The Cottage

Interior designer Betsy Cole transforms a Gilded-Age Maine “cottage” back to its former glory—and finds a surprising family connection

Roxanne Jones

“When I walked in the front door of this house for the first time, I felt that I’d been here my whole life,” says Betsy Cole of the southern Maine home that she and her husband, Ed, bought ten years ago.

There was a serendipitous reason for that sense of connectedness. It turns out that The Cottage—an ironic appellation for this grand, 5400-square-foot home—had belonged to one of Betsy’s relatives three generations ago.

The couple first discovered The Cottage during a summer vacation in the late 1990s. While giving visitors a driving tour of the southern Maine coast, they came upon the erstwhile York Cliffs area.

“We saw The Cottage and it was for sale,” she recalls. “It was in an acute state of disrepair, but my husband and I thought that maybe we could buy and flip it. The real estate prices in Maine were considerably less than in Connecticut, where we lived at the time,” she adds.

Betsy and Ed certainly had the credentials for a successful flip. For 17 years, she’d been a partner in a well-known interior design firm in New York City, and Ed owned a design and development company.

“But when I walked in and felt like I’d been there … and when I discovered the family connection [from the then-owner], I had to have it. I’d never acted that spontaneously in my life,” she adds, laughing. “And I’ve never regretted it for a minute.”

In the late 1800s, she explains, a consortium of affluent New Yorkers bought a few hundred acres in Cape Neddick they called York Cliffs. “Their intention was to build an exclusive coastal colony to rival Bar Harbor,” Betsy says.

The York Cliffs Improvement Company, as the consortium was known, built 13 large “cottages,” most in the then-popular shingle style. One, called Greystones, was built by Betsy’s great-great-grandfather Kinney. He also built The Cottage in 1894 for one of his sons, who was Betsy’s great-grand uncle. “My family had always  summered on the mid-Maine coast so I had an attachment to the area,” she notes. But until she walked into The Cottage, she had no idea of the extent of her family’s connection.
In the ten years since Betsy and Ed moved into The Cottage—it is their year-round residence—they have lovingly restored it to its turn-of-the-century elegance, melding period details with modern-day amenities to create a wonderfully livable home.

But it begs the question: how does someone with Betsy’s credentials, experience and, literally, a world of resources at her disposal, design a home for herself?

“It is difficult,” she admits. “You have this knowledge of the best that’s out there, but you also have a budget. And it’s not a question of what you like; I like almost everything! So it becomes a process of elimination, listening to how the house speaks to you and knowing your own needs. And working with pieces you already own.

“You start by defining your goals,” she continues. “I knew the feeling I wanted to create. I just needed to decide how to get there.”

Betsy sought to create a feeling of harmony, balance and serenity. And she decided to use color to achieve it.

“My design inclination is as a classicist,” she explains. “Part of that definition is avoiding sharp contrasts, creating a harmonic composition that’s soothing.”

That’s one reason why she didn’t use patterned wallpaper in The Cottage. “In a traditional house like this, you typically see rooms wallpapered,” she says. “But I didn’t want the disruption in flow from room to room.”

She opted for paint instead, and her color inspiration came from two sources. “I have a small but decent collection of Hudson River Valley art,” she says, pointing to an oil painting hanging in the living room as an example. “It blends with the view from the house … you see the sapphire blue of the water, the dense greens of the pines, tree trunks of varying browns. Look at the view, look at the painting—it’s a total relationship.”

The second source of inspiration was the outdoors. “To achieve harmony, what I see outside has to hold hands with what I see inside,” Betsy says. “It’s as if there are no walls, no demarcation between inside and out.

“I had to live here a while to figure it out,” she continues, referring to her color selections. “I like multi-pigment paints—they’re more complex [than saturated color]. I custom-mixed every paint color in the house.”

That took time as well (“I thought my husband was going to divorce me!” she jokes.) But her perseverance paid off. “Nine out of ten people who visit our home comment on the color,” she says. And she is happy with the results. “The green in the living room changes with the light, becoming a grayer green on cloudy days,” she comments. “And on a brilliant day, it transforms itself.”

