The Allure of Mudrooms

Four different settings show this architectural interface between the wide, grubby world and the civility of the home.

Near Lambert’s Cove, a band of marauders storms the hill leading to the Bresnick home. Annie Bresnick stands at ground zero, observing the advance from her window. She’s no damsel in distress. It’s ten minutes to three, and her boys Zach, Sam, and Owen – ages eleven, ten, and eight, respectively – are predictably on time, fresh off the school bus. They’ve widened their flank on this winter afternoon, as their buddy Nate D’Angelo ascends the hill alongside his comrades.

The invaders penetrate the front, doffing backpacks, jackets, and dusty shoes. The attack is swift and rambunctious, yet Annie mounts no defense. No freshly waxed floor, white living-room carpet, or fragile floor lamp stand in harm’s way. The assault is safely contained in the buffer zone known as the mudroom – the architectural interface between the wide, grubby world and the civility of the home.

“Mudroom” wasn’t even a word before 1950 or so, according to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary. Yet the concept has been around for ages, ever since farmers first figured out that tracking the barnyard into the house wasn’t a good idea. In recent decades, mudrooms have become must-haves for all kinds of homeowners – especially in environments prone to wet, chilly weather and where feet tend to trod fields, forests, wetlands, dirt roads, or beaches. Hello, Martha’s Vineyard.

“This is our transition room from outdoors to in,” says Annie, as the boys sock-foot it into the kitchen to plunder the snacks.

The mudroom is where Islanders pause to shed and store the caked boots, the sandy beach-toys, the dripping rain-slickers, the winter hats, the gardening gloves, the fishing waders, the bike helmets, the tennis rackets, the running shoes, the ice cleats, the dog lead, and even the dog. The front foyer with the settee and heirloom rug may be the place to welcome, say, the governor, but the mudroom is the entryway of everyday people.

Many Island homes of recent vintage are designed with mudrooms from the start. Others get mudrooms later, created as add-ons or from repurposed space. Where there is simply nowhere to create a mudroom – in a small boxy cape, for example – homeowners often settle for mud areas, perhaps just inside the kitchen door. Bottom line, the myriad objects of come-and-go have got to be efficiently corralled somewhere.

Early manifestations of the mudroom were often dim, dank, closet-sized spaces hidden from public view. Today’s mudrooms get respect. Bigger, brighter, furnished, decorated, and displayed, the mudroom has at least as much personality as any other room in the house. The living room may tell you about a family’s tastes, but a mudroom and its contents tell you what a family is into. And designs have grown more functional, making the mudroom more than just a pretty face.

Neat as a pin

Seven years ago, just after their pair of boys expanded to a battalion of three, the Bresnicks moved into the expansive, new, modified cape designed by San Francisco architect Webb Green, an uncle of Annie’s husband, Adam. Bigger than many starter apartments, the ten-by-twelve-foot mudroom is a designer showcase unto itself. It’s not the front entrance to the house – which is curiously in the back – but for all practical purposes, it’s the main entry.

Sunshine pours through the mudroom windows, highlighting white, built-in cubbies, shelves, and closets. Passive-solar heat along with electric baseboard heaters maintain the room at a temperate 61 degrees, just warm enough to render wet outerwear dry in time for the next outing. There’s a handy space for every category of stuff: a caps basket, gloves basket, scarves basket, dog-toy-and-leash basket, and so on. Off-season outerwear is stowed in the closets. In-season outerwear hangs in the easy-access open cubby, on each household member’s designated hook over his or her designated shoe area. Every element in the mudroom is fastidiously organized and straight. And this is a mudroom used by mostly boys.

“I’m a neat freak,” says Annie. “Can you tell?”

She smiles, but the boys know the drill sergeant means business. Her take-off-your-shoes rule explains why the floors elsewhere in house still look new. Nate, the friend, happened to forget that rule on a prior visit. “Zach told me to walk back out to the mudroom quickly, before I got caught,” he says.

