On a dreary ride home in the dusk after yet another unproductive day of house hunting, Paul La France pointed out to his future wife, Julie Pirie, a "House for Sale" sign on the side of Route 30 near Glyndon.
Exhausted, disillusioned, and less than interested in looking at yet another "shack," she offered no encouragement. But he turned onto a long drive and proceeded to the property anyway.
They loved it, but there were problems.
The wide-open property -- six acres atop a hill overlooking hundreds of acres of wood and field -- was exactly their style. The 2,200-square-foot house, with its boxy interior chopped up by too many doors and walls, was not.
They had dreamed of finding an old Victorian home with 10-foot ceilings that would properly house their ever growing collection of oversized antique furniture. What they found instead was a gray, cedar-sided authentic reproduction of a 17th-century New England bow house -- so named for the sloping roof constructed of laminated trusses, much like the bent hull of a boat.
The 15-year-old three-bedroom structure also had many other obvious flaws -- not the least of which was that those inside couldn't easily appreciate the best views.
But the house had its share of charms, the main one its location. It also had custom doors with handmade latches and, in every window, a blown-glass pane.
Immediately after buying the house for $285,000 in 1992, they began to "retrofit," as Mr. La France says. First, he tore out the kitchen, taking down an interior wall between it and the dining room, and knocking through an exterior wall that blocked their view of a crane visiting their duck pond.
Now, where there once were walls and doors between dark, claustrophobic rooms, there is air and bright open spaces. There is a natural flow among the rooms and generous views of the outside.
What once was an all-white interior trimmed in country blue and stenciled with tiny hearts and ducks is now a bold palette of color that includes a hunter green living room, a burgundy family room, a gold and cranberry floral-papered master bath, and a tapestry-papered stairway.
And, where once there was no access to the most scenic side of the property -- according to Mrs. Pirie-La France -- there now are French doors that lead to a new stone patio.
They've done much of the work themselves, spending countless hours and about $35,000 in improvements so far. Each of the past three winters they have launched a major indoor project.
"Every Christmas, Paul gains 15 pounds," says Mrs. Pirie-La France. "And by March, all the weight is gone; he works every night till 2 a.m."
The house projects begin after the couple finishes with day jobs: He, 33, works from his office at home for P. P. G. of Pittsburgh in industrial sales; she, also 33, works in computer sales for AT&T; Corp.
Often, they work side by side on different facets of the same job. When they installed a stone wall behind a new wood-burning stove in their refurbished kitchen, Mr. La France was in charge of stones; Mrs. Pirie-La France, of grout.
"We have narrow strengths and weaknesses," she jokes. "I'm a good grouter and caulker, but not a great spackler. He's great at choosing the paint; I am with wallpaper."
With the myriad renovations being done by two novices who are "learning as they go," mistakes will happen, admits Mr. La France. But the couple is, overall, happy with the results: the stone patio, the tiled bathrooms with their pedestal sinks and brass fixtures, and the kitchen/dining space with its new cabinets, island and wide-plank pine floor.
Although the house work is done for now, as the couple awaits the birth of a baby, the plans for next winter already are set: finishing the basement for "play" space they anticipate needing by then.