When Michael Bolognino and Nick Spain pictured the fixer-upper they wanted to take on, they saw a sprawling piece of land, spanning four or five idyllic acres. What they got: one acre, although it is certainly idyllic.
They imagined a quaint little farmhouse. What they got: a 4,500-square-foot, 1850s Italianate mansion that used to be a Catholic church rectory. Nothing went as planned, but the couple – Michael is a product marketing and storytelling guru at Google, and Nick is an art and design marketing consultant and owner of garden design company Arthur’s Plants – wouldn’t have it any other way.
After a two-year renovation of the massive house, located a few hours from New York City in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the home is a magical weekend getaway, ready for visitors. In fact, the couple will be married there later this year. (And if you want to experience the place yourself, you can rent it on Airbnb.) Here, they tell the story of how they brought The Filomena, named after Michael’s grandmother, back to greatness. . .
Michael: Our dream was something small with a lot of a land and we ended up with the opposite. Nick found the house online and he sent it to me. We both thought it was out of our price range and a massive project. On New Year’s Day, we went and looked at it; we cold-called the agency. There was no heat, it was freezing, but we were blown away by the details. Very little had changed in 170 years. It was a labor of love – we didn’t get a deal for six months at least.
The Filomena before it was The Filomena.
Nick: We made a really aggressive offer in February 2016. It seemed like we were at a standstill as far as finding a happy medium. We had resigned ourselves to not getting it.
Michael: We were in Texas at a wedding in April and we got a call out of the blue – they were willing to negotiate. We know that priests for the local Catholic church had lived there, but then a family moved in in the 1950s and they raised 12 children in the house. Part of the issue was that all 12 children had to agree on the offer.
We own a little place in the city that’s newer construction, but this was our first renovation. The inspector we had a relationship with, Neil, ended up becoming our contractor. He made sure everything was sound and helped us estimate the renovation cost.
Nick: From the moment we met with him he was so calming. Everything felt very reasonable and logical about what steps we had to take.
Nick (left) and Michael demoing the dated kitchen, which would become the sunroom. “We did all the demolition ourselves; we loaded up seven dumpsters’ worth of stuff,” says Michael.
The new sunroom’s skinny paneled ceiling was a happy surprise. “When we ripped out the kitchen, we discovered this incredible beadboard 13 feet up. We painted it 20 percent lighter than the walls – that was a tip from my sister,” says Michael.
Michael: Instinctually, we both knew we needed to and could do it, but we didn’t know how it would get done. It was so daunting. But there we were, with hammers, removing the kitchen and taking down a wall. Anything that didn’t require permits, we tried to do ourselves. We removed layers and layers of linoleum, we took walls out. To save money, Nick cut channels through the entire house so the electrician could easily get in the walls and do the wiring. We didn’t have a full budget for painting, so we made a deal with the painter that we would paint the back of the house, he would paint the front. YouTube was awesome. I learned how to remove paint from hardware with a slow cooker. It’s a super easy trick that works like a champ.
We were up there every weekend; I think we only missed two weekends for a wedding over the last two years. During construction, the house had no heat, it was so dusty. So we would drive up Friday nights and we’d spend the night at my parents’. There was no better way for Nick to get to know my parents than live with them for a year and a half!
The couple had to pull up layers and layers of old carpet in the living room (with the help of their dog Crouton, of course).
The handsome wood ceilings in the living room (shown here) and dining room are original – and basically untouched, even now. “We dusted them and that’s all we had to do,” says Nick.
Nick: I’m honestly really happy that we put so much sweat equity into it. I feel infinitely more capable.
Michael: I dropped a ladder and it took a chunk out of the wood floor, but now every time I see it, it makes me happy. We hand-renovated 19 radiators. There were a lot of pets in the house – I found full animals‘ worth of fur in the radiators. We had to clean them out, wash them, and prime them. Then, we had to repair any chipping and then, we painted them.
The little room that would end up being the house’s East Bath.
The transformed East Bath. Nick painted the ceiling of the slate-tiled shower enclosure black to make it feel like its own room within a room.
Nick: Much of the house had the original historical details except for a few rooms, the kitchen being one of them. The kitchen was in the very back of the house and it was renovated in the mid-1950s or ’60s. There was a drop ceiling in there. It just wasn’t the heart of the home, and that’s very important to me as a Southerner and Michael with his Italian background. We didn’t know where to put it at first. We toyed around with the kitchen in at least two other rooms.
Michael: If you notice the new kitchen’s ceiling, that was there already, and I didn’t want to waste that on a bathroom. (We wanted another full bath and we also needed a washer dryer.) It was like, what a shame to use it for that. Editor’s Note: The bathroom and laundry room ended up adjacent to the sunroom instead.
Check out that intricate ceiling in the room that would become the kitchen. “Our carpenter had to replace a little bit of it because where they had built a closet, it was missing. It had been one piece, but he had to use five pieces of modern-day trim to recreate it,” says Michael.
Nick: We aren’t afraid of a bit of color and giving rooms their own personality, so I wanted that central hallway that you’re passing through quite frequently to function as a palate cleanser, which is why we chose soothing grays. The yellow door is just enough oomph to be referential to some of the fun that’s happening in the other rooms.
