Even though he has an eye for interiors, it was Chris Mottalini‘s wife, Nepal Asatthawasi, who first spied the half-buried stone treasure at an online auction site. “It was a total mess,” says Mottalini of the 1,800-square-foot cottage in Staatsburg. “The previous couple had lived here for 50 years and toward the end of their lives they weren’t able to do much upkeep on the property. The whole place fell into disrepair.” In 2015, after those previous owners passed on, relatives put the entire estate up for auction. Along with the stone cottage, the estate included almost two acres of surrounding land and the remnants—including furniture, pottery, firewood, newspapers, empty bottles and cans—of lives seemingly well lived. At first glance, Mottalini wasn’t convinced. “Even though I’m an architectural and interiors photographer and into interesting houses, I just didn’t see what this place could be. But my wife saw its potential—she just had a feeling—I was really only along for the ride.”
Mottalini’s father lives in nearby Hyde Park and so the couple decided to come up and snoop around a bit. “He was really the main reason for us looking in this area to begin with,” says Mottalini, who was living with Asatthawasi in New York City at the time. Realizing they probably wouldn’t be able to afford a city home in the short term, the two had begun looking throughout the Hudson Valley for something affordable. At first, they’d cast a rather wide net. “That quickly got overwhelming,” remembers Mottalini. With his mother and sister in Chatham, one aunt in Connecticut, and another down the street from his father in Hyde Park, it seemed natural to narrow their search to the eastern bank of the Hudson. “It really helped to zero in on something close to my dad,” he says. “It was just a chance thing that my wife stumbled across the listing.”
Although Mottalini remained doubtful, that initial reconnaissance mission did pique his interest. Hand built by an Irish stone mason in 1950, in the traditional cottage style of Ireland, the house has 22-inch thick walls made of stone harvested from the property and mortared together with concrete. The steep, moss-covered roof and walls, inset with windows of varying sizes, only added to the cottage’s charm. “It was unique to the area,” Mottalini remembers. “It was super cool and it wasn’t going to be that expensive. Plus the siting, location, and really everything else was great—aside from it being a wreck.”
The auction house gave a window of five hours one weekend for prospective buyers to check out the inside of the cottage. “A bunch of typical contractor bros showed up, looking to flip it, but Nepal was hell-bent on getting this place,” he says. The couple brought along Mottalini’s aunt from Connecticut and a local home inspector to advise them on the state of the interior. “The home inspector told us, ‘You know, it’s a mess,’ but that also, besides having to replace the mechanicals, the electric, and redo the interiors, it was actually pretty solid,” recalls Mottalini. “He helped us to understand that it wasn’t a terrible idea.” The actual auction took place online on a weekday afternoon. Astthawasi, who works in community development at Pace University, locked herself in her office and told her colleagues, “for the next hour I will be bidding on something very valuable—so no one knock on my office door.” In the end, she triumphed. That’s when the real work began.
Since they bought it outright, “for basically the cost of the land,” explains Astthawasi, they could take their time with the rehab and were under no obligations as to what they should do with the property. “We were able to afford it because it was a wreck,” says Mottalini. However, “it really was a wreck.” Turning it from a house to a home was entirely on them, and, after purchasing the property, they didn’t have a huge bankroll to do anything too fancy. Luckily, they did have the help of friends and family, an innate sense design, dauntless gumption, and a plethora of YouTube videos to help.
That summer, the couple began coming up on weekends, tackling the remodel, project by project and crashing at Mottalini’s dad’s house at the end of each day. “We kind of busted it out,” explains Mottalini, of the remodel that felt all consuming for a while. “It took us six or seven months to get to the point where we even wanted to sleep here.”
Mottalini began by removing the low-hanging drop ceilings during an August heat wave. “I had to wear a Tyvek suit,” he explains, of his initiation into home renovation. “The ceilings had turned into mice highways, and when I opened them up, asbestos and mice droppings came cascading out. It was gnarly.” He also stripped inches of paint from all the interior walls and removed “dumb, tiny little closets” from the three bedrooms. “The wood framing was so thick, they were just pointless,” he explains. When all the dust had settled, he had exposed rough-hewn beams holding up the attic and the original plaster walls. He painted the beams white to make the rooms seem larger. He left one plaster wall in its original state as a reminder of the home’s history, and then refurbished the remaining walls with a mixture of matching plaster and white paint throughout. “At first, I was worried about how rough it looks,” Mottalini says, of both the ceiling and the walls. “But I didn’t want to make it look too nice or too new. I think making it fancier would have been a mistake.”
The floors were an entirely different story. The previous owners had covered half the house with bright red linoleum tiles—in the dining room, kitchen, and in all the bedrooms. “Really why? I don’t know why,” says Mottalini. He pulled up the rotting linoleum tiles, along with some of the subfloor, all the way down to the slatted beam base, leaving gaps wide enough to view the basement. “At one point, there was a stack head-high of four-by-eight sheets of subfloor at the top of the driveway,” he recalls. Mottalini then recovered half the floors with whitewashed pine beams. In the living room, he was able to rescue and refinish the original red oak floor boards.
Meanwhile, the couple was also sifting through the very full basement. “It was like a murder basement,” he recalls. “There was tons of weird stuff,” agrees Astthawasi. “But some of it was actually very nice quality.” Along with coins and books, the couple salvaged antique glassware, handmade pottery, and wooden furniture that they refinished and made their own. The rest they threw away. The basement castoffs, added with the scrapped ceiling panels and tiling, ended up filling two dumpsters.
The couple enlisted friend Erik Blinderman, a Los Angeles-based woodworker and the owner of EB Joinery, to design and custom build an entirely new kitchen for the back of the house. Blinderman used a combination of warm maple and white painted plywood to create an interior space to match the home’s simple, rustic aesthetic. Once designed, Blinderman strapped the pieces of the cabinetry to the back of his station wagon, drove them cross-country, and then assembled them on-site himself. Now minimalist, modern cabinets and wooden countertops provide a counterpoint for the gravitas of the exterior stone walls. Blinderman also designed and created a custom built-in wooden bookshelf for the home’s living room. This time he shipped it by post, and Mottalini assembled it in a corner by the front window. “I didn’t touch the bathroom because I just didn’t trust myself,” says Mottalini, who has never worked with tile before. Astthawasi took over the redesign and execution of the bathroom, choosing a monochromatic print of black hexagonal tiles for the floors and white square tiles for the walls.
In 2017, a year and a half after the auction, the home was (mostly) finished. Mixed in with the pieces they refurbished from the basement, the couple has decorated the home with an eclectic mix of mid-century furniture, pieces made by local woodworker Scott Tumbletee, carpets from Kazakhstan, and photography—including some of Mottalini’s own. Now living full-time in the house, Mottalini can’t believe how his fortune has changed. “I felt like this house was totally trying to kill me at first,” he says. “I couldn’t ever imagine ever wanting to live here. But now it’s home.”