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Design Ideas
Teardown to Triumph: Saving a Historic Cottage
With determination and planning, Ashley Gilbreath transformed a condemned mess into her dream cottage.
Sometimes dream homes can start out as nightmares. When interior designer Ashley Gilbreath stepped into her 1930s Spanish-style home for the first time, her jaw dropped. “The city should have paid us to buy it,” she quips. Despite the damage, Ashley wanted to save the historic cottage and not only restore it, but resurrect it.... Keep Scrolling
Written by Sarah Yoon
Photography by Kevin Palmer
Styling by Layla Palmer


Sometimes dream homes can start out as nightmares. When interior designer Ashley Gilbreath stepped into her 1930s Spanish-style home for the first time, her jaw dropped. “The city should have paid us to buy it,” she quips. Despite the damage, Ashley wanted to save the historic cottage and not only restore it, but resurrect it.

cottage living room with reclaimed wood ceiling
Bold Elements. Reclaimed wood covers the ceiling and frames the fireplace, giving the room a cozy warmth. For contrast, a zebra-hide rug adds a graphic pattern to the otherwise demure atmosphere.

From the Ground Up

The historic cottage sagged with neglect. A flat roof sent water through the center of the house, rotting beams and supports. The previous owner “kept open food out in the kitchen intentionally to keep the roaches and the rats in one place, so she could sleep in the back of the house,” Ashley explains. “That gives you an idea of how condemned this house was.” Despite the overwhelming amount of work the house needed, she was determined to meet her goals.

rustic cottage kitchen with faux taxidermy
Rustic + Refined. Marble, subway tile and white cabinets all maintain a monochrome theme yet add their own unique patterns. The subtle variety gives a minimalist serenity to the kitchen.

After two-thirds of the home was ripped out, Ashley led a careful reconstruction meant to save the most of the historic cottage that was left. She wanted to “to keep it old—to keep it looking like a cottage.” Though they raised the roof’s pitch and altered the front façade, the heart of the home remained the same. Its dimensions were carefully measured and recreated. Though some would consider its historical quirks odd, Ashley embraces them. The key is to know what you want, and history is a helpful map to work with. “Obviously you have to live in it for today’s use, but I think if you can’t keep in mind what it is you’re playing with, then you’re not going to have a good end result.”

reclaimed wood above a cottage kitchen
A Touch of Country. Ashley jabs a little good-natured fun at her fellow Alabamans by hanging wicker deer heads on the stove hood. “We needed something to add a little sense of humor in there,” she says.
| BEFORE | The exterior was washed out and faded. There was charm hidden behind chippy paint and a dingy facade that Ashely was determined to bring out.
AFTER: A Good Face Lift. Since Ashley lives in a historical area, keeping the front of the house original was key. With her attention to detail, you wouldn’t even know that the façade was extended two feet to hide the new roof.

Investing with Heart

With a solid structure ready, Ashley filled it with a classic, cozy aesthetic. Three wingback chairs sit in the living room, “which kind of breaks every rule in the book for interior design.” But she admits, “I just love them.” Throughout the home, the furniture doesn’t come from catalogs. Each piece is a find, carefully scouted, purchased and integrated. “It takes every bit of you to make it happen, and I get so attached to it,” Ashley says.

Play House. Elegant yet youthful, the other side of the playroom breaks from neutrals with colorful curtains and pillows. It’s a space not only where Ashley’s children can make messes without affecting the rest of the house, but where adults also feel at home.

Such a personal approach to décor not only helps you achieve a meaningful aesthetic, but ensures that every piece is just right for you. “I try to lean more on the side of the comfortable elegant look,” Ashley says. Her warm neutrals and textured materials attest to that. And when she decorates for her children, she focuses on what is best for them. Her little girl’s bedroom “needed to be sweet but something that was not too childish, that she could grow up with a little bit.” To achieve that, Ashley hung coral prints and wove pink, gray and blue-green into the space for a fresh, playful atmosphere.

exposed ceiling beams in a cottage dining room
Warm & Cozy. Full of dark, solid wood, the breakfast room takes on a rich, warm atmosphere. Ashley balances the visual by varying the wood; “you just have to play with the finishes a little bit.”
reclaimed wood ceiling in a dining room with shutter barn style doors
Ashely chose shutter-style doors on sliding barn-style hardware to separate the dining room from the den.

Looking for other ways you can save your historic cottage features? Check out this post on designing a historic kitchen. Or this post all about how The National Historic Register is saving historic neighborhoods.

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