Before & After: A Ramshackle Little House Gets a Second Life

1. Homeowners Walt and Roberta Purcell relax on their new back stoop, which faces the adjacent Italiante house.

Roberta and Walt Purcell first laid eyes on this Petersburg, Virginia, cottage while visiting our their Greg and daughter-in-law Marion, who live 2 hours north and bought the adjacent, larger house as a vacation getaway--and potential retirement spot. In doing so, they'd also taken on this little fixer-upper that sat on the half-acre property-known as a "kitchen house," it once served as the summer kitchen and servants' quarters. With just four rooms, it seemed like it could be a cozy home for the couple. Eventually.

In May 2006, they moved into the main house, taking on the renovation.

See this whole house before and after at

2. Before: Abandoned After a Fire

The house wasn't much to look at, really. Abandoned for 20 years after a fire, the windows and doors were missing, charred, or boarded up. There were no floors downstairs, and the water-damaged plaster was crumbling. Squirrels ran in and out, and birds nested in the claw-foot tub. Yet there was a certain charm to the place. The old brick, dating from the 1850s, had wonderful color, the window lintels were solid granite, and the upstairs had heart-pine floors.

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3. After: Opening Doors

The back doorway, once bricked over, now leads to well-tended gardens.

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4. After: Master Suite Miracle

It turns out that a new home was just the kind of change-and challenge-Walt and Roberta needed. They decided to take on the smaller house exclusively, with its four original fireplaces, and beamed ceilings upstairs. With Walt's background as a master plumber and all-around handyman, plus Roberta's passion for design, they knew they could make it livable.

With only four rooms, there wasn't an inch to waste on mistakes, so they consulted with an architect.

Shown: Milk-painted pine planks fill the gaps between the newly exposed ceiling beams and complement the new pine floors.

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5. Before: Bedroom Fireplace

The bedroom's original wood fireplace had been converted to a coal stove and was mostly walled up.

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6. After: Mantel Makeover

The newly refurbished but nonworking fireplace is the room's new focal point. The fresh green paint on the bedroom's original wood mantel brings out the russet tones of the old brick surround.

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7. After: Powering Up the Kitchen

The house had only rudimentary plumbing and no electricity when they began. And to ensure that no one ever separated the two houses in the future, the city said they needed to run gas, plumbing, and other utility lines from the main house to the cottage.

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8. Before: Kitchen

The original kitchen had no flooring, utilities, decent walls, or cabinetry. The windows were rotted, the fireplace was a disaster, and crumbling, water-damaged plaster covered much of the brick.

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9. After: Custom Cabinets

In the kitchen, originally they were going install stock cabinets and just use fillers to fit them into the awkward space. But a local appliance store referred them to great custom cabinetmakers who could make Shaker-style birch cabinetry-with undercabinet lights-to fit their vision.

For the windows, they contacted a well-known local craftsman. He made replacements for our four most damaged frames and sashes, but refused to do any more, saying they could repair the rest. So Walt carefully replaced damaged pieces until the 160-year-old windows worked like new.

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