Seven years ago, Rich Braun came home to tell his new wife Dani he found his “dream” home – a dilapidated, gutted, sad Victorian in Middletown in such poor shape that it lacked electricity and plumbing. Where many wives wouldn’t even consider buying a home in such ramshackle condition, Dani was unruffled. “I said, ‘Ok, sure. Whatever,’” she recalls. “I can see anything. I never look at anything [for what it is], I just see the finished.”
Her reaction was unorthodox, but not surprising. Raised by parents who bought, restored and sold houses throughout her childhood, Dani never met an improvement project she couldn’t tackle. “Your goal when you graduated college was to buy a house. That’s how we were raised, and everyone was a carpenter, or a mason, or something along those lines, and everyone we knew who had money had a house, so you couldn’t wait to buy a house,” she explains. Dani bought her first home at 19.
But the Middletown home was more than a flip, it was a monstrosity. “It was condemned, but they don’t condemn anything in these parts, they call it historic,” she says, laughing. “This is what it looked like, what every wall looked like,” she says, pointing down to the stone wall in the basement. “It was never finished. It was all cracked with horsehair plaster. No plumbing, no lights. There was no kitchen. It was completely gutted, wires hanging.”
The home, she explains, was built around 1895 by Boston-based architect H. Langford Warren, best known for his prominent role in the Arts and Crafts movement and for designing the Church of the Holy City in Washington, D.C. “According to the book my neighbor has, this particular street is the first planned urban development on the East Coast. This was Warren’s thesis project,” she says.
It’s easy to see why Warren chose to build on the elevated expanse. Just 800 feet from the ocean with sweeping water views, the architect designed a spherical community that was supposed to surround a park with a tennis court and include a stable for homeowners’ horses. “They were supposed to be beach cottages for wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers. It was supposed to be like a resort,” Dani says. Well into the project, the builder went bankrupt, and the plumber, who was owed money, acquired all the properties. The tennis court never came to fruition, and today the site is a grassy knoll where children play and families gather, while the stable was later turned into a home. The Renfrew houses were rented in the early part of the 19th century and eventually sold for just $5,000 each. “And now they’re going for a million bucks,” she exclaims.
When the Brauns bought their home, however, its worth was far from a million dollars. The former owner, Dani says, lived in squalor, and “disaster” didn’t even begin to describe its condition. “My mother-in-law came and said, ‘I understand a house that needs work, but this house is dirty. Like prison dirty,’” she says with a laugh. No plumbing? No electricity? No problem. With sheer determination and countless laborious hours, one man’s trash eventually became the Braun’s treasure. “We took all the windows out, boarded it up, jacked it up, replaced the sills underneath, re-wired, and re-plumbed. We lived in this room for a year – for a year,” she says dramatically, gazing around what has transformed into an elegantly appointed space peppered with coastal décor. As if a top to bottom renovation wasn’t enough on the couple’s plate, they also had a one-year-old daughter in tow, Mia. “I’d wear her in a backpack and carry her around because she couldn’t go on the floors,” says Dani.
Today, the five bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home evokes inspired style and seaside charm. While Dani sources furnishings and dcor everywhere from Target to tag sales, her thrice-yearly pilgrimage to the legendary Brimfield Antique Show yields some of her favorite finds. It’s the largest outdoor antique show in New England; Dani typically tackles Brimfield with a wish list in hand.
From table linens to tin ceiling tiles turned lamps, her unique finds merge fashion and function. A 100-year-old desk used for work years ago was recently repurposed into a much-needed console table. “I spent 200 bucks on the stupid thing so I wasn’t throwing it away. I left it outside for a year, and the other day I looked at it at and was like, ‘Scotty, is your table saw set up? Can you take this home and zip it in half?’ Done.” After close family friend and her garage sale partner-in- crime, Scotty, sliced the table in two, Dani retouched it, replaced the screws and mounted it to the wall. She added a whimsical touch by painting a quote from T.S. Eliot on it: "I have heard the mermaids singing."
Though being the doyenne of DIY saves some serious dollars, Dani invests in things she says make the family’s life simple and beautiful: great lighting, storage (built-ins), fabric and upholstery, and art that in most cases is acquired when traveling or com- memorates a special memory.
Even with 11 rooms, fabulous projects can easily collect, taking up precious space, but for the Brauns (two adults, two children, one father-in-residence), it’s a non-issue. “I have no attachment to anything,” Dani concedes. “I don’t have clutter, I don’t like a lot of tchotchke stuff.” Organization, she says, is key. “I want something I can keep, and I don’t like to keep much. I’m good at getting it out. I do a clean sweep. I donate a lot of stuff. I do a lot of swapping with friends.”