bi_cube_banner
bi_cube_banner
bi_cube_banner
bi_cube_banner

A Brooklyn couple bought a run-down, 180-year-old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. More than 13 years later, they say the renovation process 'really never has ended.'

Advertisement
A Brooklyn couple bought a run-down, 180-year-old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. More than 13 years later, they say the renovation process 'really never has ended.'
  • In 2009, Kat O'Sullivan and Mason Brown bought an 1840s farmhouse in Kingston, New York.
  • The Brooklyn couple transformed the place into a rainbow-colored house with eccentric interiors.
Advertisement

In 2009, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Kat O'Sullivan and her boyfriend Mason Brown were living in a loft bedroom in Brooklyn. The space was in a former tannery that had been converted into an artist's warehouse, and the couple was sharing it with a revolving cast of roommates.

In 2009, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Kat O'Sullivan and her boyfriend Mason Brown were living in a loft bedroom in Brooklyn. The space was in a former tannery that had been converted into an artist's warehouse, and the couple was sharing it with a revolving cast of roommates.
Kat O'Sullivan and her partner, Mason Brown, standing outside their colorful Hudson Valley home.Kat O'Sullivan/Katwise

The couple was struggling to make sense of the world and realized it was time to find a place of their own, O'Sullivan told Insider.

"We were just feeling defeated, watching our savings disappear into nothing. I felt this draw to buy land because at least land was real whereas everything else felt volatile and imaginary," O'Sullivan said.

It was around that same time that her Etsy business, where she sold colorful handmade patchwork sweaters, took off, O'Sullivan said: "It went kind of viral, so we were able to buy a house."

It wasn't long before they fell in love with an 1840s farmhouse in Kingston, some 90 miles north of New York City.

It wasn't long before they fell in love with an 1840s farmhouse in Kingston, some 90 miles north of New York City.
The exterior of the house when the couple first purchased it.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

The house had been with the same owner for the past 60 years and was in need of an update.

Even so, the couple felt the Hudson Valley property had the most potential for its price tag, O'Sullivan said. It came with a pond and was unlike anything they were used to back in New York City.

Since it was right after the economy collapsed, the couple was also able to benefit from the crashing prices, she added.

O'Sullivan says that they paid about $220,000 for the property, which was something they "couldn't have afforded before."

Advertisement

Nothing in the house had been changed since the fifties, and the renovation turned out to be much more extensive than the couple had expected.

Nothing in the house had been changed since the fifties, and the renovation turned out to be much more extensive than the couple had expected.
The original white exterior was transformed into a multicolored facade.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

"The windows didn't open, there was no insulation, and none of the pipes were quite right," O'Sullivan said.

Beyond the cosmetic changes, the couple had to redo almost everything in the house, including the roof, the foundation, and the septic system, she said.

And despite the bright exterior color scheme, painting the house was the easiest part of the entire process.

"It was actually not that long, probably the weekends over the course of a month," O'Sullivan said. "But that's what people respond to and are most curious about. Nobody's ever asked me how long my septic system took, even though that was a lot more work."

O'Sullivan and Brown were on a tight budget, so they moved into the house immediately because they couldn't afford the mortgage while paying rent somewhere else.

O'Sullivan and Brown were on a tight budget, so they moved into the house immediately because they couldn't afford the mortgage while paying rent somewhere else.
The couple moved into the house right after closing the deal and lived in the midst of the renovation work for years after.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

"We just moved into the old house and hung up a bunch of tarps to protect ourselves from the dust. We started pulling up the linoleum floors on the first night of the closing," O'Sullivan said.

For many years after, it felt like they were living in a never-ending construction project, she added: "Everything looks finished now, but for a long time there were just parts of the house that were taped off and construction dust blowing around."

Advertisement

They hired professional builders along the way, but the couple took on the role of general contractor and helped out with tasks wherever they could.

