Purchased nearly new back in 1946 by the prior generation, Bill and Joyce Voet’s little clapboard cottage on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan near Holland was neither insulated nor heated. Like most standard getaways of the era, it was built and bought just as a summer place. Bill’s father had also acquired the three empty lots behind it, foresight that never cost Bill and his brother a shortage of summer adventure.
“We water-skied and swam, of course,” he says, “but the most fun was an old canvas Air Force life raft my dad bought us at a surplus store. On stormy days, when the waves were big on Lake Michigan, we spent hours in that thing.”
Inevitably, the cottage and times spent at it began to lose their luster.
“It was primitive,” Joyce says, recalling unpainted plywood walls, old linoleum floors and a table between the tiny kitchen and living room they called the ‘dining room.’ But it was full of memories.
“When Bill was 15,” his wife fondly recalls, “he wrote on one of the kitchen’s plywood walls, I AM NEVER GETTING MARRIED.”
Such sentimentalities of days gone by is why, in 1955, when bluff erosion threatened the cottage’s collapse into Lake Michigan, “Tearing down the family cottage was unthinkable,” explains Bill. “So we moved it.”
The Voets’ entire cottage was picked up in one piece and moved back far from the pounding waves onto one of the family’s open lots, where the family continued to gather for 13 more summers. In 1968 — when the Great Lake began closing in again — the couple relocated the little house again.
But when the Voets decided to turn the little cottage into their primary residence in 2002, they were disheartened to learn that structurally, it couldn’t be saved.
A hard choice was made.
On demolition day, none of the family aside from Bill could bear to watch the walls come crumbling down on decades of tradition. But he viewed it as a new beginning.
“We wanted a permanent home here on Lake Michigan, so we had to rebuild,” Bill says.
“Thank goodness we had Doug.”
Doug Butterworth, president and owner of Creekside Custom Homes and Renovations in West Michigan, understands the torrents of emotion propelling a longstanding retreat’s renewal. “I’m part contractor, part social worker,” he says. “For some families, the decision to renovate is quick. For others, it takes a long time.”
Representing the second generation of cottage renovation experts in his own family, Butterworth knows that beyond being hard, change creates ripples that can have impact, too,and he employs a seasoned sensitivity to this.
“Before I knock down the first wall, I always visit all the neighbors,” he explains. “I give them my business card and invite them to call me if they have concerns. And, boy, do they!”
A few rings are especially the case when the outdated cottage has stood a long time, when a neighbor resides beside it year-round or if the neighbor was well-acquainted with the cottage’s previous generation of owners, Butterworth notes. He takes the time to talk with them because, he believes, it’s important not only to end a project with happy clients, but to begin a new era at the cottage with friendships intact.
Tearing down the family cottage was unthinkable. So we moved it. Twice.
— Bill Voet
But the need for special builder expertise extends well beyond keeping neighborhood peace — from well and septic to set-back requirements.
“We’re on a dune here, which has its own set of rules,” says Bill Voet. “Doug knew all about that.”
Lake construction is more complicated, Butterworth attests. “Staying current with local zoning and state and federal restrictions is imperative.” The biggest challenges, he says, are born of transforming a summer place into a home that works year-round.
“Many cottages came from an era when efficiency wasn’t a factor and craftsmanship not a concern,” Butterworth notes. “These little places were built over weekends or in the owners’ spare time to be used just for a few warm months.”
After those, pipes were drained, anti-freeze was added, the phone was disconnected and the last one out shut off the electricity.
“Now cottages are open year-round.”
Preserving the Past, Preparing for the Future
Today’s trends for both cottage renovation and new construction combine nostalgic charms with modern innovations including remote-controlled thermostats and monitored security systems.
“People used to build a cottage hoping it would last 40 years or so,” observes Dan Gorman of Gorman Design Associates in Harbor Springs. “Now cottages are purposely designed for 200 years or more. There is a different mindset.”
Owners are also requesting new cottage plans with their own evolving needs top of mind.
“Although views to the water are usually better from the second floor, I’m designing first- floor master suites with wider hallways that can accommodate a wheelchair,” Gorman illustrates, “with showers instead of bathtubs in the master bedroom. Clients acknowledge that at some point they may have physical limitations, and they’re planning for it.”
