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Cottage in Historic Middletown, RI

Cottage in Historic Middletown, RI
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It falls quietly, here in this gentle clearing, snow as downy as a feather. Brushing up against the shingled cottage, settling onto the last husks of summer’s hydrangeas, dusting over a scattering of fallen headstones just at the edge of the lawn. The oldest stone is broken, half-buried: 1649. Back then, Rhode Island was brand-new.

The house is glowing like a lantern. Angles tilt here and there, coltish and leggy: a cozy dormer; long, sloping rooflines; a snow-trimmed deck. Step inside, though, and it’s less like a lantern and more like a snow globe turned inside out. We’re standing within it, glass all around, and outside the snow is whispering, piling up. This is a place to settle down in, to plant some roots.

They spotted the property while living in Valencia, Spain. “It had everything we wanted,” says Maaike (pronounced mica) Bernstrom, a photographer and Nutmeg State native who’d met her husband, Erik, a New York-born, London-raised Swede, when he was driving a water taxi in Stonington, Connecticut.

“He literally picked me up one day,” she smiles. “That was 12 years ago,” and a lifetime of moving: Rhode Island, Hawaii, California, and eventually Spain, where Erik was project manager at Future Fibres, a high-tech yacht-rigging company. (He’s now a product manager with Hall Spars & Rigging.)

Some relationships are meant to be. “Years ago, when Erik and I were still living in Newport, we’d drive around Middletown and dream,” Maaike recalls. “There was a house down at the end of this road, and it was way beyond what we could ever afford, but we’d say, ‘Someday, someday.’

“Sure enough, while we were living in Spain, we were looking online one day, and Erik said, ‘I can’t figure out exactly where this house is …’ We were getting ready to move back, and I came home before he did. I called him and said, ‘Erik, you’re never going to believe this–it’s on that road, that road we once saw … and that would be a dream come true.”

Well, sort of. Nestled deep in historic Middletown, down a tree-arched lane, the house was a stone’s skip from the wilderness of the 450-acre Norman Bird Sanctuary, a slightly longer toss to Second Beach’s curling surf (Erik’s passion), and only minutes from the bustle of Newport.

There was, however, the small matter of the house itself. A 1982 contemporary, it was completely at odds with the historic area, not to mention the ancient graveyard in one corner of the property. (When the house was first built, the land was so overgrown that no one even knew it was there.) “The house was too modern for me,” Maaike says. “But the location was just so fantastic,” Erik adds. “I knew that with the right amount of work, it could turn into something.”

They moved back to the States and hoisted their sledgehammers. “We didn’t know whether it was going to be possible when we were talking to the builder and the architect,” Erik remembers. “Basically what we said to them was: ‘We’ve got a 1980s house that we want to transform into a country-living shingled cottage, and we’re not sure whether we’re going to get there, but that’s the direction.'”

So how to start bringing those separate worlds together? “The first thing we thought about was how to make this house disappear within the lot, the way the stone wall does,” Maaike explains. The solution: Camouflage the exterior with a sheath of untreated red-cedar shingles that will gradually weather to a silvery gray, blending the house with the landscape. That in turn helped “take the contemporary edge away and make the sharp lines much softer.”

On the inside, the couple wanted more light and space, a challenge if they were to stay within the original footprint. They gutted most of the interior themselves, ripping out dark wood paneling and chipping away at the endless expanse of Mexican floor tiles, leaving the terra-cotta squares in the dining room only. “I love this tile,” Maaike says. “I just didn’t like it in the whole house–it was so cold to walk around on.”

With everything extraneous cleared away, Maaike and Erik began sculpting the interior. First, more light. “We added or replaced 52 windows,” Erik laughs. “That was probably our biggest expense.” Now, with light pouring in from every direction, they went in search of extra square footage–and found some spectacular underused space.

Standing in the vaulted kitchen, gleaming dark-gray granite countertops refracting light from the overhead skylights, Maaike observes, “This is probably my favorite room. One of the things I think we did most successfully was maximizing the space that was here–just opening it up.” What was formerly a dark kitchen and separate laundry room combined to create a large, airy space with an island and views to the backyard.

Plus, Maaike insisted on no upper cupboards to get in the way: “I don’t like kitchen cabinets–I love to be able to look out.” Clutter is relegated to the kitchen pantry, hidden behind an ingenious sliding barn door, the handiwork of local award-winning woodworker Jeff Soderbergh.

Updated Wednesday, December 14th, 2011
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