There are people who love their homes, and then there's Kate Orne. Orne is so passionate about her 1811 stone-and-wood farmhouse in upstate New York, she's regularly moved to tears by it.
“Sometimes, I step out into the yard, I walk a few steps and turn back and look at it, and I get teary eyed,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion.
After spending many years in New York City, Orne and Bill Sand, her ex-boyfriend, purchased the home together to realize a dream of living in nature. “I'm from Sweden, but I'd lived in the city for a long time. Over those years, I would come up here to visit friends, and I loved it,” she says. “When the market went to hell in 2008, suddenly owning a place like this became financially feasible. I bought this house in 2009, packed up, and moved out of Chelsea.” (Although the couple has gone their separate ways, they continue to share the place as friends.)
The house is a fieldstone structure just outside the town of Highland, with a Colonial-blue, cedar-shingled addition. It sits on what's left of an old dairy farm, 13 bucolic acres with just two acres mowed and the rest in a natural state. “At one time, it was a vast farm,” Orne says. “But over the years they sold off parcels. Now, this is what's left.”
Although it’s roughly a 90 minute drive from the front door of the farmhouse to Orne’s old Manhattan neighborhood, there's a feeling of being far away from it all and engulfed in nature. To urbanites, it might seem lonely. To Orne, it feels more like home than the city ever did.
“I sometimes felt lonely in the city, but I've never felt lonely up here,” she says. “The trees, the air, the sky and the animals keep me company. I see lots of deer, foxes, coyotes, and sometimes bear.”
In order to meet some of her human neighbors, she started a website, Upstate Diary, that was quickly joined by a biannual print publication. “I felt strongly that the artists and homes we cover deserved to be featured in a beautiful print publication—we just launched our fifth issue,” she says.
The couple’s occupation of the house started with an assurance to the people who brought it back to a near-original state. “When the previous owners sold it to us, we promised them we wouldn't change it,” Orne says. “This isn't a remodeled home, it's a restored home.”
When those owners purchased it, it was covered in less than attractive vinyl siding and wall-to-wall carpet. The finishes weren't pretty, but they acted as a protective shield. “They started with a kitchen remodel, and they happened to hire Brian Kennedy, a contractor who is an expert in restoring historic homes. He told them they were sitting on a gem,” Orne says.
The planned kitchen remodel became a whole-house restoration. As the vinyl, carpet, and drywall were removed, original stone walls, rustic wood floors, and hand-hewn ceiling beams were uncovered.
“All of this had been preserved, as if it were under wraps,” says Orne. “They only made a handful of updates, like adding a dishwasher, laundry room, bathrooms, and insulation. They also updated electric and plumbing. The only thing we have changed is the exterior color, which the sellers admitted they chose in haste. We don't consider ourselves the home's owners, we consider ourselves its keeper. We are preserving it for future generations.”
It's the kind of place where you feel like the barrier between past and present grows very thin. On the outside, the original farmhouse is constructed from fieldstone pulled from the surrounding land. The shingled addition, built around 1860, was built as the farm family grew. That family would likely recognize the wide-plank floors and mullioned windows. After all, they are the same ones the original residents used.
What might surprise them is the master bedroom, located in the what used to be the large storage area above the first floor. The attic-like space was once used to house looms, dried vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, and the like. With no insulation, it was like a refrigerator.
In order to make it habitable in all seasons, insulation was needed. “If they had put it up on the interior, all that wonderful wood would have been covered,” says Orne. “So, they raised the roof, installed insulation on the exterior side, and replaced the shingles.”
Now, Orne calls it “the most beautiful bedroom in the world.” The gabled ceilings soar more than 13 feet above her bed, and they are done in unrefined wood that creates a cozy, homespun feel. “It reminds me of a dance studio in Paris. Everything is made with materials from the land where the house sits, and there's a feeling of calm,” Orne says. “I lay in bed and feel so happy.”
Downstairs, back in the day, the original family heated the home with a fireplace that has since been removed. Although an oil boiler was installed at some point, Orne and Sand prefer to use the wood stove they added after they purchased the home.
“I love to sit in front of the stove in the winter,” she says. “I love the way the heat goes deep into your bones—and also warms your heart and soul. It's amazing to sit there, smell the fire and think of all the other people who sat there having a similar experience. If these walls could talk, the stories they could tell!”
She enjoys the stove's radiance from one of the only new pieces of furniture she purchased for the home, a sofa. “At first, we considered furnishing it in a period way,” Orne says. “But then we thought it would be too much, and become more like a museum than a home.”
Instead, they chose to use furniture found in local antique markets and vintage shops, adding the items to a small collection of Arts and Crafts pieces Orne brought from the city. “I like to things to be understated, but to have a certain underlying elegance,” she says.
To Orne, the true luxury of the place isn't the finishes or furnishings, it's the quiet. “There's no noise pollution here, no light pollution, no sound pollution,” she says. “There's only the sounds of birds, insects—nature sounds. Nature is the ultimate luxury, and no fancy city house can match it. Today, my life is richer for it.”