The sunny front door opens into a huge hallway that runs through the middle of the house.
Michael: Nick did most of the design, he did 90 percent, but I wanted a yellow door. It’s so interesting with the curvature and the glass. I wanted it to be a centerpiece.
Nick: We once saw an old boarding house in the Catskills and it still had a men’s parlor and ladies’ drawing room. I think there’s something really romantic about that notion; that’s how we landed on the dining room. Prior to us buying it, the father had used it as a study. It made sense for this to be a black, masculine dining room. And right across the hall from it, you have this really lovely soft pink living room – it’s dedicated to the ladies who lunch. We collect portraits and we say, “Oh, she’s a lady who lunches.”
A 12-foot-long table holds court in the dining room. “It was in our barn; it was an old countertop,” Michael says. “It had a base, but Nick sawed it all off. We had to carry it out of the barn, down the stairs, and into the basement. Nick sanded it and gave it all kinds of love and care. Then we had to carry it up the stairs the day before Christmas. He bought these legs off Etsy and screwed them in. We were having 14 people over that day!”
Nick: Color certainly informed it, too. At that time, I’d looked at a lot of Italian design and looking at things as a progression of color as you move through a space. The media room is this really deep, beautiful navy and it’s directly adjacent to the living room. Whenever that door is flung open, it’s a really beautiful combination.
Michael: We made mood boards for every room. Before construction, I printed them out and taped them in the rooms. We game them funny names and they stuck. The Zen Room really lived up to its name.
In the uber-serene Zen Room, Nick fashioned a bendable curtain track usually used in hospitals into a squiggly room divider. “That’s our little homage to Donald Judd,” he says.
Michael: The house is named after my grandma on my dad’s side, and, in general, grandmas are very important to us. The two back rooms are loosely representative of our grandmas. I spent a lot of time with both of my grandparents. One of them lived in this 1950s ranch house and once a year we’d do this garage sale. It gave me this love for history and antiques. During construction, we’d get up early and go to estate sales and to antique stores in Albany. We just filled up our barn. Nick would know where everything would go.
The duo’s shopping strategy: Splurge as long as they could offset the cost elsewhere. For example, Nick notes, “We splurged on the light in our kitchen, but then we had savings with other materials we used. We got IKEA cabinetry and used Semihandmade door fronts.”
In the Jungle Room – “I wanted it to feel like you’re swimming in green,” says Nick – the artwork leaning on top of the bed frame was no more than $50, another estate sale find.
Nick: Michael’s a much better haggler than I am.
Michael: It’s such a scene, it’s cutthroat. It would be negative two degrees and there would be a line of people to get in. It gives me a lot of anxiety. So many times I remember having our dog Crouton in one hand and 17 vases in the other. There’s a great website called EstateSales.net and it emails you the day before any estate sales in your area. They actually have pictures, which is a game changer. If you see something you want, go early and ask about it. By Sunday, everything that’s left is usually 50 percent off.
The new-and-improved master bedroom. “It’s pretty rare that you walk into a room and right in front of you is this gorgeous six-by-nine foot window. So because of that and the layout, I wanted that to be the headboard more or less, and have this lovely view and feel like there’s nature right above your head. We framed it out with curtains on either side,” says Nick.
Michael: We walked into the master bedroom when we first saw the house and it feels like you want to be in there. That’s our bedroom.
Nick: We actually really loved the colors that were already on the walls – they just needed a little tweaking. It was taking what was already there and refining it to what we wanted it to be. We still chose these warm, natural tones. We loved that room from day one.
Michael: We saved the South Bath for last in the renovation. We bought the sink way before the renovation started, and it turns out we needed it. That room is so small. We actually have a corner toilet in there, too.
Yes, that’s carpeting and a yellow tub in the original, extremely old-school South Bath.
“The sink sets the tone for the room,” says Michael of the antique store find in the updated South Bath.
Nick: That room was a bit of a headache. We wanted it where the whole room is one big shower, but because of code we weren’t able to make that happen.
Michael: It had walls made of concrete surrounding mesh wire. Hauling that out. .. it was a beast. The North Bath had three sinks, a separate toilet, and a separate shower. It was essentially a locker room; three kids could be doing their thing. We turned it into a single bathroom.
Oh hey there, spiffy new North Bath.
Michael: Part of our inspiration for the house is some of the renovated hotels we’ve stayed at around the country and around the world. In the back of our head was always the idea that we’d share the space with others. I’d love to have a baking class or a yoga retreat.
Clever: And you’re getting married there!
Michael: We’re very excited. The ultimate test of a relationship is a renovation. It involves every pressure point; it involves time, labor, money, a million decisions, things going wrong. We made it through. There’s nothing better than seeing my mom at the table with a coffee.
Nick: In many ways, it’s certainly symbolic. We argued more during this entire process than we ever had before, but we learned what it meant to collaborate with one another. It’s a nice icing on top of the cake.
Michael, Nick, and Crouton on the front steps of The Filomena.