32. Imperfect Little Cottage

Last week my son-in-law lent me a book called Perfect English Farmhouse by Ros Byam Shaw. Ms. Shaw is a foremost English interior designer and has written several books: Perfect English Cottage; Perfect English; Living Colour; Old House, New Home; as well as Perfect English Farmhouse.

There were several items of entertainment and enjoyment in her book, as well as some inspirational pictures and good color ideas, so in order to adequately discuss these books, I tried to order Perfect English Cottage from the local library. There was only one copy in all of Allegheny County and it was on the holdshelf… So I forked out $$ and bought it, hoping I wouldn’t be sorry.

I will confess to loving decorating books, but I. don’t. purchase. them. I read them from my local library. Otherwise I would overspend my already large and out-of-control book budget. There is not a single decorating book on my bookshelves, unless you count Shelves, Closets, and Cabinets, a no-decorating how-to DIY. There is a lot of pressure to love this book.

I love antiques, real stuff made from real wood, real fabric, real metal, and my house is filled with them. Every one has a story. I’m a 100% kind of person — 100% cotton, 100% wool, 100% old. And here’s the thing : we think 1800s are old! When the English say old, they mean medieval — not like in the US where 100 years is old; some of these farmhouse kitchens have leaded glass windows from the 15th century. Makes the 40s cottage seem downright modern!

AGA Ranges

Every kitchen in this book has a wonderful old enameled cast iron stove called an AGA. Oh, I drooled on Pedro’s book! Turns out, one can still buy them!

This is a photo of an Aga from MurphyHeating.com.

They were originally designed and built in Sweden in the early 20th century and became a hit in England from 1925 on. They are never turned off, which makes them an extra heater in the kitchens of chilly England and Northern Europe. Chefs love them; Jamie Oliver says, “I think the AGA makes people better cooks; they’re generally technically better cooks because they understand cooking.” Each AGA has at least three ovens — a roasting oven, a baking oven, and a slow-cook oven. Devotees say they take the place of toasters, slow cookers, tea pots, and clothes dryers. I’ve never seen a demonstration, but they surely are beautiful. Perhaps luvly is the better word.

They come in gas, propane, or electric and some of them have dual fuel options — electric oven, gas “hobs”. (Burners, for all of us Yankees!) This photo is from the AGA website.

Just look at this pistachio one! There’s also one in English Racing Green! and Aubergine! Each of the traditional cookers is hand made in England after it is ordered and then shipped to you in pieces and installed by the dealer. There are nine AGAs for sale on EBay right now, and they vary in price from $1050 to $12,250 — a little over budget no matter how cheaply we got the cabinets, the doors, and the windows — A girl can dream…

Earthy Walls and Paint Shadows

One of the pictures in the book that made me laugh out loud was a photo in the chapter called ‘House of Leather’. The house is 130 years old and “…Much of Matt and Jax’s work on the house consisted of stripping off layers of ancient paint and wallpaper, and they have left this wall unpainted like a mottled map, showing the history of the various colours and patterns that have decorated it in the last 130 years.” Can you imagine? Our cottage is about 65 years old, and we are complaining about scraping off four layers of paint and one of wallpaper… And this wall they left made it into a very elegant decorating book. I love it! I have walls like this! So now I know that we can just leave the walls in the bathroom.

Bathroom wall — looks like old Italian plaster, eh?

They are kind of swirly, yellow avocado and pink–definitely looks like old Italian plaster! Holes might be a problem, but then again, they can just be covered with wall art and towels, yes?


Paint shadows around this closet showed us the original moldings. That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to paint over the shadows though…

In a similar scenario, Botelet Farm is a third generation B&B in Cornwall. As son Richard was redoing an upstairs bedroom, he found a paint shadow of a mantle that his parents had removed when they were “modernizing” in the fifties. The old paint showed the details of what had been taken off. He wasn’t sure what to do with it, so it got left like that for a time. (My kind of reno!) After a while, he decided he liked it that way and just left it. We have those too!  As a matter of fact, the paint shadows show how the trim over the doors and the windows used to be, and that has helped us decide how to do the trim around the doors. And look at our fireplace…20121028-132239.jpgThe Cottage Book

The Farmhouse book was lots of fun — I loved many of the rooms and the general simplicity of most of them. The cottage rooms are less stark, but actually, just as shabby. Maybe more so. It just isn’t what I expected. This book is not about cozy, light-filled, chintz-covered cottages. There are saggy rocking chairs with torn upholstery; there are antique pieces with big varnish blotches front and center; and old upholstered chairs draped with scarves, quilts, and antique textiles. I should take comfort in this. I have shabby antiques and sagging rocking chairs. In fact, we are wondering how to make this look better:


That is NOT a varnish blotch on the drawer! (And the fake brick linoleum will soon be gone…)

I’ll be honest here: I don’t put stock in perfect things. But I would like the bottom of this kitchen island to look a little less shabby. (I think by the time we’re finished with it, it will.) If I had a lovely old cupboard with an unsightly varnish stain right in the front, I would fix it — no matter what it did to the ‘antique value’. And I can stand a lumpy rocker, but if photographers were coming to feature my home in a decorating book, I would get out my staple gun and staple up the hanging undergarments.

That’s not to say, I didn’t like any of the vignettes in the book — many of the rooms were charming with spectacular harvest tables, luvly painted kitchen “dressers”, and huge old stone and brick fireplaces. But I’ve got a decorating book for sale, half price…

(I’d like to show you some of the pretty rooms, but I don’t want to violate any copyright laws, and I’d be scanning the book to put up photos illegally. I actually requested permission from the publisher, but I am too impatient to wait for their answer. If they ever give me permission, I’ll repost this with photos of the charming spaces.)

