In the footprints of the past

The Knapps kept it small when they replaced their 950-square-foot cottage in North Cape May.

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Dottie Knapp, outside their new cottage with husband Mal, says, "By keeping it small, it meant we could put money into things that made a difference" - like the real cedar shingles on the exterior. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff photographer)

Mal and Dottie Knapp had a tough call to make. They wanted to keep the one-story cottage they bought in North Cape May in 2003, though the house was more than 50 years old and needed quite an overhaul. They worked with an architect and schemed about additions and renovations. In the end, however, they decided to tear the house down.

In its place rose not a seashore McMansion, but a quaint 1,600-square-foot cottage that tips its hat to the Craftsman style while keeping some of the layout of the original house. The Knapps also created a home that's wheelchair-accessible, so they can spend the rest of their lives there.

"To be honest, I plan to die here," says Mal Knapp, 65.

The couple met at Johns Hopkins University, while Mal was in medical school and Dottie was in nursing school. Dottie Knapp, 64, grew up in New Jersey and Virginia, and spent her summers in Avalon, Ocean City, and Cape May. Mal Knapp grew up in the Midwest and first saw Cape May in summer 1964, when Dottie brought him there.

They lived all over the country, most recently in Montgomery County, Md. (Mal Knapp was deputy executive director for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville, Md.) When they started to think about retirement in 1999, they searched from Connecticut to Virginia for the perfect beach community, using Vienna, Austria, as inspiration - after Mal retired, he did a four-month consulting stint in the city.

"We fell in love with Vienna," says Dottie Knapp. "It's a fabulous town, and you could walk everywhere. This is what we wanted, we just had to find it in the U.S."

They quickly ruled out busy beaches farther north and beaches in Maryland (the Eastern Shore was too hard to get to; Ocean City, Md., was too commercial). Eventually, their travels brought them back to Cape May - specifically North Cape May, because the houses were affordable and it is more of a year-round community than Cape May proper. Plus, they liked being near the Delaware Bay.

The house they bought in 2003 was "the best house on the block," says Dottie Knapp. Still, it had only one bathroom and no basement, and was just 950 square feet.

"It was nice for smaller families and summer homes, and we bought it as a second home, but when we decided we were going to retire here, we wanted something different," says Mal Knapp. After crunching the numbers and going over blueprints with architect Gabrielle Larkin, the couple decided to raze the cottage and rebuild.

In 2006, construction was begun by Michael A. Walter Builder in Cape May, and in March 2007 the couple moved in full time. They retained the basic footprint of half the old house; the original bathroom is now a full bathroom off a hallway, and the master bedroom is now a guest room.

They kept the dimensions of the new house small, maximizing space with arched ceilings instead of flat ones. The kitchen was reorganized, with the oven and sinks moving into corners. And what had been a wall with an oven and vent hood became a counter on the kitchen side, with low cabinets on the dining room side so that the entire space - kitchen, dining room and living room - looks unified.

"We call it the 'OK room,' because it's not big enough to be a 'great' room," says Dottie Knapp.

They toyed with the idea of a second guest room, but wanted space for Mal's office since he still does consulting work. As a compromise, they set up an office with a Murphy bed that folds up into the wall. Shelves slide in front of the bed when it's not in use, and the room has a sliding door onto a back deck.

That deck is shared by the master bedroom, which Mal Knapp didn't like at first - it has cathedral ceilings, and he says the space felt awkward. So the couple hired Jan Schmidt of Dragonfly Interiors of Cape May to help them out. The redecorated room has pale green walls and a paler version of the same color on the ceiling. Prints with nautical and Cape May themes are hung slightly higher than usual, to pull the ceiling together with the rest of the room.

The Knapps also added a distinctive workspace: a counter overlooking their screened-in porch with two computers, so they can be online at the same time. One can sit outside on the porch while the other works inside, yet they can still feel like they're in the same room.

To keep things light and airy, every room but the hall bathroom has at least two windows. Even the master bath has a skylight, as well as a window in the shower. (The Knapps asked the tallest woman they knew to stand there, so the proper level of privacy could be built in.)

They could have built a bigger house, but they like the smaller, cozy size. Plus, they say, it helped keep down construction costs.

"We could have had fakes," Dottie Knapp says of the cedar shingles on the exterior. "But, aesthetically, it wouldn't have been the same. By keeping it small, it meant we could put money into things that made a difference.

"We hope the home looks like it could have been here for a while."


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