Tereasa Surratt, author of A Very Modest Cottage (Hearst/ Sterling), went to great lengths to rescue and lovingly restore a broken-down 1920s shack that sat on her grandmother’s property in rural Illinois. The cottage was Surratt’s childhood playhouse in all its “twelve-by-twelve foot glory.” Then thirty Midwestern winters took their toll, and it was abandoned for decades by all but mice.
With the help of her handy husband, David Hernandez, and her brother Sam, whom she coaxed into the project with “homemade cookies and sisterly guilt trips,” Surratt moved the diminutive dwelling to a Wisconsin lakefront and, over a period of three months, turned it into something worthy of Country Living magazine (whose imprimatur is above the book’s title).
An advertising creative director in Chicago when she’s not saving derelict cabins, Surratt documents the move, the renovation, the decorating, and the landscaping (mostly with hostas) in great pictorial detail. Graphically, the book is a charming product, with endpapers in a 1940s floral barkcloth design, even an ersatz library card in a pocket. Inside, it has a scrapbook feel, with sketches and swatches, inspiring quotes (the book’s title comes from Thomas Jefferson), and information-packed sidebars.
The book is also a high-spirited how-to, with instructions for refinishing wood floors, hooking up a potbelly stove, and what Surratt calls “the fun part”: shopping for period-appropriate furnishings and accessories like a junk-store mirror and dresser, camp blankets, fishing reels, and paint-by-number pictures.
Later, when Surratt got around to research, she discovered the cottage had several prior lives. A tourist cabin in the early days of the automobile, it was booked by the hour in the 1930s for the “hot pillow trade.” In the ’40s, a rod-and-gun club used it for Friday night card games. In the ’50s, it served as the office for a trucking company. Then it was a storage shed before being finally abandoned. Now it’s a guest cottage once more, on property owned by her husband’s family.
A Very Modest Cottage would make a fine gift for anyone embarking on the hands-on renovation of a house, which — no matter how modest — has got to be grander than this one.
Go here for a video of the cottage’s history and much more.