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Picture Perfect

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Picture Perfect

 

Beneath half a ton of stucco, Peter Leue and Nancy Burton discovered ¡ª and then lovingly restored ¡ª a Gothic Revival gem in Albany

 

by Ann Morrow

photographs by Randall  Perry

 

 

It¡¯s called the American Gothic house. On a quiet side street between Albany and Delmar, the gold-and-green cottage pops into view like a picture from a storybook. The circa-1850 structure got its nickname from its resemblance to the house in the iconic Grant Wood painting. Both buildings have steeply pitched roofs, upper Gothic-arch windows, and double casement windows directly beneath. Further, both have a garden shed a few feet away ¡ª although as owner Peter Leue notes, his shed is on the wrong side.

 

But the fact that the house has a famous double is not why Leue and his wife, Nancy Burton, bought the place. Four years ago, it was just an ordinary two-bedroom with white stucco and a carport. It wasn¡¯t until Leue, a woodworker and furniture designer, removed more than 14,000 pounds of crumbling facing that he noticed the resemblance.

 

¡°It hardly looked Gothic when it was stuccoed,¡± he says. In fact, he was surprised to find clapboard underneath. But as the stucco came off, he realized that ¡°the proportion, style, and character of the house were very similar to the house in American Gothic. It¡¯s the second-floor double-arch window that¡¯s the dead giveaway.¡±

 

¡°The neat part about a house like this is discovering it,¡± says Burton. ¡°As you peel away the layers of work that¡¯s been done, you can almost imagine what people were thinking when they were building it.¡± To play up the cottage¡¯s Carpenter Gothic lineaments, Leue created a frilled roof for the front door (inspired by a vintage postcard of a long-gone Gothic cottage from upstate) and added additional purlins ¡ª short horizontal beams ¡ª underneath the eaves. The original pine siding had to go, however, and the flammable old shingles were replaced with fiber-cement clapboard.

 

Adding to the cottage¡¯s charm is a side veranda, once the carport, which Leue converted with a Gothic arch-and-post design. He also used Gothic-form railings for the back decks. On the other side of the house is a matching garden shed that he built using recycled materials. In a small courtyard between the shed and the cottage are inviting bamboo benches crafted by Leue, and a tiny fountain made from a collection of stones.

 

The interior also abounds with examples of Leue¡¯s skill and ingenuity. All the windows were restored, leaded, reglazed, or repaired. The most difficult task, he says, was reproducing the sashes for the Gothic-arch windows in front and back. For their summer project, the couple restored the distinctive diamond-pane glass in the front mullion window. With 42 panes per frame, the window required about 30 hours of labor for each casement.

 

The biggest change the couple made ¡ª aside from replacing the 1920s plumbing ¡ª was the construction of a rear addition, which more than doubled the house¡¯s not-quite 1,100 square feet. On the first floor, the addition created a dining and living space, with a gas-log fireplace and rustic glass doors that open onto the patio. On the second floor, there¡¯s a new master bedroom suite that the couple call their ¡°tree house¡± because of its impressively vertical feel: just beyond the room¡¯s outdoor deck is a steep hollow that leads to the Normanskill. A quatrefoil oculus window with a view of the sky is echoed by a simpler oculus window above their bed.

 

The second-floor bathrooms could serve as Leue¡¯s showcase. In one, he built the cabinetry that runs the length of the room, crafting the vanity out of painted wood from the face-pipes of an organ. The master bathroom¡¯s sea-green vanity tops are made of opaque glass salvaged from the historic Harmanus Bleecker Library in Albany, where it was used for lighted floors. ¡°It looks like beach glass,¡± says Burton, who used shades of restful green throughout the room.

 

A former manager for Historic Albany Foundation¡¯s Parts Warehouse, Leue still volunteers as a ¡°salvage commando,¡± and his sharp eye for interesting materials is evident all over the house. He made the beautifully grained kitchen cabinets from beams of old-growth Southern heart pine discarded from a building in Troy. (By counting the rings, he knows exactly how old the trees were when they were felled: 238 years.) All the doors for the addition were salvaged, as were the old box locks that match the original hardware.

 

Burton, says Leue, is ¡°the color person.¡± Her choice of Richmond gold and darker mustard-gold accents for the exterior was inspired by bits of the original paint found on the trim. Those colors, Leue says, would meet with the approval of Andrew Jackson Downing, the patron saint of Cottage Gothic, who decreed that houses should be painted natural, earthy tones (and that white is the ultimate in bad taste). Last year, their efforts earned them a preservation merit award from HAF.

 

Until recently, Burton was a longtime member of the Albany common council, and the walls of her office ¡ª a small sitting room by the parlor ¡ª are filled with her political posters. ¡°I have to bow down when I come in here,¡± says Leue with almost a straight face. The cottage is the third home they¡¯ve renovated together. The first belonged to Burton. ¡°I met Peter, the cabinet maker, three months after my kitchen cabinets were installed. That¡¯s bad planning,¡± she jokes. ¡°I had a friend who predicted that I¡¯d dump him after the house was done, but obviously that didn¡¯t happen.¡± The couple recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

 

Antiques mixed with Leue¡¯s hand-crafted pieces help the new space blend with the old house. A carved-walnut chair that belonged to Burton¡¯s great-grandmother sits near Leue¡¯s bold African-mahogany coffee table. Above the fireplace, a wood sculpture in a style that he drolly refers to as ¡°dripping Gothic¡± serves as trim underneath the mantel. Six ornate dining chairs, purchased from an Albany antiques shop and reupholstered in burgundy leather, define the more formal dining area. Leue is almost certain the chairs are the work of the esteemed Herter Brothers Company. While doing restoration woodwork for the Cathedral of All Saints, he came across a matching seventh chair and was able to acquire it as part of his fee. Hand-painted 1889 china plates hang on a wall nearby, and large potted tropical plants sit on stands with rollers so they can easily be moved out of the way for dinner parties.

 

Painted swatches await a decision as to the room¡¯s final color. ¡°I really like to live in a place before I make major decisions because I want the house to tell me how it should look,¡± says Burton. ¡°And it does.¡± After she picked out green tiles for the kitchen floor, the couple discovered that  one of the previous layers was a pine floor that had been painted green.

 

The cottage was once part of a 40-acre summer estate that¡¯s long since been subdivided. It was probably a caretaker¡¯s residence, says Burton, and during the renovation they realized that the house itself had been recycled: it was constructed with parts of a barn. The couple surmises that the cottage¡¯s modest size, along with its proximity to the hollow, is what saved it from being torn down for a builder¡¯s lot.

 

Asked what they like best about living in the American Gothic house, Burton instantly replies, ¡°It¡¯s just charming. The diamond-muntin windows are charming, and it¡¯s brought out the gardener in me. I can do whatever I want outside ¡ª a cottage garden is just an overflowing, abundant kind of garden.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s a delightful little house,¡± says Leue. ¡°Every time I drive down the street it brings a smile to my face.¡± It¡¯s likely this picturesque abode could bring a smile even to the famously unsmiling couple in Wood¡¯s painting. ¡ö

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