The Bungalow Life
Downsizing means big changes to a small home
Designer Amy Dutton says living in a small home has its advantages. “When a house is little you can think about every square inch,” she says. “When it’s big, you just can’t.”
That is certainly true for her renovated Portsmouth, New Hampshire, bungalow, where she designed details ranging from drawers that tuck neatly into small steps, to a narrow, floor-to-ceiling wall of shelves housing her vase collection, to the special stories behind certain paintings and furniture.
Dutton describes her house, where she has lived with her family for five years, as “a poor man’s bungalow. It didn’t have any nice woodwork or anything” when they moved in, she says. “It was very closed off. You walked in and it was very dark—we opened it all up.” She got rid of a chimney, a boxed-in hallway, and a petite front bedroom that now serves as an office.
Despite the lack of original features, Dutton respected the history of her new home. “I was trying to stay as close to the bones of the house as possible,” she says. “That was really important to me.” All the wood throughout the house is reclaimed, as is a stately staircase that begins near the entry of the house. Dutton purchased most of the wood now found in the house from Old House Parts in Kennebunk, Maine; the stairs were originally in a house in York, Maine. “I like reclaimed features,” Dutton says, and to that end she left in place stains and dents that reveal something about the stairway’s origins.
Bungalows in Portsmouth ringed the edge of the city at the beginning of the twentieth century, says Richard Candee, the author of Building Portsmouth: The Neighborhoods and Architecture of New Hampshire’s Oldest City. “Bungalows are pretty standard throughout the country,” he says. Candee is an expert on historic preservation and president of the Portsmouth Historical Society’s board of directors. “Companies [such as Sears] either made them up and sold them as kits, or sold plan books to local lumber yards.” He estimates dozens of bungalows still stand throughout Portsmouth.
In Dutton’s 1910 bungalow, some of the home’s most striking features are in the kitchen, though it was not part of the original renovation plan. She was in Ireland when her husband called to ask what kind of floors she wanted for the kitchen. The builder had mistakenly taken the room down to the studs. “I guess we’re doing the kitchen,” Dutton told her husband, commercial real estate broker Brooks Murphy. Faced with an extra, unbudgeted renovation, the homeowners got creative.
“I wanted to show people that if you don’t have a ton of money, you can still have a kitchen that’s nice and clean and a little different,” Dutton says. She had contractor Moe Houde of Cape Neddick, Maine, install plywood floors, which she hand painted with a swirling pattern. She continues to paint them, changing the design every six months or so. The glass-fronted, wood cabinets, painted light avocado green, are from Ikea and Lowe’s. The island, a former nun’s table from Europe, previously existed as a narrow table in their former home; it was put on casters to raise it to the appropriate height. “I don’t know if it’s going to stay—like everything I do,” she says. Doors salvaged from a Boston office open upon narrow shelves—an adaptive reuse of the shelving in the master bedroom’s barely functional closet.
Across from a door leading to the basement, Dutton put in narrow white shelves to house her glass collection. Although she knew she had to downsize when she packed for the move to the bungalow (her previous house measured 3,400 square feet), she was not willing to part with the vases. Instead, she thought about where they could go. Some extra space along a door-sized wall at the top of the basement steps turned out to be the answer. “I think of it as an art wall,” says Dutton, who uses and rearranges the vases regularly.
One small feature of the kitchen ties into another project Dutton has in the works: glass knobs on the cabinets are from Hope Murphy, an artist Dutton will be featuring at Juniper River Home Design, her new Kittery, Maine, showroom. “The showroom is representing artisans who make things for the home, with a furniture designer, fabricator, glass designer, and lighting designer,” Dutton says. “It will be set up like a house, with a lot of unique and original products. Everything can be customized. I see us as the only showroom north of Boston.” Dutton renovated the house that has become her showroom in the Kittery Foreside area around six years ago. “It’s a sweet little area,” she says. “A lot of the businesses there believe in that community, and we are one of them.”
