BOOK REVIEW: A Very Modest Cottage

A Very Modest CottageTHIS SWEET LITTLE BOOK attests to the power of the idea of ‘cottage’ — the emotional pull four walls and a roof can exert.

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).

On truck

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.

Tereasa Surratt

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.

5 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: A Very Modest Cottage

  1. Very nice. Out house in house if you know what I mean?

    I don’t have sisters but do have daughters: that sisterly guilt thing is strong medicine.

  2. You are absolutely right: a perfect gift for everyone. Well, I am not talking just about the book (but it is a good idea too), I am talking about the cottage…
    I was quite surprise how many things can be nicely placed in such a small interior… And that emotional history of it! Unbelievable! But definitely, it looks like a very cosy and welcoming place to stay in!

  3. I love it, I have an old building that would be a perfect guest out, it still has the old green paint inside, I am going to move it to my lakeside retreat. Thanks for the idea.

  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed your book and every time I read it I am just absolutely filled with emotion. So much so, it actually surprised me. I love the history that becomes a part of this cabin, suddenly it doesn’t seem so… small.

    We recently purchased a cabin on 40 acres in Northern Ontario that has a newer cabin built on it but right beside it is an old small cabin that the original owners used for their own vacations, or perhaps they even lived there. Who knows. It would be so exciting to find out as well.

    Your book has inspired me to see if I can get this little cabin back to its original glory. Perhaps make it a guest room, or a sauna, or a meditation place…. who knows. But every time I look at it now I will think of the history that live inside those walls. :)

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