1. The Story of Apple Hill Cottage

It’s hard to start writing a brand new blog when it’s, well, brand new. I’m brand new at it also, which makes it doubly hard. But Apple Hill Cottage has come into our lives. It is a cottage with history — combined history for both Michael and me — and I want to write about it — document it — as we try to respectfully honor those who lived in it before, as well as making it our own.

Apple Hill Cottage, Late fall, 2011.

Apple Hill’s Story–the brief version (Longer versions will appear randomly later…)

Originally built as a little bungalow in the forties thirties by my grandfather (we called him Pa), it was a place “out on the farm”, which later became his apple orchard, Longanecker’s Fruit Farm. Pa added an indoor bathroom when the orchard became successful, and someone needed to live there to help run the orchard and sell the apples. Later on a back bedroom was added and a partial basement under the bedroom. Oh and a garage. “Growed like Topsy” my dad said.

My grandmother’s brother, Leslie, his wife Mary, and their son Bob lived there from sometime in the fifties until 1974 when Pa sold the orchard. I remember being there many times as a kid–we spent time at the apple orchard “helping”. Pa always paid us: fifty cents, a dollar, sometimes two dollars if we really had helped!

This is what the house looked like when Uncle Leslie and Aunt Mary lived there, and how I remember it as a kid.

We spent time in the big barn grading apples, taking the apples to the cider mill, and then helping store the jugs of cider in the little barn, which was refrigerated. There’s a picture of me with Pa in front of the apples for sale on the stand that was built around an oak tree. (I’m looking for it…) Occasionally we had family picnics in the front yard.

Mom and Dad at Apple Hill, ca. 1949.

My Dad (1921-2012) said he first met all of Mom’s extended family at a family picnic here, but he couldn’t remember whether it was before they were married — September 18, 1949 — or after. While looking through old photos for Dad’s funeral, we came across this one, which was taken at the cottage. I like to think it was taken that day of the family picnic.

In 1974, Pa was 82 years old and wanted to retire from the orchard business, so he sold the apple farm to Joe and Clara and their partner, a local attorney. Joe and Clara’s son, Michael, was a senior in college and helped them do various remodeling projects. One of the projects that he has confessed to helping with was wallpapering the living room. It pains me to say we didn’t take a picture of the wall paper before we stripped it off — one of the first things we did — but I’ve found a picture of the wallpaper in the background. It was ORANGE. Seventies Peter Max Orange. And I’m told it’s back in style, but …you decide.

We are in Clara’s living room just after we got married in 2002. The wallpaper was on most every wall, and even on the ceiling in the section of the living room not pictured here. Michael said putting that wallpaper up caused him to be color blind.

I remember thinking it was a bit strange when Mom told me that Pa had sold the orchard to Joe and Clara. Michael and I had dated in high school for two years and had a tortured break up when we were freshmen in college. But in 1974 I was only 22 and not ready to go back to run an apple orchard that I knew nothing about. I do remember wishing I was a bit older and wiser and ready to take it on…

Joe and Clara remodeled the cottage in the seventies style. They turned the garage into the “garage bedroom” and put the ubiquitous paneling on the walls. They replaced a lot of the windows, but not all, and installed 5 (count’em–5!) sets of sliding glass doors — one at every entrance! When we took out the carpeting in the garage bedroom (orange shag) we found they had dated the underneath of the step down into the room. It said, “Joe and Clara started remodeling. March 1, 1974.” We added our names next to theirs —  “Michael and Carol started remodeling, August 11, 2011.”

They also built a wonderful, huge deck at the back of the house, which we are reaping the benefits of now.

View of the little barn from the porch

It looks out over the hills of Greene County. To the left is the little barn where cider was stored. Now our neighbor stores his tractor there. There are wild cherries, oaks, maples, hickories, walnuts, catalpas, and honeysuckle. The birds sing all day. We have a family of bluebirds! I haven’t seen bluebirds since the last time I lived in the country! The binoculars just stay on the porch and the bird book sits nearby on the porch swing. It’s peaceful and serene for these two folks who’ve lived in the city for ten years. The porch looks east and there’s nothing better in the early morning than sitting on the swing drinking coffee and reading Jesus Calling. Yes, I can hear creation singing.

Not just breakfast coffee, but every meal…

Joe and Clara also enclosed the Oak Tree Apple Stand in cedar shakes that matched the house and painted the inside turquoise. It was the seventies, after all… They used it as a garage and also as a permanent garage sale where Clara sold her treasures. They called it the Gazebo; it will have its own post later on. Since Joe died in 1995, it has fallen on hard times. Every once in awhile one of us will come up with an idea for it, but so far it is just storage for carpet, tile, and a couple of unfinished kitchen cabinets. Sister Diane (interior designer that she is) suggested a guest house. Friend Rick was more down to earth — “This is just what Michael needs to store his junk,” he said. Yes, we’ll talk about that later, too…

As Clara got older she couldn’t manage living in the country anymore, and the house sat vacant for several years. Her good neighbors kept an eye on the place and mowed the grass. When it seemed obvious last year that she would never go back to the house, Michael and his sister Rita put the house up for auction. It was to be auctioned on July 12th, but first it had to be cleaned out. A dumpster was rented and almost everything was cleaned out or sent to the auctioneer — including all her Fiesta ware. I will forever be sad about that…

Clara died on Friday night, July 8th. On Saturday morning Michael and I sat up in bed, looked at each other, and simultaneously said, “We don’t have to sell the house anymore…” We called the auctioneer and cancelled the auction; Michael had to write him a check for $5200 (that was a hard check to write…) but all in all, it was a small price to pay for a house with such a story. We buried Clara on the day that the auction was supposed to take place.

I think she is smiling.