See How This Virginia Designer Transformed a 1928 Cottage Into Her Family's Dream Riverfront Getaway

·6 min read
1928 cottage on the Potomac River in Sandy Point, VA
1928 cottage on the Potomac River in Sandy Point, VA

Laurey W. Glenn; Styling: Elly Poston Cooper

Alana Woerpel loves creating elegant rooms in fine old houses for clients who expect the best. One of the Charlottesville-based decorator's unsung talents, though, is recognizing beauty in overlooked places. Her family's soulful weekend cottage on the Virginia side of the Potomac River is one of them. She and her husband, Kurt, discovered it twelve years ago during a time when he was traveling regularly to a tiny riverside neighborhood called Sandy Point, near Kinsale, Virginia, to work for a lumber company. After waking up in a company cottage every morning, he'd walk along a road toward the river, stopping to snap cell phone photos of a certain house with a For Sale sign planted out front, its roofline haloed in pink light as the sun rose over the water behind it.

Small and dilapidated, the 1928 cottage had languished on the market for three years, but its image on her phone instantly captivated Woerpel. The day after Christmas in 2007, they both drove to see it in all its dubious glory: crawling bugs, cracked Formica, dropped ceilings, nasty shag carpet, and layers of grime. The previous owners had lived in the house year-round for decades, enduring bitter winters. They'd stuffed newspapers in every crevice. "It made me tired even thinking about it," Woerpel says of the 1,300-square foot house. "But as I sat and looked at the water, a calm came over me. By the time we got back in the car, I said, 'I've already figured out how to make it work.' "

As soon as they bought it, Woerpel began to bring the structure back to what it was originally intended to be: an airy summer cottage where a family could sit outside during the hotter months in the days before central air-conditioning. She had a limited renovation budget and, just as importantly, she didn't want to destroy the house's unstudied air—a simple beauty that connects it to an earlier America.

"I'm not one of those designers who goes in and says the architecture has to be perfect, the walls have to be pristine," Woerpel says. "In doing that, we often lose that connection to the original intent of a house."

Her goal was to make the cottage comfortable and livable by using ingenuity and elbow grease along with off-the-cuff but inspired decorating in a suitably easygoing spirit. "Nothing's ever perfect," she says. "Just dive in. There's a way to throw things together that's stylish and comfortable without getting overly complicated."

The previous year, her family had moved from a cottage-like house in Charlottesville to a larger, more elegant one. "My spray-painted thrift store acquisitions didn't look so charming anymore," Woerpel recalls. They were all stacked in the basement along with some very 1970s pieces Kurt had inherited from his mother. "So when we stumbled on this cottage, I already had what I needed and felt beholden to use it. It was a triple bonus: I could recycle, save money, and clear out our basement, all at the same time," she says.

Mixed with artworks she bartered to acquire and leftover fabrics from her design office, the white elephants from her basement were arranged for comfort and ease. The trick to making it all work cohesively was to slipcover everything in white or a neutral. The other trick was to be relentless in the use of white paint on walls and floors. This simplified color scheme allowed her to add controlled shots of green and blue to every room, and it let her keep the porch's dashing emerald-green ceiling. The result is a series of radiantly decorated and eminently useful rooms.

But the house isn't the only thing that she, Kurt, and the kids have come to appreciate. They also love Sandy Point's vibrant small-town setting enfolded by nature. "It's like going back to Mayberry or some forgotten time," Woerpel says. "There's no place to shop. It becomes all about the water. You pull inner tubes with kids on them all along and across the beach. People kayak and canoe, fish and crab, go sailing. We have a small, crummy boat, but it's great for going up and down the river. On a typical day, we'll anchor it and then swim in toward some cliffs and— under the blazing sun—find prehistoric sharks' teeth buried in the sand."

The best part of life at Sandy Point, however, is that ordinary days are equally full of wonder. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself," Woerpel says. "When we are out here, I think, the sunrise can't be this beautiful. That can't be a fishing boat silhouetted at just the right moment. Those can't be bald eagles diving for fish. It's so hard for me to believe our house sat here empty and unwanted for years."

Barter for Décor

The blue dancer painting is by Gresham Sykes, a retired University of Virginia professor who lived nearby; Woerpel traded her decorating hours for his artwork. Rather than refinishing the floors on the main level, she economized by painting them ivory. The 1970s "cheesy coffee table" came from her husband's family—it has a glass shadowbox top with cork below.

Enlist Talented Friends

Charles Calhoun, a high-school friend of Woerpel's, crafted the iron-and-wood dining room table. It's surrounded by a set of rustic Queen Anne chairs, which she scooped up at a secondhand shop in Charleston. "I bought eight of them for $300," Alana says. "They already had aqua vinyl on the seats—great for wet bathing suits.

Stick to the Basics

For her two sons and their friends, Woerpel furnished a loft-like second-floor bedroom with four twin beds. Plain white bedspreads are livened up with blue-and-white coverlets made from Jim Thompson's "Enter the Dragons" linen fabrics. Friends urged her to paint the walls white in here, like the rest of the house, but she kept them bare for a camp cabin feeling.

Stage Drama

"I'm a big fan of thick duvets at the foot of the bed," says Woerpel, who created a guest bedroom oozing with cottagey romance. "We call it the princess room because it feels creamy and fancy, especially with those Italian strung damask curtains. When you pull a cord, both sides go up like an opera curtain."

Sew-and-Go Carpet

Small seagrass squares from World Market form a wall-to-wall carpet over a linoleum floor. "I bought extra squares so when something gets stained, I can just sew a new one in," says Woerpel. The green ceiling and rows of hand-crank jalousie windows are original to the home. She says, "They are a great invention: Cranked out for summer you have the equivalent of a screened porch; cranked in for winter, it's like a greenhouse."