THE most magical things in life are the ones that spring up where you least expect them — the rosebush in the abandoned lot, for example, or in the case of Sandra Foster, the tiny Victorian cottage in the Catskills that shares space with a 1971 mobile home, two aged trucks, a pen full of chickens and a hand-lettered sign advertising “Farm Fresh Eggs, $2 a Dozen.”
The chickens and their eggs are the remnants of a restaurant that Ms. Foster’s husband, Todd, a great bear of man, tried to run in this sleepy college town last summer; like the landscape business he started a few years earlier, it failed. Mr. Foster, who is working at a local poultry farm, is still recovering from back troubles, making Ms. Foster, a fiscal administrator at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, the primary wage earner.
No matter. Ms. Foster has her own shabby-chic retreat. It may not have a bathroom or a kitchen, but it is a dream of Victoriana: stacks of Limoges china with tiny rosebud patterns; chandeliers dripping crystal; billows of tissue-paper garlands.
This is all the more impressive because she renovated the 9-by-14-foot cottage, an old hunting cabin, herself. The cost of renovating and furnishing it: $3,000.
Ms. Foster haunted upstate salvage shops from Kingston to Albany for old windows with wavy glass; she found an old porch door in the precise shade of hunter green once used on the boarding houses that dotted the area; she used a jigsaw to create gingerbread trim and cut out openings for the windows.
This is a very special sort of dream house: the Victorian Ms. Foster has wanted since she was a teenager on Long Island and her middle-class family lost their home. It is a house that is as soul-satisfying as it was when she first imagined it as a 15-year-old, even with the ups and downs that grown-up life brings.
“My refuge,” she calls it.
The Fosters’ country homestead is a study in contrasts, as are the Fosters. She is 42, a size zero and wears pink wellies, black tights and a paint-spattered Irish knit sweater over a brown jersey. Sitting in their trailer, listening to her husband speak, she brushes first the long hair of Zuzu, one of her two Maltese dogs, whom she sometimes refers to as her daughter, then her own long white-blond hair.
Mr. Foster, 51, is a man whose chest gives the impression that he has to go through doors sideways. An independent spirit who left high school at 15 to see the country, he has worked as a carpenter, a cook and a landscaper. His two much-larger dogs are Ruffy, a Doberman mix he found by the side of the road, tossed from a car as a puppy, and Mullet, a Labrador retriever. He also has 19 chickens, 8 chicks and 8 baby pheasants. Plus, Ms. Foster noted, two hummingbirds, though technically, they merely visit.
The Fosters’ 14-acre property in Delaware County has a “Men Are From Mars” — as in, they decorate with dog hair — “Women Are From Venus” feel, although they share the trailer, which is their actual home. (Ms. Foster’s romantic studio, lacking heat as well as plumbing, is uninhabitable in winter.) With its ’70s-era avocado-and-gold color scheme, it is known as the Groove Tube.
Mr. Foster’s personal property is his “man cave,” a truck-size shed covered by an enormous tarp. It’s furnished with a big-screen TV, lots of videotapes, cooking equipment and two lamp-warmed cages for the chicks and pheasants. (Note on young pheasants: they are the rare infants that are not cute. But when you are introduced to one, on someone’s outstretched palm, you must pat its head anyway.)
Across a stream and up a steep hill is Ms. Foster’s Victorian cottage. With lavender blush white petunias in a window box and lace curtains, it is clean as a summer cloud.
MS. Foster’s dream of a country house began when she was in high school in Holbrook on Long Island, and her father, a radio announcer, tried to start his own radio station. After the business failed, her family lost their home, and Ms. Foster said she spent “lots of my high school years being homeless,” living with her family in furnished basements or spare rooms in her parents’ friends’ houses. (Her younger sister, Nicole Tadgell, an award-winning children’s book illustrator, remembers it as being less than a year.)
Despite the financial pressures, Ms. Foster said, her father would consider no work but radio and had difficulty working with others.
Mr. Foster, hanging near the open door of the trailer, had a thought about this. “I would suggest he probably lost a lot of his spirit, kind of felt broken,” he said. “He being an entrepreneur and going through many phases of businesses opening and closing.”
What was the effect of homelessness on Ms. Foster?
“If you don’t have a home, you don’t have a sense of place, you don’t have a life, you don’t have a soul,” she said. “This was a nice average suburban community. We were four kids and two parents living in a single room. I got very internal. I buckled down and did my homework. I got used to living in small spaces.”
Ms. Foster was an honor student in high school, then graduated from Wheaton College in 1990 with a B.A. in literature and a $16,000 college loan. Unable to find a good job in New York City, she stayed with her mother in various rental properties on Long Island and worked minimum-wage jobs to pay off her loan. For several years, she worked two full-time jobs. Her solace was listening to the band Rush and gardening, she said, but whenever the landlord wanted his house, she’d lose her garden.
It was while she was working in Suffolk County, as a mail carrier by day and sterilizing glasses for a pharmaceutical company at night, that she met Todd Foster, who was then working for a landscape company.
