Renovation
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From Drab to Delightful: A Door County Cabin Renovation

A family renovates their Door County cabin from the foundation up

By Christy Heitger-Ewing
Published: August 1, 2011
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IT TAKES VISION – When Alison Tatlow first saw the run-down 1940s-vintage cabin, she saw dirt. Her husband, Phil, saw danger – in keeping with his career as a personal injury attorney. But Alison and Phil were able to look past the dirt and danger, envisioning a summer bungalow that – with a complete makeover, inside and out – would thrive given its prime location on the Door County peninsula, which offers great boating and sailing experiences.
Photo by Len Villano
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GOOD BONES – When the Tatlows' remodeler assessed the old cabin's potential, he was happy to see it had good bones.
Photo by Len Villano
Ever since they bought a cabin in Ephraim, Wis., nearly two decades ago, Alison and Phil Tatlow have been in love with cabin living.
   
So the couple was thrilled when they stumbled upon an old seasonal cabin on a prime piece of property located on the Door County peninsula near Green Bay, just 18 miles from their winterized cabin.
   
The Tatlows envisioned their purchase as being the ideal summer bungalow for company overflow. They also considered renting out the cabin during warm-weather months to generate a little extra cash. They imagined it would be easy to rent given its location on the northern part of the peninsula, which offered great boating and sailing opportunities. There was just one problem. The 850-square-foot cabin, built in the 1940s, was in terrible condition.
   
“When I first saw the place, I was aghast,” recalls Alison. “It was completely dilapidated and dirty.”
   
Where Alison saw dirt, Phil saw danger. A personal injury attorney, Phil recognized the attention the structure needed in order to make it livable.

From “Ewwww!” to “Ohhhh!”
The first thing the Tatlows did was ask local builder Myron Beard to assess the place. They were relieved to find that despite a poor foundation, the cabin had “good bones” and had suffered no mold or moisture damage. Still, there was much to be done – starting with the caved-in foundation. Beard and his crew tore out 20 feet of cinder blocks, digging down to the footings, and then, block-by-block, they rebuilt the foundation.
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MEMORY LANE – When you look at the "after" photo of this kitchen, do you feel transported to a cheery cabin from years gone by? That's exactly the look and feeling the owners were aiming for. Alison says, "We wanted it to feel like we were stepping back in time – into our grandparents' cabin."
Photo by Len Villano
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MAJOR IMPROVEMENT – The cabin's previous owners stapled pieces of Styrofoam to the ceiling for insulation, without covering it. So the Tatlows completely redid the ceiling, covering it with knotty pine. Rather than typical roof trusses, this cabin’s roof system is based on thick braided-metal cables that run across the width of the cabin. Though log beams sit just below the metal cable truss system, the beams are solely aesthetic in nature.
Photo by Len Villano
Revitalizing the Woodwork
Next came a floor-to-ceiling renovation of the cabin’s interior. First, the Tatlows sanded and refinished the Douglas-fir floors.
   
And then the couple gave the kitchen and bathrooms a facelift by installing custom knotty pine cabinets.
   
Another overhaul involved the living room ceiling where, in an effort to insulate, previous owners had stapled pieces of Styrofoam to the ceiling. The Tatlows removed the Styrofoam only to find that the ceiling had been coated with some sort of ugly stucco product.
   
“It was a blooming nightmare,” says Phil. “There was no way to remove it, so we covered it up with a new pine ceiling.”

Renovating the Bathrooms
The renovation didn’t stop there. The couple also gutted both bathrooms and installed new showers, sinks and toilets.

“One of the toilets had partially fallen through the floor,” says Phil. “It went halfway down like the Titanic!”
   
Beard discovered that the bathroom floor was rotten. Because water drawn from the cabin’s 300-foot well was very cold, the toilet bowl collected condensation, saturating the floor beneath. After repairing the floor and toilet, to remedy the source of the problem, the Tatlows installed a tempering valve on the toilet to warm the water before it hit the bowl. They also reinforced and helped waterproof the floors by laying down vinyl.

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Alison found this metal enamel table (circa 1930s) and set of red vinyl chairs (circa late-1940s) at an antique mall.
Photo by Len Villano
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When doing the renovation, the Tatlows left all of the original “camp-style” windows – the type where you unhook the screen on the inside, push the window all the way out and latch it on the outside with an eye hook.
Photo by Len Villano
For Dogs’ Sake
Outside, the Tatlows replaced the front and back decks as well as a small side deck, which their two mixed breed dogs George and Kuba fully appreciate, “The dogs lounge on the decks to sunbathe and squirrel watch!” notes Alison.

In addition, to help improve the functionality and aesthetics of the outdoor walkway, Alison and Phil asked Beard to lay large slabs of native flat rock from the driveway up to the front deck.

Fun Finishing Touches
Although their renovation was extensive, the Tatlows did not change the layout of the cabin – nor did they sacrifice convenience. Ultimately, the family’s vision for their renovation project was to create an “old-time cabin with modern conveniences.”
   
“We wanted it to feel like we were stepping back in time – into our grandparent’s cabin,” says Alison. So they added their own personal touches. Phil, for instance, framed and hung his old Boy Scout badges. And the couple installed boomerang countertops, refurbished copper light fixtures, and vintage black wrought-iron hinges and hardware.
   
Alison also did some decorating with what she calls “goofy kitschy stuff.” For instance, they cemented old bowling pins onto steel rods and then lined the driveway and parts of the yard with the pins to indicate where not to park (e.g., septic, well, etc.).
   
And Alison mounted colorful croquet balls onto newel posts to add a spark of fun to the newly renovated abode. “We’re huge into boating and abide by the ‘red-right-return’ rule,” notes Alison. “So the red croquet ball is to the right of the front door and the green is to the left.”
Play Time
Despite being 580 miles from their permanent residence located just outside of St. Louis, Mo., the Tatlows and their daughters Lizzy and Perry head to their northern retreat every chance they get – armed with their mountain bikes, hiking boots and golf clubs. The family also likes to go boating, sailing, kayaking and, in the winter, sledding and cross-country skiing.
   
“We spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s at the cabin, plus Alison and the girls go up for four to six weeks in the summer,” says Phil.
   
One fun summer activity involves watching plays in Peninsula State Park. Hosted by a local theatre group, the productions are based on regional humor.
   
“They did one called ‘Guys on Ice,’ which was about men in the ice shanties,” says Alison. “Another one about fishermen was called ‘Musky Love.’ They’re really entertaining.”
   
The Tatlows are eager to use their renovated cabin, but for now they plan to rent it out periodically, thereby giving other families the opportunity to fall in love with cabin life just as they did 20 years ago.

Frequent contributor Christy Heitger-Ewing has chickened out of every renovation project she has ever considered – but she loves writing about those brave souls who have a vision and see it through to fruition.
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FUN FACTS!  Wisconsin's Door County Peninsula:
• is 70 miles long, is surrounded by Lake Michigan, has 300 miles of shoreline and features five state parks.
• is home to 11 historic lighthouses, and there is an annual Door County Lighthouse Festival each June.
• has 34 named islands within its borders, but only a handful are accessible. A year-round ferry connects the peninsula with Washington Island and a smaller, seasonal ferry connects Rock Island to Washington Island.
• is known for growing cherries, dating back to the 1800s. Today, the county boasts 2,000 acres of cherry orchards, but also has 500 acres of apple orchards and seven wineries.
SOURCE:  Door County Visitor Bureau, www.doorcounty.com.

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