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Tiny cottage receives a big makeover

November 20, 2011

[A version of this article appeared in the Bloomington, Herald-Times on Nov. 19, 2010. See Click on any of the images to enlarge.]

Brian's refurbished cottage after the gut-and-remodel.

When Brian Kearney told friends that he had just purchased the ramshackle rental next door to his own home, they thought he was joking. But he was quite serious.

Naturally, the purchase would improve his own property values, and he would gain a landlord’s control over who lived next door to him on that side. But more importantly, it would be a way for Brian to exercise his environmental principles by rescuing and restoring a long-neglected building. The home improvement would also benefit the surrounding neighborhood of McDoelGardens(the area south ofBloomingtonHospital).

During the remodeling, the aluminum siding was pulled off to get at the rot inside the walls. Photo courtesy Brian Kearney.

“It’s been a long-neglected rental,” Brian explained. “I looked at this house for years and just felt helpless. Every once in a while, a neighbor would phone the city to come and take a look at it because it didn’t look as though it could possibly be up to code. I was inside it once or twice and didn’t have a good feeling about it.”

Brian asked Susan Yeley of Yeley Design to draw up new floor plans. He chose Chuck Taylor as contractor.

Looking diagonally across the living room from the dining corner.

The tiny cottage was originally a square of about 20’ x 20’, with a small living room, a diminutive bedroom and a tiny kitchen. There was probably no bathroom (several of Bloomington’s neighborhoods were built before sewer service was available). At some point a small indoors bathroom was added, and a modest rear addition containing a better kitchen and another bedroom. Altogether, the house contains about 640 square feet.

Unsurprisingly, the project required a complete gutting. There was mold around many of the windows and the dropped ceiling gave it a cavelike feel.

“People who had lived here all said how cold and drafty it was,” Brian remembered. “When we took the kitchen cabinets off we found rot behind them. There are no really pure right angles in this house, which made me and the building inspector both nervous. But it didn’t intimidate Chuck! He said he bet that they didn’t even use a level when they built the house.”

The original assembly instructions on blueprint were discovered in the attic during remodeling.

When Chuck tore out the dropped ceiling he discovered a roll of blueprints, gnawed by insects and fragile with years. It was the original house plans, which showed that the home was a kit produced by the Strathmoor company in December 1945. It was built using prefabricated panels that fastened together with bolts and wingnuts like an Erector set. Strathmoor was apparently one of the many prefab companies that sprang into existence after WWII ended.

The blueprints are dated December 7, 1945. Strathmoor was apparently a flash in the pan; Internet searches turn up no real information on the company.

As with all major remodels, each issue that they addressed invariably led to another. The rotten walls and leaky basement required excavation for French drains around the perimeter of the cottage, but a vapor barrier was also needed inside the walls to stave off more mold. This meant that the aluminum siding needed to be pulled off and replaced with new cementboard.


“That led to the opportunity to choose new paint colors,” Brian said cheerfully. “I’m bold with color.”

“Bold” is the right word! The cottage is now an eye-catching lavender-blue, with dark green accents.

“The inspiration for the paint color was the flowers of Russian sage,” he explained. “I actually went in to Bloomington Paint with the flower. When Chuck and his assistants started painting, I got scared, and I bicycled off to work. As I went I heard one of them saying doubtfully, ‘I don’t know about this.’ But at noon, Chuck sent me a photo of it from his iPhone, and the subject line said ‘WOW!’ By noon he was won over by the color.”

Proud owner Brian Kearney stands in the doorway of the remodeled lavender blue cottage.

Today, thanks to designer Susan Yeley’s new floor plan, walls have been shifted, enlarging the bedroom and bathroom slightly and adding a large walk-in closet. Unsavory aspects of the old house have been erased, including the trap door in the living room floor that concealed the basement steps, and the combination bedroom- closet/kitchen pantry, which had made it possible for tenants to choose their daily wardrobe while checking whether they also needed to stock up on basil. The dropped ceiling is now a modest cathedral ceiling.

The new home is snug and warm, with newly spray foam insulated walls and attic; the new dual-pane argon windows are securely installed with no drafts. The new roof is white metal and the gutters will drain into rainbarrels.

“I told Chuck, ‘It’s not going to be just a rental; it’s going to be energy efficient and be good for the environment,” Brian emphasized. “If someone else had bought it and fixed it, they wouldn’t have taken it to the limit that I did. Climate change is real, and we’ve got to adapt to it.”

He confessed that his friends have been kidding him about playing Monopoly on his street. “It’s not Boardwalk, but it’s definitely no longerBaltic Avenue,” he laughed.

“I’m proud of the project,” he finished. “It was really fun having neighbors come by and say they were glad I bought it. This house can now stand on its own. The shame is gone!”

Contact Chuck Taylor at or 812-361-8329. Contact Susan Yeley Design at or 812-331-7959.

From → Houses

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