The mudroom’s red “brick” floor is a convincing imposter made of easy-care tiles. They get mopped about twice weekly, especially after the boys have been roaming the nearby wetlands. “We butted heads with architects who proposed higher-end materials,” says Annie. She defends the good-looking Oriental rug as a simple starter-furnishing from their first home. Other homey touches include ferns, a ficus, Owen’s cactus collection, birds’ nests from the backyard, and several framed posters of Agricultural Fairs gone by.

Portals off the Bresnick mudroom lead into the garage, the utility closet, the pantry, which doubles as the dog’s boudoir, and – most functional of all – a half bathroom, for those occasions when one is really in a hurry to come in from outdoors.

Animal house

In the hilly environs off Chilmark’s Tea Lane, Sarah and Edward “Spider” Andresen rear youngsters of the four-legged kind – two bounding Labradors, one hyper Jack Russell terrier, and one nonplussed cat named Chowder. Two horses graze in a backyard scene worthy of a picture post card. The animals on this homestead outnumber the people; all three human Andresen children are grown and gone.

By her own description, Sarah lives a rough-and-tumble life. If she’s not horseback riding along Chilmark’s bucolic trails, she’s toiling in the gardens or tending the menagerie at home. Spider charters boats and manages a yacht fleet in Menemsha harbor. With Vineyard Haven architect Margaret Curtin, the surf-and-turf couple designed a modern country home with an inviting porch and a practical mudroom to suit their lifestyles. “I’m a Capricorn,” says Sarah. “I’m a practical person.” (She’s also a partner in Designing Women, an Island design firm that stages, primarily, homes up for sale.)

This room is staged with the requisite practical essentials: coat hooks, shelves, a bench for donning and doffing boots. In the chill of winter, the Mexican floor tiles not only look warm, they are warm, thanks to the radiant heating elements underneath. They’re the mudroom’s sole heat source, and they’re sufficient. Central air conditioning takes over the comfort duties in the dog days of summer.

Easy-clean ceramic tiles cover Sarah’s garden shelf. “It’s where I drop the vegetables to be cleaned and the flowers to be arranged.” The closet stores winter jackets for the whole family, including the long-distance children and grandchildren. “They leave their stuff here for visits home,” says Sarah. In the meantime, they’re all virtually “home” in the mudroom wall of family photos above the beadboard paneling. The creative touch extends to the thoughtful placement of artwork and signage: Agenda for the day: Let dog out, let dog in, let dog out, let dog in.

The Andresen mudroom doubles as a laundry room – a common finding in modern homes, where laundry rooms are no longer banished to basement hideouts. In some homes, the hybrid rooms are all about space conservation. In others, like the Andresens’, they ensure that seriously muddy or smelly work-clothes never penetrate the inner sanctum of the house before they’ve been cleaned. Bonus for the Andresens: The deep laundry basin doubles as a terrier bath.

Father knows best

When was the last time anybody crossed the formal, front threshold of Cleaveland House? Cynthia Riggs doesn’t know, and she lives there. The West Tisbury farmhouse, which has been in the writer’s family since the mid-1700s, has adopted little in the way of modern frou-frou over the years. The mudroom, which she recalls was added by her father “in the late forties or fifties,” is one exception. “This is a typical, old New England house. Each generation adds an improvement – or what they think is an improvement.”

Dad’s improvement was the attachment of an enclosed, rear entryway to prevent southwesterly winds from blasting straight into the kitchen. In the beginning, the structure was a temporary add-on with a rippling, plastic roof. It went up when the family arrived for summer vacation and came down when they left. “Once Dad realized how wonderful it was, he put on a real roof and made it permanent,” says Cynthia. It became the place where young Cynthia and her siblings deposited their summer treasures: the shells and stones, the sea glass and chunks of wood, and the “smelly things from the beach. Dad realized it was also a great place to store firewood and remove wet shoes, or at least stomp off the dirt.” And on summer’s hottest days when the doors were left open, gentle breezes kept the kitchen cool.

