2010 Reader Remodel Winner: From Blank Slate to Charming Cape
Meet the $5,000 Grand Prize Winners in TOH's 2010 Reader Remodel Contest, who revived snug 1940 Cape with sweat equity and a passion for authentic detail
John and Bibi Coyne nabbed the top prize in This Old House's 2010 Reader Remodel Contest. Here's the story of their renovation:
Want to know what it's been like to fix up our little Cape? Picture my husband, John, and me up at midnight prying off door trim and sawing through plaster. We just had to widen that doorway. It was the only way to get our new fridge into the kitchen.
Eight years ago, we didn't own a Sawzall, much less know how to operate one. But that was also before we noticed flakes of spray paint sticking to our kids after bath time, thanks to an old cosmetic fix on the tub. And before that same bath's dripping faucet finally sent us over the edge, forcing us to redo the dismal room long before we wanted to. Yes, we ripped out the tub, and the faucet, too.
Shown: The Coyne Family enjoys a compact one-room addition made spacious by a vaulted ceiling, which they paneled for a cottage look. Built-in cabinets, customized with vintage-green paint and trim, are stock units from IKEA.
After that little adventure, which included a panicked call to the Poison Control Center after our 2-year-old decided to find out how tasty the tile grout was (he was fine), we swore we'd put off any more renovations for a good long time. But the house, and life, had other ideas.
When we first saw the Cape, in 2002, we knew it wasn't exactly a dream come true. John's in theater—his specialty is set design—and I'm a graphic designer. Both of us love old houses that have plenty of character, and this one had a facade as blank as a white plate.
Shown: The house's exterior details and graceful proportions were lost under a blizzard of aluminum siding.
No sooner had we taken possession than the previous owner presented us with an amazing artifact: the original 1940 blueprints. There, in hand-lettered white on rich indigo, were all the details our house had lost, from a deep wood gutter across the front to copper flashing and wood shingles. It was like being handed a renovation game plan.
Shown: Now, warm cedar shingles, bright shutters, and crisp bands of horizontal trimwork reinject charm into a once-blank facade.
The garage was shrouded in glaring white vinyl, like the rest of the exterior. It was also missing features that were visible on the original blueprint. For example, just behind the tree here, there was an arched frame over the entry that we wanted to find some way to bring back.
Now, the garage is polished off with 'Peace' and 'New Dawn' climbing roses, a lantern sconce, and a carriage-style door. We got rid of the tree blocking the entry, and recreated the arch with white lattice.
Shown: Heartwood Semi-transparent shingle stain, Cabot Stain; Exterior paint (Timidity and Lambswool) and entry door paint (Night Horizon), Pratt & Lambert; Entry door, Simpson Door Co.; Garage door, Clopay
But where to start? The grim reality was, we needed a water heater right away, and pipes and wiring needed replacing. We did small things, painting the dining room, replacing the stove, and adding a stone path, a trellis, and picket fencing outside. The house looked better, but that tin siding still glared at us every time we came up the drive. And the old screened porch was useless much of the year.
Shown: This little-used porch would eventually be closed up, and put to better use as a living space addition.
Meanwhile, the front of the house had been bugging us ever since we saw those 1940 blueprints. To restore its good bones, we envisioned a roof that extended 6 inches over a wide fascia board and boxed gutter that would stand out against rich brown cedar-shingle siding. With all the structural work to be done, we knew we'd need professional help, so three years after moving in we bit the bullet and brought in a general contractor, Doug Davis.
To save money, we insisted that Doug let us finish the addition and the siding on the back of the house ourselves. My dad showed up over Thanksgiving that year with a nail gun instead of a pie. Some of John's co-workers helped hang drywall on the inside.
Despite all the work that had to be done, the place definitely had it's shining points, too. The house came with oak floors, built-ins, a fireplace with a rustic granite surround, and arched passageways. Still, every room needed work, including the foyer, which gained a new beadboard ceiling.
