Archives for category: renovation

Being asked to do something that you have never done before, and with which you have no experience, can be an intimidating request. A voice in your head shouts, “you don’t know how to do that, just say no, you’ll make a mess of it.” Ignoring the voice, I plunged ahead and dived into unknown waters. Luckily the waters were not shallow.

Heather Atwood asked me to design a memorial bench for her mother. The bench was to be placed at Howlets, Heather’s home. The first decision to be made was, where on the property the bench should be placed? We agreed that it would sit in a small shade plant garden tucked at the edge of the property. Discovering the bench as one strolls about the property, rather than it standing out in a prominent “main event” kind of way, was the right subtle treatment for the bench. Sitting in this semi-hidden spot would provide a welcome, contemplative retreat.IMG_1416

The best design for the low-key setting was a large single block of granite with the initials of Heather’s mother carved on the face. Large single blocks of granite can look so heavy and cumbersome when placed in a garden. To make it less squatty and lighter looking in appearance, two semi-hidden stone block feet about the size of large shoe boxes underneath the bench elevate it and make it “float.”

For Heather’s mother’s initials, CCL, we wanted a script style that fit the bench design. After a search through several seaside cemeteries we found a font that we both liked. Bold yet light. The letters would be set in a rectangular shaped frame cut into the stone. During our search of cemeteries we happened upon the grave of Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, a painter who shared a home with Ellen Day Hale, the builder of Howlets. It was a totally unexpected and serendipitous discovery.IMG_1419

Dave McGibbon, stonemason, began the task of splitting the large oblong piece of granite from an even larger rough stone. So that it will blend in with the stone wall behind it, we decided that the finish on the bench should not be polished and shiny. The slightly dimpled surface, called bushed, gives the bench a time worn visage. With time, the fresh cut granite will age and darken and become like the lichen covered and weathered stone wall close by.

Working on a history-laden property like Howlets is always daunting. But the addition of this memorial bench on the property somehow felt right, like adding yet a new layer of beautiful patina on the old home. I am glad I took the plunge.


During a recent kitchen renovation of a 172 year-old structure that was a barn in its former life, an odiferous discovery was made. As the carpenters sawed through the joists and beams, a strong cow urine smell wafted up. The powerful aroma had been trapped inside the wood fibers all these years, just waiting to be released and remind us that cows once lived here.

In 1840, Ezra Eames built this barn to house the cows at the farm that marched up Pigeon Hill in Rockport, Massachusetts. An enormous hayloft on the top floor stored the hay for the bovines in the winter. The farm existed for a bit less than a century. At some point, the farm house, field worker house, apple pressing house and barn were all sold off separately.

Sometime in the late 1930s, Justine D. Ferris, a retired business woman and artist from Boston, came upon the barn and had the extraordinary vision to realize the barn could become her home and studio. She drew up the plans for the transformation herself. Justine had previously worked at both Harvard University and the Office of Public Welfare in Boston, but now was looking to immerse herself in art. In 1957, The Boston Globe featured an article about Justine and her remodel of the barn into artist studio and living spaces. From the dusty cow barn, she created a duplex, splitting the building in half, one side for her studio and living space and the other for rental.

The space Justine created for her studio is two stories with exposed beams throughout. She bumped out the existing space seven feet complete with gambrel roof lines. She also put in a huge northern facing skylight. Northern light for studio space is thought to be best as it casts no direct sun shadows. Unfortunately, old studio skylights are notoriously leaky and lose heat in the winter. The skylight was removed during a later owner’s renovation, leaving behind visible ghost marks on the wall where the skylight used to be. But despite the subsequent alterations, the studio’s character remains intact. The room is still flooded with light from both North, West and East.

