We Gutted Our 1940s Weekend House Ourselves for $80K
At the flip of a coin.
Published Jul 29, 2020 12:00 AM
If it weren’t for a lucky coin flip five years ago, Charlie and Kevin Dumais would not be quarantined in their Litchfield, Connecticut, cottage today. Back in 2015, faced with a serious lack of square footage, the obvious solution was to let go of their rent-stabilized studio in Brooklyn and lease a bigger place in the neighborhood. But the couple quickly realized that buying a weekend home (while keeping their city spot) would cost around the same. So they decided to let chance have the last word: “It was two out of three in favor of a country retreat,” says Kevin.
That same week, the couple visited a client in Connecticut (Kevin is an interior designer; Charlie a lighting designer) and picked up a real-estate magazine on the fly. They immediately spotted their dream property: a 1940s Cape Cod tucked at the foot of a hill. Over the following months, the pair saw plenty of other places, many with damp basements, mold, and much more work required than they were ready to take on, but that first one kept popping back into their heads.
When they finally walked through the door during a showing, Charlie and Kevin knew it was the one. “It had really good energy and felt welcoming,” says Kevin. “Just from the outside, it started ticking off boxes. New England charm, check. Original details, check. Breezeway, front porch, manageable size, close to the city, close to town, check, check, check…”
The inside had recently been gutted by a developer, who left the rooms cookie-cutter but all the systems (plumbing, electrical, septic) in mint condition. In short, it was a solid blank slate for the two designers to put their stamp on. Fast-forward half a decade and they can’t believe their luck. “We never intended for this to become a permanent home, but we know now how fortunate we are to have it.” Lately, their days are spent gardening; exercising in their garage—which they’ve dubbed the Dumaisium—watching their Welsh terrier, Friday, chase squirrels around the yard; and having drinks on the porch.
Of course, there’s no serendipity without hard work. The couple spent months with their sleeves rolled up. It all started on a wine-fueled night after Charlie and Kevin had been staring at the banister for a little too long. In a previous renovation, the wall that hugged the left side of the stairs was removed and the carpenter installed a new handrail to “match” the original. “It was clearly an imposter,” says Kevin. “After one glass too many, Charlie took a hammer to it.” From there, it was a cascade of DIY projects.
The kitchen, once covered in sad beige tile, brown cabinetry, and granite countertops, got a similar makeover. Kevin and Charlie splurged on oak floors stained to match the rest of the house. Then they turned to IKEA for the cupboards. “Our first-time-buyer budget drove that decision,” says Kevin. He picked faux wood interiors (a bit more elevated than the plain white alternative), covered the frames with Semihandmade fronts, and finished the doors with white oak pulls.
The couple desperately wanted an island, but the quotes they received were too high for their budget. So Kevin designed one himself, which Charlie then built for a few hundred dollars. They balanced out the DIY with a luxury: Calacatta Tucci marble counters. “I look at them, work on them, and appreciate them every day,” says Kevin, the chef in the family. Instead of a backsplash, they opted for floor-to-ceiling pine V-groove paneling, which wraps into the hallway for the illusion of more room.
The duo found the bulk of the furniture two weeks after getting the keys, during a trip to the Brimfield Antiques Flea Market. “The rest was collected over time,” says Kevin. Today, mid-century Børge Mogensen dining chairs coexist with vintage French armchairs and Noguchi pendant lights, each with a backstory. “My favorite piece hangs over our bar,” says Kevin. “It’s a collage on paper by Cecil Touchon. I’ve admired his work for years, and Charlie bought this one for me as a wedding present.”
Their biggest stroke of genius, though, is outside: painting the front door a cheery canary hue—an idea that came to life during a dinner party with friends. “We ended up pinning the napkins on the table to the door for inspiration,” says Kevin. Shortly after, they covered the surface in Benjamin Moore’s Field of Gold, which also graces the side and garage doors.
The rest of the exterior needed a top-to-bottom overhaul: The couple cut through 70-plus years of overgrowth, excavated the side yard, and added a pea gravel driveway and patio. “We spent a year untangling wisteria from trees and bushes, cutting it back and keeping it at bay,” remembers Kevin; it originally completely obscured the main bedroom window.
By doing most of the work themselves, the couple ended up spending roughly $80,000 on the renovation (and an additional $50,000 on furnishings). However, things are ever changing at the Dumais household: Kevin has been reupholstering vintage chairs and moving furniture around. “I’m trying to convince Charlie to let me renovate the guest bathroom,” he says. “He’s trying to convince me to let him repaint the first floor.”
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