You can’t always get what you want. But in the course of trying, you may get something even better.
That’s how two big-city dwellers, Nick and Heidi Gamma, woke up one day in a Depression-era house in an exurban town they had barely heard of before they pushed their search to the outer limits of commutability.
Shown: The traditional dining room proves a perfect foil for a vintage Heywood-Wakefield dining table, first issued in 1948, and a handful of Heywood-Wakefield chairs. The candleholders were made by homeowner Heidi Gamma’s grandfather. Original 1930 corner cabinets hold vintage dinnerware; framed mid-century jazz-album covers hang on one wall.
Chair fabric: Dwell Studio
Curtains: Crate & Barrel
Ceiling fixture: Rejuvenation
Paint (walls): Benjamin Moore’s Horizon
Gammas at the Hearth
In terms of where to look, “we were winging it—we looked at about eighty houses,” says Heidi, recalling their ever-widening hunt for something larger than the overstuffed 700-square-foot apartment they were renting in Queens, New York. “We needed to be out of the city. We just needed closets.”
As a longtime collector of vintage movie posters and radio/turntable consoles and a certain type of honey-colored yellow birch furniture made by Heywood-Wakefield in the 1940s and ’50s, Nick wasn’t exactly in the market for a stone-and-clapboard house with a storybook roofline. Neither was Heidi. “We’re huge mid-century lovers,” she says. “We would have loved a really cool 1950s ranch.”
Shown: Nick and Heidi Gamma with their daughter, Lilly, then 10, and Cooper, their bichon frise.
Vintage armchair: Heywood-Wakefield
But in the early 2000s such cool classics were pricey. The couple didn’t have deep pockets—Nick was art directing and designing music CDs at the time, and Heidi worked in textile design. And they were thinking about having a baby. For two years they pored over listings looking for a place they both liked and could also afford, finally detouring to Trumbull, Connecticut, and a well-preserved earlier-period house—which suddenly felt just right. Situated on a nice lot not far from a train station, it held well-proportioned rooms, hardwood floors, and original details, including a wall-hung sink with legs and a tiled tub alcove in the one full bath. The house also offered a half bath and 1,076 more square feet than they had in the city—“a crazy amount of space,” Nick recalls naively thinking at the time.
Shown: Vintage lamps and Heywood-Wakefield chairs and tables mingle with newer upholstered pieces in the serenely composed living room. Claiming the mantel are family photos and heirlooms and a letterpress print.
There was no master suite, the previous owner made vague references to “minor puddling” in the basement, and the relatively new kitchen was not precisely to the couple’s taste. But the house did have two floors, three bedrooms, and access to good schools and public parks—potent draws even when daughter Lilly, now 12, was still just a gleam. The couple said yes, picturing an easy rearrangement of their vintage finds in more spacious, freshly painted rooms.
Shown: A mid-century-modern hutch in the living room holds collectibles, including Russel Wright tableware and a selection of British pottery.
Heidi, who reveres old houses, recalls joy at finding many things right where the original builder had left them. She admits to being a bit obsessed. “I’ve always wondered if it was a kit house, and what was going on in 1930,” she says. “It’s not a Tudor Revival, and it has a center-hall Colonial layout. Maybe English Cottage-Style Colonial?”
Though a rear addition went in around 1950, for the most part previous owners had worked to maintain the house without letting it go. Not everyone would find this ideal, but “we’re big fans of keeping the original integrity,” Heidi says. “You’re not going to find that original 1930 mud-wall-type tiling now, and you’ll never get it back again. If something is functional, then I want to preserve a little history.”
Shown: Homeowner Nick has a weakness for mid-century hi-fi and likes to crank up one of two vinyl-record-playing consoles, much to the bemusement of his daughter.
The couple were also determined to keep the existing layout, rather than tear it apart and open it up, as is the fashion. “I can see the desire to live in a more modern way, but I don’t think this house lends itself to it—there aren’t enough walls!” Heidi says.
But before they could settle in and enjoy the way their Heywood-Wakefield beauties played off the golden finish on the oak floors, they had to put their first personal touch on the one space no one sees—the basement, where it turned out “puddling” was a euphemism for “you may need a sump pump.” After one particularly hard rain, Heidi was on the phone with a mason, who had to dig out and paper and tar the culprit wall. He also had to regrade part of the backyard and lay down a French drain. “Then he added basement window wells,” Heidi continues. “Then he regraded another part of the yard and built a stone barrier with drainage against the back of the house.”
Shown: Enlarged by previous owners to hold a breakfast nook, over time the kitchen needed only new appliances. Brushed-aluminum Kromex canisters and a pot rack add to the period mix. Throughout, says homeowner Heidi, “we worked hard to make the juxtapositions work.”
