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Craftsman "Sears Kit House" Remodel

A meticulous reno brings out the beauty in a 1925 Craftsman, from its quarter-sawn oak to its built-in charm

A Smart New Porch

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Let early adopters rush headlong into a world where everything, including tonight’s dinner, is controlled by an app. Sam and Kathleen, owners of a 92-year-old house with decidedly old-fashioned fittings, will be busy enjoying the tactile delight of pressing mother-of-pearl-inlaid push-button switches that go sproing! before bathing a room in the glow of period-style lighting. “It’s a trip back to my childhood,” Sam says. “That character and the feeling you get—it reminds me of the warm, cozy houses my friends had when I was growing up.”

Shown: The 1925 Craftsman bungalow gained major curb appeal with a smart new porch; its gracefully tapered columns are echoed by other improvements inside.

The Upgrade Couple

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Lest you think he is some modern-day Van Winkle for whom time and progress mean nothing, this is the sixth house he and Kathleen have owned and upgraded. Sam’s an emergency-room doctor with a seriously green thumb, Kathleen’s a registered nurse who understands interior design, and together they make a formidable home-improvement team with strong opinions and sophisticated tastes.

“We do this for fun, not money, and we’re lucky if we break even,” Kathleen says with a laugh. “It’s our weird idea of a hobby: We start tossing around ideas and the next thing we know we’re at Home Depot!”

Shown: Homeowners Kathleen and Sam on the new porch.

Craftsman Living Room Style

Photo by Gridley + Graves

When they bought their current fixer-upper, in the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, they were not interested in busting it up or building a two-story addition in back. Yes, they did think it might be nice to improve the view from the kitchen sink. And the house had a sad-sack portico that didn’t really cut it as a front porch. But things they liked about the house, like its compact size and Craftsman style, compelled them to preserve and restore. Updating the kitchen meant adding style-appropriate white oak cabinetry, while opening up the room and installing modern appliances, of course.

Shown: The living room’s original white oak trim came with layers of icky gray paint. The homeowners stripped it and added a matching mantel.

Warming Up the Kitchen

Photo by Gridley + Graves

The house would not be theirs at all if Kathleen hadn’t been walking around the neighborhood one spring day some years ago and noticed “this little white cottage with an odd, undersized front porch half buried by an overgrown garden.” At the time, they were busy raising two kids and renovating house No. 5, another needy 1920s find that happened to be nearby. But Kathleen stopped long enough to spot a small pond through the ragged undergrowth, surrounded by rhododendron and hemlock, oak, and white pine trees.

Shown: Custom quarter-sawn white oak cabinets and refrigerator panels warm up the new kitchen. The brickwork emerged during demolition.

Pendant lights: Rejuvenation

Sink: Blanco

Microwave: Kenmore

Dining Room Built-in

Photo by Gridley + Graves

The whole lovely, neglected scene reminded her of The Secret Garden, one of her favorite books. “It had a picket fence around it, and that made it even more secret,” she now recalls.

If you know the book, you know why she could not walk away. Says Sam, “She was already building a future for us there. ‘That will be the house we retire in,’ she said. Yeah, right, I thought—we had just finished renovating the one we were in! But I did start to take notice of the garden… .”

Shown: The bi-level built-in between the dining room and kitchen cleverly frames the view from the table. Guests see the artful backsplash over the range but none of the dishes near the sink.

Art tile: Pratt & Larson

Chandelier: Arroyo Craftsman

Master Bedroom

Photo by Gridley + Graves

When the two met in high school, in a town nearby, they would make day trips to Chagrin Falls to poke around the river and its steep falls. A village that grew up around industrial mills in the 19th century—how it got its name no one knows—it has since gained a “Norman Rockwell-ish” charm, as Sam puts it.

Shown: The master bedroom, a previous addition, has a lofty new cathedral ceiling.

Rug: Overstock

Sconces: Wildwood Lamps

Wall paint: Sherwin-Williams’s White Hyacinth

Enlarged Bath

Photo by Gridley + Graves

After doing time on the East Coast, the couple migrated back, drawn in part by a love of the Midwest and its slower pace, and in part by a country-road commute to the hospital where Sam now works. While redoing their first house in Chagrin Falls, they dipped into the local talent pool and came up with the renovation equivalent of gold: an expert team headed by an 80-something trained structural engineer and general contractor named Sal Cicirello.

Shown: The house came with only one full bath, which the couple enlarged with a sliver annexed from a second bedroom.

Floor and wall tile: Pratt & Larson

Wall paint: Sherwin-Williams’s Light French Gray

Mudroom-Laundry Area

Photo by Gridley + Graves

The house with the secret garden stayed in fantasy territory until it was handed down to a new owner who planned to renovate but got cold feet, so to speak, after an April ice storm. Feelers went out. “Before we knew it,” Sam says, “we were the owners of the little cottage up the street.”

Shown: Original stained-glass windows add a graceful note to the mudroom-laundry area.

