Canyon Cottage: From Derelict To Cinderella

canyonoldbackumax169Any homeowner who has renovated a house will relate a list of miseries that accompanied the thrill of transformation–expensive, drawn out, disruptive, exhausting—even in the best of circumstances. In the worst of circumstances, imagine resurrecting a ghost of a house, a structure so depleted that gaps allow the wind to whistle through, where rain seeps into every crevice and tear, where foundations rot and floor joists sit on dirt. Usually a house is demolished when time has eroded a dwelling that is derelict and over 100 years old.

canyonback6949“It’s called demolition by neglect,” says Jim Marsden, the architect called to take a look at the house. In 1887, the small cottage was modest. Originally it had no bathroom and consisted of two rooms located near a creek that flooded yearly. Even then, it wasn’t the kind of dwelling that held promise. But times have changed and the tiny house now is part of an historic district, where buildings cannot be destroyed and may by altered only in keeping with the styles of the 19th century.

“The house had either no foundation or it had crumbled. You could see the floor joists sitting on bare ground. The only place with concrete was accessed to the cellar. Sand cement had been used for mortar that had no adhesive quality. With weathering, the nominal stone foundations had all failed. The house had no sheathing on the walls. The siding was nailed directly to the studs. Water went straight though to the house. It was like balsa wood. I’m surprised the house didn’t blow away,” Jim says grimly.

canyonoldshellumax169One hundred years ago, land was cheap under the tiny cottage because it was in a flood zone, when a canyon creek lapped over its boundaries. But now the flood plain has been tamed. A city grew up around the neighborhood and, in time, citizens decided the entire street should be preserved as a nod to working class history. Show homes located on higher ground may be spectacular but saving the ordinary, the landmarks board believed, was just as important. Our citizens, they insisted, should understand the extremes of income that existed at the turn of the 20thcentury.

canyonredstairs7000Rumors swirled around the small cottage. Perhaps it had been a brothel with its red-painted stairs as a wanton symbol from the past. Not so, says Colorado historian Silvia Pettem. The cottage most likely housed a few workers who toiled at a gold-processing plant nearby. When gold was unearthed from mountain mines, the ore had to be taken to a mill. So while there is plenty of folklore surrounding gold miners, ordinary people worked long shifts in mill towns, too.

canyoncopperpipesumax175Since the late 19th century, land values have skyrocketed and the little house sits on prime real estate. In keeping with a 21st century perspective, the tiny cottage was transformed. Stripped to the basic boards, hoisted above ground, perched like a stork on thin legs, the entire house was cleaned and examined, practically exhumed. From a corpse to a living structure, resurrected from the ground up–the cottage had years of neglect erased to reveal a new house that, while modest in design, wears a party dress. Copper drainpipes, stained glass windows, lacy fretwork, and hand-made tiles–the tiny cottage now is Cinderella fitted with a glass slipper. But getting the frills, pumpkin coach and ball gown took time, money and steadfast perseverance.

canyonkitchen7019“First of all we won’t let you tear it down, you are told. And secondly, you can get tax credits,” Jim says to describe both a sharp stick and carrot approach of the landmarks board. When an historical building is improved, the owner can apply for tax credits from the State of Colorado. That means that some costs can be subtracted from the owner’s income. But getting the tax credit means that the plans are scrutinized and accepted by zoning and planning boards. “People don’t understand all the hoops they must jump through,” Jim says.

Small changes often were rejected, which meant rewriting the proposal and waiting for months before meeting with a board once again. In one exasperating example, a small bathroom strayed over the property line. But tearing down the bathroom wasn’t acceptable, either. Jim also had to save the single pane windows, although they are not energy efficient. Most of all, the house needed more square footage in keeping with contemporary homes. But when ideas for side additions were rejected, Jim simply expanded the back, “I call that the Burlington train solution, that you just add cars on the back. But we had no choice. In the end, the family room works well because it gets the morning sun.”

canyonbathstainedglass977The home looks, and feels, like an old-fashioned cottage with modern amenities. The kitchen was moved into the center of the house, where it is linked to a wood-paneled family room lined by windows. A separate formal dining room flows from the living room. A tiny foyer, with stained glass panels, creates a private entry space before entering the living room from the front door. Stairs wind up from the back of the house. A study was added behind the kitchen and the difficult downstairs bathroom that strayed over the property line has been reconfigured as a sink and toilet powder room.

Upstairs, two bedrooms and two baths were added to the original single bedroom. The attic has disappeared in order to raise the low ceilings. New electrical wiring, plumbing and heating make the rooms up-to-date, with heating systems running though the floors. Most of the structural elements were “sistered,” such as the joists, so that the original house is intact, but given sound building blocks.

But what makes the cottage unique, besides its resurrection, is the care lavished on such a modest structure. “A lot of original time and detail was there,” Jim says, “that was removed in other houses where they put in contemporary detail and everything interesting is gone. For a cottage or bungalow, the key is to keep refining parts to make them more and more interesting.” Rhythm, repetition, scale—these are the elements that make the cottage style so intimate and beloved, as well as the carpenter’s attention to woodwork. “That’s what the old guys did. None of these houses was architect built, but it didn’t matter. They were builder houses, and they had a great sense of style. All we need to do is be sympathetic to the aesthetic,” he adds.

canyonshower6971The house has been romanced, with trim and woodwork, chandeliers and stained glass. Tile in the bathrooms is artfully arranged. Fine woodwork lines the walls. The kitchen, with glass-paneled cabinets features hand made ceramics on the back splash.

