Old House, New LifePhoto Credit : Joseph Keller | Styling by Karin Lidbeck-Brent
Dana Paradis wears her dark brown hair in two long braids. As we tour her expansive gardens on this glorious June day, I find myself trying to recall the last time I wore my hair that way—fourth grade? Maybe sixth? She leads me along pebbled paths, points out the patch of puffy alliums that she says remind her of marshmallows on sticks, a nighttime pleasure enjoyed around the fire pit just ahead. She’s immortalized the toasted treats in her whimsical take on a family crest—a crossing of campfire swords that separate the words MARSH MELLOW—on a sign on the front of the barn. It’s a whimsical misspelling that references the marsh across the street and suggests a calming of mood. Dana opens the gate to the vegetable garden, defended against wildlife by a flat slat fence of black locust wood, and I admire the logic of her layout. But I’m still preoccupied with decoding the braids. A way to stay cool working under the blazing summer sun? A quirk of personality? I’d place Dana somewhere in her 50s. Has she always worn her hair this way?
After traversing the gardens, we move to the herringbone-patterned brick patio, settling in at a metal bistro table with a view of possibly the cutest potting shed ever. Over fruity ice tea, I learn that Dana and her husband, Guido Domke, vacationed for the first time on Cape Cod in 2009, fell in love with the antique houses along Route 6A, and soon commenced hunting for a place of their own. “We looked at 35 old houses over three years, made offers on five, but none came through,” she says. “We’d never looked in Eastham, but then this house came up for sale. We drove up Friday early for a Saturday appointment, and as we crossed the bridge, we could see a rainbow over the Outer Cape.”
The house at the end of the rainbow did not disappoint. Like so many old New England houses, the c. 1775 original had been extended, and extended again. “It looks like a farmhouse from one side, a colonial from another side, and a Cape from the third side,” Dana says. Looking toward it now, we have the long side-view, a perspective that highlights the changing rooflines, including a recently completed addition housing a guest bed and bath.
On the first walk-through with the realtor, Dana felt that the house had a functional layout—many of the places she and Guido had looked at didn’t flow so well—but it was the huge c. 1852 barn that sealed the deal. “I climbed that ‘suicide ladder,’ and there’s 18 feet of cavernous space above me in the loft.” A clothing designer by trade, Dana pictured the studio she could create there. “The whole thing went through in about two weeks, and suddenly—wait—we have this house on the Cape, but we live in New York.”
Believing they were working on their retirement home, Dana and Guido planned a modest renovation, starting in the kitchen, where a 1970s update hadn’t done a lot for the original character of the place. Dana, whose work was portable, came and stayed in the house to oversee progress. “We didn’t have TV, there was no Internet, so I listened to NPR. Guido got me a bicycle because I didn’t have a car here. I would get on my bicycle and ride to the beach. That’s when I started wearing braids. I felt like a kid again. I felt free.”
The longer she stayed, the less Dana wanted to take out her braidsand return to her New York life. When the original beams were revealed in the kitchen, the remodel expanded to the whole ground floor. “That’s when I got my dog, and I became a Cape Codder,” she says
On cue, Guido pulls into the driveway, and Ginger, their 58-pound, 7-year-old pooch, exits the vehicle to greet me with a refreshing lack of regard for social distancing. Satisfied with appreciative noises, an ear rub, and a couple of pats, she goes for the leather backpack at my feet. “She likes to take your stuff and then give it back to you,” Dana explains. Before Guido hustles the thieving pup inside, he deposits a flat paper bag on the table. Inside: a hardcover copy of A Book of Cape Cod Houses by Doris Doane.
“I study like the most frantic, interested student,” Dana tells me, smoothing the dust jacket. An A student, it turns out. In 2018, Dana and Guido won the Eastham Historic Commission’s Abbott Award for their loving restoration of the Smith-Walker House, as this place is known. “Dean Smith was a seaman who died at sea when he was 27,” says Dana, but adds that despite the fate of the original owner, the home has no ghosts. “There’s something about this property—there’s a weird, happy energy to it.” Dana talks about the house’s former inhabitants as if they are dear friends. “We bought the place with contents, and it still had some of Dottie’s things in it,” she says, referring to Dottie Long, the home’s owner until 2010. “She was meticulously grooming this property for almost 40 years, and then she got Alzheimer’s and things started to fall into disrepair.”
Builders and designers often talk about good bones. The Smith-Walker House has them. Entering through the original front door takes you back in time. Climb the steep stairway off the parlor to enjoy a marsh view from the front bedroom. The crisp blue-and-white wallpaper is interrupted by a tiny door tucked into an eave. “There are these little magical doors in a few places,” Dana says. And she’s added two more in a new guest bedroom.
Moving through the rooms with me, Dana explains the slight adjustments she’s made, talks about the 550 reclaimed bricks she rescued from an overgrown former patio, and shares her mixed feelings about demolishing a small section of the home’s north end (a later addition with a crumbling brick foundation). “The house was shaking,” she says. “I watched from the second floor, and I felt guilty about removing some history.” As the Cat excavator chomped on the roof—like a T. rex, she thought—Dana worried that her neighbors might be upset. But if there were any concerned neighbors, I’m guessing they approve of the right-size new addition that echoes the steep rooflines of the barn. From the patio, only the golden cedar shingles give the addition away, and they will silver soon enough.
“I love old houses. I like knowing that other people have lived here,” Dana says. She also loves the way that old objects trigger memories and reveal stories. When excavation around the barn turned up a treasure trove—including a sewing machine that seemed an especially fortuitous omen for a clothing designer—Dana launched a blog featuring the objects she’d discovered. Not long after, she moved to Instagram, starting #happyhoarder, where she solicited photos and stories. Eventually, she focused her Instagram presence on the Smith-Walker House itself; as of this writing, @ThisOldCapeHouse has close to 30,000 followers.
Her fans are able to follow the evolution of the property—Dana affectionately calls the house “the Old Girl”—both inside and out. It’s the outdoor space, in fact, that has seen some of the most dramatic changes.
“We had 15 invasive locust trees removed in March 2018, and I decided to take some time off work to do some landscaping that summer,” Dana says. With no previous gardening experience, she moved and placed rocks, creating stone pathways that could be rearranged. “As I worked, ideas would come to me, like the shed, the fire pit.” But even before she became an active, avid gardener, Dana was determined to reveal the original front entrance.
“The whole front of the house was obscured by a five-foot-deep hedge—holly and yews—with a fence directly in front of that. The sellers had hacked out a space in the middle.” After she cleared the area, she painted the door red. “I put lipstick on the Old Girl,” she says with a smile. She used the bricks she’d dug up to create the walkway, and more recently, added an arbor. Evolving—and studying—her way to becoming a dedicated plant lover, Dana recognized remnants of a neglected bed and set to reviving Dottie’s garden, uncovering two matching lipstick-red azaleas.
The spectacular gardens—including an assortment of hydrangeas that any Cape Codder would envy—are a point of pride with this now-experienced gardener. But they aren’t the point of it all. “The gardening is to honor the house,” Dana says to me. A house that has been home to generations of Cape Codders before Dana and Ginger, and now Guido, freed to work remotely, came to live here. A house that makes passersby stop to ooh and aah.
But with all the home projects and the garden projects, does this hardworking woman have time to enjoy the fruits of her labors? “Summer evenings, Guido will come outside after his last conference call—that’s usually sometime after seven—with two steins of beer, and we walk around together, and kind of gaze at what we’ve created here, and it makes us very happy.”