While Cleaveland House has endured for centuries, the mudroom attachment lasted a mere forty years or so. Cynthia had the withering structure rebuilt in the 1990s, adding a skylight but otherwise adhering to the original rustic aura. The brick floor is gently uneven, and the climate-control system is manual – open the door or shut it. The childhood treasures now represent multiple generations.

The mudroom embraces grown-up treasures as well: garden hats, a string of onions, a pulley from an old water well, a portrait of a cat. On the practical side, the mudroom stores birdseed, compost, fireplace ashes, and a brass bucket for making jam.

Pick a season, and Cynthia has a mudroom motif to go with it. In early spring, seedlings sprout in the windows in advance of planting time in the vegetable garden. The afternoon sun is just warm enough to nurture potted primroses and force blossoms from forsythia branches and paperwhites. In summer, the room might feature masses of geraniums potted in bread pans. “I don’t bake in the summertime,” explains Cynthia. Autumn ushers in dried floral arrangements, bittersweet, and little pumpkins destined for pies. At Christmas time, Cynthia decks the hall with holiday greenery. One year, she added garlands of tiny white lights. There they remain, on a timer, serving as evocative night lights year-round.

Firewood in the mudroom is a year-round thing too. Baskets decoratively organize the stock into kindling and logs. They’re hardly just for show: No matter the temperature, Cynthia lights her fireplace every single night of the year.

Breakfast and bike helmets

Relative to Cleaveland House, the Oak Bluffs home of television producer Bob Glover is a youngster, built in 1900. Bob acquired the Copeland District house in 1998, a few years after it underwent major renovation by the previous owner. The period-farmhouse charm survived, for the most part – never mind the addition of a whimsical glass tower that could pass for a small air-traffic-control room.

But do mind the mudroom. Erected where the open farmer’s porch used to be, it now blends the inspirations of two designing spirits, past and present. Absent four-legged animals and two-legged children on the premises, this in-town mudroom is less mud-oriented than its up-Island counterparts. The first attention grabbers – from indoors or out – are the big windows with multiple tiers of bottles, pottery, dream catchers, and whatnot catching the sunlight. Some items were left by the old owner; others were contributed by tenants; still others were added by Bob and his friends. The annual cleaning of the windows, shelves, and all their contents is the quintessential labor of love.

What used to be the outside wall of the house is now the interior divider between the mudroom and kitchen, featuring a stained-glass insert and two fixed, open windows. The windows are convenient pass-throughs for a mudroom that improbably doubles as a breakfast area. Doors off the mudroom lead to the kitchen, the laundry area, a small pantry, and the downstairs bedroom and bath. In fact, the mudroom is the only access to the downstairs bedroom and bath.

The random widths of the pine planks on the walls and ceiling evoke old Oak Bluffs. Nevertheless, the previous owner was in a southwestern state of mind when she commissioned the terra-cotta floor tiles and the matte paints in custom hues of raspberry, goldenrod, orange, deep mustard, and blue. Painting the elaborate crown molding alone reportedly took about forty hours. “I’m afraid to repaint,” says Bob. “It would probably take eighty hours.”

An accomplished furniture artisan, Bob restored the bistro table that serves not only as the breakfast space but also as a staging area for errands and excursions about the Island. “This is where the maps come out,” he says. A recycled doctor’s chair and a bright yellow table are among the other mudroom furnishings touched by his imagination. Plenty of room is left over for the stuff of outdoors – bike helmets, large kites, and “the appropriate chapeaux for various conditions.”

The mudroom is cozy even in winter, thanks to a heating vent, south-facing windows, and a skylight – one that Bob has never opened. “Why ask for trouble?” he says.

And why ask for a mudroom? In a place like Martha’s Vineyard, that’s yet another rhetorical question.