Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today we visit the Stonington, Connecticut, home of Brian and Nicole Meadows. Three years ago, the house was in such bad shape that it brought Nicole to tears and she refused to let her children live in most of it. The story of how it became a happy family home in just four months is a testament to sheer remodeling grit.
Connecticut natives Brian and Nicole Meadows didn’t want this house the first time they saw it. Their distaste grew on subsequent visits. "The last time we looked before buying it, I walked out with tears in my eyes," says Nicole. But the charming neighborhood and landscape kept them coming back.
"We wanted to live in Stonington. It’s a beautiful region that’s close to the water and with a lot of cool history," Nicole says. "We chose this house because, even though it needed work, we recognized that our options were slim and that location was way more important than the house. For our children [three boys ranging from 10 to 6], the location was magical."
The house is within walking distance of Long Island Sound, on the edge of a salt water marsh. The interior was far less scenic.
The place had been used as a vacation home for many years and deferred maintenance had taken a toll. "After we purchased it, and everything had been removed, we realized we were in over our heads," Nicole says. The first clue was when, on the day they took possession, her foot broke through a rotted floor.
They were preparing to move right in, but changed their course on a dime. "All of us moved into the sunroom, which is our living room," she says. "We had a queen-size bed, bunk beds, and a cot. We put in an outdoor shower, because we couldn’t use the one in the house. I refused to use the kitchen, except for the refrigerator and, occasionally, the stove. We grilled outside a lot. Honestly, it was a lot like camping."
Perhaps there is no greater remodeling motivator than sharing a bedroom with your three kids (then 7-, 5-, and 3-years-old). The Meadows got right to work. "Normally, we would sit down with an architect before jumping in a project like this, but there was just no time," Nicole says. "We hired contractors job by job. Of course, everything took a lot longer than we thought, but by November, we were finished and ready to occupy the house."
At the beginning of the project, they removed walls to connect the kitchen and dining room. "We think the house was built in the 1950s, and over the years they would add rooms on as they needed them," says Nicole. "The house is around 1,000 square feet, so it’s small. Taking down some of the walls that divided the main rooms made it feel much more spacious."
New floors also improved the space ("When they went in, it was magical," says Nicole), but the patchwork nature of the house meant the floors had to be leveled before work could begin. "When the house was being added onto many years ago, they didn’t level the floors properly, and there were places where there was a 1⁄2 inch drop between doorways," says Nicole.
Fresh paint also gave the old space a new attitude. The dining room and kitchen were drywalled, and Nicole used a lime paint to cover the walls. "I love this mineral product, it’s very stucco-like," she says. "It goes on gritty, and kind of feels like you are painting with mud. But when it dries, it’s a beautiful finish that changes subtly as the moisture in the air changes."
Many of the paneled walls received a white coat of paint, but not the front entry, which acts like a gathering and hang-out space for the family. "At first, I really disliked the original knotty-pine paneling in this room, which we call the hub," says Nicole. "When we painted some of the other paneled rooms, they seemed lighter and brighter. But we were exhausted from the remodel and we never got around to painting the hub. After a while, I started getting used to it. It feels like a beloved friend who is wearing an old, dated dress. It may not be your style, but you love her and you come to love her outfit. Someday I may buy her a new dress, but not today."
The space’s character is enhanced by two surfboards that hang from the ceiling. "Everything about the house is purely practical," says Nicole. "This is the best spot for our surfboards, as they would get scratched and dinged in the garage. But, I like the way they look too. I also like the reminder to go and do something you love to do, even if you do have three kids."
The adjacent kitchen was gutted and rebuilt with an Ikea kitchen system. "We chose to use Ikea because of the speed factor," Nicole says. "They aren’t bad, and they come together quickly and easily. We personalized it with soapstone on the island and granite on the wall cabinets."
The soapstone reminds Nicole of the region. "Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve collected beach rocks, and the soapstone looks like a giant beach stone to me. Over the last three years, with three kids, it’s gotten a lot of nicks and marks—and it looks better that way!"
The sunroom, once the temporary bedroom, became the living room. The couple retained the existing floor here, painting it a dark color. "I love this room, because it’s filled with light, and the rest of the house can be a bit dark," says Nicole. The new addition is a wood stove, and during the winter, they keep a pot of fresh salt water simmering on top of it. When the water is boiled away, Nicole uses the remaining salt for cooking and in her line of natural skincare products called Ammophila.
The house is shaped like a capital E, and the three short legs house her skincare studio, the master bedroom, and the sunroom/living room. "The bedrooms are connected, which is fine right now when the kids are small, but we do want to add another to give them some privacy," she says.
But, while a plan to add more square footage is in the works, changing the nature and feel of the home isn’t on the table. "We want to add a bit more space to make it more usable, but we also want to keep the house the same," says Nicole.
And, although she admits there were challenging times in the early days, it was all worth it. "I think we’ll look back to the first months we lived in the house and the present where all the kids are sharing a room, and remember that as a sweet time."
Today, the family’s feeling about the house is gratitude. "We love where we live, we love being close to the water. It’s a bit like a summer camp," she says. "The place is just what we wanted for our kids; it’s beautiful and safe, but a little wild."