While most of us labor wearily in the world as it is, architects operate in a realm of what could be. Where we see a building ripe for the wrecking ball, they see the nucleus of something new and wonderful. Sure, an architect’s greatest pleasure is creating a whole new structure straight from imagination, but in an age when up-cycling and waste reduction are almost a moral imperative, there’s no shame in making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
New Jersey bred and Harvard educated, Brooklyn-based architect Jill Porter is no stranger to spying a jewel in the rough. In addition to designing brand-new second homes in Vermont and Iowa, she has revamped existing country properties in New York and Connecticut — including her own family’s getaway in Kent.
“We love our apartment and neighborhood in Brooklyn, so we weren’t interested in moving, but we craved more space and access to the outdoors,” Porter says. “I wanted my kids to walk barefoot in the grass; I wanted to plant a garden.” As their search for a weekend place progressed, Porter’s dream of finding a parcel and building from the ground up gave way to eyeballing “rundown ranches, A-frames, and cabins.”
“Our budget was limited, so my visions of property with sweeping views or mature trees swiftly met reality — scraps of land that could hold a house, but ultimately lacked character and a deep sense of place,” Porter says. “Renovating a home was going to give us the most bang for our buck. And I was completely open-minded toward houses we’d visit, as I knew I could transform even the worst of them.”
That self-assurance came in handy when — after a year of hunting — Porter and husband Stephen Larson settled on a house that was nobody’s idea of a dream home. “We had driven by it several times, but never thought seriously about the property, as the asking price was more than we wanted to spend,” Porter says. “Yet after unsuccessful bids on two other properties, our Realtor encouraged us to take a look. Once we visited, we understood why the house had been on the market for five years — the interior layout was completely incomprehensible, and the outside was being overtaken by vines and shrubs. But we saw potential.”
Sitting beside Macedonia Brook State Park, the property began life in the 1940s as a humble hunting cabin, but had been so unartfully expanded over the years that any rustic charm it once possessed was long gone. Beginning with an initial budget of $150,000, the couple set out to “resuscitate any soul left in the house, while allowing our own personality and design sense to peek through.”
But before articulating the poetry of the place, there were practical concerns to resolve. These included fashioning a more functionally rational floor plan. Key to that task was relocating the entry away from the kitchen to the center of the house and creating a central hallway linking the public rooms with the private spaces of the home. The couple also addressed drainage issues and upped the home’s thermal efficiency with new insulation and windows.
“Renovating our own house with our own money was such a profound learning experience for me, and definitely made me a better architect,” Porter says. “Deciding between new insulation or new kitchen cabinets is not a hard decision when it’s your own home!”
The goal was to make this house the best version of itself — not to create an architectural showstopper. I shelved my ego at the beginning of the project and, for better or worse, completely yielded to the house.
When it came to finishes and details, Jill salvaged existing elements, such as the banal oak cabinets in the kitchen, which she painted a chic shade of gray. Old plank doors and time-worn brass hardware were incorporated into new closets. She turned the old outhouse into a tool shed, and furnished the home with a mix of pieces old and new. “Although I’m versed in custom cabinets and high-end finishes, I’m equally comfortable scouring the aisles of Ikea or Home Goods,” Porter says. “The interior is a mix of old, cheap and repurposed, with a few modern splurges.”
There are Bosch appliances in the kitchen and sharp lighting fixtures from Schoolhouse Electric in various rooms, but the trestle dining table was left behind by the previous owner and simple apple baskets serve as catch-alls next to a sleek, velvet-covered sofa.One of Porter’s favorite pieces is a rough wooden sign from her grandparents’ Ohio farm that reads, “For Sale Pigs.”
Porter’s work, generally, combines a solid appreciation of historic and vernacular styles with a firm mastery of up-to-date idioms. This bucolic retreat stays true to form. Neither a knotty pine cottage nor a rigorously contemporary showplace, the house exudes a relaxed, eye-appealing ease in scale and proportion. “The goal,” Porter says, “was to make this house the best version of itself — not to create an architectural showstopper. I shelved my ego at the beginning of the project and, for better or worse, completely yielded to the house. Doing so made it much easier to keep the project on track and within budget.”
Larson, Porter says, happily deferred to her expertise. “He patiently listened and nodded when I’d show him drawings, and ultimately trusted me in all decisions. When the renovation was complete, he walked in the house and said, ‘Oh, so this is what it looks like!’ I truly think he was surprised.” As for the couple’s children, Porter good-naturedly says, “At the time, my kids were young and were essentially friendly gargoyles — they were around all the time lurking in the corner, but didn’t say much. Now that they’re older, I can’t buy a light or rug without getting their approval.”
Like anyone who tackles such a project, Porter and Larson had their unwelcome surprises to contend with, including a chimney that collapsed while they were away on vacation. And like most homeowners, they’ll tell you the effort to make something special for themselves was worth it. “The first week we were at the house, we had bears on the deck, snakes in the crawl space, and bats in the attic,” Porter recalls. “We sealed up the house, so we no longer cohabitate with the wildlife, but being here still engages us directly with nature. Perched high above Macedonia Brook, the house feels like a tree house. The windows in the living room and bedrooms look straight into the tree canopy, so branches, leaves and birds are always at eye level. We look down into the woods and watch great blue herons fly along the length of the brook. And every time, I feel a sense of awe.”