When I mentioned to some friends that I was interviewing the woman behind SoPo Cottage, I was unanimously met with: “Ugh, that’s my dream job!” But, let’s just say, none of them are in the business of renovating and restoring old homes in South Portland and if I am being honest, probably won’t ever be. And I’d be lying if I said I don’t bookmark and ogle over Sopo Cottage’s instagram page and think... what if?
On paper, HOW FUN! In reality, I imagine, holy smokes. Because what Laurel LaBauve does isn’t flipper-style, cheap, flimsy makeovers. She’s going ground up and transforming these homes by fixing deep, major issues. She focuses on making the homes more energy efficient by finding better solutions for the insulation, heating, plumbing, electrical, etc. And then, of course, she decorates them and enhances them to make them completely and utterly stunning. But a lot of the work is what we don’t see and that’s the work that keeps the dreamers like myself at bay.
On top of the renovation of these homes, Laurel updates and maintains a very detailed blog and social media. Her blog is chocked full of before and after pics, but also insightful, truly in depth information on how she actually completed the renovations step by step. It’s obvious to me that she cares not just about the finished project, but also transparency. Her blog reads like a diary entry and you feel the blood, sweat and tears that goes into her projects. She has (rightfully) created this sensational buzz that follows every project she works on.
I live diagonal from one of her recent homes. Watching the work unfold from my backyard felt like I was getting the show of a lifetime. I’d silently cheer once they completed siding or when the landscaping went in. The completed home is remarkable but somehow, miraculously, feels like it’s always been there in a way. Which is ultimately the real beauty of what Laurel does: she seamlessly adds updated refinement to our neighborhood without sacrificing any of the charm.
She’s also kind and super funny to boot.
Of course, this is easy for me to say since I live in SoPo, but as I know you’d probably agree, there’s just nothing better than living in this area. What made you originally make the decision to purposely and dutifully only renovate in the SoPo area?
LAUREL: Years ago now our realtor told us - not so subtlety - that you know, we really should only consider Falmouth or Cape Elizabeth. And we’re driving around, looking at areas and we just loved South Portland. We loved the proximity to the beach, we loved the style of housing that was there - these cute old houses - and, ultimately, we said no, we want to live in South Portland. And this is before places like Scratch Bakery was here - but I think, you know, it was inevitable for it to become what it is today because of it’s fabulous location, it’s great vibe.
I know they are all probably like your children - but if you had to choose a home, or a room, a kitchen, entryway, etc. - that still frequently enters your thoughts/made you super duper proud, what would it be?
LAUREL: It really is the children thing - I don’t think there is one that I can say I like the best! What I will say is what I think I found that I like are these ranchers - a 1960 or a 1950 rancher which is like the dullest, most architecturally boring thing you could find - you knock out some walls, you raise some ceilings and they become pretty amazing. So, that was kind of a surprise for me when we did the first one - it was like, wow! This is a really cool house! We just finished another one and I had the same type of experience.
Do you offer private design services? I ask this, of course, mostly selfishly. I bookmarked your “mudroom” from Romancing the Ranch and casually leave my phone open to that picture in the hopes my husband will take the hint.
LAUREL: I did a little bit of that at the beginning and I found it took me away from the focus I had on my own projects. I’ve done things for friends and my children are constantly bugging me to help them - but for the most part, I don’t see going down that road. Now again, the realities of the real estate market is I may still not be able to do this forever because the costs could get too crazy. And part of it is...me. The house I am getting ready to start work with - I’ve already been bugging the South Portland Historical Society, I’ve already been in touch with Portland Landmarks to try to find more information about this house and bungalows in general, doing the deed search for this house and we can’t quite figure out when it was built - I am doing all of this research and it’s probably not normal! This is not what normal people do! But I just love delving into that.
Do you have a go to group of craftspeople that you use for each project or does it vary?
LAUREL: My plumber, whom I dearly love, we’ve worked on 17 houses together, has announced that he’s retiring. So I’m now searching for a new plumber which is, you know, a tough thing to do. Because my projects aren’t simple, run of the mill kind of projects. I need someone who can be creative and help solve problems with me. Finding somebody that I really enjoy working with is always a challenge - but in general, I try to work with the same folks as much as possible. And once I develop a relationship I like to keep it for long term.
When you are not renovating, what is your favorite date night spot or activity in Maine?
LAUREL: I’ll tell you, COVID has really highlighted this for me. We love to go to restaurants. We love to have dinners just the two of us, my husband and I, and we love going and meeting friends for dinner. And the fact that we really haven’t been able to do that is something that just makes me really sad. It is probably the thing I will look forward to most when we reopen. We really love - and they opened right before the pandemic - Judy Gibson. They have just absolutely amazing, creative food. We order takeout from them and I’m hoping we’ll get to eat in there again sometime in the not too distant future.
And my favorite question for any and everyone: what would your last meal on earth be?
LAUREL: My husband is an amazing cook. I’m very lucky. He makes a cajun shepherd’s pie. He was born and raised in New Orleans and has a great appreciation for all New Orleans cuisine. And this shepherd’s pie - it takes hours to make. He has to julienne all of these vegetables, he’ll use ground pork and beef, I don’t know what else goes into it - but it is my favorite. He’ll make it a lot for my birthday because it really is a special thing.
Did I mention that after each renovation she hosts a fabulous open house? See you at the Bungalow when it's ready!