The coppery hue on the library walls is the result of a glaze applied to grasscloth wall-covering, providing a warm counterbalance to the cool green walls in the adjacent living room.

She made some internal structural changes to the home as well. When the Coles bought The Cottage, it had been turned into a two-family residence, so some reconfiguring was necessary to make it a single-family home once again. “But we didn’t change the footprint of the house or add rooms, except for a mudroom,” Betsy says. “We just took back what was originally here.”

The renovation took years and included restoring the original wood floors, replastering the walls and rebuilding porches. Betsy and her husband lived in The Cottage while they restored it. “It was an incredibly impoverished house,” she comments. Not any more.

They transformed three separate bedrooms into an expansive master bedroom suite that includes a sitting room, bedroom, dressing room with walk-in closet, and bath. “In these old houses, every bedroom opened onto the next,” she explains of their decision to reconfigure the master suite. The new layout affords more privacy for the homeowners and their guests.

There are still three additional bedrooms on the second floor, and a space they refer to as the “camp” on the third floor—a rustic, open area with walls and sloped ceiling paneled in the home’s original triple-beadboard.

Back on the first floor, they turned an added-on kitchen back into a library, which was the space’s original purpose. It now features a built-in bar crafted by Ed (in fact, he built the cabinetry throughout the home).

Betsy points out that she uses a lot of mirrors in her interiors. “It’s not about vanity,” she says. “This is a fairly large house, but the individual rooms aren’t all that big. Mirrors extend the boundaries of a space and reflect light in a prismatic, shimmery way.”

The grounds of The Cottage have also flourished during the Coles’ tenure in the home. “There was nothing but trees when we first moved in,” she says. Her husband laid out all the gardens, and she gives credit to Monique Richard of TLC for Your Garden for bringing it all to lush fruition. “She and her all-woman crew take a totally organic approach, and the results have been simply amazing.”

Perhaps the ultimate testament to Betsy’s design prowess lies in the most frequent question she gets from first-time visitors to The Cottage. “But what did you actually do to the house?” they ask, because the home looks as if it were always the way it is today.

And while The Cottage is a decidedly elegant residence, she is quick to point out that real people live in it.

“This house is well-used, and we use it all,” she says. “My husband plays the grand piano that’s in the entry, friends sit on the sun porch and read The New York Times, we host a lot of gatherings for family and friends, and there are kids around all the time—our grandchildren have even ridden their Razor Scooters through the house.
“Nothing’s off limits,” she adds. “What’s the point?”

Sounds like The Cottage will remain in Betsy’s family for generations to come.

The American Dream

Midlife gets a new life in the city.
By Angelina Sciolla

It is obvious Jill Colton has given this tour before. She remembers to point out everything from the Brazilian slate shower to the original arched brickwork around the windows to the heirloom china. It’s also safe to say her enthusiasm about the exercise has not waned since the first walk-through of the spacious Washington Square condominium she has shared with her husband, Neil, for the past two years.

“Things get a new life when they move someplace else,” she says amid the collection of crystal, antique lamps, and modern art pieces picked up from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art shows, galleries and adventures around the world. Clearly this tour is far more than a mere showcase of what a talented decorator can do. Jill’s narration suggests it is not just things that get a new life. People do too, particularly people who’ve lived a good deal already.

Jill and Neil Colton represent an ongoing trend that continues to gain momentum among baby boomers—those midlife-leaning-toward-retirement-age people who are not “maturing” in the same way their parents had. In the spirit of reinvention, they are turning away from suburbia and the presumed inevitability of a geriatric country club lifestyle and moving back into the cities—the same cities from which many of them fled as young married couples in search of better schools and neighborhoods for their children.

“It represents a total lifestyle change,” says Greg Damis, president of the Philadelphia Realtors Association. “The flight to the suburbs was viewed as a sign of success…the single family house, the American dream. Now that dream of ‘getting out’ has reversed itself.”

The Coltons live in the Lippincott Condominium, on the east side of Washington Square. The building, an architectural landmark, dates back to 1796.

