When my husband and I set out to restore an 1873 two-family house to the single it was originally designed to be, we faced two challenges. First, our budget, like that of many homeowners, wasn’t unlimited. Second, the house, nestled on a compact urban street near Boston, had undergone an enthusiastic 1980s remodeling, which, save for two of the front bedrooms on the second floor, had stripped it of most of its period detail, including even its basic moldings.
We knew we needed to add character back into the house, and so we set a goal: to use as many reclaimed materials and salvaged architectural elements as possible. That we could cut costs that way was appealing, but we also wanted the quality and craftsmanship that come with older materials. Whenever possible, I’d rather reuse than buy something new. After scouring salvage and antiques shops around New England for an earlier renovation in Newburyport, Massachusetts, we knew where to find the features we needed, including flooring, kitchen cabinets, doors, pressed-tin ceiling tiles, decorative columns, and light fixtures. We weren’t looking to complete a historically accurate restoration, but we very much wanted to breathe some life and charm back into the house in a sustainable and affordable way, while keeping our environmental footprint as small as possible.
One benefit of the home’s earlier renovation was that most of the systems–wiring, plumbing, and appliances–had already been updated. We still had to do some minimal rewiring and plumbing work, but the bulk of our budget could go toward carpentry, a new kitchen, and new bathrooms.
We worked out the design for each room in partnership with our contractor, Cyril McArdle of Na Fianna Construction in Brighton, Massachusetts, making sure that the focus of each room was the reclaimed materials that we love. An old butler’s pantry from a salvage shop in New Hampshire, for instance, became a full set of kitchen cabinets. Old wide-pine subflooring became, after heavy sanding, beautiful floors for our dining room and kitchen. Driving past other houses in mid-renovation, we found stately old doors left out on the street on trash day and turned them into centerpieces for ours. Then we scoured eBay and salvage shops for more than a dozen antique knob sets, each priced at less than $40.
The result was a whimsical and eclectic mix of treasures and finds as well as vintage materials and details that can grow even older within this house. After about four months of renovations, and a lot of salvaging, we’ve added some real soul back into a house that was crying out for attention.
The house had one very large, long living room, which we decided to divide into two more-intimate spaces. One side was earmarked for the television, which is tucked behind cabinet doors in a new set of custom bookshelves. Rather than add another couch to this upholstery-heavy area, we found a set of four interlocking vintage theater seats–and they cost a fraction of a new sofa’s sticker price. Visitors always want to know whether they originally came from Fenway Park (they didn’t); then, after sitting down in either the 2, 4, 6, or 8 seat, they’re surprised by just how comfortable they are.
The other side of the living room offers a more formal seating area. Rather than put up a dividing wall, we designed a half wall to define the space, installing reclaimed tall wood columns salvaged from the porch of a grand old house. They add height and look so at home in the room that you’d never know they weren’t original to it.
At the far end of the living room, as a passageway into the dining room, we replaced a rather narrow doorframe with double barn doors that were otherwise destined for the junkyard. Complete with large glass panels and hefty hardware, the doors have become a focal point–often the first thing visitors see when they enter.
The most daunting piece of our home renovation was the kitchen. Trying to configure modern conveniences into the narrow rear of the house was a logistical challenge, and more than one contractor suggested that we budget $75,000 for this phase alone. Sticking to our credo, we went to Nor’East Architectural Antiques in South Hampton, New Hampshire, and found a gorgeous salvaged butler’s pantry with glass-paned top cabinets and long counters that would fit the space perfectly. Hours of stripping, sanding, and repainting–and much patience– ultimately turned the cabinets into the room’s centerpiece. The total cost (excluding labor): $3,200.
Next challenge: a 1980s blue terra-cotta tile floor. At Urbanminers in Hamden, Connecticut, we found antique wide-pine floorboards that had been pulled from a nearby demolition project. These rough pieces were originally used as subflooring, a common practice in their day. With heavy sanding and polishing, they yielded luscious golden-hued wood with natural knots and a gorgeous grain–all for much less per linear foot than new wood floors would have cost.
The bonus? All these savings let us install white marble counters and a commercial-grade stove, giving the room an industrial farmhouse vibe for a fraction of the costs we were quoted.
The Powder Room
I’ve always been charmed by the ornate cast-plaster ceilings in historic homes from the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century, tin ceiling tiles came into fashion–they were less expensive to produce than plaster–but in mint condition they’re now fairly costly. I scoured the Brimfield Antique Show for intricate tin tiles with a bit more wear and tear to them. With a gentle scrubbing and some high-gloss paint, they transformed our powder room. We nailed the tin to the ceiling, surrounded it with a thick crown molding to hold the metal in place, and painted the walls dark gray for contrast. We hung a small crystal chandelier in the room and chose dark, outdoor slate tiles for the floor, bringing in more natural materials without the cost of granite or marble. The overall look brings to mind a covered patio–a small retreat with a touch of elegance and whimsy.
For a low-cost, high-impact window treatment in the guestroom, I designed a curved valance and asked a carpenter to cut it for us out of scrap wood. This room had multiple doors connecting with adjacent areas, so we closed off several of them and in place of one installed an antique leaded-glass window from New England Demolition & Salvage in New Bedford, Massachusetts, providing additional light and character. The plaster walls could have stood a refinishing, but we chose to leave the bumps and waves alone; they help retain that antique feel, and occasionally we spot an interesting new pattern in the walls.
The chandelier in this room looks old, but it was really just a hand-me-down we customized with a bit of black spray paint. Through several renovation projects, I’ve made good use of the design adage that you should always have one black item (whether that’s a piece of furniture or some other element) in every room. Although it’s something you’d traditionally find in a dining room, this fixture adds a dramatic element, and when dimmed at night casts beautiful shadows and a welcome calm.