The Boys Can’t Help It
Give them a year and these remodelistas are on it
When they first saw the house, it was a wreck. “Sixty-five years in one family, things can get weird. Like the front door flanked by the washer and dryer,” says Bobby Houston, left, with his partner Eric Shamie and their two dogs, Bille, left, and Bode.
Photos by John Gruen
My partner, Eric, is handsome, smart, and kind, but he does have this one annoying habit of always demanding the truth. “Give it to me straight,” he’ll say, looking me hard in the eye: “How many people are we feeding tonight, really?” And then I’ll grin and have to admit that a neighborly little supper for four is more likely going to be a neighborly little supper for nine or possibly 12, depending. And he’s cool with that; he just needs to know. It’s all because I like to talk to people and Eric likes to feed them, and Eric’s cooking is great. So, people say yes when I invite them to eat his food. Which is about five nights a week.
After ten years of this, we figured out a simple solution: Just make the kitchen bigger. And bigger. And bigger. We’ve fixed up a series of houses over the years until finally our dream kitchen has become a third of the house, with two dining tables, three sofas, a big fireplace and three ceiling fans in a soaring timber-frame barn. The idea of a great room focused on a TV is just so wrong—everybody knows you should focus on the stove. And believe you me, we do.
Eric cooks and bakes and I grow the vegetables and make the salad and forget to have starters. Happily, we have never once forgotten wine.
Most of our friends are “remodelistas,” just like us, so there’s never a lull in the conversation. And the funny thing is, while we all love to buy and fix houses, it’s very hard, emotionally, to sell them. It’s the opposite of “flipping.” It’s really hoarding.
Here’s what happens. In your travels, you happen to notice a particular old house. And being an early house, it’s probably on the best hillside or the best hayfield in the area. Or it has an incredible stone silo, or a whitewater view of the Konkapot River. And you find excuses to drive by again and again, to look it over and peek in the windows because, let’s be honest, you’re already hopelessly in love.
Hopefully, it’s in terrible condition, so you can afford it. Hopefully, there is stuff so bad, so wrong, so hideous that nobody else in their right mind would buy it. Our third house had no heat whatsoever, except for a coal stove. Luckily, it came with coal.
Then you begin. And because we can’t help ourselves, we always gut right down to the studs. (Our first house was nothing but studs and floor joists. No siding, no roof. You could see right through the frame in every direction: up, down, and sideways.) Then you work with your beloved carpenters and plumbers and electricians, in all shapes and sizes, guys you select as much for their taste in music as anything. (Their music tells you a lot about their work. Bluegrass is best.) And you show up first thing in the morning every day for a year and put that house back together until it’s fit for a magazine, like this one.
The “White Haus” is a perfect example of our process. The earliest part of the Great Barrington farmhouse is late 1700s, and the property had been in the Clark family since 1950 (when they paid $18,000—and put in a bomb shelter.) The ’50s must have been fun because they had several wet bars and lots of pink wallpaper. In fact, the neighbors made a point of telling us that Mrs. Clark was famous for her pink ’56 T-bird. But the ’50s were also tacky. The “new” front door was flanked by the washer and drier. Weird. The “painting studio” was held up by paint, with a toilet sitting quite openly in the corner. The master bed faced a wall.
We pulled out a few miles of old wiring and cast-iron piping, filled 15 dumpsters with plaster and mesh, and repurposed the entire floorplan. A breezeway to the studio became a glassy, south-facing entry. Naturally, that meant we had to reroute the driveway. A cramped, low kitchen became a vaulted master bathroom. A series of old panel doors were stripped and became the entry to the master bedroom. A scary top-floor dormitory became a big guest apartment with windows all around. And the Silence of the Lambs sheds out back were demolished completely. We didn’t find any bones, and thank God for that.
At one point, our neighbor took to calling the house “Lonely Chimneys,” and here’s why: The house has five old fireplaces and during the demo, two of the chimneys were left standing stark naked in the breeze—the rooms were temporarily gone. Which brings us to the fireplace in the master bathroom (which used to be the kitchen. Don’t worry if you’re confused). It seemed like a good idea—toweling off in front of the fire, then plunking into the easy chair or sofa—in the bathroom.
Halfway through and way past the point of no return, you always run out of money. You just don’t tell the workmen, and you hustle to cover their checks. And then after a year (and for some reason it’s always a year), there comes a day when you tell the painters: “Just get out!” You can’t wait another day to clean the windows, take the shower caps off the smoke detectors, and throw some sheets on the bed.
And you’ll encounter a thousand warning stickers to peel off. Stickers that read: “Warning: This is a window” and so forth. God Bless, America.
Then you move in and start inviting people for supper, while furnishing and fine-tuning the place. Shaker pegs in all the bedrooms. Lightbulbs in every lamp.
Over the years, we have become more and more fixated on the color white (even though we have painted five houses in the area black. On the outside.) In the current house, our love of white has gotten stronger—the countertops are white Carrara marble; the custom cabinets are white ash with a white wash; the kitchen walls are white pine, pickled and polished. Even the radiant-slab floor got a wash of white and a shine. Let’s face it, we’re living in dark times, and brightness and light are the best revenge. Especially with all the dimness in the other White House.
Even at the holiday season, when the guest list doubles, we try to stick to Scandinavian style—white and silver (not that there’s anything wrong with red and green, except that it’s ugly). But white and silver look great in firelight. And nobody looks good in a red snowflake sweater. Not even our friend’s pug, Libby.
So that’s the recipe. Find an old house in the best spot, fall in love, strip it, and put it all back as you empty your checkbook and obsess over every detail. Make a big bathroom and a big kitchen. Then wash the windows, furnish with a clean and light palette and fill it up with friends and neighbors, basically all the time. If you’re lucky, get Eric to bake Ruth Reichl’s “Big-Ass Chocolate Cake."