Cinderella Story: New Hampshire Farm House Renovation

January 8, 2014

With a little re-imagination, a once-ragtag New Hampshire house reveals its true beauty to its new owners.

Text by Megan Fulweiler    Photography by Michael J. Lee    Produced by Karin Lidbeck Brent

One shudders to imagine it: a wild sky, a fierce zigzag of lightning, and a barn in New Hampshire’s lovely Lakes Region goes up in flames. Miraculously the 1865 house, linked to the barn by a small, rectangular addition, is unscathed. Time passes, and the old house eventually comes on the market. It just so happens that designer Scott Bell—a principal at Theo & Isabella Design Group, in Sudbury, Massachusetts—and his partner, Frank McBournie, have been doing some serious house hunting. They come upon this one, with its poor addition hanging on like a frayed sleeve, and almost pass by without investigating. “I was hesitant,” Bell admits. “But when we stepped inside, the lines and proportions were perfect.”

Never mind the asphalt-shingle siding, the awkward road-facing vestibule tacked on at some point in the dwelling’s history, or the gloomy, charred timbers: the house oozed grace and potential—loads of it. Bell and McBournie’s search was, at last, over.

Claiming the place as their own, the men tore off the vestibule and threw themselves into recapturing the home’s original character. And that, of course, meant giving it a new barn. So Bell designed a two-story barn-like building to serve as a garage with generous guest quarters above. Redesigning the space that forms the connection between barn and house, he plugged in a fresh, functional kitchen and a snug family room.

At the same time, the dingy exterior shingles were stripped away and the clapboards painted a soft gray reminiscent of morning lake fog. Today’s white trim accentuates the classic New England marriage of house and barn and highlights attributes long overlooked, such as the original, ladylike bay windows reaching out to leafy views. The pretty property consists of a modest acre and a half, but a 160-acre state forest—never to be built upon—is its nearest neighbor.

For six years, when not outside admiring the landscape, the men have slowly gone about rehabilitating every room. Their herculean projects have ranged from scraping wallpaper off the horsehair-plastered walls to hand-sanding the staircase. “We’ve done 80 percent of the work ourselves,” says Bell, sounding as proud as any new parent. Justifiably so: the interior fairly bubbles with personality.

Rather than scramble to find the right furnishings and accessories, the couple had only to peruse Bell’s treasures. The designer, it turns out, is a lifelong collector. “Since I was ten,” he says, “and all kinds of things.” And since his passions include antiques as well as vintage items, the decor is richly layered. “We decided to do different themes,” he says, “a sort of 1940s fun, camp style for the guest quarters; slightly country for the kitchen and family room; and a bit more formal for the parlor and dining room.”

Eras and styles winningly intermingle, upping the artful ambience. The ruddy-colored dining room, for example, painted Benjamin Moore’s Georgian Brick, is home to a 1940s table set with horn-handled cutlery. The mahogany Empire card table alongside the window displays a bronze Venus de Milo, the glass-front cupboard reveals a pedigreed silver teapot and a helping of Bell’s beloved Wedgwood collection, and above it all hangs a tasseled and beaded chandelier from Visual Comfort.

Come winter, the men spend most of their time in the parlor, where the wood stove crackles. “This is the room we live in,” Bell says. “We take our dogs and cats with us, and it’s so cozy.”

Pets aside, stylish furnishings and chic accoutrements like a French Empire clock discovered in Paris give the space a subtly urbane undertone. The Empire table perching by the velvet-covered sofa was one of Bell’s first boyhood acquisitions. He meticulously scraped away the orange paint that concealed its true identity. Where did this enthusiasm for collecting spring from, and at such an early age? “I summered with my grandparents and they had lovely antique furniture. My parents, of course, rebelled. Their taste was midcentury.”

Bell’s ability to hit just the right balance is obviously in his DNA, and that talent is evident again in the family room that abuts the new kitchen. Here, Bell has found a spot for his prized Bernhardt hutch, where caches of ironstone and Wedgwood Edme Queensware reside. Twin wing chairs wearing a decidedly English-like floral fabric nestle close to the hearth. Bell designed the fireplace mantel, where more Wedgwood is on display, and installed the granite surround himself.

The appealing powder room is another thoughtful study in past and present. Bell and McBournie transported the oversize handmade cabinet that formerly stood in the pantry to nest their linens and sundries.An antique Federal-style mirror hangs above the Kohler sink.

It doesn’t matter what the season, friends and family clamor for invitations. Their room (if garage accommodations, which include a kitchenette, are spoken for) is clad in toile. “I’ve always wanted a toile room, and since it’s a guest room, we don’t see it every day,” Bell says, although that would hardly be something to fret about. The dreamy green-and-white pattern is as fresh as the nearby woods. The green-painted old floor evokes outdoor thoughts as well—a reassuring touch in these parts when spring seems a long way off. The adjoining walk-in closet, complete with pine dresser, was once a nursery. It must have been a happy little niche then, and it still is. Come to think of it, there’s not a corner of this charming, well-curated house that doesn’t feel warm and welcoming. •

Interior Design: Scott Bell, Theo & Isabella Design Group
Builder: Peter Viano, Viano General Contractors