Beach Chic in Buffalo

A Buffalo couple trades a house in the suburbs for year-round cottage living on Lake Erie.

This past September, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state was taking over a long stretch of Buffalo’s waterfront to make way for more economic development that will piggyback on the success of other projects in the city’s canal district and inner harbor. “For cities that are on the water, that’s the first thing they develop,” Cuomo told reporters, adding: “You have to be part of it. Believe it. Own it.”

City lovers Chris and Leanne Mattioli — who own three businesses — already drank the Kool-Aid. The couple recently converted a ramshackle lakefront cottage into what they call their “forever home.” It’s located just south of the city center in a community once dominated by steel factories.

“We believe in this area,” says Leanne. “We could have bought a lot and built a new house farther away, but we wanted to be close to the city and the culture. We’re so glad to be here now, because we know we wouldn’t be able to get something like this, even in just a few years.”

The property’s central location was ideal for the busy couple, who own a dog spa in Amherst, a retail store in Ellicottville and an Internet and software business that Chris operates from an office downtown. Chris also plays in a Beatles tribute band, making for late-night drives home. 

But there were challenges. The house was in disrepair after years of abuse from the harsh weather for which Lake Erie is notorious. Its proximity to the water’s edge put it in the path of high winds and waves that can destroy anything in their path. Leanne drives the point home by pointing to the spot where another house once stood until a huge log crashed into it during a mighty storm. She and her husband purchased the lot on which the house stood to allow for the much-needed expansion that made their home suitable year-round for the family, which includes their 1-year-old daughter, Halston, and four rescue dogs.

“If it weren’t for that storm, we wouldn’t be here,” says Leanne. “We had a 5,000-square-foot house in the suburbs, so, when we decided to make this our forever home, we had to design it so we could squeeze every single dream item we wanted into a much smaller space. Without the lot next door, it would have been impossible.”

The couple worked with an architect who understood the challenges of owning a lakefront property. Naturally, the first priority was protecting the home from the elements. The front of the house facing the street is bunkered to provide privacy and reduce road noise from the traffic on Route 5, and they selected windows, building materials and landscaping that can withstand the forces of nature. 

“When there are 60-mile-an-hour winds outside, it’s airtight in here,” Leanne says. 

The home’s interior also pays homage to Lake Erie weather and the four seasons. In the kitchen, the quartzite countertops are streaked with gray veining. “I picked out the most extreme bands to reflect the storms and gray days,” says Leanne. Upstairs, a large gathering room has cheery reds and yellow tones that match the beautiful autumn sunsets, while the 800-square-foot master suite’s all-white decor makes the space bright and airy on sunny summer days. 

Pergo flooring in a beachy, white-washed finish runs throughout the house to tie everything together. The flooring, like other materials in the home, was chosen for its durability. “We entertain a lot, so these floors were designed to hold up to shoes, sand and paws,” says Leanne. “I wanted hardwood, but when we tested a piece by scratching it with sand, it didn’t hold up.”

The sand also played a role in the selection of certain furnishings, especially in the living room. Neutral-toned, tufted-leather seating, which is easy to wipe down, is used in the summer months. The rest of the year, chenille pieces and rugs make the room feel warm and cozy, especially on a cold winter day.Although the furnishings may change by the season, it was important for the couple to have décor and finishes that stand the test of time. “I prefer a classic look,” says Leanne. “If it looks trendy, I don’t want it.”

The home achieves a timeless quality with a mix of contemporary pieces paired with mid-century modern and art deco antiques — many of which have sentimental value. A reupholstered sofa and chair in the “Sunset Room” belonged to her grandfather, who was an antiques dealer and musician. The upright Steinway piano in the living room was a gift from him to Leanne’s mother.

Leanne, who owned an antique mall in Corning, N.Y., until 2006, has had to learn to edit herself. “I had a lot more stuff, but we were limited on space in the new home,” she says. “Now, I have to have a direct purpose for something if I’m going to buy it.”

Her affection for the intricate details found in Buffalo’s turn-of-the-century mansions inspired the cut-crystal lighting and white octagonal tiles with dark grout. “I saw these features in the Tudor-style homes that we considered buying before we settled in our home on the lake,” says Leanne. “This look hasn’t gone out of style in 100-plus years.” 

With the quality of materials and enduring classic style, the couple’s beach home is built to last just as long or longer  — depending on Mother Nature, of course. “The lake’s personality changes all the time,” says Chris. “But when it’s angry, it can be crazy.”

The couple keeps sandbags in the garage in case the waves crash over the patio wall that rises 12 feet above the sand. “It’s definitely exciting,” says Leanne. “We have to put a lot of the artwork, furniture and fine glass in storage during the colder months when the home becomes coated with ice from the waves splashing the windows. When it comes to more sentimental items I don’t want to take the chance.”

The Steinway piano has its own contingency plan should the house flood. There’s a half-empty storage locker two miles away and it will come down to “well-oiled wheels, a tarp and a prayer.” 

Whatever happens, they are prepared to weather the storm. 

Design by Leanne: Three tips for stylish, comfortable lake living.
1. Don’t get too nautical. It may be tempting to paper your home in an anchor print, but it might be a mistake. Instead, ask yourself this: “Once the shades are drawn and the lake is no longer in sight, would I still be pleased with these fits, finishes and colors?

2.  Use both shiny and muted materials. Because she and her husband like to entertain, they wanted a comfortable living space with touches of formality. To get the look, she mixed not only old and new pieces, but also blended shiny, eye-catching elements with natural, muted items. The sand-toned leather couch, for example, is accented with shiny satin pillows. 

3. Reflect. Leanne completed her home with cut-crystal vases that catch the light. “When the sun sets, this whole room sparkles,” she says. “My husband was opposed to the large mirrored vases and cut crystal at first, but once he saw how they cast patterned light beams around the room, he was all aboard.”