Uncommon Cottages

Three families show how breaking the rules results in peaceful, happy retreats

A primary residence must live by the rules. Power and plumbing are required. You must be able to sleep there. These homes are typically on land.

Vacation homes have no such limitations, as we discovered when visiting three unique cottages around the lake.

So what makes a good summer home?

It’s the sound a screen door makes when a child runs out to play. The bike rides to the beach. The family and friends who come to visit you there. The turtle that paddles over while you read your magazine.

The Summer School

School House
The Divecha's School House

Rob and Rose Divecha never considered themselves cottage people.

“To go to the same place all the time seemed so boring,” Rob says. “But when we first came to Pelee Island in 2005, we instantly felt this peace. We returned for the next three years and just loved it.”

That’s when they began looking for land on which to build a vacation home of their own.

Instead, they found the Stone Road Alvar conservation area — a 500-acre protected Carolinian forest chock-full of plants and animals found nowhere else in Canada. But blink and you might miss the equally rare, century-old schoolhouse set back from the road and tucked neatly in a small clearing in the woods bordering the preserve.

The Divechas were flabbergasted to find out that the former South End School was not only converted into a privately owned cottage, but also that it was for sale. It became theirs in 2008.

“You only have so many opportunities to buy a schoolhouse on an acre of land in a nature preserve,” says Rob, a senior project manager for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. “So, we made it work. We love this place.”

Rose takes time off from her job as a receiving manager at Springridge Farm in Milton, Ontario, to bring the kids — Harrison, 13, and Megan, 10 — to Pelee Island for a month in the summer, while Rob comes down for long weekends. Together, they enjoy the simple life, whether it’s hiking in the woods, heading to the beach at the end of the street or just hanging around the schoolhouse.

“When we think of Pelee,” says Rose, “we think of the heat, riding our bikes to the beach and the sounds of coyotes howling, owls hooting, crickets, heat bugs, the screen door slamming. No matter how many time the kids go in and out, I’ll never get tired of that sound.”

Like many one-room schoolhouses built at the turn of the 20th century, the South End School — built in 1913 following a catastrophic fire that destroyed the original schoolhouse and claimed the life of a young girl — has simple frame construction with clapboard siding and a peaked roof topped with a cupola that once held the school’s bell. The bell disappeared long ago, although it’s rumored to be somewhere on the island. (“We met someone on the ferry who told us it was still here,” says Rob.)

Two entrances, one for boys and one for girls, flank either side of the building, but only one is used today. The other entrance was converted into a small bedroom, or “bunk room,” where the couple’s two children sleep. Meanwhile, mom and dad carved out a corner of the main living area to put down a mattress for themselves. The spacious multiuse room, which also includes the kitchen and living and dining areas, has a wood-burning stove in the center, refinished hardwood floors, beadboard wainscoting and plenty of natural light from the many windows.

Rob and Rose have altered little about the house since moving in a few years ago. “There are things we’ve talked about doing eventually, like creating a loft area,” Rob says. “But the first time we walked in, we thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty good,’ so we didn’t have to do a lot.”

The couple did acquire an old school desk at an antique store that fits in perfectly, but the simple décor consists mostly of furniture, art and books left behind by the previous owners. Harrison and Megan have also incorporated their own artwork and various treasures they’ve found while searching the woods around the schoolhouse, including rocks, quail feathers, glass bottles and old license plates that date back to the 1940s.

“I’m out in the woods a lot,” says Harrison. “And most of the time I bring something back.”

On one of the first expeditions, Rob found part of a potbelly stove, which he used to build a fire pit in the yard. “I realized later it might be the potbelly stove from the original school that burned down,” he says.

The Divecha family gets plenty of visitors, such as wild animals, researchers counting butterflies, history buffs and even a “highpointer,” whose goal was to reach the highest elevation on the island, believed to be right behind the schoolhouse.

For the most part, though, life on Pelee is low key. “We get very excited,” says Rose, “when the co-op gets doughnuts in.”

The Houseboat

The Bloom's Houseboat

Nancy Bloom pauses from reading a magazine on the deck of her houseboat to watch a turtle swim within a few feet of her, poke its head above the water, then dive back down under the surface.

“Every day we wake up and we’re thankful,” says Nancy. “Presque Isle is just a gem.”

Presque Isle State Park is a nature and water lover’s paradise. Considered the crown jewel of Pennsylvania, this 3,200-acre peninsula attracts 4 million visitors each year to its sandy beaches, historic sites and recreational trails teeming with wildlife.

However, not many people can wake up to it each morning, as do the lucky residents of Horseshoe Pond, a community of 24 houseboats that lie anchored in the calm, shallow water surrounded by marshes, sand dunes and drift beaches. The state of Pennsylvania allows no more than 24 lease spots in the state park, which are usually transferred only when an existing houseboat is sold by its owners.

Nancy and her husband, Tom, have called Horseshoe Pond their second home since 1980, when one of the few coveted houseboats came up for sale — something that doesn’t happen often. Their place had only had one owner before they bought it.

“They hardly ever get advertised,” says Tom, adding that he was just in the right place at the right time. “It’s always word of mouth. I remember I was on a friend’s houseboat over Labor Day in 1980 when he said this one was for sale.”

The houseboat was in quite a state of disrepair at the time, Tom recalls. But he didn’t need to convince Nancy to agree to the purchase. “I always wanted a houseboat,” she says. “I would come to Presque Isle as a kid and see them. I always thought they were neat.”

