Designer Cathy Robinson Hutton, owner of Renovate in Houston, created a sun drenched country cottage in New Ulm as a low maintenance weekend getaway for an imaginary client.

“After seeing Julie Dodson’s incredible Idea Cottage at The Compound during the Round Top Antiques Show last spring, I developed an itch to take something that was small and ‘broken’ and transform it,” Hutton said.

Hutton’s design projects, which are primarily in the Houston’s established neighborhoods of Memorial, Tanglewood and The Heights, are large scale and long term. She was intrigued by the challenge of a small space and the ability to have a big impact in a short time.

A friend with an addiction to real estate and who was aware of Hutton’s itch sent her a link to the 966-square foot cottage as soon as she ran across it on a listing service.

A strong selling point, as is often the case with real estate, was location, location, location. New Ulm, in Austin County, is about an hour’s drive from west Houston and central to all of the area’s small-town action. It is less than 20 minutes from Round Top, Fayetteville, Industry, Bellville and Brenham.

“New Ulm is an undiscovered gem,” Hutton said. “It gives you peace, quiet and community but is still a quick car ride to higher profile towns.”

Plus, the cottage is situated about a mile from the Huttons’ personal getaway, a farm complete with a farmhouse, log cabin, goats, donkeys, horses and plenty of room for grandchildren to roam. Its proximity to the farm made the cottage a convenient project as well as a welcome challenge.

“We grabbed it—sight unseen . . . as is,” Hutton said, laughing and noting that she’s not an advocate of purchasing real estate this way. “In a word, it was dilapidated.”

Dilapidation was just what the doctor, or rather the designer, ordered. She and husband Robbie bought the board-and-batten cottage to reclaim it and then sell the new, improved version. The neglected cottage was the outlier on the block of well-kept historic homes.

“The cottage was obviously the orphan on the block,” Hutton said. “It just needed some TLC and a little spit and polish.”

Renovate Houston New Ulm CottageThey turned to Kelvin Carrias, a craftsman from Industry, to serve as the project’s general contractor.

The couple, thanks to their friend Shelby Levy, discovered the cottage was built in 1901 by a furniture maker named Kochendoerfer who eventually opened a furniture store in New Ulm. They also learned the fence couldn’t extend to the street’s edge because, according to a New Ulm city ordinance, property owners have to allow room to park a horse and buggy, even in the 21st century.

“Getting a taste of the house’s history just reinforced our commitment to keeping the project local and authentic,” said Hutton whose signature is revitalizing existing structures instead of razing them.

As she began considering the reclamation, she tapped into her imagination for a design scheme—and a client.

“Because we planned to sell the cottage, I didn’t have a real client to design for,” Hutton said. “I approached the project the same way I always do, but I had to imagine what someone would want and like as I remained true to the feel of the house.”

The Colors of Happiness

The cottage reflects Hutton’s belief that a getaway should be fun, i.e., neither stark nor serious. The color palette of warm white, sunflower yellow, and cornflower blue with pops of tomato red is fun, inviting and surprisingly flexible.

“People associate these colors with the warmth of spring and summer—and they do scream indoor/outdoor fun,” Hutton said. “But by adding touches of orange, you can move seamlessly to autumn, and splashes of berry take you into winter. To me the palette is warm and layered like a hand-pieced quilt.”

Renovate Houston New Ulm Cottage-1Quilts are some of her favorite things. In the case of the cottage, their presence throughout makes the airy space feel like a comfortable nest. There’s no doubt the space would be a perfect place for snuggling up with a cup of coffee and a good book and whiling away a dreary winter day.

The choice of floral touches also sets the seasonal mood. Bright flowers of spring and summer are easily replaced by stems, grasses and berries for the cooler season.

“If you think about it, Mother Nature chose blue, white and yellow as the primary colors for the sky. Is there any better canvas than that?” Hutton said.

Making Every Inch Count
Hutton wanted the small cottage to “live big.”

“In a small space, every inch has to count, and everything thing has to do double or triple duty,” Hutton said, noting that she and Robbie came into the project planning to make the most of its existing footprint.

Despite its dilapidated appearance, the two-story house’s bones were in good condition, and the overall flow worked.

“The little house was surprisingly solid,” Hutton said. “It had been built to last, so we just needed to make the most of what was there.”

They repurposed some existing spaces. For instance, at Robbie’s insistence the pre-existing enclosed porch was enlarged and transformed into a dining room suited for meals, game playing or visiting. They installed a wall of shelves in the the dining room walls to hold dishes providing storage and visual appeal. Two benches, built from planks on painters’ scaffolding, give the option of extra seating in the dining room as well as flat space for parking gear or a faux “mud room” so people can sit to take off their shoes and stash them underneath. Repurposing and enlarging the enclosed porch increased the square footage to about 1,200.

The couple also looked to the outdoors as a place for big living. A front porch was extended to run the entire length of the house; today it is bookended by two porch swings. An old workshop was razed and the area reclaimed by a screened in entertaining area and covered patio. The bathroom’s original claw foot tub, repainted bright blue, now perches outside the back door doing double duty as either a convenient drink station for parties or filled with potted outdoor plants for an easy-to-maintain garden.

