Two century-old houses. A family of opossums in the chimney. More than a thousand salvaged bricks loaded into a Dodge Durango. A passel of renovation patience.
In the end: Two lovely places called home.
A family of opossums lived in the old white farmhouse in the Creston neighborhood before the Remtema family did, cozied up in the big brick chimney.
Built in 1895, converted into apartments, abused by renters, the creaky house needed the kind of help a skilled architect and a professional interior designer could give.
Lucky house. That’s exactly what it got with Deidre and Jeff Remtema.
Now, instead of opossums in the chimney, there are boys clambering up into the attic playroom, swinging in the cool climbing harness while they read.
It was a total restoration, gutted down to the studs and transformed into a warm and welcoming family home with an improved, open flow that fits a busy family lifestyle.
Come on in. That delicious aroma is the pork roast Jeff is simmering to make Cuban sandwiches.
Meet the family: Jeff and Deidre Remtema, owners of Deidre Interiors, an interior design and architecture firm based in their home; sons, Marek, 13, Bram, 11, and 3-year-old English yellow Labrador Lizzy, a snuggle bug who’s allowed on the furniture.
How the story began: Jeff bought the rundown house in 2000, living on the top floor while renting out the bottom.
Sure, there was termite damage and hornet nests in the walls. The kitchen was pretty weird. Plumbing, heating, electrical all needed upgrading. But it had good bones, the architect thought.
After he and Deidre were married two years later, the restoration began.
Fantastic feat: Jeff handmade nearly 200 molding trim pieces, replicating the few surviving ones left in the house, toiling in a makeshift workshop in the driveway.
He also made about 1,000 linear feet of wood molding.
“It started out as a labor of love,” Deidre said. “But by the end, it was more like, ‘Jeff, just get this trim done.’”
Homey happenings: They tripled the storage in the cheerful kitchen, which boasts a charming farm sink, a roomy island and opens to the dining room, where a stunning frosted glass and brass pendant light fixture hangs.
This is where Jeff bakes chocolate chip cookies Deidre calls “killer” and rustles up brown sugar-lacquered bacon to go with a big breakfast of waffles or pancakes.
Natural light floods the library where the family watches TV or settles in with a book from the wall of shelves lit by stylish black picture lights.
Jeff designed a huge front porch based on photos he found of the original because they love to sit outside.
Shudder time: Bats shared the Remtema roost while Deidre and Jeff renovated.
“That was the worst,” Deidre said. “I’d be lying in bed at night and hear something flying around.”
Once the house was sealed, no more bats.
Personal touch: Framed black-and-white photos in the dining room show Deidre’s grandfather building the family’s lakeside cottage in 1955.
Marek’s room features a huge black-and-white photo of his dad as a teen skateboarder.
Takeaway tip: “Older homes evoke a feeling in people, warm and inviting,” Deidre said. “You can add that soul in a new home if it reflects the experiences of the people who live there.”
Anybody can furnish a room by shopping on the internet, she said. Dig deeper.
“Do you love sports? Do you travel? Do you collect cars? Use your books, your artwork to help bring your personality to your house.”
Renovation rewards: “Our house is a family member,” Jeff said. “When it gets sick, we fix it.”
But a few boo-boos are OK.
“The nicks and dings are memories built in,” Jeff said. “That dinged piece of trim is from the time Marek rode his BMX bike through the living room.”
“A house should be a little imperfect,” Deidre said. “It’s a living thing.”
The ramshackle lakeshore cottage, built in 1892, was a wreck.
But it had good bones. It overlooked Lake Michigan. And it was for sale.
Steve and Nan Carpenter bought the place in January 2013 and spent the next 21 months completely renovating the Grand Haven cottage, adding a foundation and an additional walk-out level.
They toted out monstrous piles of broken concrete, rubble and coal.
Just as important is what they kept.
Century-old pine for the floors. The original outline of the cottage. Character.
“It’s intentionally not perfect,” Steve said. “Even though it’s a four-season home, it’s still a cottage. We wanted it to look like a cottage — not like a house that looks like it belongs in the suburbs.”
Meet the family: Steve and Nan Carpenter. Steve is a retired attorney and registered nurse. Nan is a retired Kent County family court judge. Their youngest son, Scot, lives upstairs while finishing his degree at Grand Valley State University. Two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Chance and Roz, lounge in laps and live for treats.
How the story began: Steve grew up visiting friends with cottages on the same stretch of Lake Michigan and fell in love.
After the 2008 recession, cottages started popping up for sale. He pounced.
Fantastic feat: Steve waded through hip-deep snow to handpick 1,200 century-old Chicago Common bricks from the demolished Eagle Ottawa Leather Company’s riverfront factory in Grand Haven.
He painstakingly sorted through for the perfect mix of pink-hued and yellow and dragged them across the snow to his Dodge Durango on a dumpster lid.
They ended up as stunning flooring and backsplashes in the kitchen and kitchenette areas.
Meanwhile, every bit of building material had to be hauled in from the parking lot 150 feet from the cottage. Crews built ramps and rigged pulleys to get their gear on-site.
“Every step of the way was figuring things out,” Steve said.
Shudder time: Where to begin? The cottage had no foundation.
“One corner of the house was sitting on a log,” Steve said.
Nan still gulps when she recalls the whole building held up on enormous jacks while they put the foundation, and a new walk-out level, under it.
“That made me shudder a bit to think what might happen if one of the lifts gave way,” she said.
A stairway in the living room that led upstairs was held together just by nails.
A portion of the ceiling was separated from the rest of the cottage by about 6 inches.
Holland builder Bosgraaf Homes faced a real challenge.
“I said to my wife, ‘If we’re going to do this thing, we might as well make it our year-round home,’” Steve said. “We didn’t realize how significant a job it would be just to make it a cottage.”
Homey happenings: Friends and family gather on the cheerful blue-ceilinged porch, scamper down to the beach and gather around the cozy fire pit for s’mores.
Nan might rustle up chili-lime chicken breasts topped with strawberry avocado salsa or toss a salad with browned butter balsamic vinaigrette.
There’s always mac ’n cheese for the grandkids.
A game room stocked with board games encourages people to tuck away their phones for a spell.
Each of the six bedrooms has a name — Beach, Boardwalk, Pier — and an artist painted a scene on each bedroom door to match its theme.
Personal touch: Steve framed his mother’s beautiful needlework of birds and flowers. A piece hangs in every room and hallway.
Takeaway tip: Steve was on-site every day, pitching in as needed.
“If you want to turn a project over to a builder, fine,” he said. “But if you have an idea, you can’t put that idea in somebody else’s head. You have to be there. You have to get physically involved.”
Renovation rewards: “People think we’re crazy,” Steve said. “They say, ‘How can you stand it in the winter? It’s so gray.’”
Just look around, he says.
Better yet, grab a pair of snowshoes they keep by the entry in winter and head for the dunes. You’ll see.
“There’s a whole panoply of colors,” Steve said. “It changes with the clouds and the light.
“We absolutely love it here.”