People used to build a cottage hoping it would last 40 years or so. Now cottages are purposely designed for 200 years or more.
— Dan Gorman
Cottages of yesteryear are all but gone, agrees Jim Morris, owner of J.W. Morris Kitchen and Bath, Inc. in Grosse Pointe and Harbor Springs. “Whether families are making plans just to renovate or to tear down the old family cottage and begin again, they are not building the same type of cottage.
“Designs are open plans to take full advantage of the views,” he notes. “Kitchens are sighted to the water, and they’re bright and airy. People want an elegant rusticity, and are more willing to experiment with their cottage design than their home.”
But along the way, notes Bob Briggs, owner of Biggs Construction, LLC in Lake Leelanau, it’s also important for today’s cottage owners to keep sight of how renovations to that once small and simple clapboard getaway can impact their new and improved family legacy.
“A cottage is an emotional tie to your background,” he says, “and it’s an emotional luxury to be able to hang on to it. When cottages are handed down, nearly everyone agrees there needs to be changes, but there are divergent attitudes and abilities to pay. Not everyone can afford to take part in the change.”
Re-assessed property taxes on family transfers have created a tough situation for some families looking to pass on residential property upon death — particularly family cottages, agrees attorney Neil Kimball at Grand Rapids-based Mika Meyers Beckett & Jones. But with the advent of Public Act 497 of 2012, which took effect this January, families now have the option of transferring residential property without uncapping property taxes.
Kimball expects that the new law — which is limited to first-of-kin relationships — will help many people retain family cottages who may otherwise not be able to.
Discover user-friendly tips regarding vacation home succession, how to allocate control between and within generations and creating a cottage legacy in “Saving the Family Cottage” by Michigan attorneys Stuart Hollander and David S. Fry (4th edition, 2013; cottagelaw.com).
To learn more about cottage renewal from sources in this story, visit creeksidecompanies.com; facebook.com/pages/Gorman-Design-Associates; morriskitchenandbath.com; leelanau-built.com and mmbjlaw.com.
Working with Jerry L. Baumann and MAC Custom Homes, Traverse City interior designer Michele Cerny (lakeviewinteriordesign.com) created a family haven to enjoy for generations.
Oil-rubbed bronze and classic chrome fixtures help define inviting spaces in this open living area, while intricate custom moldings accentuate airy finishes. Clear vertical grain fir enriching the sitting room’s raised ceiling mirrors the home’s indigenous red birch flooring and the warmth of end-cut maple butcher block topping the island.
“Made in Michigan, it’s the perfect axis for these beautiful wood tones and for the family’s daily gathering place,” says Marcy Hurst of MAC Custom Homes, noting the homeowner paired with Northwood Paint Supply to create the space’s perfect accent hue (now known as “Cerny Blue”). Light fixtures from Ethan Allen (dining room), Kichler (island) and Restoration Hardware (sitting room) add extra cottage sparkle.
Room To Grow
MAC Custom Homes reconfigured multiple rooms in a “plain Jane” ranch to expand flow and function, fun and views of Grand Traverse Bay. Colors and finishes inspired by beach glass infuse this open new gathering space with other elements drawn in by interior designer Caroline Kimball (ASID).
Angled attic ceilings and bead board wainscoting create a nostalgic space for built-in dual bunks with functional storage by MAC Custom Homes.
Recreated by architect Larry Graves to reflect a timeless era, a classic fireplace surround with painted brick facing is flanked by a sunny window seat and built-in custom cabinetry from Eyewood Design, Inc. Furnishings by Sheila Bradley Interiors and rich oak flooring add warmth to elegant cream-white moldings and beaded paneling crafted by Olde World
Custom Homes, Ltd.
Nestled between a guest cottage that was once part of the original 1900s’ house and a new cottage home built by Leelanau-based Biggs Construction, a courtyard scented by hydrangea and sweet lavender with Wallpole Adirondacks lends respite from Great Lake winds, while bright outdoor furnishings on the home’s other side invite basking in sun and sounds of surf.
Designed by architect Bob Holdeman and built by Biggs Construction, a screened porch addition serves as a private, quiet escape and offers expanded space to entertain with easy French door access to this cottage home’s open, rustic-beamed living/dining space and updated kitchen.
Freelance writer Char DeWolf resides in Grosse Pointe Shores. Lisa M. Jensen is editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.