Fit For a White Picket Fence

After closing the deal on a narrow woodlot on Northport Bay, Jim and Donna Chapman would drive to their new property, take a seat on a stump and marvel at the view of the water through the trees.

But they also spent time studying the heirloom cottages in the village neighborhoods. They admired the vintage details, such as shake siding, picket fences and sleeping porches, and appreciated how the well-built structures seemed almost rooted in their sites.

So when it came time to build on their property, the Chapmans were determined to fit in with both the natural environment and the neighborhood. Simply put, they wanted their new place to look old. Now they’re pleased when visitors say their three-year-old house looks like it’s been lived in a long time.

"The nicest compliment we’ve gotten is when someone asked what part of the house was the addition and what was original," Jim says.

Although they built and lived in several houses downstate, the Chapmans depended on professionals to fine-tune their many ideas for this house. Residential designer Jerry Baumann suggested a shed roof over the front entrance to give the impression the house has evolved over time. Cedar-shake siding and clustered double-hung windows contribute to the timeless feel, while the one-story profile and woodsy colors – chestnut brown for the siding, white for trim, and mottled green for the asphalt shingles – add Up North character. The final stroke, a white picket fence, completes the cottage mood.

Inside, to mimic a quintessential summer cottage, this year-round house uses mostly wood surfaces. Some of the walls have painted beadboard, but most are covered in wide, horizontal pine planks lightly washed with white stain and capped with equally broad dark-stained trim. The floors are varnished pine for a warm, old-fashioned look, and if the soft wood suffers a few dents, all the better.

Space is precious on the main level, and the Chapmans decided not to spend it on closets. Guests’ coats hang on pegs in the study; linens wait in an antique cabinet in the bathroom and a chifforobe in the master bedroom; clothes hide in a modest hallway walk-in.Donna, who loves to cook and entertain, wanted to save room for a big kitchen. She planned the oversized island with a scrumptious butternut countertop and deep drawers that make up for cabinets "lost" to a quartet of windows above the sink. From stainless steel to farmhouse green to faux cobblestone, the kitchen has more surfaces and colors than Donna can count on two hands. But like a good soup, the disparate ingredients blend into a delectable whole.

The big kitchen flows into the dining area, which flows into the small living room, in an open floor plan that is hardly traditional. Still, this open space bears no comparison to a prototypical cathedral-ceilinged great room. Here, Baumann and interior designer Dan Kilgore deliberately defined the area with furnishings and architectural elements including ceiling beams, a strategically placed column wired to accommodate mid-room lighting, and separate sets of French doors. One pair of doors leads to a screened porch and another to a lakeside deck.

The Chapman’s original blueprint included a second-story "bunkhouse" for their pack of nine grandkids. But the didn’t want their new home to tower over the neighborhood bungalows–and they wanted to save money–so they went to Plan B, as in basement. Initially the couple planned to leave the basement unfinished with room for Jim’s woodship and an eventual family room. Instead, they had their builder divide the space into three bedrooms, a large family/game room, storage closets and a work area.

Although they sometimes fill it to the rafters with family, the Chapmans say their house ended up just the right size. Without a second floor, the house is in scale–with the neighboring properties, with its narrow lot and with the couple’s empty-nest lifestyle.

The home’s harmony belies the accident that occurred during its construction. Jim, a retired junior high shop teacher, was planning to do much of the work on the house himself. But his plans came crashing down when he fell 18 feet from the upper deck. It was a miracle he wasn’t paralyzed, and his back has not fully recovered.

Yet there is an upside, the Chapmans joke: this house is actually done! Jim admits that if the work had been left to him, he would have puttered along for years, just as he did on their previous homes.

More important, the Chapmans say, Jim’s accident drew them into the Northport community. Near strangers helped work on the house and offered Jim accessible housing when he couldn’t stay on his boat during construction as planned. The kindness of their neighbors was overwhelming, but it proved to the Chapmans that they do, indeed, fit in.

Janet Lively writes and teaches in Traverse [email protected]

Note: This article was first published in May 2007 and was updated for the web February 2008.

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