As part of the cottage’s single bathroom reno, the tub was replaced with a sleek shower. The bathroom ceiling, which was “head-bumping low,” was stripped of its drywall to reveal the original beams and wooden ceiling thus gaining eight crucial inches. Outdated wallpaper was hiding bead board, which they complemented with easy to keep subway tiles on the other walls. The navy penny tile that grounds the space was going to be a splurge, but because of the project’s small scale, they scored a “remnant” at a flooring clearance sale.

Renovate Houston New Ulm Cottage-3Because the cottage had so much light, Hutton was able to cover two windows in the downstairs master bedroom with shiplap. For additional visual interest, the shiplap was installed diagonally and lime washed to allow the wood’s character to show through.

“I covered the windows, which were in an awkward spot, to make furniture placement easier,” Hutton said. “The change obviously didn’t add any square footage, but better furniture placement added living space in the room.”

It’s no trade secret that light paint visually opens up a room. With the exception of the new dining room and the bathroom, the ceilings were 10 feet high. To make the rooms feel larger, Hutton painted the walls and ceilings white throughout the house. Then, in a move that resulted in her favorite feature in the cottage, she removed layers of old linoleum covering the original wood floors.

Unfortunately, the floors were in no shape to be restored. Taking a cue from a Southern cottage she spied in a magazine, Hutton opted to sand the floors and then apply three coats of opaque white stain, which let the wood’s character peek through but didn’t showcase the flaws. The floors were sealed with polyurethane for durability.

“The white floors lift the feel of the whole house, and the textures keep it interesting and warm,” Hutton said. “There’s nothing sterile about it.”

Mixing and Matching with Round Top Style
Although Hutton is a lifelong city girl with deep family roots in Houston, she has always been a little bit country when it comes to her preferred design style.

“My favorite style has always been farmhouse whether it was in vogue or not,” Hutton said. “It gives me a chance to express my aesthetic, which I call ‘polished rustic.’ Regardless of a home’s style, I think every room needs at least one rustic touch to add depth.”Renovate Houston New Ulm Cottage-2

Rustic can come from nature such as the oval willow basket that resides in the alcove beneath the stairs. Then, there’s reclamation, with the old tin ceiling Hutton used in the dining room, and creative repurposing as exemplified by light fixtures that began their lives as chicken feeders. The kitchen trash can was originally a grass seed container. Red children’s shovels are now door pulls on the screened outdoor entertaining area, which features a vintage red, white, blue and yellow sign for Pete’s Barbershop.

As Hutton began decorating the cottage, her love of vintage was front and center. Time-worn paint graces the yellow hutch in the kitchen while weathered wood highlights the living room console.  Metal pieces with a few dents, dings or touches of rust are featured in the tin ceiling, and chicken wire baskets hold books in the sleeping loft. The oilcloth covering the kitchen chair seats is bright and practical because the chairs can be used outside. Concrete kitchen countertops are textural, durable and in character with country casual.

“The thing I love about vintage goods is the patina, texture and stories that are only developed over time,” Hutton said.

Sometimes even faux rustic fills the bill. Though not obvious, the eye-catching, multi-colored shiplap on the stair risers leading to the sleeping loft is actually peel-and-stick wallpaper.

“The stairs in the kitchen are one my favorite features, but they needed a pop of something to make them stand out,” Hutton said. “Knowing that stair risers take a beating, wallpaper seemed to be a perfect solution. It brings color and interest but can be easily replaced if gets dirty or worn.”

The cottage was an ideal canvas for mixing, matching and showcasing one-of-a-kind finds from both the Round Top Antiques Show, which Hutton first attended 25 years ago at the invitation of her friend Beverly Shaffer, and the year-round antiques and vintage shops located throughout the area.

“Normally, I shop with my eyes wide open looking for inspiration, but in this case I shopped with my eyes wide open looking for specific pieces to fit in specific places—at least when it came to the vintage furniture,” Hutton said noting that the kitchen cupboard and living room console were two such pieces.

She found what she needed in Bellville, Giddings, Industry, La Grange and Round Top. In her experience, shopping in small towns often yields high-quality finds at a lower price than their big-city counterparts.

As a designer who got her start in the business as a young homeowner who “had no money, but good taste and a need to fix up a house for my family,” Hutton enjoys the challenge of creating a luxe environment on a budget. It, too, is a matter of mixing and matching luxe details with well-made but affordable options. For instance, the bedding in the master bedroom comes from Target and Pottery Barn but are elevated by custom made Euro shams. For the record, farm sinks from Ikea, such as the one she used in the kitchen, are hundreds of dollars less than their counterparts from other sources.

“The key to mixing things—whether they’re vintage or non-vintage or luxe and not-so luxe—is trial and error,” Hutton said. “If you truly love something buy it, and it will work somewhere.”

Loving It and Leaving It
Speaking of love, Hutton is finding it harder to let the little cottage go than she imagined.Renovate Houston New Ulm Cottage-3

“It turned out just as I hoped—a warm, happy place,” Hutton said. “While it was designed with an imaginary client in mind, it reflects us. Robbie and I joke that the new owners will have to fill out adoption papers.”

Although the cottage is ready and waiting for a new family to buy it, Hutton’s brain is still imagining the possibilities: Climbing roses on the front fence. A raised garden in the backyard. An outdoor shower.

“Even with what we’ve done, the cottage still has so much potential for personalization,” Hutton said. “Sometimes, though, a girl just has to tell herself ‘Whoa!’ and let it go.


by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Natalie Lacy Lange