By Anne McCarthy Strauss | Photos by Dwayne Freeman
A stone cottage with a front door made of tree trunks and a portal for a window? It may sound like the forest dwelling shared by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it’s actually the home of Lou and Denise Tortorelli in suburban Sound Beach, New York. The 900-square-foot house, located 65 miles east of Manhattan, was built by hand in 1931 by a New York state trooper who got the land when the New York Sun offered small plots in a then-remote area of Long Island to anyone signing up for a subscription. From first glance, the home’s whimsical nature appealed to Denise’s artistic side. “I think our house looks like something out of a fairy tale,” she says.
As a young married couple on Long Island, where real-estate prices are relatively high, Lou and Denise had accepted the fact that their first home would be a small one. “I was okay with a small house,” Denise explains. “I never imagined we would find something so incredibly unique with the sort of stone exterior I’d only seen on larger homes in elegant, affluent neighborhoods.” Adding to the home’s unique appeal is its one-of-a-kind log door, which had originally come from a clipper ship. Framed by oak trees, the door’s unusual design required creative restoration work, including heavy insulating with adhesive foam.
The charming stone exterior also needed some work. “Some of the stones had fallen off, others were cracked, and all of them were in dire need of cleaning,” explains Lou. The couple wanted to restore the luster of the stones—a combination of granite, feldspar, basalt, felsite, and pumice, a variety that gives the house a unique multi-toned, multi-textured exterior—without deflecting from their rustic, natural appearance. Cleaning the stones required careful power washing and hands-on scrubbing with nylon brushes. Denise and Lou avoided using harsh chemicals or extensive force, which could loosen or damage the stones, and they paid special attention to the original “luck brick” near the front door, a symbol of good fortune traditionally built into stone cottages.
The thorough cleaning made the stones’ colors pop in a palette of pretty pastels. Lou and Denise wanted to keep this natural look, so they opted not to have the exterior of their home coated with sealant, fearing it would appear artificial.
The next outdoor project was cleaning up the well-house and its now-sealed well (originally a source of water for the entire town of Sound Beach) in the front yard. Denise and Lou repaired the well-house’s rotted roof and made it a usable space by adding a picnic table nearby and filling the lawn around it with perennial plantings. The resulting landscape is inviting, and ensures that the couple will be surrounded by colorful bursts of nature when dining alfresco.
An Inside Job
Inside the house, visitors are greeted by a great room with wide plank floors, a massive stone fireplace, and a plaster ceiling with oak trees used as beams. Here, Lou and Denise have sought to bring the home into the 21st century while retaining its unique features.
The fireplace, a focal point of the great room, is made from a selection of stones from the home’s exterior. Lou and Denise cleaned it with a specially formulated no-rinse soap that leaves a light, protective film while enhancing the luster of individual stones. Again, they opted to avoid sanding or staining to maintain the same earthy appearance as the home’s façade.
Other projects beckoned, both overhead and underfoot, as both the ceiling and flooring needed work. The plaster ceiling, held together with an unusual mesh of chicken wire, was spackled and painted to remove staining that had occurred over the years. The couple also reinforced the decorative oak-branch beams, and secured or replaced the more traditional wooden ones. The wide-plank maple floors were sanded and coated with polyurethane to enhance their sheen.
“We opted to keep the existing wood paneling on the walls,” says Denise. “With a great room interior composed of wood and stone, paneling seemed the most appropriate option.” The couple scrubbed the walls repeatedly, and were pleased with the glowing hue that emerged. “As we worked, the home began to look less dismal and to show the distinct potential we’d envisioned,” says Denise.
The great room was reconfigured to include two distinct living spaces. Denise designed a full dining room area that accommodates a breakfront and a table for six. The living room, centered by the spectacular stone fireplace, became home to a full-sized couch, loveseat, and a mother-of-pearl coffee table that’s been in Denise’s family for generations.
“We used furniture that would compliment the décor and brighten it up,” says Lou. “Finding the right furnishings turned out to be less of a challenge than getting them into the house.” Maneuvering pieces around the knots in the door jamb proved particularly difficult.
To separate the eat-in kitchen from the living and dining areas, the couple built an open-arched wall. “The original kitchen had sparse, dark cabinetry with a gigantic slop sink,” Denise explains. “It was quaint but impractical, with very little storage space and virtually no surface on which to prepare food.” The couple’s kitchen renovation project included covering a window and adding cabinets, a granite countertop, a tiled backsplash, and new appliances. Denise chose cream-colored cabinets and tiles to brighten the room.
“We’re fortunate to have a number of craftsmen among our family and friends who worked with us on projects,” Lou says. One relative installed the kitchen cabinets, another installed a new lighting fixture, and Denise painted and decorated. On a small budget, they transformed the kitchen into a bright, cheerful eatery.
In the bedroom, Denise’s father built an unobtrusive closet that wouldn’t interfere with the old-fashioned look the couple sought to maintain. Lou and Denise added lighting fixtures with dimmers, painted the walls a soft cream color, and furnished and decorated until the formerly dank room was transformed into an inviting boudoir with a whimsical feel, in tune with the rest of the house.
With storage space at a premium, the couple installed several additional small closets and incorporated a series of beautifully crafted trunks throughout the house for both added storage and decoration.
Home Sweet Home
Denise, a true Renaissance woman whose avocations include music, writing, painting, and dance, makes a living as a marketing manager, but stays true to her creative nature by playing electric bass in a local rock band on weekends.
“Living in such a special—almost enchanted—house enhances my creative spirit because I’m surrounded by such whimsical beauty,” says Denise. “I would never find the kind of inspiration I’ve found here in a more traditional house.”Published in: Old-House Journal April/May 2010