Walking into Suzanne Russell’s home on North Madison Street in Tupelo, you may be forgiven for imagining yourself at a photo shoot for Better Homes & Gardens. Russell, who has lived at her new address only since September, turned this roughly 70-year-old house into a sparkling jewel in just a few months. The cottage looks organic and natural, not stuffy – or heaven forbid – new.
“When I walked in, I loved it. I wanted it so badly,” Russell recalled her first impression. “I felt right at home.”
Hard to believe, if you knew the history of the 2-bedroom, 1,545-square-foot house: It sat dormant for nearly two years in foreclosure and had not been remodeled since the 1970s. It reeked like any long closed-up property – a deeply penetrating musty smell and came with its old curtains.
“It was bad, really horrible,” the 58-year-old remembered the smell. But she was not deterred.
Russell bought the house for just $61,200 and spent another $38,000 on remodeling and new furniture. A recent unofficial estimate by her bank puts the value of the home now at around $138,000.
Not that Russell would be tempted to sell. She carefully remodeled the home. Then she had out the entire bathroom torn out, large parts of the kitchen and replaced the entire siding. The dark hardwood floors were refinished, but she made sure she kept the character of the cottage by leaving all the original wooden doors and window casings.
Color was important to Russell, who chose a palette of understated muted greens and grays, offset by white trim, in keeping with the vintage cottage look.
‘”I like the calmness of the colors,” Russell said. “I’m not into matchy-matchy stuff. I like to put things together that usually don’t go together, like some primitive furniture pieces with something more elegant.”
But for all these accomplishments, Russell never set out to become a contractor. Rather, remodeling became a way for her to survive, to cope with her own loss.
In 2009, her then 45-year-old husband Randy, super fit – she says – someone who ran two to three miles daily – suddenly developed bad headaches. Diagnosed in June with a CSF leak, which means that the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord escapes, Randy died barely two months later in August.
“All of a sudden what do you do with yourself?” the then 54-year old asked herself in despair.
Just four months later, tragedy struck again. This time in the form of a serious wreck when a car ran into her car sideways on Christmas Eve, leaving her with a tibial plateau fracture below her right knee. She spent three months in a wheelchair and another five on crutches.
Soon she realized she had to downsize and sell the house she had owned with Randy, which had become too expensive on just one salary. When she found a new house, Russell, who works on car titles for two Tupelo car dealers, threw all her energy into the new project of moving and remodeling as a way of keeping herself busy, a way to numb her pain.
But while she enjoyed the project, the wheelchair and crutches limited the scope of what she could do.
“I had lots of help doing it,” Russell said. “But somehow I felt like I had to do something else.”
That’s when Russell found the old cottage on North Madison. And so, after just two-and-a-half years she decided to put the second house up for sale.
Of course, the remodeling of the cottage was not all smooth sailing. Far from it. Russell discovered rot under the floorboards in the small laundry room and half of the floor had to be replaced. When she called the electrician to have more outlets placed into the walls, he informed her he could not touch the circuitry before installing a new electric box. Outside, the original wood siding was entirely rotted and Russell replaced it with new vinyl siding.
She learned along the way. For example, space is always at a premium in old cottages. That’s why Russell decided to use the old water heater’s cut-out space in the kitchen wall as a home for a new stainless steel fridge. Meanwhile the microwave disappeared into the small pantry. She tore a few of the old kitchen cabinets out, had the remaining ones refinished and placed new doors on the outsides.
Her advice to those hunting for an old house: Make sure you get a home inspection before you buy (she did), be prepared for surprises (like the one in her laundry room), don’t set your budget in stone (you will overshoot it), do as much yourself as you can to save money, respect the house’s old character (try to keep as many quaint features as possible) and – most importantly — don’t expect a new, modern house at the end of the process.
What’s she most proud of? Russell did not hesitate. “My copper awning above my front door,” she said with a big smile. She patina look with a salt, vinegar and ammonia mixture, having found the recipe online.
Looking around her new home, Russell still is not quite done. The backyard needs landscaping; eventually she plans to replace some of the windows; and the little walk-in closet in the bedroom needs shelving to maximize the small amount of storage space. Some things just have to wait until she’s saved enough money again.
But with Randy’s recliner in her bedroom, his old briefcase in the small study, and his leather armchair and ottoman nestled among her new furniture in the den, Russell says she’s sure of one thing: Randy would have been perfectly happy to live here.
Story by Sandra Knispel // Photos by Adam Robison