when we saw they were establishing permanent homes, we said, ‘Wait a minute. This is silly’.”

So the now retirees did what many other empty nesters have done and transformed their son’s room into a room for their grandchildren, ages 4 months to 16 years.

They also transformed one daughter’s room that once had a border of New York theater playbills to a “real man cave” for Ted, with his art collection that includes African masks. And for the other daughter’s room, they made it into a guest room that showcases their eclectic art collection of Eskimo and American Indian art, studio glass and sculptures.

“Our kids weren’t happy at first but have all adjusted and now have nice homes of their own,” Nora Weinreich said.

When they moved into their new townhome six years ago, they kept the same themed rooms.

Marcelo Salup of Coral Gables was so eager for his only child to leave the nest that he sped up the process by buying his daughter her own condo in Key Biscayne. Her vacated bedroom immediately became the “Snore Room,” a peaceful, white wall- and white furniture-escape from the bedmate who sounds as if a roaring train is coming out of their nose and mouth as they sleep.

“I read a lot of articles about architecture trends,” Salup said. “Snore rooms may not be exactly the rage, but they have become very popular.”