How a 19th-Century Workman’s Cottage Became a Family Home

For most couples, attempting a gut renovation of a historic home in a matter of months — while expecting twins — is a surefire recipe for disaster. But for Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Highsmith, the husband-and-wife co-founders of the Brooklyn-based design firm Workstead, the recent revamp of an 1850s residence in upstate New York not only presented them with a thrilling challenge, it also marked a celebratory homecoming after a few years spent living in the South.

“New York, for us, is a return to the foundation of where we started our company and started our design language and our work — and now our family,” Highsmith told me one recent sunny morning as we strolled through the lush grass that surrounds the charming two-story clapboard home, a former workman’s cottage perched high above the waters of the Roeliff Jansen Kill in Gallatin, N.Y. “This is the first time that we were able to renovate something at the level of what we do for our clients, which is really exciting,” said Brechbuehler.

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The couple bought the five-acre property eight years ago, after getting married in nearby Ancramdale and falling in love with the region’s wildflower-dotted fields and forests. At the time, the house was plastered in asbestos shingles and 1950s vinyl flooring, with a marigold kitchen overrun by mice. But with Workstead’s growing list of custom interior projects and their development of a lighting collection keeping them busy in Brooklyn, they weren’t ready to undergo any major overhauls. So, armed with paint scrapers and plenty of enthusiasm, they got to work on the weekends, scrubbing, peeling and eventually coating everything in a palate-cleansing white.

In 2015, the couple decamped to Charleston, S.C., for a series of high-profile projects, including the interior design of the Dewberry hotel and a restoration of an 1853 Italianate Victorian rowhouse residence. Three years later, with their twin girls on the way, they decided to head back north, this time setting up residence full-time in upstate New York. As Brechbuehler recalled with a smile, that was when they thought, “What better time than now to renovate the cottage?”

As soon as their contractors got to work, however, the scale of the challenge quickly dawned on them. Everything had to be redone — the plumbing, heating, insulation and electricity. “Half the house was running off an extension cord tucked in between a beam and a floorboard, above the kitchen,” explained Highsmith. Undaunted, they pressed ahead, and throughout that summer, the couple lived in their next-door neighbor’s barn, sleeping on a mattress on the floor and running over to check on the progress each day. Even with their frenzied timeline — their daughters were due in November — their contractors were able to rework the interior structure, expanding the kitchen, combining two small bedrooms into a master bedroom, adding a mudroom and hand-building a new yet historically accurate fireplace in the living room.

The fact that Brechbuehler and Highsmith managed to pull it all off in the end — on time and without making compromises — will not surprise anyone who’s familiar with the meticulous modern craftsmanship that the couple, together with their partner, Ryan Mahoney, has brought to establishments such as the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn and the Rivertown Lodge in Hudson, N.Y., where Workstead has just opened a new office.

Part of the reason they succeeded, Brechbuehler pointed out, is that they largely kept to the shoe-box footprint of the house. At just 1,200 square feet, the cottage allowed them to focus on the highest-quality restoration possible — and to dream of the expansions to come. “This is, for us, a piece of property maybe for life, and so we see it as growing with our needs,” she said, adding that they plan to build a solarium next year and, in five years, a family room and additional bedroom. “For now, yes, it’s small, but it’s perfect for us.”

In a home of such modest dimensions, function dominates — there is nothing extraneous or precious. The kitchen and mudroom are stacked with storage components (oak-lined cupboards and pantries, custom-built cabinets and pullout shelving) precision-crafted to fit like puzzle pieces. “It’s like a little Swiss Army knife,” said Highsmith. “Everything is literally within hand’s reach,” added Brechbuehler, which is essential when you’re juggling twins with cooking and laundry.

In the kitchen, a large island made of brick-hued rojo alicante marble from Spain dominates the space. It’s a marvel of construction — three enormous slabs joined in waterfall edges with expertly matched veins — that is highly durable and utilitarian, and it now doubles as a bath and changing station for the six-month-old babies.

In describing their new rural life, Brechbuehler said, “I guess we’ve become country bumpkins to a certain extent. If we had to, we could grow vegetables. And we could fish. This feels very of the earth. It feels solid, and it’s a wonderful place to start your family.”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/10/t-magazine/workstead-cottage-gallatin-new-york.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

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