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Devil in the Details

November 2nd, 2011 by Beth Colt

What does “vintage” mean to you? And how do you renovate an old building without losing it’s soul?

The devil is in the details.

My goal in this renovation of the Woods Hole Inn is to dance on the fine line of “new-ish” — by which I mean modern, comfortable, functioning — without losing the soul.  As they tear out the horsehair plaster, am I robbing the building of something precious and irreplaceable?  Modernity (i.e. new bathrooms, electrical outlets that work without burning the place down and other small details like that) can not be achieved without some demolition.  But how much is enough?  And will next year’s guests appreciate it?

Honoring the small design details is important to me; check out this bulls eye door trim which I am fighting to keep upstairs.  Even an exact copy of this will never look the same as this original with it’s 20 coats of paint, each one a badge of honor in a long and useful life.

cape cod vacations, restoring old homes

Or how about this incredible floor in the front living room of the Inn.  People come into the inn, regularly, and ask me how I got this “effect”   …Ummm, let’s see.  Start with original growth hardwood, cut up on the hill right here and planed in a sawmill.  Paint it four or five times over the course of a century, walk on it a lot preferably with muddy quahog boots.  When you celebrate it’s 100th birthday, ask someone to sand it down but (this part is very important!) fire him about half way through the job.  Then, wait another 25 years, put one layer of polyurethane down, pour yourself a gin and tonic and enjoy.

These are the “vintage” parts of the inn that people come and admire. But not everything that I fight to save strikes a chord with guests.  Let me share a brief example with you.

I am a fan of old mirrors like the one in Room One (see below).   I very deliberately renovated around this, admiring the flowering mercury glass effect that is working it’s way up from the bottom.  For me, it is like a tangible reminder of many hot, sticky summer days where you throw yourself in the salt water for relief then come home for a nice cool shower before a dock-side dinner of ice-cold oysters, lobster claw drenched in salty butter, hot summer corn and hand-churned vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. This look only comes with years of exposure to salty ocean air.  It feels earned, like a stylish survivor.  When I look at myself in this aging mirror, I feel a bit like Glenn Close in Dangerous Liasons, like I have a period costume on and my day will surely be filled with love letters.

vintage restored

Look closely on the bottom of the mirror to see the mark of the ocean air on this vintage mirror cabinet.

But some guests disagree.  One recently wrote a review on TripAdvisor specifically calling this detail out as something that she did NOT value.  She is not the first!  Others have mentioned to me that they specifically did not like this feeling of age on this particular mirror.  And when I look at it in that light I think, what am I crazy!  Rip it out!  Who cares about my own likes and dislikes if it keeps guests happy.

And it doesn’t stop there.  The judgement calls, they come up every day.  Should we leave the old brick fireplace exposed or cover it up?  Can the wide-board floors be repaired, new wood inserted where the walls once were so that you will see the old layout, the bones of the building preserved?  Or will that look like we simply cut corners?  If the window trim can be saved, should it be at the expense of less insulation in the walls?  What is more “green” – saving the trim or making sure the building is more heat efficient?  Wow!  These are hard questions!!

There is a fine line between vintage and just old.  I was grappling with this today as I walked home and I passed these two guys outside the Marine Biological Labs (“MBL”) scrubbing rust out of 1970’s era radiators.  Another fellow stepped outside just as I walked by and said with disdain, “They gave it away.”  And one of the seated guys said incredulously, “Gave it away! Why would anyone do that?”  I don’t even know what “it” is, but I feel their pain.

"Why would anyone do that?"

Woods Hole is a thrifty, Yankee place where scrubbing out rusty radiators is preferable to buying new, where lathe is left in walls and mirrors with water-damage are cherished, where even in cutting edge scientific institutions it is not abnormal to see two guys huddled in the lea of a November north wind cursing the fool who didn’t see the value in an old piece of metal.

I strive to bring this spirit to the restoration of the Inn without losing the modern vibe.  The push pull of old vs new, the constant barrage of questions about what to keep and what to toss, the thrill of the new space and the sorrow as they cart off the old is at the core of why I love my job.  I just don’t want to hear “Why would anyone do that?” come April.

So….What do YOU think I should do about the mirror in Room One?

5 Responses to “Devil in the Details” Comments are currently closed.

  1. Try the tutorial here:
    http://www.ehow.com/how_6375646_make-mirror_s-glass-look-old.html
    Obviously you don’t want to take the entire back of it off, so you could try using a sponge to apply the chemicals round the edges for a more authentic look :)

  2. You could perhaps try purposefully making it look even older, by scraping off parts of the back of the mirror, and using paint stripper and muriatic acid?… It may make it look a little more intentionally old (I love the look of old mirrors!)

  3. dabodog says:

    As a business owner, I know that although you might get 99 compliments about your business, it will always be that ONE negative comment that people remember. Put the mirror where you see it, get a new one for the guests to primp in. :)

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