About four years ago, the architects at Cecil Baker & Associates, along with MCW Construction of New Jersey, created six floors of customized living space. Some floors are divided into two units while others, like the Coltons’ home, take up the entire floor. Jill, the former president of the Science Center in Philadelphia as well as former business partner of commercial real estate developer William Rouse, negotiated the purchase of the unit “raw,” before the contractors smoothed over or concealed of the buildings any unique or original features—giving the Coltons the benefit of a clean slate. As a result, Jill and interior designer Michael Shannon created a dream home that she and Neil share, not just with each other, but frequently with family, friends, and even fellow art patrons as the couple occasionally hosts informal fundraising events for local theater companies.

Having traded large homes on several acres for a one-level, 3,500-square-foot condo with a doorman, Jill and Neil have rid themselves of such worries as lawn maintenance, snow removal and pool cleaning. Like many boomers moving back to the city, they sought convenience as well as practical usage of space. Allan Domb, whose real estate company handles the sales of the most exclusive luxury condos in Center City, including the Lippincott, Parc Rittenhouse, the Lanesborough and the Barclay, sees the Coltons as the model for the new midlife urban dweller and affirms the reverse-migration trend.

“They’re looking for convenience,” says Domb of this demographic. “The kids are out of the house and suddenly there’s no need for four or five bedrooms. People realize they’re living in just three rooms in the house—the den, the kitchen and the bedroom.

”But it’s not all about space and convenience. There is a certain glamour to living in the city. It’s a kind of energy that one may not find at a beachfront retirement community or some bucolic suburban setting where the streetlights shut off at 11 p.m. The day does not end once the SUV pulls into the garage. The access to restaurants, theater, museums and nightlife at any time means a continuous and growing source of social and cultural engagement.

“There are those who want the country club life,” Jill explains. “People come here more for intellectual stimulation. They take courses at Penn, like to go to museums. It’s more about culture than just recreation.”

But even as this reverse migration is hailed as a trend, unvarnished statistics don’t offer strong support for that claim. There is no formal data that indicates a trend, although Damis mentioned an informal survey among a small population of condo owners in Philadelphia marks a surge in baby-boomer urban condo dwellers. According to the National Realtors Association, about 25 percent of baby boomers in the U.S. live in urban areas. Yet, locally, there is no data delving deeper into that statistic. Neither the Multiple Listing Serve nor the Philadelphia Realtors Association has such demographical information.

Anecdotal evidence, however, continues to emerge. Signs of a trend have been reported in other major cities. Chicago’s “west loop” neighborhood, formerly an industrial part of that city, is the site of urban renewal as old factories become living spaces and empty-nesters in search of a maintenance-free life flock to the revamped and affordable real estate.

The National Realtors Association’s 2006 Baby Boomer Profile, which offers a comprehensive examination of the demographic’s overall financial status, purchasing trends and attitudes about money, real estate and the future.

The median income of baby boomer households is $64,700, 31 percent more than that of all households in the U.S. Their median net worth is $146,000, which means they have buying power. The numbers overall are more favorable for the 55–and-older boomers. The 40–somethings may still be building careers, raising children or buying a home, so the trend tends to suit those closer to traditional retirement age. And with Center City condo prices ranging from $500,000 for a two-bedroom unit in a high-rise to $3 million for a Colton-sized space in the Lippincott, older boomers have the means to finance a big purchase. Supplementing generous salaries, home sales and smart investments are inheritances. “There is a tremendous transfer of wealth occurring right now in the country,” Domb says. The parents of baby boomers are passing on and leaving estates behind.” Moreover, many of the midlife buyers own vacation homes, resulting in additional sources of collateral.

Damis said that, while the price tags are high, there remains the allure of a tax incentive. “Someone living in Cherry Hill may be paying up to $12,000 a year in property taxes while someone in Center City, with the 10 tax abatement, may be paying a maximum of $5,000.

”No doubt there has been a real estate boom in Philadelphia. Center City life is thriving and at every turn there is a new high-rise under construction or an old gem in the process of conversion to residential space. Yet the numbers also indicate that Philadelphia is losing residents. Since 2002 the city population has declined by more than 200,000 residents per year. According to analysts and real estate watchers, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. People continue to move to Philadelphia, and while they are not making up for the population loss, this affluent and older group of Philadelphians is, in fact, moving into the center of town. Urban planners and entrepreneurs are hoping that, in the long run, such a revival will lure residents around the periphery to stay.