Shown: (In the entry hall) Light fixture (Harrison in antique bronze), Rejuvenation; Wall paint (Phantom) and trim paint (Seed Pearl), Pratt & Lambert; (In the dining area) Chandelier, Klaff's Lighting; Wall paint (Peanut Shell), Pratt & Lambert; Cabinet paint in custom mix, Benjamin Moore
My husband, John designed the family-room addition to replace that porch on his computer. Inspired by a photograph I'd torn from a magazine years before, we decided the addition should have a lofty vaulted ceiling with an octagonal window in the gable end. So Doug raced off to get the structural engineer to sign off on the change, and John raced off to buy the window.
Fast-forward to another Thanksgiving, three years later, when we finally turned our attention to the kitchen. We couldn't afford new flooring or cabinets, but we did splurge on a 36-inch stainless-steel French-door fridge. Which brings us to the Night of the Sawzall.
Shown: Pickled cabinets and an awkwardly placed fridge made the kitchen dated and cramped.
We were up late poring over the floor plans when we realized to our horror that none of the kitchen's three doors was wide enough for the fridge to fit through. So we took one off its hinges—then removed the frame. The doorway was still too narrow, so we dragged out the Sawzall and started slashing.
Shown: Moving the fridge to the opposite wall and adding a base cabinet and wine rack in it's place increased storage, prep space, and charm.
It was all messy, noisy work. But it was also remarkably satisfying. After seven long years, we were close to owning our dream.
Now we just have to figure out a way to carve out space for that missing master bath.
We saved big and gave our refurbished kitchen cabinets a custom look by adding wood brackets, a valance, and an open-shelf unit, then giving it all a fresh coat of paint.
Shown: Wall paint (Chalk Gray), trim and ceiling paint (Silver Lining), cabinets in custom mix, Pratt & Lambert
The bathroom was actually the first room that required major work and honed lots of DIY skills. We spent four months tiling, drywalling, installing wainscoting with Shaker-style pegs, assembling and hanging a medicine cabinet—and painting the room. Twice.
Redoing the room under the guidance of our patient plumber gave us courage, but working alongside him was also humbling. He demolished the tub and installed a new one in just two days! Our part of the work took four whole months! Part of the problem stemmed from our backgrounds as designers...
Shown: Wall paint (Osprey), trim and ceiling paint (Silver Lining), beadboard in custom mix, Pratt & Lambert; Toilet, sink, and faucet (Lutezia Collection), Porcher; Medicine cabinet, The Renovator's Supply; Beadboard, Maple Grove Restorations, Andover, CT
Laying the subway tiles, which we undertook after memorizing a This Old House video, sounds simple until you find out that John, who studied architecture in college, had to use design software to rearrange the rows 10 times so that the grout lines would line up just right. Finding hexagonal floor tile in the perfect beige wasn't enough; we had to create our own pattern by replacing some pieces with white ones.
Exhausted by the end, we exchanged our vintage-look showerhead for one with a massage option and put other projects on hold for a while.
John and Bibi, together with their kids, learned as they went along. Here are some of the lessons they want to share.
Dig into your home's past. We lucked into the original blueprints, which became a guide for our renovation. If plans don't exist, ask if previous owners have old photos of the place.
Be nosy. We gleaned period details and practical tips by visiting neighbors who were renovating houses like ours.
Shown: While hanging drywall in the addition, John and Ella, then just shy of 5, hide a picture for future families to find.
Ask pros if you can apprentice. Our general contractor gave us tips on shingling the exterior; our plumber taught us how to install a toilet.
Shown: After a few lessons from a pro, Bibi braves the winter weather to hang shingles.
Create a master plan. During times of chaos, it will provide a sense of order—and you can always revise it as you go along.
Shown: John, early on, tackles the new foyer ceiling.
Don't be shy when people offer to help. If it weren't for friends and relatives who arrived in their work clothes at key times, we would still be struggling to get the job done. And, engage the kids. One day they will thank you.
Shown: Even a then-5-year-old August pitches in painting a trellis.
John and Bibi Coyne took a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath Cape Cod built in 1940 and restored its charm, converting an existing playroom into an office and building a family-room addition just 8 feet longer than the flimsy porch it replaced.
The entire job took seven years—so far—working around two careers and raising young children.
Where We Saved
By doing as much as we could ourselves, including painting, tiling, hanging drywall, installing plank ceilings, shingling the back side of the house, replacing windows, and landscaping.
Where We Splurged
On period-appropriate details, including operable shutters, copper trim, and a wood storm door.