Redeeming Qualities

December 3, 2015

An enterprising interior designer, her husband, and their architect breathe new life into a long-neglected Vermont village home.

Text by Robert Kiener    Photography by John Gruen    Produced by Stacy Kunstel

“I promise not to cry” is what interior decorator Phyllis Higgerson said when her real estate agent told her about a rundown house for sale in the small Vermont village of Norwich. “She told me it had been neglected and needed work because it had been used as a rental for college students for nearly a decade,” remembers Higgerson. “I was expecting the worst.”

That’s basically what she got. “From the outside it looked a bit like a rough-and-ready shanty with its brown cedar-shake siding that was in bad shape,” she remembers.

The gardens were overgrown and unruly. Inside was not much better. The walls wore a variety of colors, the kitchen was a “disaster,” Higgerson says, and the floors were badly scratched. The entire layout needed reworking. The 1,150-square-foot home, built in 1913, was also too small for Higgerson and her husband, their two young daughters, and two dogs.

“But the house also had a lot going for it,” says Michael Ertel, a family friend and Woodstock, Vermont-based architect, who accompanied the Higgersons on their first visit to the house. “The quiet, cozy neighborhood was what they’d been looking for. The house had some historic value to it and was consistent with the character of the street,” says Ertel. Best of all, the structure was sound. As the architect explains, “The house had good bones.”

“We all agreed that we could make the house work,” says Higgerson. They decided to gut much of the original house—ripping many of the walls to the studs—and put an addition on the rear of the home.

It was important to Higgerson that the renovation respect the history of the house. “My husband and I are both ‘old-house people,’” she says. “We wanted to respect the house’s history. I hated the idea of erasing someone’s story.”

In concert with his clients, Ertel designed a two-story, 1,700-square-foot addition that holds a garage, mudroom, and powder room on the ground floor and a master bedroom suite, office, and laundry room above. Ertel’s design took its cue from the original house and was fashioned in the same vernacular. “We were careful not to build something too big that would be out of character with the neighborhood,” he says. “We were sensitive to the surroundings.”

The addition looks like a natural outgrowth of the older house, linked by a connector. “This is the way rural houses in Vermont grew, as people needed more space,” says Higgerson. To help the addition blend in, details like latticework and railings on the old part were replicated to adorn the new section. Inside, the team chose flat-panel doors and oil-rubbed bronze hardware that match what had been used in the original house.

Scale was important. The addition’s rooflines fall in line with the existing house to, as Ertel says, “minimize the bulk” of the new building. Instead of adding a full second story, Ertel used dormers. As Higgerson explains, “These also helped break up the mass of the addition. A full-height ceiling would have made the addition too high and out of proportion with the original house.”

In the original part of the house, clumsy built-ins and an awkwardly positioned wood stove were removed, and rooms were reconfigured to make spaces more functional. On the second floor, a tiny third bedroom was converted into a walk-in closet. A 1980s addition—a roughly made first-floor bedroom—was replaced with an open-plan kitchen and a light-filled family room that cleverly links the old house with the addition.

Higgerson upgraded crown moldings and baseboards throughout the house but, as she explains, “we didn’t go overboard. Again, we wanted the woodwork to be proportional to the rooms and look like it had always been there.”

The house’s old windows were swapped out for new, energy-efficient models that feature the same, traditional six-over-one configuration, and the whole original structure was reinsulated. Cabinetmaker Jeff Winagle created built-ins for the addition. He also added elegantly carved corbels to the kitchen cabinets to, as he explains, “give a nod to the past.”

New construction and renovation took almost a year, and when Higgerson was at last able to make her interior design choices, she opted for a neutral palette. “Because we are all bombarded by so many colors and images and so much visual noise when we are out in the world, I wanted to come home to a sanctuary of peace, something that was easy on the eyes and calming,” she says.

She confesses that although “beige is becoming a dirty word,” she still finds it comforting and uses it often. She is also a lover of painted Scandinavian furniture that goes well with a neutral palette.

The interior is a testament to the “less is more” philosophy. For example, in the kitchen, Higgerson requested that electrical sockets be discreetly tucked away so as not to distract from the room’s elegant lines. She loves clean surfaces and asked for cupboards to hide away appliances and even the telephone. “It’s like we are living on a boat,” she explains, “Everything has its own place.”

She laughs when she admits that she’s always tinkering with her design choices. “I’m constantly rearranging and replacing furniture and design objects throughout my home, and even changing paint colors.”

Higgerson initially painted the dining and living rooms in a shade of muslin, then repainted both spaces with the same paint mixed 50 percent lighter. “My husband was incredulous,” she says. “I am a perfectionist, and I know that’s a curse!”

Her attention to detail has paid off. Several neighbors and even passersby so admired the color of the house’s exterior, they asked her what she used (Benjamin Moore Stonington Gray). Others have stopped to ask where she got the home’s new garage doors. But the compliment that she, her husband, and Ertel treasure most was made by a neighbor at a Christmas party after the project was completed. Following a tour of the house, the Vermonter said, “We are so amazed. You’ve taken this street’s ugly ducking and turned it into a swan.” •
Architecture: Michael Ertel, Ertel Associates
Interior Design: Phyllis Higgerson, Henhurst Interiors

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