Innocents Abroad: Falling in Love with a Fixer Upper
Photographs by Dana Gallagher
From the moment they first saw Columbia County, Australians Sacha Dunn and Edmund Levine were hooked. “It was like a fairy tale to us,” says Sacha, who, like her husband, works in New York as a stylist and set decorator for magazines, print ads, and television commercials. “We’d been visiting friends in Greene County, which we found too built up,” she says. Then they drove across the bridge. “We really loved how the buildings are in the towns, and the countryside and farms are left alone—all green hills, country roads, and red barns. The countryside in Australia isn’t at all like that. We couldn’t help ourselves.”
The couple, whose primary residence is a cramped apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, soon bundled their son Max, now 4, into the car and started their search. “We wanted a little house in a pretty spot, somewhere we could sit in front of the fire,” Sacha recalls, “with a big enough kitchen so we could really cook.” Their first surprise: “Old houses are almost always right on the road.”
They finally found a 2-bedroom cottage in Hillsdale on a deadend dirt road with virtually no traffic. Never mind that the floor of one of the rooms was also dirt or that the only fireplace was a leaky woodburning stove, or that there was no actual kitchen, as such. These are hands-on people, whose life’s work is to make things look fabulous—and fast. They took the plunge.
Two contractors and a second pregnancy later, “We were running behind,” Sacha explains, “so Edmund bought a tablesaw and asked the carpenter to show him how it works. He ended up doing all the trimwork himself. It never would have been finished if he hadn’t.”
Now the family, including daughter, Sadie, 1, spend as much time as possible at the house, which, despite its original
shortcomings, has turned out to be everything they’d hoped. A shed across the back now houses the kitchen, where on weekends they play with the fabulous, fresh ingredients they pick up at Guido’s and nearby Sir William Farm. In winter, when they are there, the entire structure is heated with a Vermont Castings stove that Edmund keeps fed with firewood culled from their own property.
“He found a book, The Backyard Lumberjack,” Sacha says, “that showed him how to chop wood and stack wood.”
And the fact that the house is right on the road? “It turned out to be great because now we don’t have to shovel that much snow.”
The couple used every trick of their trade to furnish the house inexpensively. They found the blue cupboard on Craig’s List; the kitchen chairs, a classic Eames design, were $20 each at a Brooklyn stoop sale.
Max keeps busy in the country. He and his Dad, one of this world’s great autodidacts, tapped maple trees on their property this fall to make syrup.
The original, uninsulated stovepipe went through the living room floor and up through the room that is now Max and Sadie’s, creating a serious hazard. The new, insulated pipe exits the house right behind the woodburning stove and runs up the exterior, where it adds a jaunty touch to the look of the cottage.
To maximize the illusion of light-and-airy spaciousness in the 850-square-foot house, the couple stuck to a white-and-palest-pastel color scheme throughout.