Mariposa couple create hideaway in the hills

MARIPOSA -- Tucked into the hills just above Mariposa High School is a cottagelike home and garden -- like a home you might see in Monterey or Carmel -- that's worthy of a magazine layout.

It's the residence of Charleen and John Mullen, who spent eight months in 2004 renovating the home and six months in 2005 creating the garden.

It's an amazing transformation from the property the Mullens bought, which had been abandoned for more than 20 years.

"That place was a dump -- and now it's a park," says a family friend, Bill Bondshu. "In terms of what they started with and ended up with, it's nothing short of a miracle."

It's so beautiful that Romantic Country Magazine sent photo/film crews to the residence on Old Highway North to illustrate articles that will appear in the quarterly magazine's upcoming issues. With so much to show and tell, the magazine will feature the home in September and the garden in January.

In 2003, the Mullens moved from a residential Merced neighborhood to their country fixer-upper with a dream: a more simple life where chickens roam.

They are raising sons McKay, 11, and Gage, 5, without television, computers or cell phones in the home. Both attend Mariposa Elementary School.

Married for 14 years, the couple did most of the work themselves. John is a self-employed contractor. Charleen has a knack for design.

They applied the simple-life theme to the renovation. They recycled materials -- wavy-glass windows, French doors, pillars, molding, fireplace mantels -- scooped up at job sites and salvage yards. They hit yard sales and second-hand stores for furnishings, inside and out.

"We live debt-free; that's why we shop at yard sales and thrift stores," she says. "We don't stress. This is what we teach our kids."

The home

Charleen remembers when they first saw the home: "It was a shack with foundation, studs and roof."

Not anymore.

Outside, John added 17 pillars around the home. They were from a 100-year-old Victorian home that was being made over.

"John is very meticulous about what he does; he's a fine craftsman," Bondshu says.

At the doorsteps, everyone takes off their shoes. "To keep the dirt out," Charleen says.

When you step inside, you enter into a large area that combines dining room, kitchen and sitting area.

It's definitely an airy feeling. In a corner, double doors lead to an octagon-shaped food pantry with stained-glass windows.

Everywhere you look shouts shabby chic -- the pink- and red-rose themes, the furniture with white paint peeling off.

It isn't a place for boys to rough-house.

"It's cottage-y," says a friend, Veronica Oldfield, who is currently remodeling her home near the Mariposa fairgrounds. "I've tried to copy everything she does. She is an awesome designer."

Among Charleen's finds are a 100-year-old ornate fireplace mantel, the sitting area's showpiece that the Mullens rescued from a San Francisco dump.

A 6-foot-by-8-foot kitchen "table" is actually kitchen cabinets topped by a 3/4-inch-thick granite top.

And an 800-pound chopping block came from the old Cliff House in San Francisco. Its edges sink from all the cook's knives. It took four men to put into place. They wanted $2,000. The Mullens got it down to $500.

The garden

The Mullens remember the weeds were once so tall they couldn't see the home, built in 1982, from the road. Now, there's a rambling cottage garden under the canopy of white and black oak trees, with morning glory in full bloom and masses of roses and vinca growing along wrought-iron fences.

"They said you can't have a nice garden up here," John says. "Well, we showed them."

Umbrella-covered tables and tree swings dot a tall lawn. A raised deck made of 2-by-12 planks is bordered by arbors and pergolas, all built by John. On the deck, the family enjoys candlelit summer dinners. John formed chunks of the home's old driveway into a walk -- lined with about 40 terra cotta water pipes that serve as containers for herbs -- that leads to the 250- by 40-foot vegetable garden.

There, tomatoes thrive amid second-hand treasures, such as old wooden window frames, metal lawn chairs, chaise lounges, bird fountains, wheel barrows and bikes, many painted lavender and turquoise, Charleen's favorite colors.

She turns the tomatoes and herbs into tasty salsa.

"I'm sure she gets up when the sun comes up and it's nonstop until the sun goes down," Bondshu says.

The family's dog, Madison, chases away the deer.

A dove coop along the driveway even features recycled materials. On a recent day, one of the 100 doves rested in an old fruit basket.