A Home For Healing
David Krempels’ journey of renovation and recovery
Photographed by Rob Karosis The front room features Mary's favorite favorite painting, Placing the Ladder, which shows a strong woman getting out of trouble.
Life can change in an instant.
In 1992, David Krempels was a successful building contractor. His days were busy with planning, negotiating, and directing projects. He was engaged in sports, his church, and his community, and he was newly married. Life was good. One June day when David and his wife had just embarked on their honeymoon, a tractor trailer barreled into their car. His wife was killed and David was left fighting to overcome a traumatic brain injury. The road to recovery would be long. For two years, he tried to get his old life back, but this was not to be. The “old David” was gone. In time, with the aid of family, friends, and therapists, he realized that a new David could rise from the wreckage.
Part of David’s fresh start was physically relocating his life. By 1997, he was ready to start over in a new town and had been looking at properties in York, Rye, and New Castle. He happened to see a listing for an old house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s South End and, out of curiosity, drove by to look at it. One glance told him that this was the house he sought. Without even seeing the inside, he had his lawyer make an offer.
Portsmouth’s South End is a rabbit warren of narrow streets and homes dating from the 1700s. David’s new home dated from 1793 and, despite its age, was structurally sound. However, some internal renovations were needed.
“One of the first changes we made was to open up the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room to let more light in,” David says. “We also replaced one narrow window in the kitchen with a triple-mullioned window that greatly increased the amount of light available and provided great views of the backyard. A back porch was also added, which lets us enjoy the yard even more.”
The home’s historic roots are immediately apparent. The pine floors, original to the house except in the kitchen, are burnished to a golden yellow. Individual boards upstairs measure an impressive eight to 18.5 inches across. A massive central chimney feeds five working fireplaces, once critical to heating the home. Narrow stairways run from the kitchen and main hall to the bedrooms.
While David loved these features, he did not want the house to look like a museum. “This wasn’t about restoration,” he says. “I love the bones of this old house and its many historic features, such as the crown molding, but I also love contemporary art and furnishings. I needed the house to be a blend of the two.”
David reached out to Diane Hart of Kittery Point, Maine, for help with the interior design.
“David was a special client,” Hart says. “I knew how important it was to create a healthy and healing environment for him. I wanted David’s home to be a place where he would find peace.”
From the beginning, the redesign was a collaborative effort. “David is someone who is willing to be stretched,” she says. “He knows what he likes and doesn’t like, but he is willing to try new things. And we were both on the same page about respecting the home’s history, yet blending in new ideas. The entire house is about the juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and unexpected.”
After the renovation was complete, David’s life took another turn when he met a lovely woman named Mary at a dinner at the Exeter Inn. They were smitten and married in December of 2001.
David and Mary love to entertain, and the comfortable segue from kitchen to dining room makes that easy. A wall of windows dominates the kitchen along with a large gas stove, which David’s housekeeper “dusted” in his bachelor days. “I didn’t cook.” he says, laughing. “But Mary loves to!”
The couple also shares a love of art, and even utilitarian objects have artistic merit. Mary’s spice rack, with its L-shaped cubbies, creates a three-dimensional pattern on the wall, while metal dividers beneath the glass top of the Italian table offer a similar geometric image. Neutral-colored walls form the perfect backdrop for their artwork. On one side of the sink, an impressionistic painting of the original Memorial Bridge adds a splash of color, while the other side features a sewn metal sculpture—a tribute to victims of 9/11, called Flight of the Departed by Kim Wintje of Farmington, New Hampshire. In the center of the room, a vivid red-and-blue Oriental rug offers a counterpoint to Bonney Goldstein’s painting, Sunset, with its bold swipes of cherry red, turquoise, and green that draw the gaze to a nearby wall.
