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The Saugerties Cottage That Boob Pots Built

Isaac Nichols spent eight years restoring this 1865 home, even pouring a new foundation. Shards of the old foundation ended up in the front yard. Photo: Sean Zimmerman

You may not know Isaac Nichols, but you probably know his work. His “boob pots,” terra-cotta planters made curvaceous with breasts and nipples, have stared up from the display cases of Opening Ceremony (RIP), the shelves of Urban Outfitters, and the mantels of basically every art-adjacent apartment documented by design blogs in the mid-2010s. The pots, an off-the-cuff idea posted to Instagram in 2013, turned Nichols into something like a ceramics tycoon. That virality — “totally random” and “a total mistake,” he says — helped finance the near-wholesale restoration and renovation of a 19th-century home in Saugerties, 15 minutes north of Kingston, now on the market for $549,000. “I paid for all that with boob and butt potts.”

When Nichols bought the house in 2015, shingle tiles covered this exterior. Photo: Isaac Nichols

Nichols was a teenager when he fell in love with architectural salvage — with the fun of the hunt and the creativity of a good restoration. He dropped out of school at 15 to learn the trade full-time from a business near his home in Maine, later moving to Philadelphia, where he studied art. After transferring to Cooper Union in his 20s, he scavenged construction sites and curb trash for pieces to flip and sell. Destiny led him to a Greenpoint construction site getting rid of a 35-foot Art Deco bar. The sale earned him $14,000 cash, which he used for the down payment on the Saugerties house at 13 Mynderse Street, a teensy wooden box with a garretlike second story. It was owned by the family of a former roommate, who offered to sell with a lease-to-buy agreement. (As for the bar, it’s now on Tompkins Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant, where it’s still very much a bar.)

He took the home down to the studs, rebuilding from the ground up as he lived in a tent on the property. Photo: Isaac Nichols

13 Mynderse Street had once been an outbuilding off the larger farm next door. They both appear on an 1875 map, according to the neighbor who renovated the main house. By the time Nichols arrived, it was in bad shape, its windows boarded, its exterior covered with grody shingles, and no heating to speak of. “The house should have been torn down,” Nichols said. But he had a plan. “I just wanted to do it how I saw it in my head and I didn’t want to let that vision go.”

The home feels like it’s been lived in for a century or two by some tinkering, creative family that’s solved every problem that comes with the task of living. Shelves in the kitchen, not much wider than the dishes they hold, curve gently at the edges, as if they’ve been hewn back to prevent head bumps; in fact, they were cut from Nichols’s grandparents’ curvy dining-room table. “None of us had great memories of it, but we didn’t want to throw the table away.” When he painted the bedroom white, it seemed too stark, so he sanded down just the beams. Little livable solutions pop up in every corner: a stained-glass window, hanging on the side porch, shades a bench; a hole in boards on the second floor has been patched with a circle of old copper. The bathroom renovation took two years, he said, the result of “decision fatigue.” (What tiles to choose? What fixtures?) His goal was to create, almost from scratch, a home that felt like an old home, but with the energy efficiency of a spaceship (it costs $180 per month to heat in winter). “I just rebuilt everything. I’m kind of freaky like that.”

The project started in 2015, when Nichols barely had cash to pay the first and last months’ rent. He fixed up the bathroom and kitchen to livable levels and rented it out until he had money to pull off grander plans. When his tenants left in 2017, he moved up full-time, living in a tent as he took the building down to the studs and rebuilt it from the inside out — tearing out the kitchen and bathroom he’d fixed up two years earlier. He poured a new foundation and preserved what he could save — some beams were left intact with the stripes of plaster that once hid them, and an old foundation found a second home as raised garden beds. The bulk of new wood came from an 1815 home being torn down in Massachusetts, which he’d found on Craigslist. Nichols rebuilt the home from the inside out, sometimes putting down a floor just to strip it down. “It was like I was building and restoring at the same time,” he said. “Nobody should do that.”

“It’s not a ‘buy cheap, paint it black, and flip for profit’ kind of house,” says Sean Zimmerman, who met Nichols at a dilapidated house they were both interested in fixing up, and is now representing his house with Jimi Billingsley. Zimmerman laughed telling the story of an agent who, on a tour, pointed out the knob-and-tube wiring and said she didn’t see the value. “She thought it was just an old house someone had glossed over and chosen not to update the electric,” he tells me. Which just may be the highest compliment. “When you walk into it, it feels effortless,” says Billingsley.

If Nichols sells the house, he’ll be able to pay the mortgage on his next home: another fixer-upper in Saugerties, right off the town swimming hole. “This is what I really want to do,” he said. “Just renovate old houses. I love it.”

Isaac Nichols has worked in architectural salvage since he was 15 years old, learning how to source and use antique materials. Columns he found under a barn in Saugerties now hold up the side porch. Photo: Sean Zimmerman
The front door leads into the kitchen. Beams overhead are original and show where laths once crossed them. The refrigerator, which he found abandoned in a front yard, is restored with new parts and now runs more efficiently than today’s models. Photo: Jimi Billingsley
The open shelves owe their curves to their origin as an ovular dining table owned by Nichols’s grandparents. Photo: Jimi Billingsley
Toward the back of the house, behind the kitchen, Nichols built a sunny living and dining area. The knob-and-tube lighting was supplied by friends who lovingly restored it. “People don’t understand how hard it is to find, unless you’re an antique dork like I am,” Nichols said. Photo: Jimi Billingsley
Furniture and art is on offer to any interested buyer. “I’m probably going to sell everything in the house with the house, if somebody wants it.” Photo: Jimi Billingsley
The sunroom opens onto the back porch, where a walled outdoor shower is outfitted with a salvaged sewer grate. Nichols said he wanted to paint the whole house pink, but “didn’t have the courage.” Real-estate agent Sean Zimmerman joked they considered describing the home as “Little Pink” in the listing, referring to Big Pink, where Bob Dylan and the Band recorded. Photo: Sean Zimmerman
The house sits on less than an acre, a parcel divided off a larger farm next door at some point in the 20th century. Nichols and his neighbor believe it might have been used as a dry-goods cellar, then converted into housing for a relative of the family. Photo: Sean Zimmerman
Nichols aimed to avoid a restoration that looked “like a Cracker Barrel,” where antiques are used to lend quirk to an otherwise boring house — like colanders that become bad light fixtures, or church pews turned benches. He sourced much of the materials from an 1815 house that was being demolished and added warm touches — like sanding down these beams after painting them too stark a white. Photo: Jimi Billingsley
Nichols kvetched over the bathroom for two years, he said. The sink was found in a front yard; the tub came from a Craigslist post that led him to Staten Island. Hauling it out of the owner’s house, he struck up a conversation and ended up hiring the tub’s last owner to run shipping for his ceramics business. Photo: Jimi Billingsley
The kitchen stairs run up to a garretlike second story, where a bed is tucked into a sunny nook. The hanging turtle is one of the objects that Jimi Billingsley, a real-estate agent and a former gallerist, admired most when he walked through — a bold choice that just made sense, like much of the rest of the house. Photo: Jimi Billingsley
Photo: Isaac Nichols

Update 3:21 p.m.: The article originally stated that Zimmerman met Nichols while spelunking for salvage. They actually met at a home they were both interested in buying to fix up.

The Saugerties Cottage That Boob Pots Built