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The Little House that Could

Source: Martha Stewart Living, August 1994


Robins have built a nest in the rafters of Stephen Earle's new porch, as though it had always been there and the birds had just never noticed it before. Upstairs, inside Earle's 100-year-old East Hampton, New York, house, friends being given the tour can't find the new parts in the master bedroom or bath. In fact, the master bedroom and bath are both new. Down in the kitchen, Earle sits comfortably at his new kitchen table, his back to a wainscoted wall that looks old and proud with fresh white paint and is, yes, new.

An affable Midwesterner, Stephen Earle makes hard things sound easy. So he's taught himself to remind people that ripping apart a house and putting it back together again -- with a second-story addition, a new front porch, two fireplaces, and a new central staircase, as well as moldings, doors, windows, and hardware that seem more authentic than the originals -- is actually very hard. But obviously, from where he sits, not impossible. And Earle, a set stylist and interior designer, is always quicker to explain how he did it than how difficult it was.

"If you love it, you find a way," Earle says. In 1993, he found a house he loved on a visit to Amagansett, Long Island. He saw the For Sale sign as he was leaving town. It was a small cottage in the big-ticket village of East Hampton.

"My heart just stopped -- I pulled up and peeked in all the windows. It was the house of my dreams." Originally part of a farm owned by the Mulfords, one of East Hampton's founding families, the house had history. It also held the possibility of something personal for Earle. "I knew what I wanted it to feel like," he says. "My grandmother's house in Michigan. I knew I wasn't going to 'find' that."

So Earle determined to build it, confident that he had found a house that would meet him halfway. He called his older brother, Robert, a businessman, who came with engineers to see the house. The small cottage needed big work: a new boiler, a new roof. But the fact that it needed work turned out to be the little house's biggest asset. It made it cheaper to buy, and Stephen was able to design what he wanted from scratch, instead of pulling down what was there.

 Robert Earle shares what he's learned about taking on a big renovation project.

1. "Define the scope," Earle says. "Are you doing one room, two rooms, what?" Although the Earles' project grew, it did so in the design phase. "Changing your mind midstream is expensive."

2. "Know what your budget is -- and tell your contractors, 'This is what I'm going to spend,'" Earle advises. "Add-ons are often as expensive as the bid."

3. "Stop once in a while and have fun," he says. "There's a fine line of keeping the momentum going and not burning yourself out. You can't work all the time."

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