Exposed beams from the 1840 post and beam construction were painted olive green at some point by a later owner. The paint has been recently stripped and the warm wood beams now catch your eye as they run through the white rough plaster walls. The dowels used to pin the barn together during its 1840 construction are still visible. The soaring two story interior remains dramatic, unlike many of the old cavernous studios in Rockport that have had second floors inserted after the buildings ceased to be used as studio spaces. The exterior stone curving staircase entrance that Justine had built for her clients’ visits still graces the northern side of the building. While Justine’s paintings are difficult to find, a good friend did recently find a portrait of an unknown woman signed by Justine D. Ferris.

Two fellow artists penned a two-part poem about Justine’s life entitled “A Medley of Melody to Justine Ferris,” dated September 16,1947. In the ode to Justine by fellow artist Ruth Berry, she references the studio and barn, “. . . The studio still a magnet is / That draws us all together / From days of yore to Rockport shore / In rainy and fair weather.” The other author of the poem Mariam Tibbetts speaks about Justine’s renovation of the barn: “Soon out of beam and loft and rubbish pile / The barn uprise into stately hall / With Lady Elm sweetly straight beckoning at the garden gate / And the star-set skylight welcoming all.” The elm is now long gone, probably a victim of Dutch Elm disease, but the beams and loft remain. Although the two-storied studio ceiling and living room do indeed rise upwards to eighteen feet, some poetic license was taken with the “stately hall” line.

This old barn near the bay has transitioned from bovine shelter to artist studio and now re-purposed home. This old artist-colony studio may yet have another budding artist in its future. Cows, probably not so.

Click on any photo to enlarge.


The time-worn way of zipping up a house when you tire of the look is to redecorate — move the furniture around, replace the curtains, or change the paint colors.

Why not approach it from a different angle and add some unusual architectural elements? There are a myriad of online sources available to purchase new pilasters, columns, doors, fireplace surrounds, mantels, etc. They are all fine but without professionally distressing them they still look, well . . . . new. There is nothing like vintage items to bring depth and layers to a house. An architectural salvage yard is just the ticket to find that one-of-a-kind feature that stands apart and tells a story.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit three such establishments in New England. If you desire quirky architectural object d’art, the eye candy that these places provide is almost better than a trip to a museum. And, even better, you can buy the stuff you fall in love with. Try that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre. Most of the objects have been removed from houses that are to be torn down or remodeled. Re-purposing them for another life keeps beautiful things out of the landfill and is “green” to boot. You will feel down right self righteous bringing home one of these treasures to grace your home.

Here are a few items that you will never find duplicated by a neighbor who shops at Target.

“Warm Ye in Friendship” mantel detail

Classical beefcake


“Dark Shadows” doors

Curvaceous corbel

Corinthian kitsch

Electric blue

Links to some New England salvage yards:  Restoration Resources, Nor’East Architectural Salvage, and Architectural Salvage, Inc.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

When most East Coasters think of California, we think of Hollywood, the beaches of LA or perhaps foggy San Francisco, that city by the bay. The high desert area of Southern California does not spring to mind. On a recent trip to visit some friends who have moved to Joshua Tree, California, we got to experience the “other” California. It is far, far away from Disneyland, though it does bear some resemblance to Roadrunner of Looney Tunes fame (beep beep).

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

Our friends Gail and Doug have long been enamored with the wild and raw and most assuredly untamed beauty of the area. They purchased a real fixer upper and dug in, literally. As summer approaches in the high desert, the daytime temperatures can soar into the 100s and the rattlesnakes search out cool spots, like the concrete slab floor on which the house is built.

Let me in!

The first plan of action was to seal up the points of entry for the rattlers and scorpions, also abundant in the area and wanting in. As Gail climbed out of a huge rented pickup trip full of building supplies, she wryly noted, “I am so far out of my comfort zone.” Our work party of four pitched in and began to bring a sense of civilization to the desert.

The house they purchased was originally part of the last of the Homestead Acts passed by Congress in 1938. The Act was designed as a non-agricultural way to entice settlers to the area, which sits on the edge of the Mojave desert. The five acre plots were cheap and buyers were required to build a house on the land. WWII intervened and, with gas rationing and the difficulty in getting to the far flung desert area, few houses were built. That all began to change by the end of the war. By the mid-1940s, houses began to spring up on the five acre plots. Most of them were quite small, some in the 400 square foot range.

