Farmhouse Renovation on a Budget in Columbia County, Upstate, NY
Au courant cottage: With help from family and friends, a pair of young architects beat the recession and pull off a stylish renovation
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“In 2006, everything was wonderful,” recalls Matthew Dockery. That fall, he and his wife, Esther, who live in Brooklyn, had bought a weekend cottage in Columbia County and were excited about fixing it up. The couple, both architects, had spent summers at time-share houses in Montauk, but they wanted a house of their own. “We couldn’t even afford a trailer in Montauk — we actually looked at one,” says Matt Dockery. “And driving to Montauk was a nightmare. We’d heard that Columbia County had a certain cachet, so we went to check it out... I grew up in Westchester, and we used to go to the Adirondacks and drive through this gorgeous part of the state, but I’d never explored it. We fell in love. In two hours and 40 minutes, we could be in paradise.”
Open house: The owners removed the interior walls and low ceilings to reveal the bones of the house. Now the open, multipurpose space is anchored by a new staircase, installed in the center
Paradise in this case was three bucolic acres in Stuyvesant with lovely views of the Catskills and a grand Dutch barn. (“It’s dangerous to be an architect and see a building like that,” Dockery says.) Less heavenly was the circa 1815 farmhouse that sat on the property. It was small — barely 1,100 square feet — with two boxy rooms, a kitchen, and a tiny bathroom downstairs; and two little bedrooms under the gabled roof. But its modest, Shaker-style exterior pleased them.
At the time, the Dockerys, both of whom had worked for well-known architect Michael Graves, were on the brink of launching NBO4, their own firm in Williamsburg. They knew renovating the farmhouse would be a long-term project, and intended to do much of the work themselves. “We were in no hurry to get it done,” says Matt. “As funds came in, we’d do what we could. Part of the plan included getting a home equity line that we could slowly draw upon. In 2006, this didn’t seem like an outrageous idea.”
Farm fresh: IKEA cabinetry and white subway tiles (installed vertically) help create a clean, streamlined look in the kitchen (left). The original windows became double doors leading to a terrace
The couple spent weekends over the next two years gradually stripping out the dropped, acoustic-tile ceilings and removing interior walls. Esther’s brother and a friend of Matt’s helped with the work. “We took it all the way down,” Matt recalls. “We found several generations of wallpaper and plaster, and newspapers from the 1940s. The story of the house was revealed layer by layer. The original builders were so thrifty. We found framing posts that had been used for fences before they came into the house — all hand-hewn, with mortise-and-tenon joints.
Contractor Ben Ingram poured the satiny concrete counters of the kitchen, and also created the clever hearth-cum-bench seen here
“The biggest discovery was the barn trusses,” he continues. “We were thrilled to find them. We didn’t anticipate the size, and such amazing craftsmanship.” The demolition continued — and then the economy crashed. “By the time Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, the kitchen and bathroom were out, and the house was uninhabitable,” Matt says. That was the end of what he calls the “optimistic, phase-one period.”
A month later, the Dockery’s son, Noah, was born. Now the couple had a new baby, a fledgling business, and a gutted house as well as the usual bills at their home in Brooklyn. “At that point, we went to the banks and said we wanted to expedite the process, to renovate to either sell or get a tenant,” Matt recalls. “We’d ripped all the insulation out, but still had water in the pipes, so we left the heat at 50 degrees. The heating bills are coming in — you can imagine,” he continues, laughing weakly at the memory. “The banks wouldn’t give us a dime. The local market had collapsed, and we’d stripped out any value that may have been left in the house. It was a disaster.”
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