To all the world, the outbuilding next to a grand home in Rehoboth Beach looked like a humble garage. But the owners of the garage were driven by its potential, what the structure could become.
“We saw it as a cottage,” says Betty Carter. “A garage is nice. But at the beach it’s so much more fun to have a place where people can stay.”
That prospect was even more attractive for Carter and her husband, Al, because their son Scott and his young family owned the big house. By turning the garage into a cottage, they would create a multi-generational family compound, a place where the Carters could enjoy both the beach and their grandchildren.
The Carters already had preliminary plans from Blue Bungalow Designs, an architectural firm in Lewes. To propel the garage transformation forward, the family turned to Gary Munch of Boss Enterprises Inc. in Wilmington.
For inspiration, the couple turned to Nantucket, where cozy cottages clad in cedar shakes sprang up in whaling villages in the 18th century.
The Carters loved the classic look and casual feel of New England cottages covered in cedar and mahogany. Those natural materials also stand up to the elements in a seaside community in Delaware.
Inside the cottage, the couple retained the flavor of Nantucket. But instead of a series of snug rooms, the Carters opted for an open floor plan in the public area of the house, combining zones for seating, dining and cooking.
“We love buffets and casual entertaining in summer,” Carter says. “And in the winter, it’s fun to have people over to eat and watch a football game.”
Because the Carters couldn’t expand the footprint of the structure, they looked for ways to incorporate their lengthy wish list into a scant 1,500 square feet.
By building up, the contractor was able to coax a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath cottage out of the space.
Prioritizing was an essential part of the plan. By trimming the size of the bedrooms, the Carters were able to get two guestrooms instead of one.
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“After all, people don’t go to the beach to sit in a room,” Munch says. “It made much more sense to scale back in the guest rooms and devote that square footage to actual living space.”
To preserve open space in the first-floor gathering area, the builder installed custom cabinetry and casework instead of closets. (A single coat closet is tucked under the stairs.)
The electrical panel is artfully concealed behind a mirror that is stationed over a built-in cupboard.
“In a small space, you get creative,” Munch says. “Nobody wants to look at an electrical panel, yet you have to have one.”
Visual tricks make the space appear larger. On the first floor, ceilings are low, a hair over 7½ feet high. To fool the eye, both the walls and ceilings are clad in bead board. Because there is no break in materials, the ceilings appear higher. “It doesn’t look claustrophobic,” Carter says. “It looks cozy, and as if that’s the way it should have been all along.”
Floors are clad in teak, a wood that is dense, durable and resistant to moisture. “Sand comes in—and you sweep it up,” Munch says.
The center island that defines the kitchen is topped in zebrawood, an exotic species with a distinct, striped grain that ups the wow factor in the space. “The wood is gorgeous,” Carter says. “When you set out dishes on it, you get the feeling that it’s a fine piece of furniture.”
Carter is an enthusiastic cook and an accomplished hostess. Having the kitchen open to the living area allows her to enjoy both pursuits at the same time.
There isn’t a gas line to the cottage, so she opted for a smooth electric cooktop. She is delighted at how well it works. “It’s easy to adjust to, and I like that the burners cool off immediately,” she says. “The cooktop also is very easy to keep clean, and it has a bit of sheen to it, so it looks pretty next to the glass tiles on the backsplash.”
Carter thinks of the pulls on the Shaker-style cabinets as pieces of art. Each is forged in the shape of a seahorse. “Each one is different, not at all like something that was stamped out in a factory,” she says.
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Two sets of French doors connect the main living space with an enclosed front porch. When the doors are open, the areas function together as a large, single space.
The Carters were intent on having a porch that allowed them to enjoy summer breezes. Yet they didn’t want to give up that square footage during the colder months.
The solution? It’s all in the windows. In winter, the storm windows go in, making the space snug on a chilly night. In summer, screen windows are the order of the day.
Wood columns between the windows are accented with elegant alabaster sconces that cast warm amber light. Because alabaster is natural, each piece is bestowed with unique characteristics. “When you turn on the lights, you can see that each sconce is a little different,” Carter says. “It’s never the same.”
With a keen eye for detail, Carter devoted a lot of time and energy to researching and shopping for unique furnishings and materials.
In the sumptuous master bath, Carter chose blue glass accent tiles that shimmer like the sea. She spent hours at the showroom, looking for just the right sheen, texture and design. “It’s very therapeutic, looking at tiles,” she says. “The process is so much more pleasant if you look at it as an outing rather than a chore.”
Throughout the house, seating is soft and inviting. Carter chose a fabric in a print reminiscent of coral to cover an inviting pair of chairs. She repeated the print on accent cushions on the sofa.
Carter discovered the large antique mirror with a mahogany frame at the top of the stairs at a local antiques shop. She flanked the mirror with sconces with alabaster shades that accent the brown tones of the wood.
“Anyone can go to a store and order furniture,” Carter says. “I love the way everything blends together—antiques, something you see at a store and fall in love with, a piece that you have had for years and have always loved.”
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Outdoors, the Carters are establishing a small garden where she will grow herbs and vegetables for the kitchen.
“I know my grandchildren will love watching those tomato plants and squash growing,” she said. “A cottage with a little garden is such a happy place.”
GET THE LOOK
- Go natural. Materials provided by Mother Nature—from teak floors to alabaster sconces—introduce unique patterns and a feeling of timelessness.
- Embrace smart space planning. In a vacation home, devote square footage to gathering areas and the rooms where people spend their waking moments. Minimize sleeping quarters and seldom-used areas.
- Enjoy the seasons. The Carters maximized an enclosed porch by outfitting the windows with screens in summer and storm windows in winter.
- Devise creative cover-ups for systems such as fuse boxes. In the Carter home, an electrical panel is disguised with a hinged mirror.
- Borrow from the best. Revisit styles that remain fresh and inviting century in and century out, such as the cottages of Nantucket, which have weathered both the sea and shifting tides of architectural fashion.