dwin Albers bought a weary 1930s lakefront cottage in Rehoboth Beach for its stunning view of the water.
That isn’t unusual in a community where the ground a home sits on frequently exceeds the value of the structure.
But in transforming the cottage from a ramshackle getaway to a polished retreat, Albers took a novel approach. He decided he would renovate the house rather than tear it down.
“It had a lot of potential,” he says. “The house just needed to be reorganized to improve the flow.”
His respectful restoration changed his view on life, as well.
In 2000, Albers was inundated with requests for design advice after his house was the hit of the cottage tour for the Rehoboth Art League, a must-do event for aficionados of architecture and decorating.
That inspired the one-time executive of an engineering firm to move to the beach year-round and launch a design firm with Michael Cusumano, his partner in business and life.
Design Center of Rehoboth, also known as DCOR, is a themed resource for furnishings, flooring, art, accessories, lighting and landscaping, as well as guidance on how to incorporate those elements into a home.
When it came to updating his own house, Albers factored in such elements as ceiling height, natural light and the views outdoors in allocating space.
Though the three-bedroom, three-bath house gained only 200 square feet from its original 2,300 square feet, the property lives large because the floor plan is so open.
“Have you ever noticed how closed in a house feels when there are a lot of hallways and a bunch of choppy little rooms?” Albers says. “Here you can stand in the dining area at the front of the house and see clear through to the back garden. It’s the same amount of space, but it feels much larger.”
An expansive living room is decorated in antiques and traditional furniture in a masculine, subtly nautical palette of blue, tan and white. The room is anchored by a fireplace with crisp, white moldings, flanked by a pair of built-in bookcases.
“Symmetry is ever pleasing to the eye,” Albers says. “It establishes an immediate sense of harmony.”
A quartet of big wicker chairs with deep cushions extends that vibe, defining a casual lounge at the back of the house, where there is easy access to the wet bar in an adjoining butler’s pantry.
“I wanted large, overstuffed chairs where people can relax,” Albers says. “The wicker keeps it from looking too formal.”
The lounge also offers views of a shaded garden lush with mature magnolia and cypress trees, the space formerly occupied by a dining room.
In reconfiguring the house, Albers moved the eating area to the front in order to take full advantage of the spectacular vistas of the water. The long, farmhouse-style table easily seats 12, and is open to the kitchen. Because the house is set high, the choicest views are from the vantage point of a person who is sitting, which made it an ideal site for dining.
“When you stand in a room, it’s different than when you sit in a room,” he says. “You need to take that into account when you are deciding where to put furniture.”
French doors opening to a front porch are dressed smartly in crisp white curtains topped with three bands of navy in ascending widths: 1 inch, 2 inches and 3 inches. “Simple cotton duck cloth, something to wave in the breeze when the doors are open,” he says.
The old kitchen has been supplanted by a laundry room and large pantry that also can function as an auxiliary kitchen. A former marketing executive, Cusumano is a gifted cook. He and Albers worked together to install specialized storage for his array of pots, pans and small appliances.
“We are both very handy and enjoyed figuring out ways to make things work efficiently,” Cusumano says.
Ceilings are an important part of the urban mix on the first floor. In the lounge, a subtle grid provides the aura of a coffered ceiling. Albers also appreciates beadboard ceilings because they conjure images of classic porches and Nantucket cottages.
In the kitchen, he gave the material a sophisticated checkerboard twist, installing beadboard in alternating squares with the slats running in opposite directions.
Clean-lined white cabinets contrast with deep, taupe walls and the sparkle of stainless steel appliances and bin pulls. An island provides seating, as well as additional prep space.
“It’s compact but doesn’t look like it because of the open floor plan,” Cusumano notes. “And it works wonderfully.”
Upstairs, Albers designed a master suite, as well as rooms for guests and his two children. He created both drama and additional space in the master bedroom by raising the ceiling to the roofline and integrating storage under the eaves.
“I like the angles,” Cusumano says. “It really adds to the coziness.”
Outdoors, Albers maximized the views with an intimate, second-floor deck, where he and friends can watch geese glide on the lake. The distinctive spiral on the wood railing is a modified spider web.
In a guestroom, he retained open built-in shelving installed in the 1950s, a casual place for friends and relatives to stow their gear for a few days.
“It’s great when people come to visit,” Albers says. “They can just toss their things in there and grab them whenever they want.”
Retaining the solid, functional and attractive shelving is typical of the partners’ approach to design. The way they see it, an integral part of the process is deciding what elements of a house to keep, what to discard and what to modify.
“Ed is a purist, with a total understanding of architecture, and I’m very visual,” Cusumano says. “Neither one of us believes in doing away with things that are beautiful and useful.”
Although it wasn’t beautiful yet, Albers decided a garage built from a 1930s kit from Sears was worth preserving. Now the space is a glamorous poolside guesthouse, as well as a study in design tricks that make the space both efficient and good looking.
On the first story, floors are paved in large porcelain tiles that look like terra cotta, set on the diagonal to visually expand the rooms. The countertops in the bar area are no-fuss laminate. Their luxe look is inspired by earthy color, a gold-tinged brown reminiscent of stone.
Overhead, the garage’s original rafters were left exposed, reinterpreted as rustic ceiling beams. Slipcovered seating flanks a gas fireplace. “It’s a great place to come, even when there aren’t guests,” Cusumano says. “It’s pleasant to sit by the fire and share a glass of wine.”
The exterior of both the main house and guesthouse are typified by cottage details. The posts on decks and fences are capped with copper. The house is painted a sunny yellow.
Wooden gates that might have been transported from a New England garden create a sense of welcome, ushering visitors up the path to the house and setting the tone for the relaxed elegance inside.
“You should feel good even before you walk into a house,” Albers says. “It makes you happy to be home.”
Get the look
For a sense of visual harmony, think symmetry. Ed Albers infused the living room with architectural balance by flanking a fireplace with matching bookcases.
Create a feeling of continuity by reinterpreting materials throughout the house. Beadboard and moldings are a recurring theme in the Silver Lake cottage.
When renovating an older home, research the architectural style, then choose elements that fit the period of the house, such as wood floors and traditional furniture. Combine those elements with modern amenities, including an updated kitchen.
Counter earth-tone paint colors with crisp, white trim to highlight the woodwork, wainscoting and moldings.
A dark stain on hardwood floors also provides a striking contrast to white woodwork and creates a picture frame effect around area rugs.