A Farmhouse Renewed with Grit and Polish
With its listing walls and sagging roof, this fixer-upper farmhouse was a sorry sight—until two serial renovators gave it new life and a new look
A country house easily becomes an object of fantasy. With a few improvements, this charming and eccentric find will become the staging ground for a whole new way of life—one that involves leisurely meals, long walks, maybe a bit of gardening.
Or so the fantasy goes.
Then those fixes take on a life of their own. Which is pretty much what happened to Bobby Houston and Eric Shamie, seasoned renovators who nonetheless had little idea of what was in store when they happened upon a centuries-old farmhouse nestled in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts and decided to make it their own.
Shown: The clapboard house became a light box after new dormers went in on the back side and interior walls came down. Cedar roof shingles and painted siding contribute to the fresh look, along with a post-and-beam side wing made with old barn parts and pierced with floor-to-ceiling windows.
General contractor: John Scapin, Scapin Builders, Mill River, MA; 413-229-3665
Carpentry: Enrico Hinz, Housatonic, MA; 413-717-1016
Plasterwork: Robin Berthet, Sheffield, MA
Masonry: Monterey Masonry, Sheffield, MA
Windows and doors: Eagle Window and Door
With its slots for second-floor windows—or eyebrows, as they are known locally—and its congested 1960s rear addition, the house felt incoherent and light-deprived. "The addition was really a jumble," says Bobby, "a dark kitchen with just one window, a laundry room with closets, a back staircase, and an all-pink bath."
This, in a house that is rumored to date to the 1760s, around the time rebels were preparing to smuggle arms to George Washington along a path nearby, and straddles the town line of historic Egremont, a hotbed of the late-1780s anti-Federalist fervor known as Shays' Rebellion.
Shown: The homeowners moved the main entry to the gable end, where they believe it originated. Salvaged French doors form a weather buffer while channeling light into the reading room.
Bench: State Line Auctions, Canaan, CT; 860-453-4370
Nic Cooper, of the local historical commission, guesses that the house may actually be more recent than Shays but still old enough to deserve a little dignity. "It's abnormally wide for an eyebrow-window, one-and-a-half-story house," he says, adding that the builders may have attained that width by recycling long beams from an older house or barn.
Shown: The dining room gets its luminous look from plaster that was tinted and waxed to reflect light.
When Bobby and Eric found it, about eight years ago, the previous owners were flipping it after a year and had done little to undo the mashup of 20th-century alterations, which included a picture window presumably added in the 1950s. "But no views to the west," recalls Bobby, who developed a vision of what might be after walking around back and picturing sunsets enjoyed through windows that did not yet exist.
A former filmmaker who fell on good times, Bobby saw potential in the funky, well-sited farmhouse and persuaded Eric, his partner in life and in real-estate ventures, to invest in a project that would almost inevitably include wrestling with pipes and peeling up kitchen linoleum for an unexpected glimpse of the basement.
Shown: In the living room, worn barn timbers, rough-sawn pine, and brick brushed with mortar mingle with a polished concrete floor and sink-down seating.
The property, which the new owners dubbed Borderline Farm—the town line passes right through the house—had lost its barn but retained a sagging shed and a stone silo with the charm of a ruined 18th-century French folly. The front door opened right into living space, having migrated, the owners believe, from the gable end to front and center around the time a Victorian-style porch sprang up.
Shown: Doors upstairs and downstairs slide open for kibitzing and close when guests turn in.
Leather wing chair: Crate & Barrel
The interior look was faux country with a bit of '50s retro thrown in: boomerang-patterned Formica, scalloped valances, and barn boards set diagonally on first-floor walls, an effect that reminded Bobby, he says tartly, "of a steak house wanting to look like a coal mine."
Shown: The kitchen's homey breakfast area features a freestanding hutch, which happened to be a perfect fit for the alcove.
Pottery in cabinets: Tivoli Tile Works
It was not their first fixer-upper, but it soon became their most ambitious. Determined to improve the windows, insulation, and sight lines, they ended up commandeering a whole-house gut job that left them with a ravaged skeleton of studs and joists. What remained of the interior stood open to the elements. Wouldn't it have been easier to build from scratch? "I've never once considered tearing down a house," Bobby declares.
Shown: Cottage-style elements, like beadboard cabinet doors, butcher-block countertops, and a pine ceiling coexist in the kitchen.
Helping the new owners were two finds as important as the property itself: general contractor John Scapin, an expert at taking apart and reassembling old buildings; and Enrico Hinz, who earned his carpentry degree in Germany and apprenticed on its half-timbered houses.
Shown: Cottage-style elements mix it up with a muscular stove and range hood.
To Scapin and his small crew fell the job of demolition and major reconstruction. They tore out the back staircase, piped radiant heat under the floors, and rebuilt the exterior walls, adding fiberglass batt insulation. The three-bedroom, one-bath second floor became a TV room flanked by a large master bath and a guest suite. When the rear addition came back up for air, it held the master bedroom over a well-appointed kitchen with banks of windows that look north, south, and west—capturing sunsets just as Bobby had envisioned.
