When Alene Valkanas and James McComb discovered footprints from the past on their property, they felt compelled to follow them. The footprints were architectural – the outlines of dwellings that were functional but tiny. Now three charming cottages sit along a curved path in Union Pier, Mich.
Alene and James are enthusiastic as they explain it was the magnificent, robust trees that first drew them to the property in 1998. “I could be called a conservative tree-hugger,” says James with a chuckle. “The trees on the property were simply irresistible.”
That was after years in Chicago – James at Leo Burnett advertising, Alene at the Museum of Contemporary Art and curator for Arts Alliance of Illinois.
“Then I discovered I would rather paint art than direct it,” says James. Freed from the daily obligations in the city, the couple decided to put down roots in southwestern Michigan, already familiar with the area’s peaceful yet vibrant little towns. “We thought it would take a year to find a place that was right,” says Alene. “But that first week Jim saw this property and he was charmed.”
The property had belonged to a family who bought the mid-century home from the original owners and lived there for five years, making mostly cosmetic changes. There was the 900-square-foot main cottage; a second cottage whose 460 square feet had been cozy for two girls’ visits to their aunt; and a chicken coop. Ten blissful years in the main cottage passed before Alene and James were moved to make significant changes. James got together with Paul Oman of Union Pier Builders to help realize his vision of a larger, more open main house and to make the two other buildings more functional.
The tiny, 460-square-foot guest cottage was tackled first. Among the additions are a wood-burning stove and hearthstone, and flooring of wormy chestnut from a barn. The bath is transformed into a retro delight, with bead board and washstand, while the stone-lined shower is an upscale application coordinating with the rustic aspects of the little cottage .A blue chest found in the chicken coop was reclaimed, and James plans to transform a room used for an office into a bedroom.
In 2000, the couple built a studio where the chicken coop had been. Since then “The Coop” has had a multipurpose life. Half is a studio for watercolorist James’ artwork, half is a garage and work area. And during the renovation of the main cottage, James and Alene lived in the studio.
A vaulted ceiling over James’s work area gives the artist more natural light.
“We were quite content to be there, watching the house become what we wanted it to be, and watching the fantastic changes in Michigan’s weather,” recalls Alene.
One element of Michigan’s weather is not so welcome. Alene and James were home when a windstorm storm swept through the area, snapping several trees, including some white pines along the driveway. “Those awesome trees and their magnificent heights,” says Alene with a touch of sorrow. “In spite of the storms that came through, lots of trees did survive, including our largest and oldest white pine.”
James chuckles ruefully. “Oh yes, we were able to see that storm. In fact (WGN meteorologist) Tom Skilling used my photo when talking about it on the news.” There are massive storms that sweep across this county.”
The short walk from the studio to the main cottage is lined with ornamental trees and bushes that also grace the entire two-and-a-half-acre property. James and Alene are clearly content with the main cottage’s expansion to 1,600 square feet. All that remains from the original cottage are the two bedrooms and an office. A master bath and laundry room were built over the original footprint, and the front of the house is now on one side, to take advantage of the warming sun. From the dining room they can see holly, rhododendron, and other foliage that forms a mini allee. The garage has given way to living space, with French doors adding light and charm. A mud room with plenty of light was essential, since several of the huge potted plants alongside the house are wintered indoors. The refurbished kitchen now has a cheerfully bright blue ceiling and is still a modest size – yet big enough for avid cook Alene to whip up dishes from her nearly 150 cookbooks.
“There’s joy in sharing meals and celebrating with friends,” says Alene, who in September hosted 35 to 40 people for a reunion of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
James’ design for the main cottage allows natural light throughout. The screened porch addition gets the last light from the west and a skylight in the laundry room brightens the space. In the bedroom, a window was converted to a door to provide access to the back yard and to the dog run for the couple’s two lively golden retrievers, who joyously bounded about during the tour.
. The dining room was the living room; switching their uses provides a natural flow of movement through the home. In the living room, Alene points out a treasured George Nakashima coffee table, its rustic and asymmetrical slab selected at his studio, where his daughter Mira completed the piece. Nearby are Magistretti chairs. An artist created the mantel of flagstones for the fireplace that’s on the smaller size, so as not to dominate the space. Alene explains that much of the furniture from their Chicago home works here. “It’s more contemporary, but still able to express the comfort you expect in a country home.”
What was the guest bedroom is now an office. The master bedroom and new guest bedroom both benefit from the couple’s appreciation for art and color; each is awash with deep jewel tones and striking artwork. For the guest bath James chose glass blocks for the shower and a skylight, since it had no windows.
Alene is pleased with the new full basement with the entrance is from the inside, rather than the old exterior cellar doors.
The main cottage will have a new patio soon, where the couple can enjoy the extensive foliage they’ve planted right from the start – yellow-flowering japonica, yellow magnolia, Edith Bouge evergreen, three white pines, stewardia, dwarf hydrangeas, purple smoke bushes and more.
Evenings often find Alene and James outdoors. “We like to sit in the glider at night and watch the light change,” says James.
Not that it’s always quiet here. “A great surprise for us was that the area is populated with Chicago people. I hadn’t anticipated that we would have a wonderful circle of friends making it feel like home,” says James.
“And then there’s Harbor Country Progress,” adds Alene. “We’re active politically, socially, and environmentally. Every month we have a potluck, a program, and report on events and activities. It’s a wonderful social network, and some use Harbor Country Progress as a model for community activism.”
James and Alene delight in recounting the Sunday evening when visitors came up the driveway.
“A woman said, ‘I hope you don’t mind – we used to live here.’ We were delighted,” says Alene. “They chatted about how they loved to come here in the summers to visit their aunt, and sleeping in the guest cottage. They told us stories and later one of them sent us photos of the place as it was then.
“We don’t know who the people in the photos are, but it’s so nice to know the place we love so much was loved before.”
“There’s still a sense of close community here,” says James, who turns to a smiling Alene. She is ruffling the fur of one of the golden retrievers, while the other one leans on James, gazing up at him expectantly. The cottage door swings open and everyone heads out into the sunshine.
Alene’s sigh is deep and appreciative. “Our little cottages are just right now. Isn’t it wonderful here?”