Every New Yorker knows this all-too-familiar dialogue: "I just want to build a cabin upstate one day." The appeal of the Catskills mountains, the Hudson Valley trails, and the rugged rivers, lakes, and forests of upstate New York is one that has lived on in the minds of busy Manhattanites for decades. But while, for many, the dream of owning property upstate is just that—a dream—others find ways to make it a reality.
For Danielle and Ely Franko, she a 28-year-old dermatology physician assistant and he, a 30-year-old software developer, that dream became reality when they purchased a 1970s flat-room A-frame cabin in Tannersville, New York—a short hop and skip away from Kaaterskills Falls, the cozy Deer Mountain Inn, and Scribner's Catskills Lodge.
To say the property was in bad shape when they bought it is an understatement. But after a patiently executed two-year gut renovation, this diamond in the rough became a perfectly cozy cabin to escape to on weekends. And if you find yourself thinking I wish I could get away there too, you actually can. Nicknamed the Hunter Greenhouse, this couple's painstakingly restored home is also available to rent. Step inside this impressive transformation and experience a taste of cabin fever.
"We live and work full time in New York City, so our house was meant to be an escape from our day-to-day lives," explains Danielle. "We always had the idea of renting it out the weekends that we weren’t there, but it’s been so successful that we rarely have the chance to go up ourselves anymore. It means so much to us to share it with people that appreciate the home and surrounding area that I don’t think we’d want it any other way."
Though it required a lot of hard work, the three-bedroom, two-bath home is now the perfectly affordable weekend getaway for small groups of friends (or family) to get away on weekends. The open living space with the upstairs loft means everyone can be together at all times. "There are these amazing 16-foot ceilings with windows that look out onto everything we love about the Catskills: the trees, the mountains, and the wildlife."
Achieving the upstate dream didn't come without its set of hurdles. "When we bought the house, it was in just about as bad of condition as you could get without having it condemned," explains Danielle. "It was a complete gut. And to be honest, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing or how it would turn out. We didn’t know anything about tiling or installing cabinets or refinishing wood beams, which is why it took two years. There were times when we saw the progress and felt so motivated, but there were a lot of dark periods where we felt completely demoralized because there was always something else to do. In the end, we made a monster to-do list and started crossing things off one by one. There’s something so satisfying about that."
Instead of trying to fight the 1970s architecture, the couple let the design unfold organically. "Because the house was going to be a rental, we knew it had to be as practical as possible without compromising on aesthetics," she explains. "We tried to keep it simple and only buy things we really loved. In the end, though, there were some glaring missteps (like a yellow beanbag chair that was replaced by the hanging chair in the living room and is currently sitting in the back of our shed). You can’t be afraid to change things up if they don’t feel right. That did not feel right."
Though the hard work eventually paid off, the road to get there was gruesome at times. "We renovated the house top to bottom, front to back, up, down, and all around. We demoed everything (in the end it took three dumpsters filled to the top to get rid of it all) and then somewhat methodically made our way through each room," explains Danielle. "Ely took on the enormous task of sanding down and refinishing every single beam, and afterward I had the job of painting it all. Some walls took five coats to cover the water stains that a neglectful previous owner had allowed. With 16-foot ceilings, it was not easy or fun or recommended, but it was necessary."
And the work didn't stop at the living space. "We tiled the bathrooms and installed all the plumbing and fixtures. Same with the kitchen, the exterior vent hood, cabinets, backsplash, and appliances. All the lighting was changed out, and we even refinished all the interior doors. We built the dining table and bench and outdoor farm table! Honestly, my mind is spinning trying to get it all down. We have lists, somewhere, of everything. But I’m not about to go looking for them. Some things are better left in the past."
The couple could have easily hired contractors to take on this huge project, but they were determined to do everything themselves. "We were fortunate to be able to afford whatever we wanted in terms of materials because we didn’t have the crippling expense of labor to worry about," explains Danielle. There really isn’t anything extravagant, but there also isn’t much we would change. The master bathroom has black hex penny tile flooring and white subway tile all around. All the fixtures are Kohler. The downstairs bath has Moroccan tile flooring and more subway tile in the shower. We bought IKEA kitchen cabinets and semi-handmade unfinished doors, and I spray painted them a beautiful custom shade of green (custom because it had to be diluted enough for the spray gun to work properly)."
The couple's only goal in this entire renovation was to do what they felt was right and to do it well. "It’s so easy to cut corners and say, 'it’s just a rental; it doesn’t need to be perfect,' but it’s not just a rental; it’s ours," says Danielle. "There are so many little things that I know nobody would ever care about or notice. But those things matter so much to us."
At the top of their priority list was enough seating for large groups, a kitchen that was meant for serious cooking, a deafening sound system, and enough books and games and cozy touches to keep you entertained for days. Aesthetically, especially with those windows, we wanted to bring the outside in as much as possible. There are plants everywhere and soft wood tones throughout the house. If you’re in the Catskills, it should feel that way."
Just like the renovation, the color palette unfolded organically. "We tend to favor organic neutrals," says Danielle. "Soft, natural tones that aren’t too ostentatious or jarring. You won’t find many statements throughout the house, but there are flourishes. Really, the boldest thing in the house is all the plants. I think over 50 in all (with the majority concentrated on our floor-to-ceiling plant wall). We’re inspired by nature and greenery, and the idea that homes should be comfy and cozy and inspiring and dreamy. Our biggest hope with our design is that you walk into our home and feel a sense of nostalgia and wonder."
This sense of nostalgia is felt throughout the entire region—Scribner's Catskills Lodge, with its '70s flair and modern conveniences, is the perfect example. In a place like this one, there really isn't anything else to do but to have cook-offs, dance parties, and endless nights playing board games. And while the place feels entirely nostalgic, there is only one item from the original house that stayed: a brass light fixture at the top of the stairs. "It’s so perfectly midcentury," adds Danielle. "But other than that, absolutely nothing stayed."
After two long years and a bucket load of patience, the couple is finally able to sit back and enjoy the fruit of their labor. Their favorite thing about the house is the tall windows and ceiling. "There’s something so special about waking up early and seeing the living room bathed in soft morning light," says Danielle.
From the viewpoint of her West Elm leather chesterfield sofa—the first item she bought for the space—Danielle can admire the result of two years of hard work, all the while basking in beautiful mountain sunlight. And these simple quiet moments are the exact reason every New Yorker secretly dreams of owning a cabin upstate.
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