They hired professional builders along the way, but the couple took on the role of general contractor and helped out with tasks wherever they could.
The attic was creepy and in terrible condition when the couple first purchased the house.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

"We had friends who helped us out, and we definitely hired professionals — I certainly didn't put in my own septic system," O'Sullivan said. "Even if I was just pulling out the nails and painting, I never detached from the process."

While pulling out the walls, the couple found items left behind by previous occupants and decided to make a time capsule for the next owners.

While pulling out the walls, the couple found items left behind by previous occupants and decided to make a time capsule for the next owners.
The couple decided to leave a time capsule in the walls of the house for its next owners.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

Some of the items they found include medical ointment, old letters, and a vintage bottle of port wine.

There were other surprises along the way: One of the rooms had walls stuffed with newspapers in place of proper insulation, O'Sullivan added.

Advertisement

It took about a thousand dollars worth of paint to cover the entire facade of the home, O'Sullivan said.

It took about a thousand dollars worth of paint to cover the entire facade of the home, O'Sullivan said.
O'Sullivan painting the exterior of her home.Kat O'Sullivan/Katwise

"I walked into the paint store and said 'Give me one of everything!'" she said.

Just like the patchwork sweaters that she makes, the facade of the house is painted in the colors of the rainbow.

Something most people don't pick up on when they see the exterior is that black is "by far the color that's the most used," O'Sullivan said. She used twice as much black paint as any other color because she painted a black frame around each color block to make them all stand out.

"Originally, it was the kind of house that you would drive by and never notice. Now, everyone slows down and even stops to stare," she added.

O'Sullivan estimates that the amount they spent on renovations was "much more than the house is worth."

O'Sullivan estimates that the amount they spent on renovations was "much more than the house is worth."
The painted exterior of the couple's home.Kat O'Sullivan/Katwise

Over the years, previous owners tacked on rooms to the home; there are now 10 rooms in the house now, plus the basement.

"It's kind of patchwork, which is cool because I make patchwork for a living, so aesthetically, I really relate to it," she said.

The property came with five crumbling outbuildings, which the couple has also reconstructed.

Advertisement

The interior of the house is just like its facade: colorful, ornately decorated, and bursting with the couple's personality.

The interior of the house is just like its facade: colorful, ornately decorated, and bursting with the couple's personality.
The living room with a fireplace.Kat O'Sullivan/Katwise

The couple decorated each room in the house in a different theme. They've filled the home with trinkets and antiques they acquired from their travels and vintage stores.

"I love found objects. I work with recycled sweaters so I'm always at the thrift store, and I love finding things and sticking them together to see which iteration creates a sense of magic," O'Sullivan said.

One of O'Sullivan's favorite rooms in the house is the turquoise kitchen, which is filled with working vintage appliances.

One of O'Sullivan's favorite rooms in the house is the turquoise kitchen, which is filled with working vintage appliances.
The turquoise kitchen.Kat O'Sullivan/Katwise

"The kitchen went through so many iterations before it finally turned all turquoise," O'Sullivan said. "I feel it's dramatic because everything else in the house is quite colorful and then suddenly there's a room that's all one color."

Advertisement

Nothing in the house is brand-new: Almost all of the furniture is sourced from Craigslist, picked up from thrift stores, or salvaged.

Nothing in the house is brand-new: Almost all of the furniture is sourced from Craigslist, picked up from thrift stores, or salvaged.
The renovated ballroom has walls covered in framed photographs and paintings.Kat O'Sullivan/Katwise

"A lot of it is stuff we've made out of bits and pieces of architectural salvage. For example, our bed is made out of old pieces of carved wood from church altars," O'Sullivan said.

One thing O'Sullivan's proud of is that nothing in the house is mass-produced: "There's nothing from Ikea in this house. There's nothing from West Elm. You can't order anything on the internet that you find here."

O'Sullivan and Brown repainted and reupholstered most of their furniture to fit the design themes of their rooms.

O'Sullivan and Brown repainted and reupholstered most of their furniture to fit the design themes of their rooms.
The dining area has a giant map on the wall.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

"I'll take all mismatched chairs and tables and then paint and upholster them all in the same way. So while the shapes are different, the color scheme unifies them," O'Sullivan said.

