Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today we visit the Clinton, New York, home of Nepal Asatthawasi and Chris Mottalini. Frustrated by the lack of homes in their price range in Brooklyn, they started looking farther afield. The house they found in the Hudson Valley wasn’t perfect, so they had to work to make it a fit for them. The learning curve was steep, but the potential rewards were great.
Asatthawasi and Mottalini have long rented in Brooklyn, and they love it, but they also wanted a place of their own. Sky-high housing prices caused them to look beyond their back door. "I grew up in Buffalo and Hyde Park, and my dad lives in Hudson Valley, so Upstate New York wasn’t unfamiliar to me," says Mottalini.
But it was Asatthawasi, a native of Bangkok, who discovered the old house that would become their new home. She became a passionate seeker of properties online, and one day she found something she thought might work: A stone house tucked into a wooded lot about an hour and a half from Brooklyn that was about to be auctioned.
"I recognized that it had a lot of potential, but it was hard for me to see past the sorry state it was in," says Mottalini. "My wife was definitely the one who pushed for it, though. She loved the house and that was that."
They registered for the online auction, and they had the winning bid. That was the start of a process that would teach them about renovation, test their mettle, and breathe new life into the long-neglected home. "For the next year, we spent every weekend working on the house," says Mottalini. "At times, I thought it might kill me."
Mottalini, a photographer who specializes in modern architecture (he also took the photos for this piece), had some basic carpentry and painting skills that he honed building sets. Asatthawasi, the director of development at the Pratt Center for Community Development (affiliated with Pratt Institute), had no practical remodeling experience at all. That didn’t deter them. They learned on the job and online.
"We had a lot of trial and error," Mottalini says. "The internet was very helpful. For instance, once I broke a window and went online to figure out how to reglaze a window. At the time, I didn’t even know what reglaze meant." In other words, necessity was a great teacher.
Although the house, built around 1950 by a stone mason, was thick-walled and solid, when its second owner died, it sat empty for some time. The deterioration made fixing it up a challenge.
The first weekend, during a heatwave, Mottalini donned a protective suit and began ripping down the dropped ceiling’s acoustic tiles, uncovering what he says felt like a million mouse droppings. Meanwhile, Asatthawasi started clearing out the basement, which was filled with equal parts treasures and debris. "Eventually we filled three or four 20-yard dumpsters," Mottalini says.
One of the things they didn’t want to discard was the character of the house. "We learned a lot about the people who lived here—my father was friends with the second owner—and, we wanted to respect their memories," says Mottalini. "One of the things we don’t like is when people remodel a house and destroy the spirit of it. You may put in a fancy new kitchen, but it ruins the feeling of the place. When possible, we used what was there."
For example, Mottalini removed the ceiling tiles to expose and whitewash the existing joists. The kitchen was remodeled with new cabinets and maple countertops, reminiscent of what was originally there. Exterior doors painted in a cheerful yellow color retain their sunny hue. "We found lots of really nice chairs, benches, cabinets, tables, vases, plates, glasses, all kinds of cool stuff," says Mottalini. "Some of the furniture was refinished and painted different shades of gray by Nepal and my dad."
But that’s not to say this is a by-the-book restoration. The couple layered on their own minimalist, modern taste. "My wife and I share a particular aesthetic," Mottling says. "We like things light and white. And, given that this house sits in the woods and can be dark, it meant sense to paint it white."
The couple mixed their antique and vintage discoveries with modern pieces and local finds (a nearby workshop produces custom-made coffins as well as quality furniture). "All of this combines for a look we really like," says Mottalini.
There wasn’t anything to save or restore in the kitchen, although they selected maple countertops, mirroring what was there before. "One of the first things I did was tear out the old cabinets," says Mottalini. "We had to put in a new subfloor and floors here."
The clean-lined, Euro-style cabinets were built by family friend Erik Blinderman, owner of EB Joinery in Southern California. "He built the cabinets in his Los Angeles warehouse, drove some of them out, shipped the rest, and stayed here while he installed them," says Mottalini.
The bathroom was also gutted, save for the tub, and Asatthawasi chose the black-and-white finishes. "We’ve lived in a lot of apartments in New York and Brooklyn, and it can feel like there isn’t a decent bathroom in either city," says Mottalini. "Having a bathroom that's literally the size of our bedroom in Brooklyn is amazing!"
A year and a half later, much of the heavy lifting is done and a new connection has been forged. "The idea of owning our very own house was a special dream of ours, and sometimes I still can’t believe we actually made it happen," says Mottalini. "I think it’s more special because we’ve done so much of the work ourselves. We know every square inch of that place. It can seem like a hassle driving out of the city and all the way up there, but the minute we get the fire going, it’s all worth it."