A Redone Ranch House is Finally Ready for its Close-Up
Two years ago, Jack Thomasson, producer of the TV show “Blog Cabin” on the DIY Network asked Millbrook architect James Crisp to come up with a plan to transform a dreary 1970s ranch house, left, that happened to be in a wonderful location (overlooking the Bethel Arts Center on the very land in Sullivan County where the Woodstock Festival took place in August 1969), into something fresh, gracious and up-to-date. Ever since construction began, it’s progress has been tracked in small segments on the DIY blog, and it also has been filmed and edited into a six-episode television series. The first episode premieres this Thurday, August 19. At the conclusion of the last episode, the deed and keys to the house will be handed over to a lucky winner of a drawing that anyone can join, as long as they don’t work for any of the companies involved in the project. (To enter on or after August 19, visit the DIY Website.) In other words, here is a chance to own a James Crisp-designed house for free. (Too bad it’s not in the Rural Intelligence region.) Rural Intelligence spoke to James Crisp about his involvement in the project.
RI: Why did they ask you, a Millbrook architect well-known for doing stylish, upscale work, to tackle this dreary 1970s ranch?
JC: The producer, Jack Thomasson, travels all over the country scouting. Driving through this region once, he had seen my sign, and stopped. He came inside and picked up a brochure. Then, six months later, he came back and said, “We’re looking at a property across the river.” He took me over to look at it and asked, “Do you think we can make something out of this?” And I said, “Of course.”
RI: What exactly did the producers ask you to do?
JC: They didn’t really give me specific directions; they trusted me to come up with the ideas. They just asked me to take this dark, low, uninteresting house, and give it some life—some big spaces, some curb appeal—make it a place that someone would find really exciting and fun, and to do it on a reasonable budget.
They introduced me to Sullivan County builder Chuck Petersheim, and he and I bounced ideas back and forth. A few were too elaborate for the project, so we settled on this.
RI: On the DIY blog, where the whole design and building process was covered as it was happening, I notice that readers were given a voice in which finishes would be used—which tiles and kitchen cabinets, for example. Was there ever a moment when you said to yourself, uh-oh?
JC: We picked out the windows, controlled the floor plan, the kitchen and bathroom layouts, the roof planes. We were also consulted on roofing materials, windows, garage doors. For finishes, yes, the blog readers got to pick from a range presented to them by the producers. But fairly consistently, the people chose nice things. Like any job, there might be one color I would prefer over another, but none of the finishes were objectionable.
RI: So how do you solve what’s fundamentally wrong with a house like this?
JC: The problem with ranches is they tend to look like doublewides. We needed something to break up that long, low roofline. So we raised the roof of the center portion, which allowed us to gain some ceiling height in the living room. We then raised the ceiling up to the underside of the rafters. We changed the entrance, relocated the fireplace to an interior wall. Originally, it had been on an exterior wall, where it blocked the view.
RI: And what about inside? The show won’t permit us to show interiors, but can you tell us how you might typically upgrade the interior of a house of this sort?
JC: With ranches, you tend to get an overabundance of sheetrock inside. What’s lacking is detail. So on another project unrelated to the show (shown here), we made some very simple changes that made a huge difference in this living room: we added some very simple paneling, an applied grid, to the fireplace wall, and put in some built-in shelving. But the biggest difference was even less expensive: we painted the wood ceiling white. We also upgraded the fire surround with slate and changed the lighting. And that’s it: we made no architectural changes at all, yet it looks completely different.
RI: No wonder the Blog Cabin producer chose you. Can you show us some other houses you’ve transformed?
JC: This is a house built into a hill, so the back was very damp. The first thing we did was to dig around the house and waterproof it properly. Then we gutted both floors and changed the traffic flow. Before, you parked on the lower level, then climbed up to enter the house on the upper floor, where the living room and the bedrooms were. Meanwhile, the kitchen was downstairs. We flipped everything around, moving the kitchen upstairs to be near the living room. We left the master bedroom up there, but moved all the other bedrooms downstairs, where we added an entryway/mudroom. Parking is still at the lower level; but now when it rains, you don’t have to go so far to get to the front door. We opened up the whole place by installing much bigger windows, and, in the living room, took the ceiling full-height to just beneath the rafters. Without exceeding the original footprint, we made a big difference. By keeping the bedrooms small, we got a big space where it matters most, in the living room.
RI: Do you ever think, maybe we should just tear it down, as they are so quick to do in Los Angeles?
JC: Yankees are too thrifty for that. For example, the owners of this house had some old growth plantings and improvements they had made that they wanted to keep—beautiful stonework in back, a patio and some walls, that, had we bulldozed the house, would have been lost. The original one-story house was faced with painted brick, which we removed. Then we took the roof off, reinforced the ceiling joists, and added a second story. In a brickyard in the Bronx, I found 200-year-old brick, which we used to reface the exterior. Thanks to those old bricks, plus the period mortar joints, and the limestone lintels we put over the windows, the house looks as if it has been there forever.