Advertisement

O'Sullivan even painted a checkered pattern on her staircase, turning it into an optical illusion.

O'Sullivan even painted a checkered pattern on her staircase, turning it into an optical illusion.
A collage showing the staircase before and after renovation.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

O'Sullivan likens the stairs to the work of Dutch artist MC Escher, who's known for his drawing of crisscrossing staircases that connect in an impossible triangle.

The stairs are a tripping hazard, so O'Sullivan put a bar at the bottom of the stairs that she can grab onto if she falls. So far, no one has gotten hurt, she added.

Contrary to what people think, O'Sullivan says their house is not cluttered because she's a neat freak who is constantly getting rid of stuff.

Contrary to what people think, O'Sullivan says their house is not cluttered because she's a neat freak who is constantly getting rid of stuff.
The Jungle Room is where O'Sullivan keeps her collection of framed insects.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

Take, for example, the "Jungle Room," where she keeps a framed collection of insects. It looks like there's a lot going on, but in order to balance things out, there's no furniture in the room, she said.

"It's super decorated, but I also really try to maintain clarity in the things I have," she explained. "I love empty space. I feel very triumphant when I get rid of a piece of furniture."

Advertisement

One hallway is lined in papier-mâché face masks O'Sullivan brought back from Ecuador.

One hallway is lined in papier-mâché face masks O'Sullivan brought back from Ecuador.
Face masks from Ecuador line the walls of the hallway.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

In Ecuador, people burn effigies during New Year's Eve to symbolize getting rid of the past. These effigies are often dressed in old clothing and wear a papier-mâché face mask.

Compared to the common rooms, the bedrooms are more subdued in design.

Compared to the common rooms, the bedrooms are more subdued in design.
One of the bedrooms in the house.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

The layouts of the rooms are not permanent — O'Sullivan said she's always switching things up: "I get kind of bored. Nothing stays for more than a couple of years before I rearrange it."

Advertisement

The couple transformed the dilapidated attic into a meditation room. Although it's occasionally used as storage space for O'Sullivan's sweaters, the room is mostly kept empty.

The couple transformed the dilapidated attic into a meditation room. Although it's occasionally used as storage space for O'Sullivan's sweaters, the room is mostly kept empty.
The couple transformed the attic into a meditation room.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

When a tornado ripped through the area two years ago, part of the house was damaged, O'Sullivan said. During the repair works, she decided she wanted to add a wall of windows to the side of the attic, which led out to a balcony.

"It's pretty cool to suddenly have windows and natural light after 10 years," she added.

O'Sullivan and Brown have been slowly expanding their property so they have additional buildings that they can rent out.

O'Sullivan and Brown have been slowly expanding their property so they have additional buildings that they can rent out.
A view of the gardens.Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

"Every couple of years, an adjacent property comes up for sale. I figure out some reckless scenario that allows me to buy it and then I work out how to pay it off," O'Sullivan said.

She currently owns four adjacent properties apart from the main compound, which amounts to around 70 acres in total, she said.

"It's getting pretty big and it's cool that I have rental properties. I feel like it's a place where my friends are going to end up living," she added.

Advertisement

It's been over a decade since the couple bought the house, but O'Sullivan says the renovation process "really never has ended."

It's been over a decade since the couple bought the house, but O'Sullivan says the renovation process "really never has ended."
A before-after comparison of the exterior of the house, which they named "Calico."Kat O’Sullivan/Katwise

"I'm pretty sick of it — at this point, I want to sell it all and live in a condo," O'Sullivan said.

The house is in a state of constant flux, and the couple still spends time fixing up the home today. That, O'Sullivan said, has been every week of their life for the past 13 years. And even for the highly creative, that kind of maintenance can get tiring.

"We were too naive to understand how big a project it was. We thought we could just paint it and it would be fine," she added. "I wouldn't buy this house again, now that I know."