The work went pretty smoothly, save one "moment of reckoning," as Bobby puts it. The kitchen windows were almost in when it came time to install the island, a wooden chest that had traveled from Mexico before coming to rest at a vintage store in nearby Hudson, New York. With Hinz lined up to retrofit the chest with a sink and copper top, delivery was arranged. "But there was no opening big enough to get it in," Bobby recalls.
Shown: A weathered chest, retrofitted with a sleek copper top and a sink, became the kitchen's centerpiece. The pot rack was a junk-store find.
After pondering the alternatives, Hinz removed the framing around two of the windows and pulled out the center posts. The island slid through the makeshift entry, and window-framing repairs went onto the to-do list.
Rebuilding this chunk of the house allowed the owners to set off the kitchen with a powder room and a mudroom that frame an opening to the oldest section of the house. This area now holds separate dining and reading rooms, a small office, and an entry with light-channeling interior glass walls. Miraculously, the floating stairs survived, gaining only a bannister.
Shown: A built-in desk helps set off the kitchen from the dining room while offering a perch for recipe grazing.
"I'm romantic about old glass," says Bobby, backing into the story of the see-through entry. Seems he had nabbed four pairs of French doors, "weighing about 200 pounds apiece," at another salvage store—he and Eric seem able to find these places in their sleep—for no particular reason aside from their wavy glass. After being allowed to kick around the construction site for months while the crew knocked out interior walls, the ungainly set landed a creative job assignment: to set off the entry without blocking the view or the flow of light. "We could have it both ways," says Bobby. "The glass walls are a way of having a defined space without closing it up."
Shown: A built-in tucked under the addition's roofline provides snoozing space as well as storage.
Though the house needed all-new everything, including a roof, work wrapped up in just six months. And another three years passed quietly before the guest-friendly homeowners decided to make further improvements, this time by adding on.
Perhaps thinking of the barn the property once held, they went online to see if they could buy one secondhand, maybe even an antique, and attach it to the house. In short order, a truck drove up and out tumbled the remains of a small barn—minus roof, walls, and rafters—all the way from Minnesota.
Shown: Floating stairs, a legacy of a previous renovation, climb from the reading room to the master suite. The desk area in the far corner sits under original joists and a fresh coat of tinted plaster.
The mail-order kit comprised only a set of drawings and numbered post-and-beam timbers, some of them rare chestnut, just awaiting reassembly. "That's what I went to school for in Germany," says Hinz, adding with relish, "A nice old hand-hewn beam that's weathered well—there's nothing like it."
Shown: A pine bed defines a reading nook in the new wing's first-floor study. The exposed beams overhead are from a salvaged barn that was used to construct the wing.
Salvaged barn: Trillium Dell Timberworks
After replacing a couple that had rotted, Hinz and his crew erected the beams around a poured-concrete floor and filled in the blanks with structural insulated panels, which consist of a foam core sandwiched between layers of oriented strand board. They cut openings for doors and windows, and finished the exterior with furring strips (to prevent moisture buildup) beneath shiplap siding. Ceilings were lined with rough-sawn pine, which awaits a timeworn patina, and the old beams were capped with a new roof.
Shown: The new mudroom, near the laundry area in the existing rear addition, welcomes outerwear and garden boots with ample hanging space on beadboard walls and a hardworking limestone floor.
Structural snafus blocked plans for a full bath on the wing's second floor, forcing the shower and toilet into separate spaces on the addition's first floor. "Not ideal," Bobby concedes. But to unite bed and bath, he and Eric would have had to add yet another dormer—and they'd already installed four along the rear.
Shown: The master bedroom has a new cathedral ceiling and French doors that open onto a wisteria-bedecked balcony overlooking the back.
Since no barn addition is complete without a hearth, they brought in Mark Mendel, a much-in-demand mason, who built a soaring fireplace on the back of the existing one and rebuilt the chimney for a second flue.
Shown: The lounge area in the master bedroom is furnished with a mix of new pieces and vintage-store finds.
Mendel glazed his brickwork with a translucent coat of mortar, a technique he calls "snotting" (and "difficult"). In other rooms, hand-tinted plaster gives the walls and ceilings their faux-aged look. Credit for that goes to British-born Robin Berthet, who dips into natural and synthetic pigments, including ochre unearthed in Roussillon, France, and hand-trowels his plaster over blueboard. "We're not big fans of drywall," says Bobby. "It's not very charming to live with, if you are sensitive, which we are. And plaster is for the long run."
Shown: The steam shower in the master bath makes smart use of a sloped-ceiling space with a built-in bench underneath it.
Not that they plan to grow old here, necessarily. As an avowed old-house addict, Bobby has a pathologically roving eye. Even on vacation, he confesses without remorse, "by the third day, I'm looking at houses."
Shown: The powder room in the rear addition has a vintage sink paired with a jaunty gooseneck faucet. The walls get their shimmer from tinted plaster.
The owners rebuilt the main farmhouse, rejiggering its rear addition to enlarge the kitchen, and later added a post-and-beam wing, which is linked by an abbreviated passageway that steps down into the double-height living room.
At the new wing's far end is a study topped by a guest-room loft that looks down on the living room and can be closed off by barn-style sliding doors.