Making a Vintage Cottage Her Own
How one homeowner turned a nondescript 1940s house into a light-filled Craftsman-style home
Though renovating an older home is an undertaking that succeeds or fails on hammer-and-nail realities, it surely begins with a dream. For a family doctor in Arkansas, all it takes is one glance at a forlorn house, and a vision of what-could-be takes over. Indeed, Dr. Susanna Shermer is on the verge of becoming a serial renovator. "This is my third renovation," she says happily, referring to this 1940s house she has been remodeling in stages over the past six years.
It all started during her medical residency in Tennessee, when she bought her first house and spent her precious downtime ripping up carpeting and tearing off wallpaper. "I loved the transformation—and it was great to do something physical after spending my days immersed in medicine and science and books," says Susanna, who grew up in Russellville, Arkansas, and still has family throughout the state.
Moving back to Arkansas after her residency, she set her sights on The Heights, a neighborhood near downtown Little Rock known for its vintage houses, and pictured herself at holiday time, in a festive home with family and friends stopping by. After renovating a 1900 stone bungalow, the restless remodeler noticed another place on her street.
Friends, including general contractor Jonathan Rogers, took one look and told her she was crazy to consider it; the house looked tiny from the street, was covered in aluminum siding, and reeked of chlorine when you stepped inside. "There was a sunken hot tub in one of the back rooms," recalls Susanna. Undeterred and envisioning a Craftsman-style cottage with an exterior that suited the neighborhood, she set to work, enlisting Rogers as her builder. He recommended another local, designer Blake Jackson, to help put her ideas on paper.
Priority 1: "We needed to get rid of those rinky-dink posts on the front porch," says Rogers. Jackson designed four thick, tapered posts on chunky stone piers more in proportion to the house. To preserve maximum living space on the small porch, Rogers cantilevered the stone piers slightly by resting them on ½-inch-thick steel plates bolted to the porch floor. The porch roof overhang, meanwhile, gained a Craftsman-style look when Rogers removed a metal soffit, exposing the rafter tails and making the existing fascia board more prominent. Replacing the porch railing's turned spindles with square balusters completed the front-entry makeover.
Another key feature of the exterior face-lift was a centered shed dormer, built with three windows Susanna salvaged from a neighbor's house and the same exposed rafter tails as the porch roof. "I love the look of the dormer," she says, "and it lets in so much natural light upstairs."
Inside, the four-bedroom, two-bath house was roomier than it appeared from the street, with 2,268 square feet on two levels, but it lacked the Craftsman details and feeling of spaciousness Susanna craved. The front staircase, for example, featured a spindle-style balustrade similar to one they replaced on the porch. Rogers swapped in square balusters and boxed out the turned newel post.
Then walls started coming down. The living and dining rooms at the front of the house felt too confined to Susanna; she really wanted to open up the space. So they removed most of the wall between the front rooms and put in a pair of Craftsman-style half-walls with tapered columns set on top to frame the wide opening. The red oak floors were in good shape, and Rogers found new planks to match, making a seamless transition between living room and dining room.
Susanna designed the new mantel for the living room fireplace. The existing mantel had leafy scrollwork ornamentation that was out of sync with Craftsman detailing, so she described the boxed panels she wanted, and Rogers took it from there.
Another wall came down between the dining room and kitchen, with Susanna preserving a portion of it as a peninsula snack counter. Underwhelmed by ornate kitchen cabinets, laminate countertops, and vinyl flooring, she replaced all the surfaces, choosing a travertine floor, granite countertops, and a natural stone tile backsplash. To save money, she kept the cabinet boxes, had them refaced, and added new doors with a hand-glazed finish.
One of the most perplexing aspects of the existing layout was the first-floor master suite, reached by a door off the kitchen. Because of the door's location and a step-down on the way to the master bedroom, Susanna is pretty sure this part of the house was originally a garage that was converted to living space by previous owners and topped with a second-floor gabled addition at some point.
The garage-size space was oddly partitioned, with a tiny central bathroom—sink, toilet, and shower, but no tub—and the rest of the space open, including the rear area that held the hot tub. To make sense of the layout, Susanna created a hallway that now leads from kitchen to bedroom, with a pocket door to the enlarged master bath along the way. She partitioned part of the room's central space as a master bedroom closet, adjacent to the master bath. The rear portion of the space now holds a gym with a polished wood floor—sans hot tub.
So what's a restless remodeler to do next? Well, even though Rogers built shutters and Susanna's grandfather made window boxes to add another layer of detail to the exterior, the siding still gnaws at her. "I am dying to pull off that aluminum and restore the original wood," she says. "But I'm afraid it's going to cost a small fortune." For now, she'll just have to content herself with having created the kind of welcoming Craftsman-style home she had envisioned. At least until the next time she sees a FOR SALE sign go up on the street.
After the initial remodeling phase, Susanna continued to tweak the floor plan. In the rear of the house, off the dining room, she added a 300-square-foot sunroom with exposed rafters, knowing that 12-foot ceilings there would bring a sense of volume to the first floor. And she had a 150-square-foot laundry/dog room built behind the gym.
Although the dormer addition created a large, light-filled bedroom on the second floor, stretching from the front of the house to the back, Susanna reserves the entire second floor as a guest zone and lives exclusively on the main floor. "I go from kitchen to gym to bed," she says with a sigh, with the rest of her off-duty hours devoted to her dogs, Jackie O and Taylor.