Full tilt renovation

Gail and Doug’s house has been added onto over the intervening years and is now a three-bedroom, two-bath house. Some of the additions are unsympathetic to the whole and their goal is to unify them into a cohesive unit while retaining the enticingly quirky aspects of the home. They have begun to work toward that goal and have already sheet rocked walls and ceilings, removed nasty wall-to-wall carpeting, gutted the kitchen, and color stained and sealed the now exposed concrete floors.

Crowbar city

The dark pressed-wood Georgia Pacific paneling in one room has still yet to come down. I am itching to take a pry bar to it. Having removed this type of paneling before on another project, I can attest that peeling off the sheets gives instant and enormous gratification. Gail and Doug have promised me that they will leave that pleasure to me for our next visit.

The roof has recently been snow coated (no, not that kind of snow but rather a coating of white material that is waterproof and reflects the light to keep the house cooler). Snow Coat is an acrylic polymer elastometric roof emulsion which is applied with a roller or push broom. Gail has a sea of blisters on her hands after the roof coating DIY project. A ‘swamp cooler’ has also been installed. This term always makes me smile as there is no swamp anywhere near the Mojave Desert. Swamp coolers are often used in the desert as a less costly alternative to air conditioning. Swamp coolers are in effect water towers that blow air across water saturated cellulose pads that in turn cool the air and add moisture, much needed to keep that dewy, youthful complexion upon which the desert can wreak havoc.

The glamour of renovation

A trip up to the high desert feels very much like a trek to a wild and woolly place, full of harsh realities paired with sublime beauty. It quickly becomes obvious why Gail and Doug have chosen to become pioneers, carving out and creating a place to call home that they hopefully will not have to share with the creatures of the desert.

Doug and Gail

Our friend Doug is a professional photographer.  Check out his amazing work at his website

A golden rule in the design world is that one NEVER reveals design sources. I am about to break that time-honored credo.

We have been lucky enough to live in towns with great swap shops. Both our current home town in Massachusetts and our previous residence in New Hampshire had swap shops at the town dumps. These swap shops enable town residents to drop off unwanted but serviceable items and fellow townspeople to peruse through the items and take what they wish. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, indeed. If, after a week or so, the item has not found a new home, it goes in the dumpster as trash. Over the years, the scores of finds that I have rescued from the landfill could furnish a small nation. Antique bed frames, lamps, dishes, frames, silverware, trays, glassware, tablecloths, antique Christmas decorations, chairs, a Danish modern bureau, and books have all found their way into my house and houses of neighbors and friends. My across-the-street neighbor and I trade each other discovered items that we know the other would like. She has an amazing eye.

The priviledge of shopping at these dumps comes at a cost, however. A sticker on your car is necessary for admittance to the dump. In our Massachusetts town the yearly sticker price pushes the $200 mark. In the New Hampshire town, the sticker is had for a mere $6.00, good for two years. When we first applied for the sticker in New Hampshire some ten years ago, it was $2.50 and when I remarked on the low figure, the town employee replied, “when the sticker price went up from $1.00 per year there was an outcry.”

In reading a recent article in a shelter magazine about a decorator and her work, she was quoted as saying, “I always like to add a few thrift shop finds to a project to give it a not all new look.”  My philosophy is the opposite. I like to use mostly found and vintage items and add just a few new items so the end result is not dowdy.

The return policy at these establishments is unparalleled. If you tire of the item or it no longer works with your “look,” take it back for someone else to enjoy.

Here is just a tiny sampling of the items that I saved from destruction.

I dream of Jeannie lamp

Dine with a view

Those of you who took a child to Disney Land in its heyday and went on the Small World ride will remember that cloying annoying song that you could not get out of your head for days. That melody kept popping into my mind as I recently readied a 500 square foot living space for rental.

