“It is said the darkest hour of the night comes just before the dawn.”
- Thomas Fuller
It was mid-March of last year, and the world as we knew it was about to change seemingly overnight. I was back on my island home of Nantucket after a quick trip to NYC for business. Things were starting to fray at the edges of normalcy: the Uber driver spoke of a colleague who had contracted the virus, Dr. Fauci was becoming a household name, and talk of lockdowns was being disseminated by governors nationwide.
Most of my family was in Kentucky where we are working on two large historic renovation projects. My oldest daughter and husband are both part of my design team. They phoned to urge me to join them so I would not be stranded alone on the island. I quipped, “Oh, I am fine here. This whole thing is going to blow over in a matter of weeks.” It goes without saying I am no longer considering a career in fortune telling.
The main reason for my hesitation in returning to Kentucky was the condition of the property we were now calling our second home. We had purchased a thoroughbred farm the previous fall with plans to renovate it. Complete with a large barn, several outbuildings, and a majestic antebellum brick house, the property is magical. However, the condition of the house was in greater disrepair than we previously thought. The old part of the building (circa 1847) was in relatively good shape, but the back half, which housed the kitchen, family room, and first floor master bedroom, was rotting at its core: infested with vermin chewing their way through the floorboards from underneath the building, a main carrying beam that had been hacked through in the 1970s to install trunk lines for the HVAC, sagging walls, and a leaking roof; it required a complete gut of the back half of the house.
A few days passed and news of the spreading pandemic grew grimmer. State after state announced closures and airlines were grounding their fleets. My husband, an experienced builder and finish carpenter, brokered a deal with me: if I agreed to come to Kentucky, he would work to get the house more live-able and, perhaps, even a little more beautiful. I decided it made sense to head south and join my family for lockdown even though I had never envisioned living in the old house during the necessary renovation.
I arrived with much trepidation and a less than optimistic view on the situation. I was, after all, in the business and knew we had our work cut out for us. It involved unloading the dining room – precariously stacked floor to ceiling with boxes and furniture, and affectionately renamed POD world – as well as clearing out the entry foyer which had become a hodge-podge of necessities: a rolling rack filled with winter coats, bookshelves holding household supplies, more stacks of boxes with no home, and a discreetly concealed cat litter box (heavens!) Rob promised to set the living room with bits and pieces of furniture as placeholders and turn the dining room into a cozy study, even hanging a treasured chandelier to give me hope and a slice of beauty. Both spaces held the promise of rooms with better futures ahead.
Our COVID pod of five turned out to be the perfect team to undertake the “swat” decoration and comfortable habitation of an antique home during a pandemic: an interior designer, a builder cum architectural draftsman, an artist, a sommelier and trained photographer, and a chef. It was not wasted on me how fortunate to find myself “imprisoned” on acres of picturesque pastures with this talented group. When the confines of the gutted house became less than bearable, one could escape to the green rolling hills just outside our door – a safe and socially-distanced haven in which to breathe in fresh air and a clear perspective.
On the shrewd advice of my daughter’s fiancé and our resident chef, the previous owner’s sitting room was fashioned into a “temporary” kitchen. He suggested commercial grade hotplates to fill the void of a cooktop and a top-of-the-line toaster oven to stand in for the range. An undercounter microwave and good coffee makers completed the necessities. He and my husband even had the wise idea to put the grill into the gutted back of the house. Complete with a draft fan, it became indispensable, even its side burner was called into action for many a meal.
My husband created countertops out of flooring material from Home Depot and set them on top of metal racks that became our de facto pantry and pot storage. We called into service the refrigerator from the gutted kitchen and added a gas log set to the existing fireplace. We even installed a kitchen sink in the old bar cabinet and placed next to it a new washer and dryer topped with a counter fashioned from the antique French cherry island that had once been the proud centerpiece of the former kitchen. A rug from a local home store, skirted Ikea Parsons chairs being held in storage for our daughters’ future first homes, our old wooden kitchen table once a homework station for the girls, a prized antler chandelier, and various pieces of art from our collection completed the scene.
This quirky room (which will eventually become our formal dining room) was our sole sanctuary during the months of lockdown. A quarantine kitchen that warmed us literally and figuratively, providing food and shelter during a time of uncertainty. The space ended up feeling like a cozy English country kitchen and pantry, layered with memories and many stories to tell. On any given day, you could find a pot of soup simmering in the slow cooker while a casserole bubbled in the Breville. Chef could be found most afternoons at the prep area miraculously producing gourmet meals from thin air, while our daughter tested on us her burgeoning bartending skills with deliciously crafted cocktails. The table would be set with linens and crystal unearthed from the stacks of moving boxes now stored in the gutted rear of the house, and candles were lit for dinner each evening without fail. I could have easily bemoaned the lack of so many things about this humble room: state-of-the art appliances, a proper kitchen sink, and an automated dishwasher, but realized instead I had everything I needed not only to survive, but to do it in style.