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When Downsizing is Really an Upgrade

How one Middletown couple modernized their 1940s bungalow and came up with their forever home


Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.” That was the case with Stanley Piszcz of Middletown and Bonnie Houle of Coventry when the two sat next to one another at the Newport Jazz Festival many years ago. The two became friends and later married. Stanley then moved to Coventry where the two lived on more than three acres.

When the two decided to downsize, Stanley knew his circa 1940 bungalow in Middletown was the ideal size, though it needed some considerable upgrades if this would in fact be the couple’s “forever home.”

“We did the renovation with the idea this would be our last home,” explains Bonnie. “Everything needed to be very accessible, all on one floor.” With the potential of limited and/or assisted mobility when they approach their golden years, the couple made note of things they wanted done before they even approached an architect or builder. “I drew up an original plan for the architect that he thought was really great,” beams Stanley. His plans included removing and replacing all of the doors with pocket doors to add more space, widening doorways should either he or Bonnie need the aid of a walker or wheelchair, removing the bathtub in the bathroom and replacing it with a walk-in shower and a heated floor, replacing all windows with new, easy to use and energy efficient double pane windows, and installing a wide stairway as well as a ramp at the rear entry of the home. “The pocket doors save a lot of room,” says Stanley, who had interestingly found the original plans of the home in the basement. They were drawn in 1939 so he guesses the home was built in 1940. “We also removed all of the radiators – there was one in every room and that gave us all kinds of space. We installed a whole new heating system,” says Stanley. Finally, they eliminated the task of splitting, stacking and hauling wood inside for the wood stove by replacing it with a gas version. “I have the remote in my hand right now and will just switch it on,” laughs Stanley.

The couple turned to architect Karl F. Sauerbrey of Coventry to plan the new spaces, including a sun room with a custom in-laid wood compass rose, and redesign of the existing ones. Justin Zeller of Red House Custom Building in Barrington was tasked with bringing the new designs to life. “It was really nice to take this little bungalow and revamp it with clients who wanted to retain the feeling of the details in it,” says Justin. “Stanley spent a lot of time there working with our carpenters. They began to expect him once or twice a day. Bonnie knew both Justin and Karl through her local Business Networking International chapter, better known as BNI, the world’s largest business networking organization promoting shared ideas, contacts and referrals.

“We gutted it right down to the studs,” says Bonnie with pride. They had hardwood floors installed throughout except for in the kitchen and the adjoining hallway where they opted for unique porcelain tile planks that resemble wood laid in an artful, diagonal pattern. “We thought we’d put it in the bathroom, but we loved it so much we added it to the kitchen and hallway.”

As Bonnie enjoys cooking and baking, expanding the kitchen was a must, as was making a smart layout that allowed for maximum counter space and ample storage. “It was quite a project,” she concedes, but she and Stanley couldn’t have been more pleased with the vendors they worked with to make it all happen. Wickford Kitchen & Bath, Wickford Appliance and Rhode Island Kitchen & Bath were all a vital part of the project which the couple say they proudly managed entirely by themselves, and all of the lighting was chosen at J & K Electric in Johnston. “We worked with the owner of J & K Electric and she was amazing,” tells Bonnie. “We worked hours and hours.”

Though Stanley and Bonnie were thrilled to make all the renovations to bring the home into the 21st century, they did not want the bungalow to lose its charm so they made each decision, from fixtures to colors, with thought and purpose. “A few small details made a huge impact,” says builder Justin. And the changes weren’t only on the inside of the natural, cedar shingled house.

Stanley and Bonnie opted to tear down the existing garage to make room for a spacious two-car garage with a room over top, and a stone patio completes the space. Bonnie also planted more than 500 bulbs around the property, including daffodils and crocuses, in addition to the countless hydrangeas, hostas and rhododendrons from her Coventry home. “We had huge gardens in the other house,” she says. “I really enjoy gardening and I was really concerned we’d lose that here, but it’s the perfect size and keeps me busy.”

The entire process took just over a year to complete but Stanley and Bonnie are delighted with the results. “The house was meant to be the house we could grow old in comfortably,” says Bonnie, “and now we can."