This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Often the evocative exterior of an old house hooks us, but the interior doesn’t prove to be as much of a catch. That’s what Katherine and John Breese discovered over time, having reeled in their dream home, a 1930s Tudor Revival in White Plains, New York, where they both grew up.
Looking to move back to the area for Katherine’s job, they found themselves on the hunt for a house with an easy commute into Manhattan, a diverse school system, a good yard, and plenty of architectural interest. “We wanted a house with character,” John says. The one they landed just happens to be around the corner from Katherine’s childhood home, where her parents still live.
Wrapped in stucco, with a steeply pitched front-facing gable, an arched entryway, a prominent chimney with decorative brick- and stonework, and hefty brackets supporting a deep roof overhang, the Breese house features many of the elements typical of Tudor Revival-style homes of its era. In the early 20th century, houses like these filled America’s new streetcar suburbs, and whole neighborhoods were populated with similar storybook cottages.
“When we saw it through new eyes, the eyes of house-hunters who had lived elsewhere, we fell in love with a street I had known all my life,” says Katherine, who points out that while the neighborhood has quite a few Tudors, they are all different.
Back when they bought the 2,700-square-foot house, with its three bedrooms and two and a half baths, they had only one child, a daughter, who was 2. “When the twins came along a few years later, the house suddenly got very small,” Katherine recalls with a laugh.
They found themselves itching for a little more elbowroom throughout. The kitchen felt particularly small and closed in, with four doors opening into it. The lack of prep space was a major downside for John, the family chef, who makes dinner nightly. The laundry room, which had been squeezed into a tiny corner alcove, had no countertop, and, when the door was open, impeded traffic flow in the cook space. Elsewhere, there was one bathroom for all three children, and no mudroom where a young family could stash boots, coats, and backpacks. Plus, the front entry was dark and enclosed, giving a gloomy first impression.
To help smooth out the house’s kinks and add more space without compromising its character, the couple sought out Rye, New York, architect Paul Shainberg, who specializes in historical houses and had designed additions for some of the houses they admire in the area.
That choice proved the first of several right moves. “I love working on Tudor houses,” Shainberg says. “You might think that all those rooflines would present challenges, but Tudors are, in fact, one of the easiest house styles to work on, because of those many rooflines—you can add to them seamlessly.”
As these things do, the scope of the renovation grew as homeowners and architects worked together. While the couple’s initial wish list included a new kitchen, a mudroom with a half bath, a proper laundry room, and an additional bath upstairs, they had not considered a playroom for the children, a new breakfast room, or a family room. As they talked with Shainberg, however, they realized that this was their opportunity to correct the house’s shortcomings while introducing new space that would meet their needs now—and in the future. It made sense to do it all at once.
Early in the process they also learned they would need a civil engineer; local building codes require an engineering plan to control stormwater runoff created by new impervious surfaces, in this case, the new roof areas and an extension of the driveway to meet the new mudroom entry.
Engineering would also be required to open up the back of the house and support the addition—here, the house’s balloon framing meant the walls would need engineered bracing for the new rooms to be added. The playroom, located in the basement, would require digging down to create the needed ceiling height. The couple were lucky to find a perfect-fit pro to handle the work in a local civil engineer who also works as a builder.
One unexpected turn in the project emerged when the builder’s crew removed the rear walls of the house, and missing mortar in the old fieldstone foundation came to light. They ended up having to pour a new concrete foundation there; like the addition itself, it blends right in.
The construction project created opportunities for further improvements. Besides refinishing all the original oak floors, the homeowners removed decades-old radiators and installed a new forced-air HVAC system. They could then lose the window AC units, and the existing rooms gained extra usable floor space.
“The biggest complaint people have about these Tudors is that they tend to be narrow and dark,” Shainberg says. “But now, when you walk into this house, it is bright and open. We reconfigured the entry foyer so that, from the front door, you see an expanse of thirty or forty feet, all the way to the windows at the back of the new family room.”
He found that space by relocating the basement stairs at the back of the front hall to the side of the house, behind the mudroom. To accentuate the Tudor aspects of the house and to echo the lone original, Shainberg designed four more arched doorways. That line of sight from the front door is now through three graceful arched openings.
