From Fixer-Upper to Refined Farmhouse
While resurrecting a falling-down circa 1850 home, the owner found poetry in salvaged sinks, antique tile, and a couple of pros who could bring her design ideas to life
When Jane Benson Ackerman finally got around to dealing with the sagging half of her mid-19th-century house, she had no idea what she would find. But the biggest surprise wasn't the covered-up evidence of fires and former windows or the absence of a firm foundation, which her general contractor was alarmed to discover while attempting to shore up a supporting wall in pouring rain. What she uncovered was something less tangible, though no less dramatic.
An articulate woman whose passions run toward literature and gardening, Jane had managed to put off the renovation for 15 years, despite a flooded basement, a yard mired in more mud than marigolds, a kitchen she says was "dark and scary and had no stove," and an adjacent bath that was so dysfunctional, she used it for storage. During happier times, she had renovated half of the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath house, which sits close to the road in tiny Norwich, Vermont. As for the rest, she simply stepped around it.
Shown: The stitched-together house, shown in an undated photo, had gained a chimney and a fireplace before the current owner got to work.
Today, Jane is surrounded by so much order and beauty that people lined up here for the town's house and garden tour. And she can now afford to reflect about those endless microwaved meals, the troubling leak in the living room ceiling, or the times she would open her cellar door "and listen to water, like a waterfall."
"A house can be such a metaphor for a life," she notes. "It's interesting how the health of a house can telegraph your own health, physically and psychologically."
For Jane, who volunteers that a bad relationship had left her emotionally bogged down during those dark years, the kernel of renewal lay buried in a cache of design books, which she had gathered the way a juice-faster might collect cookbooks. One featured the home of architect Pi Smith. "I so loved the images of that house," Jane says. "Then I discovered she was right here in this town."
Shown: While honoring the home's historic style, she renovated the front and the back, with new windows and skylights and a porch facing a landscaped yard accented by salvaged stone walls.
Smith, whose firm is known for tender revivals of rickety old houses, well remembers when she first took measure of Jane and her house, which appears to be two structures wedged together. The unloved half included a front door that opened opposite a washer and dryer in a corner of the pine-paneled kitchen, which was not only missing a range but also starving for natural light. As for the bath-turned-closet jutting into the kitchen, Smith says, "I never looked inside." But, she continues, "if you went into the living room, it was clear right away that Jane had a good eye. The things she collects are beautiful, and the space she had dealt with was cozy. I had been driving past the house for years on the way home from work, wondering who lived there. I'd see the glowing windows—it was such an appealing room."
If the front room displayed tasteful still lifes of hardbound books and Simon Pearce lamps, the home's psychic energy lay hidden in the barn, where Jane was quietly amassing salvaged stuff, mostly household goods with their own histories: light fixtures in need of rewiring, worn hardware, quirky old tools, random faucets, even 19th-century transferware tile.
Shown: The design team carved out open shelves for books and collectibles in the former dead space over the kite-turn staircase in the living room. The original window moved upstairs to make room for this larger one.
Jane saw her stockpile less as a reflection of misplaced longing than as a hope chest. Maybe someday she might want to warm up pro-style appliances with a big old cast-iron sink! And indeed, 10 years after she dragged that sink home, there she was, lobbying Smith to design a whole kitchen around it.
Shown: The formerly forlorn kitchen now doubles as a gathering spot for close friends, including the people who designed and built it. Salvaged windowpanes give the built-in hutch a vintage look.
Cabinets: Jericho Woodworking
Jane's general contractor, Lud Leskovar, was taken aback to hear her suggest using the mast from her childhood sailboat as a stair railing. Next thing, he recalls, "we're pulling it out of the barn and I'm thinking this woman is crazy." But the mast was easily trimmed to the right length, and, he notes fondly, looks just right with the ancient snowshoes Jane hung over it like sculpture.
Shown: When homeowner Jane Ackerman produced a "must have" salvaged sink, "it was so wide and tall, we tried to talk her out of it," says architect Pi Smith.
Towel rack: Restoration Hardware
"I always ask what makes a job run well," Leskovar says. "One, we liked each other. We trusted each other, and everybody's input was taken seriously. We had weekly meetings, which are a huge part of a successful job. And Jane has great taste."
Also useful was keeping an open mind. After tracing the leak in the living room ceiling to a fiberglass shower stall in the master bath, for example, Leskovar entertained a proposal from Smith and her project manager, Stephen Branchflower, to cantilever a bit of the new, tile-lined shower stall over a set of stairs, which also allowed them to give the shower a skylight. "Sometimes you're a little reluctant to do something out of the ordinary," Leskovar says mildly. "That was a new one for us, but it worked."
Shown: In the end, the kitchen was designed around the homeowner's prized sink. "Having it work out is such a bonus," says architect Pi Smith. "It's a great sink—and it hides all the dishes."
Ultimately, so did his rebuilding of the house's sinking side, which he'd originally favored tearing down. After excising the garage, Leskovar plucked out the powder room and jacked up the exterior wall to repair the foundation. "While we were transferring weight onto temporary cribbing," he recalls, "the structure started to shift. We had an excavator on-site who helped us shore it up—he used a backhoe with a long arm. That was a little hair-raising."
Shown: Early on, the homeowner replaced the living room's 1960s fireplace and added built-in shelves.
The excavator was there to level the yard and redig the basement so that the crew could put in a secure foundation and a drain to direct water away from the house. Snug new windows, spray-foam insulation, and a standing-seam metal roof did a lot to improve the home's mood. But the most dramatic change came in the form of an extension to the footprint, allowing a tiny office, a pantry/laundry area, a studio, and a garage—think of it as the home's revitalized left brain.
Shown: Hand-planed pine floorboards and a bar cabinet garnished with an old log caliper give the new kitchen a long-lived look. The stair's handrail was fashioned from a boat mast still tethered to its ropes.
When Jane and Leskovar climbed a ladder to the new attic space for her first look-see, she said, "This is a lot of space for Christmas ornaments." The team doubled back to add a dormer, built-ins with stepped drawers in the dead space behind the knee walls, and plumbing for a big salvaged soapstone sink, stylishly paired with contemporary light fixtures.
Shown: Homeowner Jane Ackerman pursues design and writing projects in a light-filled studio just beyond an angled door in the guest room.
"There are hidden pluses when you renovate like this," says Leskovar. "We worked out an opening to the studio with a miniature, angled door. Though we never planned it, and the plumber shook his head, we tucked in the cutest little powder room I've ever built." He adds: "To put so much into a small house in a nice, organized way is really remarkable. And it's fun to walk through because in every corner something draws your eye."
Shown: Guest room with an angled door for access to the studio.
If it sounds as if Leskovar still comes around, that's right: After virtually living together for 18 months, the three central players became friends. Turns out they were born the same year and had all been dealing with the kinds of obstacles that are thrown your way in midlife. "It was really a restorative project for all three of us," Jane says.
Shown: The master bath, at one time a bedroom, has a salvaged tub, a painted floor, and ample light.
Tub and shower fittings: Rohl
The project gave her a stronger foundation in another way, too. "I've become engaged to a lovely man," she says. "We're getting married this summer." As for doubling up, "It's not a big house, but we're at that stage where we don't want a lot of space—or a lot of stuff."
Shown: Augmented by a new skylight, the new master bathroom boasts a shower enclosure accented by English transferware tile.
The partly renovated, 1,476-square-foot house was opened up for better light and flow and beefed up with a new foundation and built-ins throughout.
A garage came down, and 665 square feet of living space were added in the office/studio section, plus a back porch and a new garage.