The same way I can spot a distinctive piece of salvage buried in the back of a bulging barn, I can see past years of neglect or ill-advised renovations and appreciate the mastery of a home’s original intent. The small towns that populate this stretch of the Delaware River are filled with early-20th century Victorians and Federals and midcentury bungalows, some pristinely maintained, others fading into obscurity, but they’re all standing because of an architect’s deft eye and a craftsman’s meticulous touch.
One of them near my workshop hit the market recently and got me thinking seriously about whether I was interested in returning to home remodeling purely as a passion play or if restoring it as an arm followed the natural evolution of Bret Cavanaugh Modern Design. The more I visited this home, in person and online, the more I realized the two have always been intertwined.
The art of restraint
It’s a single-family, four-bedroom home, which makes it sound larger than it is. It was built in the 1930s, so the bedrooms are fairly modest in size by today’s measure. It’s an era I love, both for the style—the home fits the Federal mold—and the craftsmanship. The fruits of modernization were just beginning to flood the mainstream, but there was still very much an old-world pride in how everything was built, especially the homes of the day.
This place is no exception. It has two large porch roofs, and neither one shows any sign of having leaked recently. The ceilings inside, similarly, are in beautiful shape. The walls are all plaster, and they’re solid. Outside, the brickwork looks as strong as the day it was installed. The hardwood flooring appears to be original, as does the woodwork around the home. The layout is pretty straightforward, but each room and hallway features some sort of flourish that indicates that every square foot was carefully considered when the home was built.
Really, it doesn’t need much work. I’d refinish the floors, blow in some new insulation, restore the copper gutters, and update the kitchen. Anything more than that would ruin the integrity of the home. The tendency these days is to modernize. In the best scenarios, some of the original character is preserved, usually where it’s convenient, like an exposed-brick wall in the kitchen or a newly-revealed hardwood floor in the living room. More often, though, it’s stripped away entirely because it’s not all that compatible anymore with our lifestyles.
But home remodeling, to me, has always been akin to cooking like an elite chef in that the best results illustrate the most restraint. I fell in love with this home because I can see it so clearly for what it once was. To the untrained eye, it probably doesn’t look like much. And the inclination, then, would be to paint the brick white and knock down some walls to grow the kitchen and the living room. But I see the remnants of the original copper gutters on the back of the house and I want to repair them, not tear them down. The same for the molding inside. In a home steeped with this much inherent design, you’re never diminishing it when you can reconnect with the original vision.
Put up or shut up
As I said, this house is far from the only one that’s caught my eye, but it may well be the one that finally pulls me out of the workshop (but never entirely) and back into home remodeling. With each new interesting listing, this inner urgency ramps up a little more, not because I necessarily need to rethink BCMD—I’m plenty content building custom furniture and redesigning the occasional kitchen, bathroom, and any other space that calls out to me—but because the preservationist in me sees an opportunity to turn the tide. (And, yes, I’m fully aware that I’m a modern designer endorsing preservation. The elevated designs, though, aren’t really grounded by a date stamp.)
This picturesque region’s probably never been more desirable. That’s not a guarantee that it’s going to remain as is, though. In fact, the recent returns promise that it won’t. In an urban setting, the concern is gentrification. Here, I guess I could best describe it as sterilization. I love driving through Titusville, Hopewell, Lambertville, Stockton, Frenchtown, and Milford and knowing right where I am by the look of the homes. It’s not like that’s going to disappear overnight, though I’d sleep a little better, I think, if I was doing more than hoping it won’t disappear overnight.