Comfortable living in an older home

Marwan and Nancy Mansour and their children George,

Marwan and Nancy Mansour and their children George, 11 and Anna, 9 outside their turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Northport. (Feb. 7, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan)

An old home offers its owners a daily journey into the past -- a place where fireplaces provided heat and hot food, and exposed beams and old-fashioned lamps nestled in the ceilings.

Whether your residence celebrates a centennial or you just love the designs of long ago, the stories of the following homeowners offer insight into how to create a space that provides the charm of times gone by with all the modern amenities needed for comfortable living.

 

1900 FARMHOUSE

OWNERS Nancy and Marwan Mansour

LOCATION Northport

WHEN BUILT 1900

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO LIVE THERE Nancy Mansour, 49, fell in love with the slate wall and old-fashioned hanging lamp outside her historic farmhouse.

The homestead never was a true farm -- although corn was grown there. But Nancy soon discovered from the town historian that it came with a past. In the late 1800s, its owner sold liquor illegally and ran afoul of the law. When he turned it into a boardinghouse, incidents included a dinnertime knife attack and a fire that destroyed the lodge, killing one of its boarders.

In the 1920s, the rebuilt dwelling was sold and passed through a few owners until 1957, when a family purchased it. The family put on an addition in the 1970s. The Mansours would renovate it, too, increasing the space by 800 square feet to create a hallway and widen the kitchen. "It made an antique house super livable. I could envision . . . my kids running though all the different doorways," says Nancy of her children, George and Anna, now 11 and 9.

Nancy fills her home with antiques -- something she sells part-time at Antiques at Northport. She says she especially loves art, and her collection hangs in stacked rows in most rooms of the house. Her husband, Marwan, 40, also a collector, displays Indian Motorcycle collectibles in the office and their motorbikes in the two-car garage.

When they first moved in, the lower kitchen cabinets and floor needed immediate renovation since tree seedlings and roots regularly poked through. The wide-planked pine floors, original to the house, also needed refinishing. "We treat it with love and care, and it shows," says Nancy, who got her home a historic designation about two years ago.

Her daughter calls the home magical, and Nancy agrees. "Every room has something of interest," she says. "I think a home is really important . . . to make an oasis for your family."

GET THIS LOOK The biggest challenge with hanging artwork lies in placement. Barbara Horowitz of BHS Design, an interior decorator based in Jamesport and Manhattan, says people often hang things too high. "The middle of the piece should be at eye level," she says. "If you're hanging a series or a grouping, lay the art on the floor first and play around with different arrangements. Do not be afraid to position the smaller pieces on the bottom and the larger on top."

 

1908 MANOR

OWNERS Irene and Mike Sweeney

LOCATION Old Westbury

WHEN BUILT 1908

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO LIVE THERE Irene Sweeney's manor house is a former estate that included stables and a garage. In the 1950s, the owner cut the home in half, reversing the front and back of the structure before selling it.

Another former owner gave Irene and husband, Mike, 68, a picture of the home's original state and told them that five rooms were framed out in the attic because the builder intended to move his daughter to the third floor. "When we first moved in, we were anxious to hear," Irene says, "but we couldn't get information and we kind of let it go."

Irene and Mike raised their two children here, and they are joined every Sunday with the four Sweeney grandchildren. "When you have a house like this, you have to use it," says Irene.

But when Irene first moved in, she hated the house. She thought it was too big and it needed too much work. Her husband saw the potential and "he was absolutely right," she says. Together they tore down walls, stripped dark mahogany enclosures and whitewashed the rest, replacing about 67 windows. Contractors did the big jobs, but Irene and Mike gamely tackled things like changing the black marble fireplace to one decorated with stones. "It was the hardest thing we've ever done," says Irene. "You are on your knees, trying to grout with your fingers because you can't use a grouter tool because it's too bumpy."

The couple makes changes every year. The high school sweethearts never solved all the mysteries of the house, though. They'd still like to know how things once looked. Was the parquet floor in the living room part of a bigger space (since the boards wrap around the staircase and go nowhere)? Did help really cook in the fireplace kitchen and make bread in the brick oven?

But the puzzles don't detract from the beauty of their space. Even though cowbells from Switzerland adorn the front hallway and Western souvenirs dot Mike's office, they aren't big travelers. "We love our house," Mike says. "We'd rather be home."

GET THIS LOOK When reworking a fireplace, you must consider if the firebox opening is straight or rounded, says Libby Langdon from Libby Langdon Interiors in Sag Harbor and Manhattan. With the Sweeney home, the opening is rounded and the dark river stones allowed them to follow that curve inexpensively since the stones didn't need cutting. Another way to achieve this look in a less rustic way is to use mosaic materials.

 

1913 ARTS AND CRAFTS HOUSE

OWNERS Jeff and Jane Dien

LOCATION Roslyn Heights

WHEN BUILT 1913

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO LIVE THERE When Jeff and Jane Dien considered purchasing their Arts and Crafts-style home in 1996, a contractor friend looked at it and told them not to buy the house. The neglected homestead, last painted in 1965, featured peeling gray shingles and a host of problems.

But, in the nearly 10 years it took to revitalize the building, the Diens found themselves skilled at restoration. As an interior designer, Jane used her developed eye to return original doors and fixtures to the right room. "It was an adventure," says Jane, 65. John, 66, a shop teacher for more than two decades, used his woodworking and reupholstering skills. "Jane had the vision," he says. "I had the faith in Jane."

They used the house itself to fix the home -- rarely throwing anything away and recycling beams, flooring, lights and fixtures. In the kitchen, Jane hung a scale that had once hung in her parents' grocery, and she still uses the store's grabber tool for high-placed items on shelves. Besides showcasing its own historic architecture, the home is a repository for artifacts.

The Diens keep the things the house reveals to them -- whether it's an old cigarette holder, rusted tools and antique bottles, or rubbed-down crayons dropped by some child into the newel post. "We believe the things that are found in the house should stay in the house," says Jane.

They also try to combine the historic with the functional, using a copper kettle that's more than a century old for a sink.

The dwelling, now a part of a 68-home historical district, gets updates every year, though more minor than major now. "We don't own the house," John jokes. "We are caretakers."

GET THE LOOK You can stay true to an older home's elements while making it as functional as possible, says designer Libby Langdon. New appliances are needed for energy efficiency, performance and safety, but, she points out, there are many ways to add wood overlays on the face to make them blend beautifully with cabinetry. "It's also fun to add unexpected elements that make a real style statement, like a cool copper bowl or farmhouse washer sink replicas," says Langdon.

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