Michelle Guyton searched through catalogues and antique shops for reproductions and originals. Michelle spent 20 years in the home furnishings industry before setting up her own business as a personal shopper. For chandeliers, she searched antique shops. Many shops that carry old lighting fixtures also re-wire their antiques for modern use, she says. Hardware came from catalogues. Bathroom tiles, sinks and toilets arrived from major manufacturers who have developed lines with small-scale fixtures.

The bathroom tiles are arranged in a pattern by the craftsman who set them rather than the manufacturer, but they are factory tiles. In contrast, the stained glass windows were designed and hand made by a local artist. The blend of mass-produced and artisan produced objects involved conscious choices throughout the building process. “Some things, like the chandeliers, you want to see and touch before you buy them,” Michelle says, “wall sconces, could come from catalogues. Small special pieces can come from catalogues, but we have some wonderful antique places. That’s where I’ll find a one-of-a-kind object like furniture.”

Colorado is filled with antique shops that specialize in lighting, silver, Mission Style accessories or turn-of-the-century oak and porcelain. Combining antiques with smaller items from catalogues filled the needs for trim, hardware and lighting.

canyonoldgarageumax174The landscaping includes espaliered pear trees, curved beds of xeric plants, a wavy serpentine wall and a carriage house with its original rock walls. What once was a crumbling rock garage now includes a small apartment above the three-car carriage house with shingled siding. In keeping with the historic neighborhood, paint for the home is muted in gray and dark cranberry red, fitting the 19th century era when mineral and earth pigments tinted house paint.

canyongarage6945Next door, the adjoining lot has been donated by the owner as a small city park, so the cottage is both integral to a small cottage neighborhood and also nestled among trees. Landscaping from the house will eventually merge into the park setting. To a casual visitor, the small cottage looks impeccable, as if another century has been perfectly preserved. And, of course, it has. But to anyone who witnessed the alteration, a ghost from the past has been given new life—more lavish and elegant now than ever before.

If you have purchased an old cottage and hope to renew its life, here are a few tips:

canyonfrontCHECK THE OUTSIDE AND INSIDE FOR TRIM. “If anybody is really conscious, they are not going to do anything to the exterior of a bungalow except restore it,” Jim says. People love bungalows and cottages because they love the human scale and sense of proportion, the trim and details. Take stock of what you have and what ’s missing. Eventually you may want to fix or renew trim, so don’t throw any away. Carpenters today can duplicate nearly anything and stay within the original style.

canyoninsidewood6965CONSIDER THE INSIDE AS MUCH AS THE OUTSIDE:Cottages and bungalows were filled with carefully crafted detail. “With more refinement, you fool the eye, and a room looks larger,” Jim says. Simple details like corner beads, which originally served to protect the plaster, add to the fine touches of an old cottage. Paneling, trim, beadboard, fretwork and archways all trick the eye into believing a small space is larger.

LOOK FOR HIDDEN AREAS TO OPEN SPACE: Jim opened up the attic to elevate upstairs ceilings. That empty, hidden space made a difference in the scale of the rooms without altering the outside of the house. Similar hidden places might be a pantry that can become a bathroom, a porch that becomes a study.

TAKE CARE OF THE BASICS FIRST: Upgrade the basics first like heating, plumbing and electrical work. If you start to refinish walls and floors, discovering later than you’ll have to tear out a wall to fix the plumbing, time and money is wasted. Take a careful inventory of the needs in your home. If you don’t have the expertise, call in someone who does. Together, you can decide what changes should be made.

canyonchandelier6992FIND GREAT SOURCES FOR HARDWARE AND FURNISHINGS: Shops that specialize in architectural artifacts are rich hunting grounds for early 20th century hardware, bathroom fixtures, windows and more. But reproductions are available, too. Decide what needs to be original and what can be reproduction. For example, you might choose an old chandelier that is newly wired, polished and mended. But sconces or bathroom lights could be reproduction. Most homeowners mix the two according to their tastes and budget. There are more sources for bungalow and cottage reproduction hardware than ever before.

Sources that were used at the canyon cottage:

  • Magazines that offer ideas and advice: Old House Journal
  • American Bungalow Magazine at
  • Hardware from catalogues: Renovator’s Hardware for a variety of hardware, Van Dyck’s Restorers at carries woodwork and hardware
  • Clem Labine’s Traditional Building at, a wealth of metalwork, window, flooring, cast-stone and other construction details
  • Artisans: The Boulder Stained Glass at 1920 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-9030; tiles from Jeff Ravage at
  • Manufacturers: Kohler bathroom fixtures at offers small fixtures that will fit into tight spaces and American Olean tiles features pixilated abstract and realistic scenes
  • Antiques: Ralston Bros. Antiques, 425 High St. Lyons, 303-823-6982
  • Bedell & Co at 767 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-939-9292.
  • Heating: Wirsbo, 5925 148th St. West, Apple Valley, Minnesota, 1-800-321-4739 at
  • Doors: Simpson Doors at
  • Metalwork: King Architectural Metals at 1-800-542-2379 in Dallas, Los Angeles, Baltimore for wrought iron and copper drainpipes from Copperworks by Don Miller, 206 S. Thomas, Orange, California, 877-633-9308 or
  • Marble and Granite counters: (wholesale) IMG in Denver, 852 South Jason, Unit B, Denver, 800-464-2511, at
  • Wood and Gas Stoves: Hearthstone, carried by McGuckin Hardware in Boulder at
  • Architect: James Marsden in Boulder at 303-499-9799
  • Contractor: George Russell, Boulder, 303-579-4610
  • Simply Shopping, Michelle Guyton, 303-652-1195