Conjuring History

During an 18th century-inspired makeover, the two-car garage of a contemporary Ulster County house is transformed into a gracious living room full of traditional touches



renovated housePhotographs by Rob Karosis

Some people fall in love with a house at first sight. But that was far from the case for Carole Bailey, who cheerfully declares (with a touch of hyperbole) that she once considered her now-charming country home “an excrescence calling itself a house.”

Bailey, a lively lady of a certain age with a background in interior design, came to own the excrescence almost by chance. In 2005, she and her husband gave up their sprawling, remote New Hampshire property to move closer to New York City, planning to find another old house large enough to accommodate their extended family on visits, and a condominium to stay in while the inevitable restoration of the big house took place. Sadly, her husband died on the day the contract was signed for the condo, with the big house yet to be found.

original garageTransforming experience: The original, unfinished garage is now a sunlit living room

Photograph courtesy of Crisp Architects

Rather than continue the search, Bailey decided to keep the condo, located in a pretty area not far from Dutchess County’s eastern border, and buy the not-yet completed, and not very appealing, new house opposite. The house, built in the style of a New England saltbox with a catslide roof in back, was the creation of a couple of young carpenters who were building it on spec. “Their idea was to create a line-for-line copy of an early 18th-century saltbox with, quote, ‘modern materials,’ which meant things like pop-out plastic mullions,” Bailey explains with evident disapproval for such shortcuts. “It was painted red with white trim like a barn. My first impulse was to tear it down and build something new — the market was still robust. Then I tried to give it away, but I couldn’t make the tax part work. So I decided I should finish it and improve it.”

after constructionIn addition to building a new garage (above, at left), the architect added a gable to the old one, which allows for a raised ceiling and helps marry the rooflines. A mudroom links the new garage to the living room

Bailey had already engaged Millbrook architect James Crisp to design a house to go on the site, so she switched his assignment to making over the existing dwelling — and conjured up a fake history for it as inspiration. “One has to start somewhere,” she remarks. “I said, let’s pretend that this was built in the early 18th century. The family prospered over three generations and at the end of the 18th century, they added on in the Federal style. They would have replaced the board and batten front door with a proper front door with fanlights,” she adds, demonstrating the advantages of working with a fantasy heritage.

With this scenario in mind, Bailey and Sandee Mahoney, a senior designer with Crisp Architects, set to work revamping the 3,500 square-foot, rustic post-and-beam dwelling. “We ended up replacing all the windows and darkened the exposed beams — they look old but I doubt it,” says Bailey. “My vision was that these people were probably farmers, more likely to have had white walls with painted woodwork, so we did all the woodwork in colonial colors and painted the outside green, with a black door with nice brass.”

Mahoney designed a powder room in a space originally destined to be a laundry room, and what Bailey calls a “roughly done pantry” became “a very nice laundry room” instead. A decorative painter came to the rescue for kitchen cupboards and an island done in what Bailey describes as “mother-of-the-bride mauve,” refinishing them with a red underglaze topped with black for a Chinese oxblood effect. All the hinges and hardware were replaced. In an ironic switch, Bailey had a blacksmith forge special handles for the fridge and freezer to match the mass-produced ones she’d found at Lowe’s for the cabinets.

cabinetrySpace odyssey: Paneled built-in shelves and cupboards house books and mementos, as well as the television, while subtle can lighting illuminates works of art. Soft colors on walls and woodwork and an eclectic mix of furnishings create a timeless feel. All that remains of the original garage is the footprint

But the biggest transformation was turning the two-car garage — a raw, 27-by-24-foot space — into a sunlit living room. Necessary structural changes included new studs deep enough to allow for adequate insulation in the walls, and bringing the floor up to the level of those in the house (building codes require attached garage floors to be lower). Raising the ceiling to just over 10 feet was essentially a cosmetic decision, but created a much more spacious feeling, while an additional gable solved the problem of marrying rooflines outside, says designer Mahoney. Two sets of French doors and three long windows were added to let in plenty of light and to frame views over lawns studded with mature trees in one direction, and a small garden with an old-brick terrace in the other.

A large wood-burning fireplace with a slate blue marble mantel and paneled chimney breast dominates one wall. Handsome architectural elements include reclaimed old beams on the ceiling (a Crisp signature) and weathered wide pine boards on the floor to match the rest of the house. Inset doors, wide casings and crown moldings on the windows, and raised paneling that’s repeated on the shutters are all “very traditional,” notes Mahoney, “and keep everything clean and spare-looking.”

garage, before constructionGarage, before construction

“My environment is terribly important to me, and it’s important to me to live among beautiful things,” says Bailey, who furnished the room with a mix of some of the beautiful things she has gathered over the years. “I’ve had several houses, including one in Bermuda and the New Hampshire house, so it’s quite an inventory. The challenge was to make the diversity of pieces work together.” There are even a few things — a Kittinger desk now being used as a sofa table, a wing chair, and a Martha Washington chair — that came from her husband’s office. “The octagonal beechwood coffee table is one that I had made in Spain when I was living there,” she adds. “I’ve been hauling that thing around since 1967... The only thing that’s new is the big couch, which I designed and had made to fit the room.”

The couch’s L-shape solves a modern dilemma too, notes Mahoney. “In a room like this, trying to locate the TV is always an issue, especially when the fireplace is a focal point.” Housing the television in built-in bookcases on the wall to the right of the fireplace means you can watch it from one leg of the couch, or face the fireplace from the other.

“We also spent time on the lighting, which makes a difference,” says Mahoney, who worked with a lighting pro to install small, subtle can lights in the ceiling to focus on various works of art. Hand-forged sconces cast a more traditional glow.

Bailey says she’s thrilled with the new room, and mentions that architect Crisp is pleased with it, too. “Jimmy said, ‘We’ve done quite a lot of garage conversions, but this one stands out for being successful,’” she says with a laugh.

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