Another insight offered from the National Realtors Association is the fact that barely half of boomers with annual incomes above $100,000 feel prepared to retire. They’re still saving, investing and pursuing careers.

While this suggests some insecurity about not having prepared enough for the future, it also alludes to the reality that many boomers intend to stay engaged in the workplace for some time. The study confirms this, indicating only 26 percent of boomers intend to stop working once they reach retirement age. In other words, boomers returning to the city may be here for the long haul, not merely long enough to document a passing trend. They remain a viable economic force and even a source of economic growth.

Domb explains that work—or at least the commute to work—is a factor that determines the location of a condo purchase. “Typically if they’re working out on the Main Line or west of the city, they want Rittenhouse Square” he says. “If they’re commuting to New Jersey, they often look in the Washington Square area.

”Neil Colton is the co-chair of the corporate restructuring department at the law firm of Cozen and O’Conner as well as an adjunct law professor at Temple University. He walks the 15 blocks to work each day and always carries his SEPTA bus tokens in case of inclement weather. And while Jill has retired from her position at the Science Center, she remains a member of several professional board and volunteers her time and business expertise to such arts institutions as the Kimmel Center and the Walnut Street Theater.

An active and affluent couple thoroughly engaged in the cultural life of the city, the Coltons provide the most persuasive endorsement of the baby boomer trend for yet another reason. The Coltons are still newlyweds, having married in October 2004.

Jill and Neil were both graduates of the class of 1962 at Lower Merion High School. When they were young and married to their first spouses, they lived in the same apartment complex and the couples often played bridge together. As time went on, they lost touch. When they were matched up several years ago, it seemed a function of destiny.

“As soon as we got together we knew we belonged together,” says Neil.

Jill, a vivacious and stylish woman with the energy and enthusiasm of someone half her age, chimes in, noting that their courtship and union seems to have a sense of possibility and renewal because the first act of their lives was, overall, a positive experience.

“I think we felt so lucky to have found each other because we had such good mates before,” said Jill. “This second chance is a gift.

”It seems in that spirit that Jill and Neil have decided to decorate and furnish their home. They have joined the best of their previous lives to create a new one together, and the effect is stunning. The space itself provides a good deal of inspiration. The 20 foot ceilings and nineteen windows—about a third of which offer enviable views of Washington Square Park—contribute to the condo’s open and elegant atmosphere.

Yet the décor and warm lighting is devoid of fussiness. While there is much to admire, from the Duravit sink and bath fixtures to Neil’s baby grand piano, the space is comfortable and livable. Jill even says her toddler grandsons are particularly fond of the house and are frequent visitors.

“We took what was meaningful and blended it all,” says Jill of the furniture, art and accessories. Throughout the house there are reminders of the past. The wrought iron gates from Jill’s mother’s house that now mark the entrance to the space from the elevator, blended seamlessly with newer pieces, many of which, such as the piece from an Italian oxcart, were acquired during their frequent travels to Europe, Africa and Asia.

Most of the people in the Lippincott are older 50 and many, according to Jill, have moved there from the suburbs for many of the same reasons the Coltons did.

“People want one-story living. They want to walk and be healthy,” Jill says. “They want a different lifestyle. The kids are grown; the pressure of building a career is off. It’s a time to start over and dream a little.

”To view the boomer flight from the suburbs to the city as a mere real estate trend is to diminish a deeper cultural shift in attitudes among people in midlife. As the Coltons demonstrate, life does not necessarily have to follow a long and uninterrupted trajectory from marriage, family and work to retirement. The often politely uttered phrase “age is just a number,” has gained meaning as baby boomers interpret and navigate their lives through a succession of beginnings rather than endings.

Past the exquisite granite countertops in the kitchen, the comfortably sized soaking tub in the master bathroom and the family portraits in the bedroom, Jill returns to the living room, nearing the end of the tour. She stops in front of her mother’s china cabinet and pulls out two dishes, one from Neil’s family collection and one from hers. She holds the dishes side by side and then on top off each other, showing that, while the patterns are different, they complement each other nonetheless.

Angelina Sciolla lives in Philadelphia, PA.