Range and microwave: Kenmore
Rug: Dash & Albert
The clapboard siding called out for paint; porch columns and window trim needed work. Gradually, the couple’s hands-off M.O. became more hands-on. Wintry ice dams led to leaks over the family room. The homeowners ordered up a roofer and fiberglass-asphalt shingles advertised as “heavyweight and extra strong,” and added a 3-foot ice shield over the family room and along drip edges.
Shown: Existing cabinets coincidentally complement the homeowners’ colorful collection of Fiestaware, Pyrex, and Jadite.
As time wore on, kitchen appliances had to be replaced, along with the upstairs toilet and the chimney’s cracked lining. The dryer vent was not to code and had to be replaced and rerouted; the septic system became passé when the town supplied a sewer line. And then there was the new furnace, water heater, attic fan—and central AC.
Shown: The quirky tile complements the homeowners’ colorful collection of Fiestaware, Pyrex, and Jadite.
Chevron Bedroom Wall
Which brings us to other water-related issues that sprang up in a house that was built, after all, some 17 years before you could buy a single-handle sink faucet. Along with the usual drips—the kind an apartment dweller can usually get the super to fix—the couple faced a phantom leak inside a wall behind charming peach and black bath tile. They really didn’t want to replace the tile; as Nick puts it, “People either love it or hate it, but for me it is personal. It reminds me of my grandmother.”
Shown: Daughter Lilly’s room has an accent wall painted by her mom. “I nearly lost my mind,” Heidi says of neatening the chevron lines. The nightstand is an heirloom.
Artwork: Tad Carpenter
Bedding: Pine Cone Hill
They turned to “this wonderful, patient plumber,” Heidi says, referring to an enabler with more sympathy for a crazy quest than your average tradesman.
“It was challenging—Heidi wanted to keep it the way it was back in the day; you know she’s pretty set on that,” says philosopher-plumber Joe Tassitano, whose general observation vis-à-vis older houses is, “Each one has its quirks.” After gingerly punching out a bit of tile and poking around, he tracked down the problem to a hole in a 1930 galvanized fitting. He was so taken aback by its location—“where it would never in a million years wear out”—he sent photos to his plumber friends.
Shown: The guitar belongs to Lilly, who plays double bass and ukulele as well.
More challenging was the full bath’s American Standard China Shelfback sink, whose own leaks Tassitano traced to the faucet handles and fittings. Heidi wanted to save them. “We had to saw the valves off,” Tassitano recalls, “and take the faucet apart and measure the length and diameter of the fittings and go online to find a company that still manufactures stuff like that. Then we had to match everything up and put it together.”
Shown: Crisply patterned fabrics in a second-floor-landing alcove create a focal point that is visible from the front door.
Mixed in among these projects was the fun stuff, namely smartening up the decor as only two designers would know how to do. Over time, plaster walls and ceilings were restored and painted; the wood paneling in the family room was softened by a coat of pale gray-taupe. Heidi, with a hand from her mother-in-law, reupholstered weathered seating. New lighting gave existing spaces a lift.
Shown: In the master bedroom, a vintage Saul Bass–designed movie poster for Love in the Afternoon hangs over a bed flanked by lamps with vintage fiberglass shades; the artwork on the adjacent wall is by Tad Carpenter.
Lamp bases: IKEA
Rug: Dash & Albert
Paint (walls): Benjamin Moore’s Classic Gray
The household evolved, too, adding a rescued bichon frise, Cooper, about four years ago. Nick went to work as design director of an in-house creative and strategy group at Viacom; he also moonlights out of an armoire in the family room. Heidi continues as a freelance textile designer—and could probably qualify as a general contractor, a good thing given the state of the vintage tub fittings. “The plumber is running from me,” she jokes.
Shown: Working with a sympathetic plumber, the homeowners replaced the toilet and fixed leaks in the one full bath while preserving its original sink, faucets, and peach and black tile.
Window blind: Pottery Barn
Tub and Shower
There’s also the couple’s dream of adding on. At first sight 1,700 square feet was “awesome,” Nick says,“and now it’s a little small. We would love to extend the family room, with a master bedroom above. Then Lilly could take our bedroom, and I would have a studio.”
But that’s in the distant future for the owners of a starter house that is beginning to look an awful lot like a forever house.
“We’ve been in the house 15 years,” Nick says, and between its unique mix of old and new, and the town’s schools, family-friendly vibe, and ample green space, “we love it here.”
Shown: The reproduction shower fittings and the shower door are new. The tub and its fittings are original.
The homeowners drew from their collection of vintage wares to backdate a newish breakfast nook renovated by previous owners.
The Dutch door in the front entry is believed to be original to the house.
Bath Circa 1930
Reproduction faucet parts and a willing plumber allowed the homeowners to preserve the original sink and faucet in the 1930 bath upstairs.
Space-age Starburst china, made by Franciscan in the 1950s, fills one of the two original corner cupboards in the dining room.
Colorful tube radios and other collectibles brighten shelves in the family room.
The homeowners preserved the existing layout and many of the finishes in the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath house, built in 1930. The rear family-room addition dates to about 1950.