(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY/AUGUST 2005)
IS IT THE LINENS snapping on the clothesline in the backyard? Or is it the old washboard that serves as a fountain? Maybe it's the school desk with its legs cut short that now doubles as a coffee table in the living room, or perhaps it's simply the timeless scent of sticky buns wafting in from the kitchen.
It's hard to pinpoint the exact elements in Kathy and Randy Marmino's southern Illinois farmhouse that create the unmistakable feeling that the busy modern world stops at the picket fence out front. The country style is so welcoming, so convincing, so effortless, that guests hardly realize how quickly they've slowed down—and warmed up to—a nearly bygone lifestyle where gathering eggs was a daily chore and mass-produced housing was in the distant future.
"All I want is a house that makes people feel joyful and comfortable," Kathy says with a smile. "By the time they leave, I really hope their spirits are lifted."
Updating the House
When the Marminos first visited the 1892 Victorian home nine years ago, they were in the midst of a years-long search for their ideal country home. Their hunt for a farmhouse had taken them to properties in three states, but Kathy wasn't house-hunting the day she stepped onto the porch of this property shaded by towering hardwoods in the town of Bethalto, outside St. Louis. The large home stood near Wood River, where Kathy and Randy grew up as next-door neighbors. But Kathy had never noticed the property until she called on a client there for the home health-care company she owns. When she arrived, she immediately was enamored with the five-acre farm, as well as its house, barn and sheds.
A conversation with the owners soon revealed the farm had been for sale for three years. "The sign fell down, and I guess they never bothered to put it back up," Kathy says. "I told them right then that I wanted to buy it, and we made an offer the next afternoon."
The deal went through, and the Marminos began updating a house stuck in a 1970s time warp, with gaudy flocked wallpaper, outdated shag carpeting and fussy chandeliers. They were anxious to remake almost everything about the house to match their image of country living. "This was never supposed to be an elegant place. It's a farmhouse," Kathy says matter-of-factly. "Farmers always make do with what they've got." She decided the renovation would be driven by nostalgic practicality, not pretentiousness.
The kitchen, the first room on the rehab agenda, presented an immediate chance to prove their loyalty to those ideas. Thinking like a practical farmer, Kathy looked at the $25,000 bid to replace the dark wood cabinets and reasoned, "They were perfectly good cherry cabinets, so it just didn't make sense to get new ones." So she painted them white, changed the hardware and inserted glass panels in the top-row doors. The price? About $2,000.
With shopping and decorating help from her daughter, Lisa Land, and sister-in-law, Cathy Zupan, Kathy added personality through colors and accessories. Kathy stuck to her vision of a "1950s farmhouse cottage look" and drew inspiration from childhood memories of experimenting with primary colors. She melded perky reds and blues with the wood tones of salvaged wide-plank floors. She strung up vintage aprons and tea towels in the windows, and hung honest old dishes over gingham wallpaper. And to infuse the room with down-home sensibility, she anchored one corner with a mammoth antique stove and installed rustic metal light fixtures throughout.
Gradually, the cozy, timeworn mood established in the kitchen spilled into other rooms, and the reigning rule of the house became "out with the old, in with the older," often down to the tiniest detail. With all of the old carpeting and wallpaper removed, and much of the red-white-and-vintage design scheme in full force, Kathy yearned for even more antique appeal.
She hired a contractor to help with the ambitious makeover of an upstairs bedroom formerly used as a furnace room. After the contractor removed the dropped ceiling and covered the walls in crudely cut slats, Kathy asked him to build faux dormers to replicate a real attic. "That guy thought I was crazy when I told him to cut the wood unevenly," Kathy says, laughing, "but it really does look older that way." She eventually used the look in other rooms, just as she kept challenging and amusing a stream of contractors.
Using Salvaged Materials and Antiques
Under her direction, the sunporch became a living room and the basement steps moved to make way for a pantry with a screen door. The front of the house sprouted a porch 25 feet wide, and the TV room morphed into a light-filled bathroom and hallway. With every transformation, Kathy insisted on using salvaged materials and authentic antiques, including weathered tin ceilings, old-time faucets and rustic light fixtures like those in the kitchen. She also held firmly to her red-and-white color palette, ensuring each area would flow seamlessly into the next. "If you stick with primary colors, everything's cheerful and it all works together," she says. "Just think of kindergarten!"
It's a simple rule, perfect for the pace the Marminos finally found when Kathy stepped into the yard of the big house outside of town and saw what it could be.
Most items in the house are antiques. Following are available resources.
DESIGNER Guy M. Land, Guy M. Land Designer Inc., 11803 Grant Rd., Cypress, Texas 77429 (281/655-8520; www.gmlanddesigner.com).
THROUGHOUT THE HOUSE
All rugs, wallpaper, paint and bedding. Ralph Lauren (888/475-7674; www.polo.com).
FURNITURE Sofa, Ottoman, Chair and Armoire. Expressions Custom Furniture (314/567-6200; www.expressionsfurniture.com).
DINING TABLE Lexington Home Brands (800/539-4636; www.lexington.com).
HAIRS (Under Candy Bar) Wal-Mart (800/925-6278; www.walmart.com).
SOFA Ralph Lauren (see Throughout the House).
FLOORING Stone and Rooster/Chicken Tile. Expo Design Center (800/350-1481;www.expo.com).
LIGHTING (Over Medicine Cabinet) Restoration Hardware (800/762-1005; www.restorationhardware.com).
VINTAGE LINOLEUM Country Meadows Antiques Mall, 401 E. Broadway, Alton, Illinois (618/465-1965).
MANTEL Warson Woods Antiques Gallery (314/909-0123; www.warsonwoods antiques.com).