Leading from Dutton’s kitchen—and accessible from the driveway—is the home’s mudroom, a space added a year after the main renovation and exemplifying Dutton’s careful approach. “Everything is really thought out,” she says. Small doors inside the steps keep miscellanea such as takeout menus. One eight-foot-high closet houses coats and includes shelves inside. Within the tight space of the mudroom are also a desk, pantry, and more storage, plus a dog bed. Numerous pegs make room for hats and coats. Several works of art once done by her children—now ages 12, 15, and 19—hang framed on one wall. An elegant bathroom located off the mudroom also hides a laundry room, where eight-foot doors create access to high shelves inside. In the mudroom, Dutton decided to line the ceiling with fir bead board. “I love fir because it’s so warm,” she says. An existing cutout from the kitchen into the mudroom was kept, allowing the homeowners to look at their backyard while cooking or washing dishes.
A door from the mudroom opens into that backyard, which Dutton created with the help of Steve Hale of York, Maine-based Hale’s Landscaping. “He’s like a fine artist with a backhoe,” Dutton says. The grade was raised three feet and the extensive hardscaping in the yard was brought from a property in Cape Neddick, Maine. “We have some land out here and we picked the rocks right out of the woods,” Hale says. “They have the moss and lichen on them—it gives them a weathered look, like they’ve been in their yard 100 years.” Hale says Dutton had a rough sketch with ideas in mind, including an outdoor fire pit and space for a table. “She had a basic design, and as the job progressed we were able to change things,” he says. “You have to work with the stone and do what it tells you.”
One outdoor challenge was the lot’s size: it is less than one-fifth of an acre, with square-shaped plots in the front and back. “The hard part was the amount of material that had to be brought in to such a small space,” Hale says. Dutton also wanted some sort of privacy screen, but given the small space, evergreens were not really an option. Instead, Hale used clumping bamboo, placing plastic three feet below ground so that the often-invasive plant would not be able to spread.
The pergola and patio make the space out back feel like another room to them, Dutton says. “We wanted to create a private oasis. When we want to be social we sit out on the front porch.”
Upstairs, where the former two-bedroom bungalow was once an attic, Dutton added a dormer in back, resulting in a full family room with couches and a flat-screened television. “It’s super functional square footage,” she says. On the home’s right side is her college-aged son’s room, where a built-in cupboard and yards of shelving add storage space to the compact room. The front of the house contains her older daughter’s bedroom, with light gray walls and a large window seat looking out onto the street. “This is a great bedroom because to me it is history—this is the original dormer,” she says. “It used to be a little closet inside the attic.”
Even a decorator can be outmaneuvered by her own children, though, as was the case with their bedroom wall colors, which Dutton did not pick. In her youngest daughter’s room, on the left side of the house, the walls are lime green. “She really, really wanted this color, which I hate,” she says with a laugh. “It’s hard to decorate for your own children.”
Downstairs, Dutton has partially finished the basement to maximize space, bringing the home’s size to 2,300 square feet. “We repoured the floor, insulated, and put in a sump pump and a gas heater,” she says. “It’s a good way to show people how to get some usable space subgrade.”
Décor throughout the house mixes old and new: reclaimed and antique, pieces from family, and even a painting that came by way of her hairdresser. “I wanted things to feel old but I also really, really like contemporary,” Dutton says. To that end, and because of the home’s compactness, she looked to stores such as West Elm and Crate & Barrel for smaller-sized couches and tables. An old hutch set in a corner of the open-concept first floor was her mother’s. Dutton says people often have trouble letting go of items they have inherited, but she has a pragmatic attitude toward it. “My mother passed away when I was 30,” she says. “I thought she didn’t live in [the furniture], so I let go of a lot of things.” Another treasure she kept is a pew from the church in Berkeley, California, where her parents were married. It now serves as additional kitchen table seating. Rich wall colors, such as a cobalt blue in the downstairs bath and mustard on the home’s front wall, help bring the space to life.
The painting from Dutton’s hairdresser depicts Portsmouth’s Memorial Bridge, now demolished, by artist Don Lent of Exeter, New Hampshire. After Dutton had described to her that an awkward wall remained after a chimney was removed, her hairdresser knew the perfect painting to hang there and brought it over. “It represents bridging our lives from Maine to New Hampshire,” Dutton says. “We used to walk over the bridge all the time.” The painting is now Murphy’s and her favorite artwork in the house.
From a one-story, two-bedroom bungalow built more than a century ago, Dutton has created a home for her family of five and their dog. “We lived in the house while we were constructing it, and that was a bonding family experience,” she says. If her family members need even more time to bond, the remodeling of the first-floor master bedroom still awaits them!