In February, 2021, Dr. Susan Whittred, the Veterinarian and Executive Director of the Patricia H. Ladew Foundation contacted us about renovating the cat sanctuary portion of the main “house.” Susan had seen our work in the Billy Joel rooms at North Shore Animal League America, and she contacted her friend, Dr. Jenny Conrad, founder of The Paw Project, to see if she knew who “Square Paws” was.
As fate would have it, we’re good friends of Jenny’s and avid supporters of The Paw Project, so Jenny was only too happy to make this connection! Little did we know, we had briefly met Susan at the first CatCamp in NYC in 2017. Right after CatCamp finished, Jenny and Susan drove to Albany, NY to speak about a bill on the subject of cat declawing and how it should be banned. Several years later in 2019, New York State passed the bill as law making the declawing of cats illegal! Dr. Whittred serves as the New York Director of The Paw Project. Moreover, Ladew had an in-house Paw Project spokescat named Rubio who was useful in teaching NY legislators that declawing is really an amputation and not a toenail clipping.
Suffice it to say, we were elated to be asked to work on the Ladew renovation project, knowing that our values were completely aligned.
Our first order of business was to discuss what the scope of the project would encompass. Dr. Whittred stated that there were two rooms on the Ground Floor to be renovated, and, of the four rooms in the Basement, they wanted to renovate two of them.
Ladew already had a general contractor named Roland Gerwald on board to do some upgrades to the rooms in the house, like change out old through-wall AC units with new, more energy-efficient split system units. So the three of us got on a few Zoom calls to discuss possibilities of this renovation.
Susan and the Ladew Board of Directors were extremely open to ideas and concepts that would make their sanctuary special and unique. I asked Susan for some background information on Patricia Ladew. I learned that Pat, who passed away in 2002, was an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. Although Pat had broken away from her family’s pedigree and blazed her life path as an artist, she unexpectedly found herself as an heiress in the 1970’s and decided to use her inheritance to buy an old house, pay two caretakers to live upstairs, and have the downstairs reserved for homeless and special needs cats that she and her friends had been rescuing in the New York/Long Island area. The NYC tabloids labeled Pat an “eccentric” heiress, which was an unfair exaggeration. To allow cats to roam the house freely was a forward-thinking idea in the 70’s; Pat was way ahead of her time!
Susan sent me various news clippings, as well as an appearance by Pat on the Tom Snyder talk show back in the 70’s trying to clear her name and to discuss how her inheritance was truly being used to help stray cats that were available for adoption (Watch the video above). The New York tabloids portrayed Pat as an out-of-touch heiress who had set up her pampered kitties in a mansion of their own. I thought that this false characterization might serve as an intriguing base point for our design.
We proposed to Susan and the Board that we do a kind of “retrovation:” to renovate, but in a way that was very retro in style, and to make it seem like the cats were just an average suburban family that owned this house. We wanted it to appear somewhat “locked” in time, somewhere in the 1970’s with various fixtures and furniture that were eclectic of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, mostly in a mid-century modern style. And the fable we created was that the husband of this cat-family was an Oyster Bay fisherman (a somewhat bygone occupation in that area these days).
Oyster Bay is famous for the nearby Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, which was the home of Theodore Roosevelt. As is common with historic sites, rooms are preserved “as they were” when the person lived there. This also played in to our design concept. Although what we created was hardly how the house “was” when Pat bought it, we wanted to emulate that impression when people visited.
And yet we wanted it to be a “living museum” in a sense: to have it feel like you were popping in on your neighbors for a chat and a cup of Joe.
I assembled a presentation of images and drawings showing the design to the Board, and they really loved it! We were given the opportunity to propose various color schemes for the rooms, all working in harmony to support the design concept.
Although it was very practical, we suggested removing the existing vinyl wainscoting on the walls of the ground floor. It provided a visual break that we wanted to omit. Our intention was that the rooms would be outfitted with items of intrigue that would be fun and calming for the cats but also appealing for guests to look from floor to ceiling as they experienced the rooms.
The ceilings of the Living Room and Kitchen would have bright paint colors, and the old cat-runs that sat at the tops of the windows would be raised slightly and be clad with a crown molding, as if to seem like it had always been part of the house.
An existing cat-staircase in the Kitchen was taking up space and seemed better suited in the Living Room. So we designed the new “stairs” as a kind of suburban staircase with shelving below that would house a combination of cat-beds and nautical-themed books. Roland, inspired by the spirit of our design, would use oak to ensure that the end result felt authentic.
To complete the feeling of “homey-ness,” we designed a faux fireplace with the husband-cat’s prized catches mounted above the mantel…fish that would double as cat-shelves. A grandfather clock, a mid-century modern “captain’s desk” and a climbable corner table lamp would round out the Living Room. We also planned for a Victorian-style birdcage/cat cage for when Ladew would need to introduce a new cat or contain a cat that required special attention.
The Kitchen would have a new blue tile backsplash with new counter and base cabinets. And we proposed catified upper cabinets, a faux double wall-oven, a retro catified telephone, a bright red retro fridge, and a center kitty dining table, custom-made to work with Ladew’s metal bowls. The table would be in Ladew’s signature green, representing their commitment that all cats are welcome and nourished here. We also paid homage to one of the original resident cats named Florence who lived for five years atop the refrigerator (watch the video of Pat Ladew above). So we named the fridge brand after her.
Downstairs, we planned for a 1960’s style recreation room with a console TV and mid-century modern shadowbox above. And the room known as Pat’s Cats would become an homage to Pat Ladew along with a replica of the front porch of the house, completely catified, naturally.
Nothing is more exhilarating than having a client who is jazzed by your ideas!
Roland and Gerwald Construction did all the demolition and finish work, as well as much of the “built-in” work. Square Paws built the various free-standing cat furniture items and several built-in features. Our work dovetailed together really well, and we couldn’t have asked for a more committed contractor!
We selected the “people” furniture and curtains for the house as part of the design, making sure to reinforce our nod to mid-century modern design. And we connected Susan with artist Amy Payne, who does amazing animal portraits! Amy immortalized several of Ladew’s favorite family of cats, and we used those portraits to further bolster this idea that the cats are the owners of the house.
In addition, we were able to get in touch with an old friend of Pat Ladew’s, Swedish designer Anders Wenngren, who compiled a stunning graphic of all the articles as a tribute to Pat in the Pat’s Cats Room.
As the place began to transform, Susan and her staff got the “design bug” and had fun selecting pillows and cat beds that fit with the interior design. It was such great fun to foster that kind of client-involvement!
We were sure to use sustainable, washable finishes and scratchable sisal rope and woven sisal wherever possible, but always kept the intention of bright, powerful colors amidst more muted wall and floor tones. The result is a warm, friendly, cheerful place that we hope will provide years of happiness for the Patricia H. Ladew Foundation and many happy adoptions!
It was a privilege to work with Dr. Susan Whittred and Roland Gerwald! We had the distinct opportunity to pay homage to Patricia H. Ladew with this project, to honor the past in history and style, and to make this cat sanctuary a true destination for folks interested in meeting kitties that could be their new companions!
For information on Ladew and how to make an appointment to see their sanctuary, visit their website: theladewcatsanctuary.org
For more videos on how we created various cat features on this project, please visit our YouTube channel.