Into The Woods We Go
I would sooner live in a cottage and wonder at everything than live in a palace and wonder at nothing.
– Jean Winmill Brown
Just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, lying deep in the woods on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, stands a charming old brown shingle cottage. A previous owner tried to make it into something it’s not by installing contemporary windows, angled sheetrock ceilings, trim less passageways, and a modern fireplace surround. Despite the changes to its character, the cottage still had good bones, a beautiful garden, and the presence of gentle deer that roamed the surrounding hillside.
My treasured friends, Bob and Pat, who loved the wooded mountain and deer, saw the potential of the cottage and bought it in 1986. The cottage shines year-round but particularly in the fall and holiday season. This past weekend Pat and I decorated the 1927 cottage for the holidays.
Today the almost century old cottage more closely reflects its original essence but with a few unexpected touches. Many years after the couple moved in, they asked me to help them transform it into a more authentic 1920’s cottage feeling. I was honored to help but there were challenges.
Should we replace the contemporary angled windows on either side of the fireplace? And what do we do with the modern sheetrock fireplace surround that encloses the old firebox at the floor then angles up to a faux chimney at the top? And what about the stark pitched sheetrock ceiling in the living room? And how do we change the passageways between the dining room and entry into the living room? They are also encased with sheetrock without trim, creating a slick feeling unfitting for a quaint old cottage?
First, we installed 6” wide bead board on the ceilings in the entry, living room and dining room. Then we found a big rustic beam to put at the peak of the living room ceiling. From it, we hung a stunning antler chandelier Pat had kept in the garage for years. Then we found a smaller beam to attach as a lintel above the passageway between the dining room and living room. We framed the sides of the passageway from the living room into the entry with 6” wide molding then installed a 12” high pediment above with a small crown molding topping it. The wood trim and pediment were painted white.
The angled windows on either side of the fireplace did not project the right feeling but they did let ample light into the cottage. The skylight in the ceiling did the same. So we left all three openings as they were.
The modern shaped fireplace which was built around the cottage’s original firebox was the biggest challenge. It was constructed of sheetrock from top to bottom with no mantel or ornamentation giving it a modern look. To change the feeling, we first plastered the surround in a pale apricot color to soften the hard angles of the structure. Then we added a wood mantel encircling the firebox. To create a more traditional feeling, we placed a fat crown molding on top of the faux chimney. Pat wanted to paint the mantel red. We used the same orangey red to paint the crown molding on top. The final touch – four rusty metal stars Pat found were added just below the mantel.
As is fitting for a cottage in the woods, we decorated the mantel, coffee table, dining table and buffet with branches, flowers and berries from nature. There’s a great flower stand near Bob and Pat’s home that has an unusual selection. For the mantel, we started with a cedar garland, tree ferns, heather, and eucalyptus pods. Then we added nandina, pyracantha, and holly from Pat’s front yard. And for an unexpected touch, we placed a few pink, red and gold Banksia flowers which grow in Australia on the mantel, then garnished the whole arrangement with white tallow berries.
We embellished the coffee table with a bowl of brilliant persimmons and oranges combined with deer antlers Pat found in the yard. A tall elegant silver vase holds a burst of mistletoe from the local woods. And of course, fat colorful candles stand centerstage to make the room glow.
The arrangement on the dining table has a foundation of nandina with dianthus (fluffy lime green carnations), and orange and yellow protea from South Africa, which added an unpredictable element to the holiday centerpiece.
Bob and Pat’s two children, who live in Texas and Southern California, are coming home with their partners for Christmas. Pat wanted the cottage they grew up in to look its best, so we selected items from nature that were long lasting. All that is lacking is a Christmas tree which Pat will fill with meaningful time-worn ornaments.
I hope this story has been helpful to any of you who have an old cottage that needs some TLC. Everything we did to this home was cosmetic, nothing was structural, so the cost of changing the feeling of the cottage was very reasonable. After 31 years of living in the cottage, Bob and Pat and their family and friends still love spending time in such an enchanting place.
In terms of the decorations, once again nature is the best for adding color, texture, contrast and pattern to your home this Holiday Season. And it’s all biodegradable and does not harm the earth. Consider decorating with some natural garlands, branches, berries and flowers in honor of the nature that surrounds us and makes life beautiful. Even if you don’t live in the woods.