REMARKABLE – OCTOBER 2007
By Stephen Abbot
Photography François Gagné
How saving a house became a saving grace
In life, we occasionally make big decisions that we don’t fully understand. While some of these choices might not seem like the best idea at the time, we just know—in a way that transcends rational thought—that we are right. Driven by deep subconscious motivations, we abandon fixed ideas in favor of instinct.
What is truly extraordinary is that so many of these decisions turn out to have tremendous importance in our lives. They send us off in new directions and lead us to unexpected places. When we look back over the years, we wonder what might have happened to us, where we might have ended up, had we not made that big decision that seemed so out of character, even baffling, at the time.
Candace Karu often finds herself pondering the mysteries of fate. As she walks from room to room in a dream home she would not herself have dreamed up, she still marvels at the serendipitous twists of chance that brought her and her house together.
In 1996, Karu and her then-husband were considering buying a Cape Cod-style house in Cape Elizabeth. While the home was less than charming, the property on which it stood was too good to pass up. Nestled in a crook of the Maine coastline where the mouth of Casco Bay kisses the nape of the Atlantic, the property was so idyllic, so unspoiled and spectacularly beautiful, that it might have been clipped from the pages of a magazine.
The only complication, of course, was the house itself.
“At first glance, the house didn’t look like it was worth saving,” Karu says. “It was a typical 1960s house—it had narrow hallways, small rooms, low ceilings. And it was not particularly well designed, it was dark, and it had terrible fixtures.” Her husband simply wanted to tear down the house, but the prospect did not sit well with Karu. Something about the idea just didn’t feel right, even though the couple was committed to building a new home.
It was at this moment that fate first intervened. As it turned out, the property adjacent to the Cape was also up for sale. As the couple began entertaining the possibility of purchasing both pieces of land, Karu saw the outlines of a plan that would allow her to save the house. Although the town’s zoning regulations set tight limits on new oceanfront constructions, and the neighboring property was undeveloped, the land happened to include a grandfathered building envelope that—amazingly—was a near-perfect fit for the unusually long Cape—in fact, the house fit the predetermined lot with only two inches to spare. The Cape was promptly moved and re-sold, while the couple went about the business of building their new home next door.
“I saved this house from the wrecking ball,” Karu says succinctly. But little did she know that the house she saved would one day return the favor.
Two destinies entwined
In 2001, Karu found herself single again. As with any major life change, she was suddenly confronted with the blank canvas of an unplanned and unknown future. Five years had passed since she moved to Cape Elizabeth, and Karu could no longer imagine living anywhere else. But just as the inevitable anxieties began to set in, fate intervened yet again.
Among the first people she told about her impending separation was her next-door neighbors—the same couple who had purchased the Cape. Over the years, the neighbors had become Karu’s close friends and confidants. The day she went over to their house to deliver the news, the couple had some news of their own: they were moving. Within hours, the blank canvas of Karu’s future was suddenly filling up with new and wonderful possibilities. She was going to buy the dark, narrow Cape with terrible fixtures that she had once saved from the wrecking ball—and there was a lot of work to do.
Looking back on the unlikely chain of events that landed her where she is today, Karu cannot help but feel that her personal destiny is inextricably entwined with her house—for the Cape has become far more than a place to rest her head. “I was an army kid,” Karu says, “and this house kind of represents what I missed when I was growing up. We were this little unit moving around all the time and we had to carry our home with us. This is the first house I have ever lived in that has felt like home.”
A house is just a vessel
Candace Karu is perpetually in motion. In addition to being a self-taught interior designer and the principal of Karu Décor, she is an avid long-distance runner, an accomplished writer, a passionate gourmet, a patron of the arts, and a mother of two. She has also purchased, rehabbed, and resold so many homes over the years that she can’t quite recall the exact number; “Maybe 25 or 30,” she says.
Like its owner, Karu’s home is always bustling with activity, but—as Karu is quick to point out—that’s its purpose. When she’s not jetting around the country for her many design projects, competing in marathons, or penning her regular column, “The Running Life,” for Running Times magazine, Karu can be found filling her kitchen with the rich aromas of gourmet cuisine and entertaining a revolving ensemble of family, friends, and guests. More than any other influence, Karu’s full and active life remains the principal source of inspiration for her interior designs. “Perhaps because I come from a large family, and I have a lot of extended family and friends, I’m not attracted to pristine or perfect designs,” Karu says. “They can be quite beautiful, of course, but they don’t interest me in the least. How we live is so much more important than aesthetics. I want people to come into my home and feel comfortable and well fed. Family and friends are extremely important to me, and a house is just a vessel to hold all this.”
Although Karu tried on several different careers over the years, she had a precocious infatuation with interior design: “I was a kid who saved her allowance to buy shelter magazines and beautiful bed linens. In college, I bullied my freshman roommate into accepting my concept of how our room would look. I had my first commissioned design job when I was 21. So it feels like design has always been an important part of my life.”
While her home has given shape to Karu’s life, it has also evolved over the years into an intimate expression of her most deeply held creative beliefs. The design is comfortable, not pristine. It values appropriateness over aesthetics. It has been carefully crafted for living, not for show. And, of course, it only exists today because Karu did for herself what she so often does for her clients: she took the time to really listen to her instincts instead of clinging to fixed ideas.
How is it that the path we follow in life zigzags and crisscrosses and meanders far more than we would have ever imagined, and yet we somehow end up at the right destination? Call it providence or chance, call it divine intervention or plain old luck, it is hard to deny that life has a way of getting us where we need to go. Although our destinations rarely resemble the immaculate fantasies we conjured up in our youth, each one of us eventually realizes that it’s the unexpected detours that have given our lives meaning.
It is only after we accept imperfection that we can begin to see the outlines of an underlying symmetry. The little blemishes in life often mask profound beauty, just as a once-homely Cape secreted within its walls the ideal home.
“This is such a remarkable house not because it’s perfect,” Karu says, “but because it’s imperfect. In spite of its flaws, this house is very graceful—the way it sits on the land and the way it relates to the sea. Saving this house was, in the end, a saving grace.”