A 1949 Michigan Cottage Gets a Fresh and Fabulous Look
In the early '70s, Chris Bentley's mom dropped a hint ahead of her birthday: It sure would be nice to upgrade our island cottage. Maybe get something the family could use every day? The morning came, and her husband proudly unveiled a 221/2-foot sailboat, perfect for plying Lake Huron. "What she really wanted was a washing machine," Chris deadpans.
Eventually she got her laundry upgrade—and also a new cottage, a 1949 ranch on the mainland in the Les Cheneaux region of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. (She never did learn to drive a boat.) She added a bedroom to it, but when Chris and his wife, Wendy Wurtzburger, took over care of the property in 2010, they saw potential for more: more lake views, more natural light, more access to their wildflower meadow and the dock beyond.
The couple brainstormed a renovation that brought in "as much nature as possible," says Wendy, a stylist, designer and lifestyle retailer. To gain space, they enclosed a porch. After that, it was all about erasing boundaries between in and out. They ditched the cramped kitchen with a driveway view for a new one in back, facing the water. Walls came down to form a great room lined with French doors leading to a new deck. Windows went in almost anywhere they fit.
Then Wendy and Chris started to gently rock the boat. "Everybody has these stone fireplaces, and Chris had the idea to paint it white," Wendy says. She pauses a beat. "Which people don't do up here." They also whitewashed most of the knotty pine paneling and painted floors gray. Their goal wasn't to erase character but to brighten the shell that would hold all their treasures.
"We are hopeless collectors, and we inherited the cottage from Chris' mother, who was quite a collector herself," says Wendy. Duck decoys, vintage floral frogs, pottery, work by artist friends and textiles snagged on international buying trips for work are all intuitively jumbled together in what she calls a "not decorated" way.
"If there is a theme for this house, it's nature," she says. "Up here, it's farm-to-table, not at all fancy, and at night you just gather at different people's houses and look up at the stars." In the Before Times, that is. During the pandemic, the couple's two grown sons and members of their "pod" are their primary visitors. Chris and Wendy are taking advantage of the lull in activity to add a guest cottage in the meadow—and crossing their fingers it will be filled soon.
The couple's boathouse sits at the end of a mowed walkway through a wildflower meadow. "That path is one of my favorite things about the cottage," Wendy says. "We're lucky to have it."
Enclosed boathouses are a hallmark of the region, Chris says, thanks to the area's proliferation of wooden boats that needed to be out of the elements. That tradition continues: Today, the Les Cheneaux Islands boast the largest fleet of wooden Ensign sailing boats in the country. (Snow Goose, Chris' dad's birthday purchase for his mom in the '70s, helped kick it off.)
Wendy and Chris take a spin of the neighborhood in their Boston Whaler. It's the first thing they do with houseguests. "Visitors are a novelty for people up here," Wendy says. "New faces and all that."
Vases overflow with June blooms from a meadow cultivated by the cottage's builder—wild lupines, goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace and crown vetch, bolstered with lilies, peonies, lilacs and ferns. "It's gone rampantly feral all over the place," Chris says.
Wendy describes herself as a "brave mixer," with no allegiance to a style or era. To wit: An antique boat hatch passed down from Chris' family in Maine tops the coffee table. Under it: a Moroccan rug.
Carrara marble countertops and sleek hardware work as a team to offset the more humble finishes on the kitchen cabinets and floors. The antler chandelier is original to the home. "We tried to tie in things we love about up there, because why wouldn't we?" Wendy says.
The couple chose relatively inexpensive slabfront cabinetry, then stained it to mimic the weathered boat docks outside. "It was economical," Wendy says, "as well as a good idea to tie it all back."
Removing a wall created a 35-foot great room. Five sets of French doors open to a new deck, letting in natural light and a lake breeze scented with lilac and balsam fir.
Wendy credits her husband for the dining room's lighting—a modern counterbalance to chippy, mismatched chairs. When older pieces in her 1949 cottage needed sprucing up, Wendy just hit them with Krylon's cover-anything spray paint. Her palette strategy? "I just picked a pretty color."
The "flora and fauna" guest room gets its name from an array of mounted antlers (all found secondhand and hung in a group for impact) and a headboard-replacing series of floral paintings by Marjorie Liebman, Wendy's aunt. In all, six canvases march across the wall.
In the guest room, a small inlaid chest serves as a nightstand. It's part of Wendy's first furniture collection for the design firm she founded, Roar + Rabbit, available through West Elm.
"We didn't need to reinvent everything," Wendy says. They opted to embrace the primary bedroom's knotty pine ceiling and play off it by reupholstering an armchair in orange. A svelte iron canopy bed adds a bit of attitude.
"We're appreciators of everything: found things and new things," Wendy says. The seascape above the bed came from the attic. Paired with bright tie-dye bedding, it's fresh all over again.
Putting view first, Wendy installed white muslin curtains in all the bedrooms. They visually melt away when open.
No-fear color is one of Wendy's favorite moves for making old things new and exciting. Benjamin Moore's Viking Yellow decks the cottage's exterior doors—both in front and here in back, for consistency.
Rugs—many in number and eclectic in style and color— protect the painted floor from chipping. Ten years on (and a handful of dogs later), it's still in good shape.
In order to preserve the sight line of the bay through the French doors, the deck has no railings. Wide steps lead to the lawn and firepit, where Wendy and Chris often recover from a day of summer kayaking or hiking.
See a resources guide to this home here.
Local Tips: Visiting Les Cheneaux
About five hours north of Detroit, these relatively undiscovered islands drip off the Upper Peninsula into Lake Huron.
TRUE BLUES All summer long, you can walk through wildflowers, forests and out to a dramatic shoreline (visit lcitrails.org for maps), but in late July, wild blueberries ripen. Wendy and Chris say any local will happily point you to a fruitful spot.
LAKE TO TABLE Students at Les Cheneaux Culinary School tap area farmers and fishers to craft organic, sustainable meals, like fresh walleye in beurre blanc. Patio seating with a lake view is coveted, so reserve your spot online at least a week in advance.
NORTHERN EXPOSURE At this latitude, chillier temps keep boating season short—a boon for preserving antique wooden vessels. During an August festival you can see more than 100 of them (some a century-plus old), as well as a bonus arts fest on shore.
FRESH CATCH Head to The Narley Whale Fish Market in Cedarville to pick up fresh or smoked whitefish, "the specialty we all live on up here," Chris says. While there, grab a growler of local craft beer or a few bottles of Michigan cool-climate wine.