FEW YEARS AGO, before they got their dream house, Andy Matlow had a successful career as a decorative painter specializing in trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) work. His wife Peggy Cullen is a confectioner and the author of several dessert cookbooks. They wanted an old house, and searched for two years for anything that offered workable space at the right price, where renovation and restoration wouldn’t break the bank. Finally, they gave up. Their Plan B: build the perfect old house.
They found a buildable lot in an established neighborhood “on the hill” in Great Barrington, a western Massachusetts town boasting a number of very good restaurants and a tiny triplex theatre, the only cinema in a twenty-mile radius.
But “we couldn’t walk the land,” Peggy remembers. “It was so full of bittersweet, we had to crawl it.” Nonetheless, after a deal was struck the real fun began.
The Matlows wanted their home to look as if it had always been there. “Since I’m a faux artist,” Andy says, “I thought I’d create a faux home, a fantasy house. We imagined this as a 1904 house that had been renovated to today’s standards.”
Andy and Peggy took many photographs of turn-of-the-century houses to study siting, mass, roof lines, and porches on cottages of the period. They sketched out a plan and got to work. An engineer was called in to oversee the structural framing using modern steel I-beams, micro-laminated beams, and TGI floor joists to allow for a less conventional floor plan.
By postponing detailed blueprints, the couple assured a more fluid building process, one that allowed for the incorporation of salvage items and creative ideas along the way. Even the carpenters participated, suggesting period details from their own grandmothers’ houses.
Peggy developed the plan for the first floor. Warmed by a massive stone fireplace, the living room opens to a large kitchen and dining area. A central stairway to the second floor ascends alongside the stone chimney, which disappears into the second story ceiling. (Following a convention of the period, a second stairway leads to the attic.)
The cottage is full of hideaways: multiple porches, a sitting room on the stair landing, a cozy gathering place by the raised stone hearth, a sleeping porch. New kitchen cupboardsbuilt un-square to imitate salvageare a contemporary Arts & Crafts mélange of old doors and new ones made to look old, diverse mouldings, and distressed finishes.
Throughout, modern materials are used to reproduce old conventions: interior mouldings are four-inch wooden strips run through a router to produce a period-accurate profile; beadboard is made from sheets of dimensionally stable medium density fiberboard (MDF).
Building new means, of course, that you can design for personal needs. The generous scale of the entry hall was determined by an enormous lithograph poster that dates to the turn of the last century. (The hallway’s color scheme, mint-green woodwork and yellow walls, also comes from the lithograph.) A wall in the living room was sized to accommodate Andy’s piano.
The kitchen “was meant to look like the era when kitchens were not designed as a whole unit. They were assembled from Hoosier cabinets, freestanding cupboards, and worktables,” says Andy. The cupboards’ Bakelite and wrought iron handles, latches, and hinges are all old hardware.
For the kitchen layout, Peggy sectioned the 23- by 19-foot space into two zones, with separate ovens and work areas for cooking and for baking. Countertops are fire slate, popular in high school chemistry labs because it’s heat-resistant, durable, and inexpensive.
“We didn’t want any rooms just for show, or so formal they’re used only twenty percent of the time,” Peggy says. Interiors are cozy, well-appointed, and, despite their artifice, devoid of preciousness or pretension. Visitors often don’t realize that they’re not in an authentic 1904 setting.
AS A TROMPE L’OEIL ARTIST, Andy had spent some 25 years on construction sites, and he’d hand-built an “artisan’s house” several years earlier. With this project, he became general contractorand founder of the Great Barrington Cottage Company. Peggy is the chief designer. Their custom-homes company projects have by now included an Adirondack fishing lodge and camp, an 1850s farmhouse (that uses no fossil fuels), a “green” New England Greek Revival, and the complete renovation of an old New England dairy barn, among others.
Andy maintains that, for functionality and compliance with current building codes, “it’s just easier to build new, using old materials to fool the eye” about the age of a house. “To reproduce a period cottage down to the last detail would be prohibitively expensive,” Andy continues. “You have to pick your details.”
The exterior of the Matlows’ house has stucco cladding on the ground floor with cedar clapboards above. A mere three rows of decorative wood shingling and a period skirting detail at the corners ensure that the house “reads old.” Sawn Balusters on both interior and exterior balconies, which are based on an example Andy found in the nearby Catskill Mountains, recall the chalet-style architecture popular in the Berkshires at the turn of the last century. The house is full of pieces from salvage yards and flea markets. “The advantage of incorporating favorite found objects,” Andy says, “is that these things all trigger design ideas.”
The Matlows unconventional building process did ensure that they were able to absorb creative design ideas all along the way. But most importantly, Andy says, “We didn’t have one argument during the whole process. Our rule was, whoever wanted something more got their way.”
Now there’s an inspired design idea.