Remodeling or building a home can place major strains on a marriage.
Just ask Cameron Cooke of Ethic LLC, a contractor who specializes in designing, building and remodeling homes. For seven years before starting his company, he was a marriage counselor.
“It’s all in the communication. That’s the key to success,” says Cooke of both construction projects and personal relationships.
Those counseling skills came in particularly handy when Cooke and his wife, Mollie, bought a house in the Elizabeth neighborhood in February 2011 with the notion of remodeling it for themselves.
The finished product will be on display during the annual Elizabeth Home & Garden Tour Oct. 12-13.
The couple agreed from the beginning that the 1,325-square-foot house, built in 1918, would be perfect for them and any future family members who came along. Mollie Cooke gives her husband credit for having a good eye for “structures with good bones,” which the house had. Long occupied by the son of the original owner, it was run-down and needed major renovations.
The Cookes saw the potential and weren’t put off. “We’re not intimidated by having to do a lot of work,” Mollie says.
Bigger and better
The couple worked with space designer Jennifer Bingham for the first few months after they acquired the property, to develop plans not only to meet their needs but also to keep the character of the house and its historic neighborhood. Remodeling began in August 2011.
From the curb the house now looks the same as when new: The inviting front porch with rockers and swing. The blue-gray color with white trim. The original steep-pitched roof.
Inside, however, most of the first floor was gutted. Cameron Cooke and his crew pushed back and up: A master suite was added onto the back and a second story set on top of it, more than doubling the heated space to 3,250 square feet. The house now boasts four bedrooms and three baths, a designated office and a bonus room. The kitchen and pantry got a complete overhaul.
The idea was to make the house look and feel as if it were always configured the way it is now. For instance, the porch off the kitchen was enclosed into a mudroom and resurfaced with brick.
Other floors – oak in the front part of the house, heart pine in the back – were refinished. The original transoms were oiled and put into working order. With ship-lap siding, the master bedroom looks not like new construction but an enclosed porch.
While the Ethic LLC crew wielded hammers, Mollie Cooke got to work on finding furnishings and accessories to re-create the vibe of 1918 Elizabeth while maintaining 21st-century function. With the help of her designer friend Katie Hoffman, Mollie chose soft, neutral tones and sorted through consignment shops, yard sales and flea markets for period-friendly items.
“We wanted to keep costs down, so these hunts were partially budget-driven,” Mollie explains, “but I really do love eclectic, old things, anything with character.” She estimates 95 percent of the furnishings and ornamentation came from secondhand sources or were made from repurposed materials.
A prime example is the Cookes’ dining table, crafted from boards salvaged off the back of the house during the expansion.
Because the Cookes wanted architectural details to remain consistent, they decided to find 14 six-panel doors like the original doors already in the house. “Finding salvaged six-panel doors was probably the biggest challenge we had during this project,” Cameron admits. “Of course we could have had doors custom-made, but that would have been much more expensive, and we wanted them to look like they belonged here, from that era.”
Their search took them up and down the East Coast, with the last door acquired from a friend who took it from his own workshop, where it was used as a horizontal workspace. “That door had an anvil still attached to it,” Cameron recalls.
Other details attest to the Cookes’ commitment to keeping the character of the house. For the front door, Mollie Googled “doorbells, 1918” and eventually found an authentic, twist-activated bell from a picker’s website.
Into the bathrooms went vanities found at secondhand stores rather than standard cabinets from showrooms. On the kitchen wall is a panel of pressed tin in a distressed wooden frame found at Cline’s Antiques near Mount Pleasant, N.C.
“I don’t mind if things have a few dings in them,” says Mollie.
Splurging on a tub
For all their cost and “green” consciousness, some new things still found their way into the Cookes’ home. The ceiling fan in the living room, while new, is a 100-year-old design. The kitchen appliances and farm-style sink are new. And the big clawfoot tub in the master bath was a splurge to accommodate its tall owner. “Some things you just have to buy,” Cameron says.
The remodeling project took nine months, not a particularly long time considering that “paying customers always got priority,” explains Mollie, who helps in her husband’s business as often as she can.
The couple moved into the house in May 2012. Both agree they’re “extremely delighted with the result,” and that regardless of the occasional stress they might have experienced, the project was a labor of love.
And yes, in that same vein, the Cooke’s three-year marriage survived the process not only intact, but stronger than ever. Along the way, the couple had a baby boy, Web, now 4 months old.
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