From the Concrete of Los Angeles to a Farmhouse in Vermont

ADVERTISEMENT

This article is part of our latest Design special report, about new creative pathways shaped by the pandemic.


In 2007, when Kathryn Alverson and Rich Costey bought a 1783 farmhouse near Putney, Vt., as a weekend escape from their home in Manhattan’s East Village, the thought of perhaps living there full-time someday didn’t even cross their minds.

Mr. Costey, a Grammy-Award-winning music producer and mixer, who has worked with bands such as Foo Fighters, Interpol and Death Cab for Cutie, was busy at Electric Lady Studios, and Ms. Alverson was pursuing graduate studies in photography, philosophy and art history at the New School.

Besides, with no insulation or heating system beyond the wood-burning fireplace, the house was barely even habitable in all four seasons.

But little by little, as the couple’s circumstances changed, so did the house. A series of repair and renovation projects has not only made it livable year-round; it has transformed the house into a welcoming family home.

As they got to know the property a little better, the Alverson-Costeys discovered a host of problems: the foundation was sinking, the attic was full of bats and the old windows produced lead-laden dust every time they were opened or closed.

Working with a team of restoration specialists, they gradually fixed the home’s most pressing problems while insisting that every new intervention look almost invisible.

They jacked up the house, repaired the foundation and replaced floor joists. They added radiators and some insulation. They evicted the bats (for the most part). And they worked with a lead abatement contractor to encapsulate the painted wood floors before replacing the old single-pane windows with new, historically accurate single-pane windows.

“The goal was to have a bunch of work done to it without looking like it had a bunch of work done to it,” said Mr. Costey, 52. Even though the house appeared unchanged, he added, “we were shoveling hoards of cash into this property.”

“For a while, we definitely felt like we were in that movie ‘The Money Pit,’” said Ms. Alverson, 54.

After moving to Los Angeles in 2009 shortly before the arrival of their daughter, Simone, they became preoccupied with their West Coast life. “We didn’t come back here that often and considered selling it, because we were just so busy,” Mr. Costey said.

However, they never did get around to listing the house for sale, which was fortunate, because when the pandemic struck in 2020, everything changed. Prevented from going to his studio, Mr. Costey tried working from home but found it a frustrating experience.

Ms. Alverson’s mother, Gina Alverson, then 92 and suffering from dementia, was living with the family, and the couple worried about her catching Covid-19. Simone’s school switched to online learning, which the young student found unfulfilling.

After looting broke out near Mr. Costey’s Santa Monica studio in May 2020, he rushed to save his most valuable equipment by loading it into his car. It was around that time that living in the city “just kind of stopped being fun,” he said. “We were, like, ‘What are we doing here?’”

In Vermont, they had 60 acres of forested privacy. Simone could attend in-person classes. And Mr. Costey had an acquaintance who had built Guilford Sound, a world-class recording studio near their farmhouse, where he could work.

It didn’t take long for them to decide to sell their California home and move permanently to Vermont. The only question was how to get there. “We couldn’t just take my mom with dementia, in the middle of Covid, and get on an airplane,” Ms. Alverson said. “So we thought we could rent an RV, but everyone in the country during the summer of 2020 was renting an RV, so there were no RVs.”

That’s when Mr. Costey had an idea: With so many concerts canceled across the country, surely there were some tour buses sitting idle. “I called up Muse’s tour manager, and he referred me to a friend who runs a tour bus company that rents to people like Post Malone,” he said. His hunch of him was right: Buses with drivers were ready to go.

That August, the couple loaded their daughter, mother, dog and household essentials into a tour bus fit for a rock star, and a pair of drivers (who took Covid tests before the trip) completed the nonstop cross-country trip in 48 hours.

As they settled into their new life in Vermont, they had to adjust to tight quarters: The 1,000-square-foot farmhouse had only one proper bedroom, and Ms. Alverson’s mother ended up sleeping on the living room sofa. To make the property more livable, they hired Barbara Bestor, a Los Angeles-based architect who had previously renovated a home for them in California.

Ms. Bestor is best known for designing modernist compounds, but didn’t hesitate to tackle a centuries-old farmhouse. “I’m from Cambridge, Mass., originally, and part of my schtick is the stuff you get from houses from the 1700s,” she said, noting that the centuries-old monochromatic treatment of siding and windows still looks contemporary today. “I think you can steal from the old to give to the new.”

As a first step, Ms. Bestor turned the old bat-filled attic into an 800-square-foot second floor that added two bedrooms and a bathroom. A new insulated roof and dormers expanded the head space. She took pains to leave the rough-hewed rafters and collar ties exposed, and to remove, refinish and then reinstall the old wood flooring above new recycled-denim insulation.

Construction of the second floor took three months to complete in the fall of 2020, during which time the family lived in a nearby rental. Since then, they have been working with Ms. Bestor on plans for a new structure to replace the old connected barn, which they found unsalvageable, with a loft-like living space, kitchen, studio and mudroom that they plan to build in the coming year.

But even before that second phase gets underway, they have found that life in Vermont is pretty idyllic. Mr. Costey is just as productive as he was in Santa Monica, and when he needs to travel to London, where he frequently works, it is a relatively short flight from Boston.

Ms. Alverson is focusing on her photography again and has started rowing on the Connecticut River. Simone is thriving at her new school and has embraced alpine ski racing.

Gina Alverson found comfort in the bucolic landscape. “We have this gorgeous 200-year-old apple tree in the backyard,” her daughter de ella said. Their first summer in Vermont “she would sit under that tree, look out at the view, and say, ‘This is heaven.’” She died in February 2021, at 93.