Wee space

The challenge in furnishing small spaces is creating a feeling of openness and yet providing areas where daily living activities can be performed easily and with comfort. No small order in 500 square feet. In most spaces this tiny, the common solution to the sleeping/living area dilemma is a daybed or a fold out sofa. The daybed solution requires a made bed with tons of pillows to support the back in order to sit during the day. The height of most daybeds are not conducive to comfortable sitting; the feet tend to dangle, not touching the floor. Fold out sofas have come a long way in recent years with inflatable mattresses — a vast improvement on the sofa beds of old. But removing the sofa cushions and placing sleeping pillows on the bed each night is still a bit of an ordeal. Reversing the process in the morning just makes you want to stay in bed to avoid your chambermaid tasks.

Disappearing act

Sometimes old solutions are the best solutions. We installed a Murphy bed in a sleek frosted glass fronted cabinet with huge sliding doors that conceal the bed by day. This frees up the limited floor space for a real sofa, end tables that have large drawers which double as bureaus, a coffee table, a dining table and chairs, and a Hans Olsen “fried egg” chair which looks like a piece of sculpture. All of the furniture you can see under; this expands the space visually, making it feel larger. The Murphy bed is counter weighted so that it comes down with a light pull. The other half of the cabinet is an ample closet with bars for hanging items and built in shelves and pull out drawers for clothes storage.

With large living spaces, furniture selection can be fluid as there are many choices as to placement of the pieces. If a piece does not work in one room, moving it to another is always an option. In a one room small space, each piece must be chosen to fit in its designated space and perform with aplomb. Form and function at its best. One painting graces this room and a modicum of “dust catchers” sit on surfaces. A music system, flat TV, and speakers all hang on a wall, freeing up floor space. The project’s end result is, although the space is compact, it has the comfort and feel of a much larger one.

Kitchen a la Jetsons

There were several “tricks” we used to accomplish this feeling. When sitting in the living room and looking into the kitchen, no appliances or sinks piled with dirty dished are visible. In the kitchen, most of the storage is below the counter with upper cabinet frosted glass garage door cabinets to house the dishes and glasses. The cabinets are lit from within and throw a soft glow of light through the frosted glass fronts. They seemingly float on the wall. All of the lower cabinets are on slender stainless steel legs and are lit from below, giving an airy open feeling to the room.

If the small world theme song would stop internally rewinding ad nauseam, we could appreciate our efforts.

A bit of extra space

Icons take many forms. The word itself conjures up religiosity. Recently, I made a pilgrimage to an architectural icon named the “ship of the desert.” It is a house in Palm Springs, California, built in 1936. It is decidedly art deco in style and very unusual for the area. Most of the architecture in Palm Springs is either Spanish style with adobe walls and terra cotta tile roofs or mid-century modern flat roofs with enormous walls of glass. Curvy art deco did not make its mark in a big way here, so this house is one of a very few of its style in the area. The ship of the desert is tucked with its back just a few feet from the steep hillside rise of the San Jacinto mountain range and has a bowed front like a proud prow jutting over the desert floor. There is one small round window in the facade to root the house in Art Deco nautica.

The house is currently privately owned by fashion designer Trina Turk and her photographer husband Jonathan Skow. Check out Trina’s fashion sense at and Jonathan’s photos at She has her own retail shops in New York City, Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Tina and Jonathan recently had a holiday party at the ship of the desert, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend on the coat tails of an invited guest.  A true hanger on.

The house was built close to the peak of the Great Depression by the Davidsons, a department store family, for their winter retreat. The house has a doubly tragic past. Mrs. Davidson took her life after discovering her husband’s infidelity. The house passed through several owners and in 1998 it was a down-at-the-heels dowager in need of more than a fresh coat of lipstick. Tina and Jonathan were looking for a mid-century modern house in Palm Springs. Palm Springs is rotten with mid-century modern archtecture. Art Deco, not so much. They fell for the house despite its non-mid-century style and began a loving restoration. Midway through the process, tragedy struck again as an arsonist’s fire destroyed much of the structure. Crushed but undaunted, Trina and Jonathan hired Marmol-Radziner, an LA-based design firm to recreate the house as near to precisely as possible to the original. A kitchen stove miraculously lived through the fire and was incorporated into the kitchen design.