The dining room is perhaps the most surprising room in the house with its unexpected bright olive-green walls and mix of contemporary and traditional furnishings. Here, an antique wooden schoolhouse table is paired with upholstered office furniture. A stunning French sideboard graces one corner, and everywhere there is incredible art. On one wall is a painting reminiscent of the Great Depression, showing working-class men waiting in a line. The painting, Joe, Charlie, Fred & Joe & Joe... by Jayne Adams of Alton, New Hampshire, has special meaning for David, who remembers meeting strong, proud men like these in lumberyards. On another wall is an abstract featuring a block of yellow, a block of black, and a circle. Called Sun Salutation, the painting by Kim Bernard is a favorite of both David and Mary. In fact, the circle motif is repeated throughout the house in other art and fixtures. Most intriguing is the juxtaposition of a modern piece of three-dimensional art above the colonial fireplace. The two-toned mixed media block called Georgraphy by Noriko Sakanishi looks like two puzzle pieces or building blocks. Offsetting the colorful artwork are cream linen curtains hanging from custom-made wrought iron curtain rods designed by Hart, who wanted their sinuous lines to “break up” the geometry of the art, and fashioned by Portsmouth blacksmith Peter Hapney.
The kitchen also flows into the TV room where comfort is key. Soft yellow walls echo the gold of the pine floors and coordinate with the plush gray sofa and side chairs. A half-wall separates this room from the kitchen and holds space for the television and bookshelves. In contrast to the cozy chairs is the coffee table, a modern blend of wood and metal that sits on rolling casters. Its industrial feel gives a pop of interest to the room. Mary’s favorite painting, Placing the Ladder by Robert Shetterly of Brooksville, Maine, makes a statement on the main wall. It depicts a woman balanced on a ladder just above a wedge-shaped container of water. “To me, this painting is about a strong woman who is pulling herself out of hot water,” she says. “She’s brave, and she’s been in trouble, but she will overcome.”
In contrast, the living room is quietly elegant with dark gray walls and striking white trim that highlights the room’s original dentil molding and white fireplace mantel. A white sofa and silver side chair in a modern style continue the understated theme. The rug picks up the gray tones and continues the circle motif found in the dining room. Punches of color come from the sofa pillows and more artwork. Above the mantle is another Bonney Goldstein piece, an oil painting of sunset in the marshes. On another wall is Home, a painting of three white houses by David E. Gordon of Greenfield Center, New York; this is a nod to David’s career as a builder and was commissioned by Mary and David after seeing other paintings by the artist.
“This is one of my favorite rooms,” David says. “It’s wonderful to sit by the fire and read. When I put my hand on the mantel, I can’t help but think of the generations of families who sat by this same fireplace, lived here, died here, and were born in this house. It is a privilege to be living here now, carrying on that tradition.”
Upstairs, the master bedroom echoes the soft gray and white palette of the living room. A French sleigh bed conveys a traditional look yet is new. A rustic wooden table and wooden chest counterbalance the elegance of the bed. Numerous windows let in light, and the cool white curtains add to the airy, peaceful feel.
Although the home’s design was completed, save for minor tweaks, in 1997, the look endures, remaining contemporary and exciting despite the passage of time. “I think it is because David chose good quality and chose with great care,” Hart says. “Quality lasts, and David took great pains to make sure this home was furnished well. It has been the perfect place for him and Mary to enjoy life together.”
Rebuilding Lives: Krempels Center
While David Krempels worked on his house, he thought about others with traumatic brain injuries. He understood the challenge to retrain the brain, to find a reason to keep going. Using the money he received from a jury award after the accident, he was determined to help individuals living with injured brains.
David called together friends, family, therapists, and medical personnel who had worked with him on his journey of recovery. Together, they developed the vision for Krempels Center in Portsmouth. Initially, the center’s main goal was to help people receive emergency funding for food, rent, and car payments so they could survive while healing. Over time they realized that there was a greater need for programming that continued to support people through the recovery process.
“A brain injury requires therapy for the long haul,” David says. “The brain has amazing capacity for repair, but progress does not come all at once. This is why programs like ours are so important, yet they are few and far between. At Krempels Center, we offer classes that help members relearn judgment and decision-making skills, improve memory, improve speech, and hone motor skills. But they also make friends and have fun. There is a lot of laughter.”
Krempels Center collaborates with the University of New Hampshire, Tufts, the University of Maine, Boston University, and several other colleges. Interns from these schools who are specializing in occupational therapy, social work, family studies, and psychology offer programs that feature art, music, culture, physical activities, and vocational activities. In one year, as many as 100 members may utilize the center and more than 200 community and student volunteers may donate their time.
“It is also our mission to share our message about the impact of brain injury and steps toward prevention,” David says. “Brain injury is life changing, but it need not be life ending. Our motto is: ‘You are not who you were. Be who you are!’ You can still find a path to a good life.”