For the first 10 years after moving to Kings Highway North, Yvonne and Neil O’Kane did not do much in the way of renovations.
They were busy with their careers. They were raising 3 kids. Besides, they liked the 1908 house in one of Westport’s most historic neighborhoods.
The small rooms were cozy. The Mexican tile in the kitchen reminded them of their years in Arizona. The house was home.
But 4 years ago they put in a pool. They terraced their yard. That added a grade, which didn’t look right. They started thinking about other changes.
The year before, Yvonne had met Mar Jennings. Now, as she visited his home during the Westport Historical Society’s Holiday House Tour, she asked the designer/stager/lifestyle expert/author/TV host for the name of a project manager to help plan a few renovations to her exterior, kitchen and bathroom. Mar said he’d take a look himself.
He stayed for 6 hours.
Yvonne — who is trained as an architect — felt something click. When Mar suggested doing the renovation as a makeover TV show, she got even more excited.
Neil agreed. But, he said, we won’t use our names. And though the house could appear on air, the family wouldn’t.
The next 18 months were, Yvonne says, “a magical fit of parts and pieces.”
The outside, kitchen and one bathroom were done. Then came beams, new doors and windows, insulation, new clapboard and a cedar roof.
The family room needed work, so that was next.
They added a deck off the master bedroom, then redid the bedroom itself.
After that were the kids’ bathrooms, and their son Teddy’s bedroom.
Dormers and library work opened up more space.
They turned an unused downstairs room into Yvonne’s studio. They added a laundry room.
When they were done, the only part of the house that remained untouched was the dining room.
It was as long and involved a project as it sounds. The O’Kanes were without a kitchen for 6 months, and a bedroom for 9. For a while they all lived together downstairs.
They loved it.
“It was a great experience,” Yvonne says, sitting in the sun-splashed living room, surrounded by furniture she and Mar found everywhere from Lillian August to Goodwill. (They shopped locally for nearly every item, and repurposed much of what was already in the house.)
The family grew closer during the adventure. As part of the TV show they went on a trapeze and to Six Flags. (It did not take long for Neil’s desire for anonymity to go out the newly designed window.)
“Mar was amazing overseeing the project,” Yvonne says. “He kept it running brilliantly.”
She was no slouch herself. And during it she even got her real estate license.
You might expect that in a project like this, everything that could go wrong, would.
Nope. There were very few surprises. And expect for a bit of structural work, all the surprises they encountered were good ones.
For example, workers discovered a hidden staircase. Mar and Yvonne promptly included it in their plans.
“We were a great fit,” she says. They named themselves “MY Team.” For Mar and Yvonne — get it?!
“I love every inch of this home,” Yvonne says. “The space works really, really well. We live in every room. The insulation is great. The kitchen is fantastic. Everyone has space, but we’re still together.”
Teddy — a Staples freshman — is still at home. Caroline — who lived through the renovation — is now a Fordham University freshman. Alexandra is a senior at Georgetown.
The TV show — said to be the first complete home makeover series filmed in Connecticut — took place while the house was still being renovated. Crews filmed Mar and Yvonne collaborating, shopping, and laughing together.
The first episode aired on ABC’s WTNH in New Haven. Twelve more followed, through last June. Despite competition from football and baseball games, the show earned excellent ratings.
Now it’s ready for prime time — that is, Amazon Prime.
You won’t forget the name. It’s called “Life on Mar’s.”