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Remodeling a Farmhouse Without Losing the Charm

How a handy couple transformed their dream fixer-upper into a family-friendly home

Photo by John Gruen

Take the full farmhouse tour.

If your idea of purgatory is spending Saturday morning staring at 2,317 paint chips—alongside your equally baffled partner—you may find it hard to believe that some couples actually enjoy this sort of thing. They may even be good at it.

"We'd meet on-site and lay out our ideas, and we were, of course, talking about it all the time," says Rafe Churchill, referring to the enviably painless, eye-to-eye redo process of the Sharon, Connecticut, farmhouse that he and his wife, interior designer Heide Hendricks, now call home. "We have been together almost 20 years and almost always have been aligned in our aesthetic preferences."

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Weathering redos of their previous homes has, if anything, cemented these bonds. "We did a loft together in Brooklyn and two lakeside cottages, and we designed and built a house nearby when we first moved here," says Rafe, ticking off four life-consuming projects as if they'd been no harder than whitewashing a picket fence.

It helps that one half of this team was born into a family that knows its way around a lumberyard. Rafe, a third-generation master builder turned architectural designer (brother Seth runs Churchill Building Company, in nearby Salisbury), stepped easily into the role of GC and space planner, freeing Heide to focus on paint and textiles. "Though he does like to weigh in on colors—and on lighting and finishes!" she says tolerantly.

The couple found their dream fixer-upper a few years ago, when their kids were ages 4 and 7. Situated on a rise insulated in back by a town land trust, the 1929 center-hall Colonial Revival was empty and priced to sell. They liked the very things that had driven other potential buyers away, from the galley kitchen and randomly added side porches to the ancient plaster walls and timeworn spaces. Old houses like this have "settled into the landscape," Rafe says approvingly. Years of working in this neck of Connecticut, known for its rolling hills and above-average household incomes, had also deepened his appreciation of the coveted imperfections that signal authentic period style. "As soon as you change ceiling heights and make the windows line up perfectly, that's when you lose verisimilitude," Rafe says of those who don't know when it's best to leave things alone. "It's the oddities in the composition of the windows and the details that are the most convincing."

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

Think of it as the difference between a Calvin Klein shirt hot off the runway and a Brooks Brothers oxford that's frayed around the cuffs. "A lot of people talk about a nice, simple farmhouse, but very few people ever end up with that," Rafe says. "Part of the reason is they fall into a formulaic approach in the kitchen and bathrooms, with lots of tile and cabinetry and a built-in refrigerator, and the next thing you know, the farmhouse you fell in love with isn't recognizable." Though eager to make the house more family-functional, the couple also wanted to preserve its style. They didn't even consider one of those kitchens that's so big, it leaves no place to hide; instead, they would preserve existing spaces and, bucking trends, gather for meals in that thing called the dining room.

The refrigerator would be allowed to be a refrigerator, standing alone against its own wall. The mudroom might hop to a new spot, but it would still be a place where you kick off your boots after feeding the chickens, weeding the flower beds, and gathering firewood. "You have to ask yourself, What do you really need?" says Heide. "Our approach was, How little can we do?"

More: How to Give a Historical House New Life

A better way to put it might be, How little can we do that you would actually notice? Because the house really did need work. Pipes, wiring, and appliances would have to be replaced and insulation added, along with a new boiler and radiators, and central air on the first floor. With five small bedrooms and a single bath, the second floor would need some rearranging. And new finishes were called for throughout: Photos taken before and during the renovation show a butterscotch-and-brown exterior with a missing portico column, a fireplace in need of repointing, and floors, doors, stairs, and trim unified by a depressing faux-mahogany stain.

The trick was to protect the intimacy of existing rooms while paying attention to the scale and style of new elements, like living room built-ins and kitchen cabinets. On top of staying true to the house, this approach took care of a problem the couple had had at their Brooklyn loft—a space so vast, open, and sound-conducting, Heide confesses, it left them cold.

Rather than bust open the first floor, they opted to simply widen the passageway between the kitchen and the dining room, keeping this little den (for Legos and TV) and that little living room–library (for reading and napping). And hands off the plaster, though it meant sacrificing central air on the second floor and blowing in cellulose behind walls to avoid having to open them up for spray foam.

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

Still, "you want to be able to see the kids in the TV room while you're by the fire in the library," says Heide, citing a vision of family harmony achieved by installing pocket doors with divided lights between the two rooms. "At first, we closed them so we wouldn't have to hear Shrek," says Rafe. "Now the kids close the doors because they don't want to hear PBS."

The hardest part to get just right was the kitchen, says Heide, who does much of the cooking. She wanted plenty of storage and pro-style appliances. Rafe wanted "to keep it simple," as he puts it. They decided on base cabinets only and a pantry with open shelves. A humble wood table takes the place of the customary runway-size island–cum–breakfast bar.

More: Farmhouse Kitchen Revival

Shuffling the layout upstairs yielded separate bedrooms for Hollis, now 12, and Rufus, 9, a new hall bath, and a master suite fashioned from the remaining three rooms. Two attic bedrooms became a playroom and a guest room. Though it no longer has a dirt floor, the basement is still just a basement, while a wide porch added in back allows the family to drink in views of the protected land that extends beyond their two-acre parcel. Rafe designed a fence that corrals the family's wheaten terrier, Daisy, and built three "follies"—a studio for Heide, a coop for the chickens and firewood, and a garden shed—which joined an existing red-metal barn.

Inside, the feeling is sunny and open even if the plan is not, thanks partly to the center staircase that drew the couple to the house in the first place. Heide layered new and vintage finds—"I'm not interested in design that will be dated in 10 years," she says—and added to the coziness with comfortable seating, incandescent lighting, and heavy linen curtains. A sophisticated palette and the couple's signature high-contrast trim and window colors help keep the place from feeling quaint.

It has become a showroom of sorts, where potential clients can drop by to appreciate what Rafe calls "historically influenced" design. Some visitors have to guess which parts of the house date to 1929 and which to today—and that's just how the couple like it. "If you lightly touch an existing structure," Rafe likes to say, "it will last another 100 years."

Take the full farmhouse tour.