Acknowledging that they needed help to pull together new interior finishes for the refreshed house, the couple called in interior designer Danielle Monteverdi, who is also a friend. Again it proved a case of right pro, right project. Monteverdi was already familiar with the house, and was sensitive to the couple’s likes and dislikes. “Katherine and John love the historic charm of the house, but, when it comes to design, they needed guidance.”
Since Katherine likes a beachy look, Monteverdi incorporated sea-glass-colored tiles in the main bath. But she steered her client away from a driftwood mantel for the new family room, pointing out that it would clash with the house’s more formal Tudor personality. She worked with Katherine’s affinity for greens and blues, which complement wood tones, by weaving them throughout the interior. “Now that the house is more open, with sight lines from room to room, it’s important that the colors are in harmony,” the designer says.
Attention to the smallest detail is evident throughout. For the new kitchen, Monteverdi designed custom tiles to line the entire back wall: hand-painted in white, with a delicate gray-and-blue pattern. “The terra-cotta clay shows through, which echoes the brick floor of the adjoining mudroom,” she says.
Katherine admits that while she likes a crisp and clean look, she is not a fan of modern design. Those kitchen tiles reflect what she loves about the renovated house: “The tiles represent what I wanted—to celebrate the Tudor design, but in a way that feels current.”
Her favorite room in the house, the dining room, got some needed TLC, too. There, a tiny original bas-relief of wild game—boars and stags—crowns each window, just the kind of fanciful Tudor Revival touch the homeowners cherish. And again they were lucky to find a local painting pro to carefully restore the cast-plaster details, which had begun to deteriorate, before painting them the color of the trimwork.
Another bit of paint magic gave the living room’s solid-oak ceiling beams a fresh look. Rather than strip off the existing white paint, a time-consuming and costly job, Monteverdi suggested painting them a softer shade of dark taupe. In the new family room, simple oak ceiling coffers with a walnut finish pay homage to the living room’s original beams while bringing interest to a more casual, pared-down space. Its fireplace mantel features classic quatrefoils for a subtle reference to the house’s Tudor heritage.
All in all, the renovation process was a wonderful experience, say the Breeses. “Paul came into the house and loved it, and we fell in love with him,” Katherine says of the architect. The builder was a rare find, and designer Monteverdi gave them what they didn’t know to ask for. “We were all coming from the same place, which is love for the house,” Katherine says. Now that the two-year project has yielded more room and a kitchen big enough to feed guests, the Breeses entertain frequently. Katherine’s parents are nearby and can drop in frequently to spend time with the children.
John enjoys how life has brightened up.
“Our new family room faces east, and natural light just pours in. Walking in there first thing in the morning is the perfect way to start the day.”
His wife agrees.
“Every day, I can’t believe how lucky I am,” Katherine says. “We have a great home, and my parents are right around the corner. And, because it’s comfortable and easy for a crowd, this house is a draw for family and friends.”
THE HOMEOWNERS: Katherine and John Breese, shown with their children, Vivian, age 11, and twins Deirdre and John, age 8.
THE HOUSE: An existing 2,700-square-foot Tudor Revival believed to have been built in 1932. With a graceful and picturesque facade, it had outdated interiors, including a cramped, dysfunctional kitchen. There was no mudroom, and the front entry was dark and closed in.
WHY THEY CHOSE IT: The couple knew and loved the neighborhood of Gedney Farms; Katherine’s parents live around the corner, and they were taken by the house’s Tudor character.
THEIR PLAN: Create a bigger, more functional kitchen; add a kids’ bath; move the laundry away from the kitchen; add a mudroom, a breakfast room, and a family room; enlarge a back deck to connect to the new spaces; and amp up the light and flow.
THEIR TEAM: The couple hired an architect who knows and loves Tudor houses, a builder who is also an engineer, and an interior designer who knows their lifestyle and tastes.
LESSON LEARNED: “Just as you want to be true to who you are, Danielle [our designer] taught me that you want to be true to what your house is,” Katherine says. “I wanted driftwood, and she told me that driftwood simply doesn’t belong in a Tudor house. When you work with experts, trust them!”
A rear addition grew the house’s living space by about 2,000 square feet, including a large basement playroom (not shown). While the living and dining rooms stayed within their original footprints, the renovation opened up the front entry hall between them and extended the kitchen’s rear exterior wall, allowing for a larger cook space, a mudroom, a half bath, a family room, and a breakfast room. A side deck was extended to be accessed from the new spaces.