The subtle features of this house are discovered, not announced. The window shades, a neecessity to soften the harsh desert sun, disappear up into the ceiling when retracted. Indirect lighting is tucked up and recessed in the curve of the ceiling to softly light the living and dining rooms. An original main floor window that lowers fully into the basement but was destroyed by the fire, was religiously duplicated. “God is in the details,” as Mies Van de Rohe, an architect of other iconic buildings, once said. The end result of this restoration is breathtaking. This architectural icon perches proudly overlooking Palm Springs and the valley beyond. The chance to experience this house and, just for a while, fool myself into being someone other than me, was almost better than a trip to the Vatican. Viva coat tail pilgrimages.

In the early 1980s, my parents led The Solana Recyclers, a still thriving organization dedicated to building environmental awareness in southern California. They were early pioneers in creating ways to make recycling as easy as possible for residents of California communities. With this personal history, it was fitting that I took on the task of making recycling convenient for David and Heather’s family at Howlets. If my parents could do it for southern California, surely I could do it for one house in Folly Cove.

We all stuggle with where to put all of the yogurt containers, wine bottles, milk jugs, newspapers and junk mail which we are encouraged to recycle these days.  Convenient and aesthetically-pleasing storage is a challenge. Such was the case in the kitchen at Howlets. There were no current cabinet areas that could be sacrificed to use as recycling space. Fortunately, there was an empty area next to the cellar stairs crying out for a custom-made recycling center.

Recycling made beautiful

With the help of Michael Tocantins, a Gloucester carpenter, we were able to create a spacious recycling corner which fits right in with the character of the 100-year-old house. The space now accommodates three pull out bays, each with two receptacles inside, an orgy of space for the mountains of glass, paper, metal and plastic that seem to multiply like rabbits in a family of cooks. A spot for just plain old everyday trash was also incorporated into the design.

Michael started by building a “carcass” for the recycling center. The “skin” of the recycling center was made from old storm shutters that we had unearthed in the basement. These are the same shutters that were also repurposed for a headboard. Check out the earlier post entitled “Are they shutters or a headboard?” for details on the history of these shutters. The weathered grey shutters were flipped upside down in order for the reveal on them to act as a place to slip your hand in to slide open the bins — no handles needed to sully the clean architectural lines of this piece. The inside sliding mechanisms were ordered from Reva Shelf.

Recycling made convenient

The wide and long counter top is the same granite material that we used on the other counter tops in the kitchen, a softly creme-veined black granite. There are also two electrical outlet plugs for charging cell phones and laptops sunk into the top of the counter surface. On the end of the unit are three light switches that control the kitchen and cellar lighting. As the counter is directly at an intersection of a traffic pattern that bisects the entry to the kitchen from the living room and the stairs to the cellar, this added counter space has also proved to be a helpful staging area for all items coming and going.

After a few adjustments of the sliding mechanisms and bins that were initially not functioning optimally, the management of the kitchen detritus at Howlets is now easier by far. One of the owners’ daughters told me that it is her favorite “thing” about the house.

I trust my mother, still serving on the Board of Directors of The Solana Center for Environmental Innovation (the organization’s new name), would approve.

Like mother, like son

Global influence

Some readers have requested that I include a close up of the light fixture that appears in the distance in the third photo of the last post. Having struggled with the desire to please and the wish to “always leave them wanting for more,” I have succumbed to the former. Here is the photo of the globe with netting that I chose for the junction of the entrance to the kitchen from the living room and the stairs to the laundry room and mud room. The shape mimics the hanging pot rack and adds some softness to a room with sharp edges. Both of these round objects ease the angles.

Click on image to enlarge