One hot summer night in 2012, Gerard Damiani and Debbie Battistone, the husband-and-wife team behind Pittsburgh's studio d'Arc, took themselves out, and, over margaritas, decided to buy a weekend home.
They had just one sticking point: price. "I want cheap," Damiani told his wife. She spent the rest of the evening scouring local Erie real estate websites to see if waterfront properties existed for around $25,000. She found exactly one, a 1950s fisherman’s cottage in a tranquil beach resort community within Lake City, two hours north of Pittsburgh. The house was ideally situated on Lake Erie but was in total disrepair, its mint-green concrete walls cracking and sagging into the earth. Inside were two tiny, claustrophobic bedrooms with only seven-foot-high ceilings and an eat-in kitchen and living area in which no one would want to dine. "It was held together with duct tape and spit," says Damiani. "I thought, ‘I could never sleep here.’"
Then they climbed a ladder into the attic and saw something exciting: a pitched roof made out of knotty pine. "It looked like the hull of a ship. I just imagined lying in bed and looking up at this thing," Damiani recalls.
It was enough to convince them to buy, but the necessary—and extensive—renovations would take over a year. "We didn’t have the cash to do it all at once, and we didn’t have all the answers all at once," Battistone says. "But we like working slowly and figuring things out as we go along. It’s a luxury that you don’t get with a client’s project."
Damiani describes the renovation process as "kind of improvisational, like jazz." First they punched out the low ceiling to expose the wood roof and gutted the interior. Next they stabilized the sagging walls. The new wood-slat facade, combined with some underground structural work to the foundation, put the house in good stead. Then they had to figure out the interior. "It’s such a small space. If you start to add a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen—everything gets so marginalized," Damiani says. "Instead, we wanted it to be completely open but really flexible in terms of how it operates."
The solution was to create one large room, divided into two sections by a swiveling dining room table—it can pivot into the kitchen, extending the food prep area, or swing toward the water, becoming a serene workspace. This division is reinforced by the use of two interior woods: walnut for the kitchen and service area and white oak for the living space.
For such a small project, the house is packed with subtle details, from the wood panel that swings open to reveal a narrow window, to articulated joints that make an ordinary section of drywall pop, to gutters that extend a few feet beyond the roof like petals.
Stephen Heyman is a writer. He was formerly the features editor for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.