Down on my hands and knees, I was building a little moat around a recently transplanted hydrangea. My hands molded and patted down the dirt, moving quickly to build up the weaker sides as the water rushed in. A sense memory also flooded in from the late 1950s, when I was 7 or 8 and my family spent the endless summer days at a Jersey Shore beach club with its requisite cabanas and Olympic-size pool.
Unlike my siblings, however, it was not the aquamarine pool that drew me in. The pool’s drainpipe sprouted from a retaining wall onto the beach, creating a small river rushing to the sea. Every day, an army of children, mostly boys, worked in packs to contain the water in a series of dams. This was my glorious obsession, packing the wet sand, creating a series of pools, and working quickly with the pack to contain any breaks. It was a grand scheme, and all its sensuous details rushed over me as I patted down the damp earth. The gap of 60 years did nothing to diminish the flashback.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a builder. Not the kind with nails and a hammer but a builder in my imagination. My favorite thing to draw as a child was a house; as I got older, the houses became more elaborate. There were cupolas on the roof, fanlights over the door, a sunroom off to the side, even a picket fence with multi-branched trees in the yard. I loved studying the endpapers of my books that featured illustrated maps of villages, showing the farms, schools and neighborhood houses often in granular detail. There was something about the perfection of a fictional place that entranced me, perhaps as a counterpoint to the fractured, messy family life that defined my childhood. I could transform the chaos into an idyll with just a pencil and piece of paper, creating the house of my dreams.
As a 20-something, I visited a college friend who’d recently had a baby and had settled into advanced-level nesting. She and her talented husband had gut-renovated a townhouse in a sketchy Brooklyn neighborhood. The open floor plan, the stylish furniture and modern look delighted me and I aspired to do the same. A few years later, married and with a baby of my own, my husband and I purchased a rundown farmhouse on the North Fork, our first real home. I immediately started making plans for improvements — a screened-in porch, an updated kitchen and a small addition for a guest room and bath. I tore pages out of shelter magazines, saving ideas for paint colors, mullioned windows and bead board ceilings. I bought overpriced books about farmhouse style and shabby chic design. I drove around and photographed other old farmhouses for inspiration. I was hooked.
That first farmhouse renovation did much to lower the intimidation factor for taking on construction projects, so naturally more followed. The bland ranch that was our next purchase was taken down to the studs to build a Cape with second-floor dormers, a wide waterside porch and subway-tiled bathrooms. I learned about incorporating landscape design to fit the house and setting, and discovered the practice of creating garden “rooms” using privet as living walls. House and garden tours — from Victorian confections to Bauhaus modern — became my favorite pastime. Visiting my daughters’ picturesque New England college towns, I snapped dozens of photos of vintage design details, capturing intricately latticed porches and decorative shingle patterns. My picture files overflowed with inspiration and ideas.
When I retired to Southold in 2013, I was undaunted by the real estate ads announcing, “handyman’s special.” Not only were these in my price range (the bottom) but I was loath to pay for someone else’s makeover. The house I eventually settled on was a hodgepodge of additions, mismatched windows and an uneven roofline. I bought it thinking it was a blank slate, a simple rectangle — in an excellent location. Immediately after the purchase, I made copies of the survey and began to draw. I divided the long narrow lot into three sections, imagining privet hedges creating the rooms — one for raised beds, another for a fire pit and the third encircling an ancient maple tree. I sketched the house, aligning the windows, devising a new roofline and adding a screened-in porch off the kitchen. I scoured Craigslist for building materials and scored some beautiful new windows, greatly discounted because of a contractor’s mismeasurement. Inside the house, I made sure the living room had plenty of bookshelves, lots of natural light, a big comfy couch and a wood stove (Craigslist, again) for cozy family gatherings. A year later, I moved into what once had been the neighborhood eyesore, now a reflection of my years of clip files, house tours and design books.
This tendency, almost a compulsion, to redesign houses is an active part of my daily life. Walking my dog, I have mentally “fixed” my neighbor’s houses — out-of-scale dormers are shrunk, blank windows are given mullions, vinyl gets replaced with board and batten siding. This auto-correct feature of my brain is as hard-wired as my ability to breathe. I can’t stop nor do I want to.
Soon after I met my future husband, I dreamt I was at a crossroads and no matter what direction I looked, all roads led to home. Now, 30 years later, I am no longer married but that dream of finding the way home is as strong as ever. My house, built with scavenged materials and inspired by tear sheets, is the home I built for myself and my daughters, a welcoming place for family and friends. There is no cupola but from its upstairs windows I can survey the neighborhood — the backyard fences, the vegetable patches, the red barns, the doctor’s office — just like the perfectly pictured village of my childhood storybooks.
After a lifetime of change, I am finally home.
The author, of Southold, is retired from a career in magazine publishing. She was creative director at Women’s Wear Daily and a longtime art director for the New York Observer.