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Vintage trailers are getting new mileage

In old rusty and moldy RVs, some are seeing cozy charm

CAHOONZIE, N.Y. -- Michael and Sally Moskowitz's one-bedroom summer cabin is so small that when their sons' friends sleep over, they're assigned to a pop-up tent in the woods.

To accommodate their many visitors -- and to be hospitable hosts -- Sally Moskowitz dreamed of building several tiny guestrooms around the main summer cabin, tucked away in this tiny southwestern New York village, although she also knew the idea was too extravagant for their budget. But one summer day two years ago, one of the friends who'd been relegated to the woods came up with a solution. Christina Salway, a college student in Amherst, volunteered to single-handedly convert the family's dilapidated vintage trailer into a cozy guestroom.

Never mind that it was a flea-infested tin can filled with mice and mold and hadn't been used for nearly 20 years. Never mind that Salway, 21, had no renovation expertise, and though she had taken courses in architecture and dabbled in carpentry with her father, she didn't know a bandsaw from a jigsaw.

Salway, who has since graduated from Hampshire College, a small liberal arts school that attracts creative students with untraditional majors, may have been inexperienced but she was sure about one thing: The long-forgotten trailer was the future pied-a-terre for the family. She persuaded her professors to let her make it her senior class project, and with a little coaxing the Moskowitzes got talked into it, too. Leaving such a complex job to a novice did give the couple pause, but they figured the condition of the rickety old trailer could only improve.

"It seemed like an easier temporary solution so we decided why not give it a try," said Sally Moskowitz, who like her husband is a psychotherapist. "Now we don't think it's temporary anymore."

The finished guestroom now parked on a snowy, wooded path only 300 feet from the main cabin may seem, to outsiders, like just another sardine can-shaped aluminum-sided RV. But to Salway and its owners, it is a one-of-a kind getaway. From the wood dresser placed where the stove used to be to the faux vintage curtains and colorful matching upholstery, the new flat feels like a small room of a larger cabin. Benches can be pulled down to sleep six people, and the dresser found and refinished by Salway gives the trailer a cottage-like feel. Salway, who towed the trailer to campus so she could work on it there, tried to restore the vehicle to its original state, which also accommodated Sally Moskowitz's taste for retro decor.

And, it only cost $1,605.59.

Perhaps inadvertently, Salway is part of a growing group of enthusiasts spending time and money restoring and redecorating old recreational vehicles. Stars have lounged in lavishly decorated RVs while making movies on Hollywood sets, but RV specialists say the vehicles are becoming cool chill-out cribs for regular folk, too. No longer used just to criss-cross the country, creative owners are installing sound systems and computer hookups, and turning trailers into transportable studies, guestrooms, and pool-changing houses. The web is packed with e-magazines and sites dedicated to helping enthusiasts restore and decorate their rides.

They are people like David Osterberg, an upholsterer, and his wife, Leah Cohen, of Minneapolis who decorated their Dutch Colonial home with mid-century modern furnishings and now are happily doing the same to a 1966 26-foot Airstream trailer purchased last summer. Still a work in progress, the floors are being replaced, the walls have been painted lime green, and swatches of colorful fabric resembling vintage bark cloth have been picked out.

The couple became interested in purchasing a vintage trailer after upholstering the cushions of an Airstream owned by Renee Roels, 38, and her roommate Carrie Lewis, 36, both of Richfield, Minn.

Lewis and Roels purchased their Airstream after seeing it parked in an old field.

"We were not interested in keeping it authentic, but we wanted to have fun with putting fabrics in it that looked like they were from the 1950s and 1960s," said Roels, an art teacher. "The cushion and the fabrics kind of make it. The curtains and cushions take up so much visual space that we kind of focused on them."

For Christina Salway, the transformation of a small RV turned out to be no small undertaking. "It was terrible, an absolute abomination," she said of the trailer one recent Saturday as she chewed cheese fries at a local diner. "When we towed it up to Hampshire it looked like I was towing a moldy loaf of bread. It was completely green. It had been sitting under a tree for 15 years accruing sap and moss and mildew. It was so gross."

And it had mice. "They had completely dismantled the majority of the cushions and the burlap-esque covers that fit over them and had turned every drawer, cabinet, and cubbyhole into a nest," Salway wrote in her final paper.

After getting the go-ahead from her professors, Salway assessed the years of decay: Cabinets were sagging from the ceiling, the walls were warped from water damage, and there was a gaping hole in the roof of the vehicle, sparking Sally to vaguely recall it being smashed into a tree limb on the way back from a trip. The couple bought the used RV when their son John, 22, was 3. They traveled cross-country with it but were so bored on the road that when they returned, they parked it under a tree near the cabin Michael inherited from his family. And, that is where it stayed.

Abandoned no more, the new guestroom had to be appropriate for their sons John and Peter, 15, and the boys' friends, but also aesthetically pleasing for the Moskowitzes' more mature friends.

"During the week I would work on various drawings, and design proposals -- from finding fabric samples, to painting swatches, to surveying the floor plan. And during the weekend I would come down and [Sally] and I would sit down and look at the different aesthetic proposals and the different architectural proposals," recalled Salway.

The budget had to be tight because everyone involved agreed the couple should not have to shoulder the entire cost, since the undertaking was also functioning as Salway's academic project. That sent Salway, who paid some of the cost herself, searching in thrift and vintage shops in Minnesota where her parents live. There, she nabbed vases, art, fabrics, and trinkets similar to the more expensive furnishings in the Moskowitz loft in Greenwich Village and the cabin in Cahoonzie. Thanksgiving was spent in Minnesota, where Salway and her mother swiftly sewed pillowcases and covers for the bench cushions.

"We were up until 3 in the morning," said Salway's mother, Lynda. "We called the bedroom the sweatshop. She would cut and I'd sew. She had seen the cushions in Massachusetts and knew what she wanted, but . . . I hadn't set eyes on them. I didn't realize when I volunteered that we were talking about cushions that had depths to them. I do pillows but suddenly I am doing piping. But it was a bonding experience."

Months earlier in September, Salway's father, who is lovingly called "the driving fool" by his family, trucked it from Minnesota to Cahoonzie, which is 90 miles outside of Manhattan, to help his daughter tow the RV to Amherst; they parked it behind the school's woodshop. Salway was quickly schooled by the shop students or "wood-tech guys," as she calls them, on how to use the tools. Soon she was standing on top of the vehicle sealing the leaky roof with tar. With the help of her father and a friend, she replaced the old moldy wood paneling and the floors, and tore out the stove unit. But one thing such a task teaches a beginner like Salway is that plans, even those so carefully laid out, rarely work out without a hitch.

For instance, who knew there would be carpenter ants?

"When I pulled out the cabinets there was a colony of carpenter ants. I pulled down this wall and it was like they all stopped and turned and looked at me. I couldn't deal," she said. She rushed to the hardware store and bought four Raid bombs, which quickly rid her of the pests.

The growing budget continued to be a problem, too. Grants were given and denied by a student group at Hampshire, the budget revised over and over, and the Moskowitzes committed more money. By December, the project was completed and the Moskowitzes got their first look at the finished product during Salway's gallery showing on campus.

"I love it," said Sally Moskowitz, who said her boys will try out the room in the spring.

Salway currently lives in Brooklyn and is working as a freelancer designer. She is redesigning a bedroom for a teenage girl in the New York area. Lessons she learned while renovating the trailer, she said, she uses on current jobs. Still, it's hard for her to believe she pulled off the RV transformation.

"I looked at it the other day and said . . . `I can't believe I actually did this.' So the rats, the mice and ants were all worth it," she said.

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