This is a sweet memoir about a small project with a small budget and the rewards of savoring a small opportunity. Kate Whouley invites us into her life among her family, friends, planners, town administrators, movers, contractors and inner musings to share her tale of her simple wish to marry her modest 1950’s Cape to a minimal cottage of the same vintage on her quiet Cape Cod property.
Right from the beginning we get a sense of Whouley’s flair for practical whimsy when we learn of her hobby of bargain-hunting in the local Pennysaver for unusual finds for her unusual friends and family. Granted the acquired items generally meet a functional requirement, but they seem all the better suited to their purpose thanks to the serendipity of their procurement. It isn’t surprising, then, in December of 1999 that a listing for cottages, priced at $3000 each, in Harwich Port, that need to be moved to make way for a new development piques her curiosity. Whouley imagines that wedding a 386 square foot existing cottage to her 750 square foot Cape may be less expensive and more environmentally sensitive than constructing a much-needed addition from scratch, and I suspect she intuits it will be whole lot more fun too.
While Whouley ponders the possibilities, we’re further introduced to her family and friends by way of a Christmas gathering and a New Year’s Eve party she hosts. At both gatherings creative party activities, appropriately both practical and whimsical, engage party goers and readers alike in the discovery of the warm, unique people that comprise Whouley’s circle. Later when more players are introduced to the mix, you’ll find the charming “cast and crew” cheat-sheet at the front of the book a useful reminder.
Whouley’s primary spatial goal is to create a writer’s studio within the relocated cottage walls, so that she can move her office, where she works as a book industry consultant, out of her bedroom. We learn that she has been living and working this way for thirteen years as an independent contractor, independently. Now in her early forties with several significant romances behind her, she relays that perhaps she would also like to make space in her house for a man to share. She writes, “As I wish for a successful cottage-moving, I am aware I am wishing for much more.”
Once Whouley sets her plan into motion she estimates, with the help of friends and professionals, that she can expect the project to cost around $20,000. Remember this was 1999, but still, the figure struck me as highly optimistic. I did a quick calculation of 400 square feet of renovated space at a bargain-basement price of $150 per square foot and came up with $60,000. True, she would be using largely discounted materials and labor where possible which would make a difference. This was one of the many times in the book, though, when I wished I’d been there to provide Whouley with some architectural advice – on what to expect from the process, ways to enhance the design, and material selections to consider. She is a novice in the world of home renovation, but to her credit and the uninitiated readers’ benefit, she is an eager, good natured student. She recounts in great detail the logistics of the permitting, cottage-moving, and construction process, all the while infusing her description with insight into the folks involved in the project. Along the way she delves into gender issues, crushes on crew members, problematic plumbers, Middle Eastern dance practice, and life with her beloved cat, Egypt.
Nearly a year after spotting the classified ad in the Pennysaver, the author moves into her new office. In the process she’s learned about the history of concrete, what a Sonotube and a lally column are, and how a team of affable creatives can make a wish come true. At long last Cape and cottage are wed, and she has the refinancing papers to prove it. Ultimately the project comes in at nearly double her original estimate, but less than mine, which is an impressive argument for recycling a lovable building with the help of an entertaining, well-intentioned cast of characters. I only wish the book had been illustrated with more (and better) drawings and photographs of the evolving project. Maybe Whouley will keep that in mind when she adds the next cottage. Meanwhile she has set the stage to live the life she envisions.
by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast
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