The Blooms, whose land home is in Erie, Pa., soon discovered that houseboat ownership comes with a unique set of challenges. Special considerations need to be made when performing basic tasks that land dwellers take for granted, such as going to the bathroom and getting groceries or furnishings aboard. The houseboat is equipped with an eco-friendly incinerating toilet that uses heat to reduce human waste into ash that can be safely deposited in a dumpster on the mainland. Furthermore, basic maintenance requires a wet suit to prevent cuts from the sharp shells of zebra mussels that gather on every underwater surface.

“Houseboats aren’t for everybody,” says Tom, a retired engineer and now the president of the houseboat association. “The old guy that sold it to me said that I would get an hour’s pleasure for an hour’s work. I had three years of total work before I could get to that point.”

Four years ago, Tom and Nancy decided to start over and build a new two-bedroom houseboat from the raft up, selling the existing structure and all its contents to a neighbor, who towed it to his own leased spot on the pond. “I finally built this one because I got sick and tired of constantly working on the other one,” he says.

One of the priorities was replacing the wood raft with a composite decking material, which cut down on maintenance, but made the structure heavier. In fact, the weight of all building materials and furnishings had to be carefully calculated, so Tom would know exactly how much flotation the new houseboat would require.

Above the surface, the Blooms had to adhere to building requirements set forth by the houseboat association, which put limits on the size, height and color of all the houseboats in Horseshoe Pond. At 760 square feet, the new two-bedroom houseboat is smaller than a standard mobile home, but packs in features that make it feel more spacious, such as vaulted ceilings and plenty of windows. The Blooms bought Berber carpet in lighter tones, plus cabinets and furnishings with natural finishes to add to the effect.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting all the new purchases to the houseboat.

“See that boat?” asks Tom, pointing to the small motorboat tied up at the end of his deck. “That’s how we got everything here — fridge, stove, kitchen cabinets. We waited until the winter. When the pond froze over, we would load up the boat and skid it across the water just like a sleigh.”

That same boat shuttles friends and family from the shore to their new-and-improved houseboat and back during the warmer months.

“We’ve had quite a few people here,” says Nancy. “It’s just a fun party place. My daughter Lori even got engaged here. Her fiancé took her out on the front deck, got down on his knee and proposed. He knew this was her favorite place.”

Thirty years and thousands of incredible sunsets after first making a home here, the Blooms, their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren still spend as much time at Horseshoe Pond as they can. They swim, ride Jet Skis over to Beach 11, take the boat out for a spin — all in their own “backyard.” But they all come home to the houseboat for one of Nancy’s home-cooked meals.

Meanwhile, Tom is grooming his 11-year-old grandson for future houseboat ownership. “The next generation needs to know how to fix things,” he says. “One day this will be theirs.”

The Tea House

Rozak's Tea House
Rozak's Tea House

It was an unusual request, to be sure.

“I want a tea house,” Dianne Rozak recalls telling her husband, Dan Thompson, soon after they married in 2002. “We need to have one.”

Dianne had been flipping through the pages of a magazine and found an article about a woman who lived on an estate in California. On the property, there was a small building where the woman would entertain guests with elaborate high teas and cocktail parties. The story struck a chord with Dianne, a former caterer, who loves to cook and entertain for her friends and co-workers.

“I showed the article to Dan, and I showed it to my mom,” says Dianne, an elected trustee for Danbury Township in western Ohio and a seasonal naturalist at Marblehead Lighthouse State Park. “They both said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.’”

But the idea kept nagging at Dianne, and eventually her family supported her dream. Together, they began looking for old cottages that could be moved to her mom’s property, across the street from Dianne’s own house on Johnson’s Island in Ohio.

They finally found it — right next door. The neighbors were going to tear down a 50-year-old cottage on the property that they’d been using as a storage building, but were more than happy to give it to Dianne.

After having it moved to its new location, she and Dan began the difficult task of refurbishing it. “It was just a mess,” Dianne recalls. “We salvaged everything that we could.”

The couple replaced a set of rotting wooden doors with a sliding glass door, installed a new roof, ripped out the ceiling, added a large picture window they found in a dumpster, texturized the walls and finally painted. Outside, Dan built a boardwalk and picket fence using scraps from another neighbor’s building project.

After six months of renovations, costing less than $4,000, the old storage shed had been transformed into a storybook cottage.

The easy part was decorating it with furniture and knickknacks acquired over the years, such as English china, a bird-seed bucket, a yellow chair with robins painted on it and a rocking chair with press-on velvet hearts.

The rest of the décor was, shall we say, inherited.

“My mom and I would go dumpster diving here on Johnson’s Island,” Dianne says. “I am confident that if anybody from Johnson’s Island walked in here, they’d see something that once belonged to them.”

Somehow, it all works.

“It has everything you’d want to have in your house, but you’d be afraid to have, because people would think you are a little crazy or eccentric,” Dianne says. “But everything fits in the tea house.”

Whenever friend and neighbor Rhonda Sowers stops by, she sees something new. “Everything has a story,” she says. “Dianne can see someone else’s junk and make it wonderful.”

The only things Dianne’s Tea House doesn’t have are bedrooms, a kitchen, electricity or plumbing. While that can make entertaining and food preparation a little more challenging, she and guests can use the kitchen and bathroom at her mom’s house, which is only a few steps away.

“We don’t want it to have modern amenities,” says Dianne. “It’s kind of like a throwback … an old-fashioned place to sit. When we have evening parties, we light all the kerosene lamps and all the candles and fire up the wood stove.”

Friends and family, too, like it just the way it is. “Dianne throws such wonderful parties here,” says Sowers. “It’s such a great place.”

Dianne also heads to the cottage when she needs to work without distractions, especially the grant writing she does as part of her township trustee job. “Half the time nobody knows I’m there,” she says. “It’s comforting to know there’s a place to go where the only ‘tweeting’ is from the birds.”