“I was a gardener, he was a gardener,” she said. “There is a plant called nepeta. I had trouble growing it. He grew it like gangbusters. I was fascinated by this very handsome man who could grow something I couldn’t grow like there was no tomorrow.”
They married in 2000 in a Renaissance-themed ceremony (“I made 19 cloaks,” Mr. Foster said) and settled in Riverhead, N.Y. A year later, longing to be in the country, they bought a big, rundown farmhouse three hours away, near Kerhonkson, for $69,000. Ms. Foster worked two jobs on Long Island to pay for it, going upstate on weekends, while Mr. Foster stayed at the farmhouse and tried to start a landscape business.
“This is when I discover, much to my horror, that Todd and I aren’t completely alike,” Ms. Foster said. “He is not a tidy man, he likes to collect things and stuff, most of which is very large, like tractors. My idea of houses is Victorian, cute, magazine-perfect, lots of white. When I come home on the weekend there are dishes in the sink, dog hair everywhere and he has probably dug some new hole with one of his excavators because he wants to put a pond in, and I have three acres to weed-whack instead of mow — on the weekend, mind you, and I’m working two jobs.”
She continued: “It was horrible. I don’t have the money to do the things I want to do, like decorate. We wanted to have kids, but I don’t feel like I can stop working because I’m funding all this. Growing up with homelessness, I know the consequences of stopping working.”
The stress became so intense that Ms. Foster had what she called a nervous breakdown: falling on the floor, screaming, crying.
“The huge house was half renovated, the life was killing me,” she said. “The only thing holding me together was Todd’s love, and his love of food and feeding me, and his love of flowers. Every single day I come here, there are flowers. A whole path of rose petals leading to a bath full of rose petals and candles. He’s a magical man, despite his flaws.”
Their great big farmhouse, they realized, was ruining their lives. In 2007, they found this wooded property, with the trailer and cabin, for $46,000. Ms. Foster, seeing the hunting cabin on the hill, knew it could be her dream house.
“It was like coming home,” she said, after Mr. Foster had gone to do chores and the conversation had moved up the hill to her cottage. “I get tears in my eyes thinking about it. It was everything I had dreamed of, in every novel I had read, every song I had heard.”
The cabin was then a 9-by-10-foot box with a peaked roof, five small windows and a sleeping loft over a small porch supported by tree trunks. Ms. Foster began work on it as soon as time and money allowed, in July 2009.
Armed with a crowbar, hammer and electrical saw, she removed the front of the cabin and extended the floor and porch, using salvaged floorboards. She framed out the porch and found columns, a screen door and hardware at New York Salvage, in nearby Oneonta.
The only help Ms. Foster required from her husband was setting the columns and rafter over the porch. The four columns cost $60 each, and one was split lengthwise to make decorative pilasters for the porch.
Armed with her saw, Ms. Foster cut out spaces for windows, which she bought for $30 each at Historic Albany Foundation’s Architectural Parts Warehouse. She found a tin ceiling on Craigslist for $200, and a wooden mantelpiece at the Linger Corner Gift Company antiques store in High Falls for about $350. Many of the faded white book jackets came from Beth Neumann, at TatteredVintage.
Furnishings, which had to be carried across a shaky bridge over the stream and then up the steep hill, posed a challenge. So what appears to be a short, fat love seat is really a lightweight wicker sofa from Ikea, plumped up with pillows and embroidered Ralph Lauren pillowcases. Ms. Foster built the china closet using scrap wood and French doors she found at a yard sale.
Was she ecstatic when it was completed?
“Yeah,” Ms. Foster said. “I was. I remember the night I finished as clear as a bell: November 1. I was listening to Rush at very high volume over and over, it was freezing cold, I was starting to paint, but the moon was out. I looked up at the moon, twirling, with my arms out. I was ready to cry.”
Does she plan to install plumbing and turn it into a real house?
“Not really,” she said. “It’s just my little studio. If I add on to it, I have to pay taxes. It might be nice to have a fireplace, but do I want to live with Todd up here? I would probably have to clean up after him. What’s the point? It’s a tale of two cities.”
Ms. Foster cannot yet fulfill her dream of living in the country full time — quitting her job and trying to find another would likely mean a pay cut — so she makes the four-hour drive back and forth from the city every weekend. “You have to be self-sufficient in this world, a woman especially,” she said.
Finally, it was time to go back down the hill and across the stream to the trailer, where her husband came through the door with a surprise: freshly baked rolls, still warm from the oven.
He placed them in a basket and put them, with a bucket of margarine and cups of green tea, on the coffee table. Surrounded by four dogs — two from Mars, two from Venus — everyone ate.
When I saw this I thought that this would be something that Thomas and I would Do!! And We Would Love Doing It Together!
Make sure you follow the link(in blue..the tiny Victorian cottage) and go through the slide show of all the photos. I just really adore this story, this tiny house and this lady! Joyce Wadler from the New York Times is responsible for this lovely story.
Please let me know what you think about this wonderful little piece of Yummy! I needed to share...