Washer and dryer: Maytag

Mudroom Storage

Photo by Gridley + Graves

For a number of years they simply rented it out. But when they drew closer to empty-nestdom, they put out a second SOS to Sal Cicirello and his crew of seasoned carpenters. Could they come take a look?

Along with its bleak exterior, the little Craftsman was burdened with systems that were virtually kaput. Quarter-sawn oak was buried under paint, plaster was falling off the walls, the bedroom ceiling was low—these homeowners are tall—and the one full bath was so small it was hard to turn around in.

As for the dirt-floor garage that tilted decidedly south and was stationed just a long arm’s reach from the back door, “Sal said tear it down,” Sam says. “But we said, no, no, we want to connect it to the house.” It was an inventive idea, if impractical; the garage would become a pondside bonus room, linked to the house by a new mudroom-laundry area.

Shown: New custom exterior (and interior) white oak doors with leaded glass give the home a hint of Prairie style. Homeowner Sam, armed with a 4-inch brush and a wad of cheesecloth, finished the mudroom walls with seven layers of custom-blended paint and glaze.

Hardware: Craftsmen Hardware Company

Weathered Shades of Barn

Photo by Gridley + Graves

“Then along comes Harry the building inspector,” Sam recalls, “and he says you can’t keep the garage as it is, you have to dig below the frost line…. So we start digging down and I’m watching it teeter back and forth, and I’m thinking, Oh, I don’t know about this. Then it rained for 9,000 weeks in a row and I swear I thought it was going to float away.” The crew pumped it out, poured concrete, braced and squared up the listing walls, installed lots of glass, “and that room became one of the most fun things about the house.”

Shown: Barn wood in weathered shades of red and brown lines the sitting room–guest room. The walls underneath it were painted black to obscure the wood’s loose fit. Sliding doors hide a Murphy bed, while glass panels and French doors overlook a “secret garden” with a goldfish pond and shade trees.

Windows and doors: Marvin

Period Built-Ins

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Work was done in waves over several years and included a new roof, windows, and siding, along with improved heating and cooling. The old galley kitchen became a light-filled, shipshape space with a sight line from the sink to the dining room, living room, and front yard. “It’s one cozy space,” says Sam. “When the family’s over we can all sit within earshot.”

Shown: A slanted-leg built-in adds period style and needed storage to the dining room.

Built-in: Elk Creek Construction

Pulls: Craftsmen Hardware Company

Tapered Piers

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Helping to make all this possible was architect George Clemens, who worked closely with Kathleen on design and with master carpenter Jesse Treadway on period-style built-ins. A double-faced room divider—lower cabinets between airy piers—now straddles the kitchen and dining room, replacing a wall without gutting its intent. “You don’t need to open up a wall more than 50 percent to create an open feeling,” Clemens says. Raised on the dining side, the built-in hides cooking clutter from the guests, who can still glimpse the cabinetry and tilework. And the cook is never cut off from the party.

Shown: Tapered piers, similar to those on the porch and carport, set off the kitchen while opening it to the dining room.

Rear Carport

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Sam, who put himself through school as a house painter, chose a soft cream for most of the walls—“It lets the woodwork and craftsmanship be the stars,” he says—and did all the painting himself, including glazing for added depth in the mudroom. He claims it’s relaxing to paint after a day in the ER, though his wife jokes, “There’s some OCD perfection going on.”

Shown: After the original garage became part of the house, the homeowners added a rear carport with period flair.

Patio Retreat

Photo by Gridley + Graves

What surprises others is the way that porch—like so much of what’s new—looks original. The house may now have every amenity from a stylish bath to a paneled fridge, yet what you see is beautifully grained oak turned into hardworking architectural elements by way of old-fashioned craftsmanship.

And that, of course, is just what the homeowners were hoping you’d say.

Shown: The backyard holds a brick-and-sandstone patio, a workbench-turned-picnic-table, and a hammock strung between hemlocks.

Earthy Sitting Room

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Faded-red barn wood and earthy tile add character to the sitting room–guest room, formerly a detached, dirt-floor garage.

Sconce: Arroyo Craftsman

Rug: Guildcraft Carpets

Sears Kit House

Midway through the work, a neighbor stopped by and said, “You have a Sears kit house there.” They found it did have a striking resemblance to the Argyle model, which was shipped in pieces to towns like Chagrin Falls during the 1920s. “It’s safe to say that if it isn’t an Argyle, it was modeled on it,” Clemens says. Coincidentally, the porch he designed is a near-perfect match to one often found on Argyles.

Shown: During the 1920s, Sears shipped kit houses to towns like Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The Argyle kit house had a floor plan that matches up with the house that Kathleen and Sam renovated, and their new front porch is also strikingly similar.

Floor Plan

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

The one-story house gained 380 square feet during the reno, for a total of 1,460, with the addition of a mudroom, a sitting room–guest room in what was formerly a detached garage, and a finished basement (not shown). The homeowners also replaced a portico with a front porch, opened the kitchen to the dining room, and remodeled the one existing bath.