Can A Cramped Vacation Home Become A Full-Time Home?

Recently I received a most eye-catching email with the headline:

“The Mermaid In The Room”

Here is what followed.


Dear Laurel,

That is not a typo and I am not a crackpot,  (well, at least I don’t think so. lol) but I might be cracking up.

I mean, I really DO have a mermaid.  She’s lives in our charming summer vacation home on the Jersey shore.


vacation home-overscale fireplace-tiny living room


What is she doing in our vacation home? I imagine you’d like to know that, right?


She’s trying to hide the proverbial “elephant in the room” — of course. In this case, as you can see, a massive, floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace that completely dominates this tiny, awkward living room. 

I mean, Laurel, the fireplace is huuuuuge! And, the mantel is disproportionately high. Oh, and just to add to my pain, this gigantic hunk of bedrock is horribly off-center.



When we bought this 1920s house as our vacation home I thought about painting the stone, but couldn’t find any examples of what it might look like (could it possibly look worse?).


I considered hiding the ugly stone by boxing it in with paneling, but did not want to lose another inch of precious living room space.

Then, I thought; what about making it a cupboard or bookcase? However, some day we might want a gas insert (It is non-functional right now).  Is my only option to remove it, which would result in an  incredible mess, a lengthy time to do so, and an exorbitant cost?

And to compound my dilemma, like I said, the LR is really tiny. I’ve attached some photos and a floor plan, so that you can see.

living room floor plan - vacation home

(This is Gail’s revised floor plan)

Vacation home - no entrance - fabulous painting


In addition to the huuuuge fireplace and lack of space, there’s NO REAL ENTRY.


vacation home-cramped living room


Yes, I know that you just went over this. But, the other pressing issues are two large radiators which shrink the room well over a foot.  There’s a staircase, closet, and a large doorway to the dining room.

I’m stumped.

vacation home - dining room


I put the chest under the window by the door because there is no place to drop purses, mail, etc.; likewise with the homeless books under the family desk (do I dare paint it?).


Oh wait. Please. There’s more. Please don’t go yet.


To make matters even more complicated, when my husband retires, in a year or two, we are thinking of moving here full-time. In other words, we’ll be on permanent vacation. So, instead of a hot-summer-wet-swim-suit-casual beach house, it will need to function for us and our visiting adult children AND grandchildren, year-round.


Where on earth is everyone going to sit?


Yes, I realize that the TV is not ideally positioned — is there an ideal one?  The mantel is not an option. I will have a strained neck if it is there.

And, please don’t tell me that we should sell and get another place.  First of all, the house is only three blocks from the beach and there’s an insanely good Italian bakery.

I like the way you think, Gail!


Do you know how difficult it is to get a house around here this close to the beach? Do you?

I can imagine!


I mean, just look at it.


munchkins - new jersey coast - sisters-vacation home

Yes, those are my darling granddaughters. Do you get it now?


Yes, Gail I definitely get it. They are too adorable for words. And, the location is sublime!


Gail - daughter - grand-daughter - ocean - vacation home

Three generations of Windjammers on the Jersey shore. ;]

Oh, Gail, it’s divine!


And, we looked for over year before we found this place. Quite frankly, most of the homes are horribly out-dated. Or, there’s some major flaw that would cost a fortune to fix. Really, everything else about our wonderful vacation home is perfect.


vacation home - porch - street view

I adore our front porch.

vacation home porch - house view


That’s our socializing and relaxing spot. Plus, there’s a decent sized dining room which we use when we aren’t eating outside.  And once it’s our “retirement” home, we’ll be using it a lot more.

One quick note from Laurel. I would swap out the matching tables for a  garden stool and a different style/color coffee and occasional table. They don’t have to be expensive but it won’t look so matchy matchy. (one of the 21 decorating sins) ;]


vacation home - dining room


So, if you’re thinking about turning that space into a den, or keeping room like Melissa did, that isn’t going to work for us.

I am intrigued by the idea you conveyed in this post, but I don’t see that working for us either. Our dining room is a decent size, but not large enough for a dining room and den.

In closing, I’ve been so impressed with this series of house dilemmas.


Each time, I learn something because the ideas you come up with are so logical and yet I didn’t see them until you clearly conveyed them.

Oh Laurel, pick me; pick me! PLEASE. I’ll even give you my mermaid!

Gail Windjammer


Haha. It’s okay Gail. You may keep your mermaid and the house and the big stone fireplace. But, can I borrow your adorable cherubs for an afternoon?


Folks, Gail W. is a real reader, but I couldn’t resist changing her last name to make a little play on words. And, her current year-round house is actually in Westchester County, but closer to where I used to live in northern Westchester.


And, thank you Gail for allowing me to rip your house to shreds give my recommendations that I think will help make this charming vacation home into a cosy year-round-home for you and your family.


For everyone else, here’s why I selected Gail’s home. While it does have some wonderful points, it also hits many of the sore spots we’ve discussed recently; plus, a few more.


  • Very small living space and further eaten up by the need for paths to two other rooms and the stairs.
  • No real entrance. The front door opens straight into the living room.
  • The television is an immediate focal point upon entering which undesirable. Plus poor sight-lines for all but one viewer.
  • Not enough seating for family/friends.
  • Plus– a fireplace that’s eating up precious space.
  • And, the heavy stone is only emphasizing its bigness.


Another reason why I chose this home is because a lot of readers are at the age where they are either downsizing or thinking of downsizing from the big family home to something more manageable.


Gail did send me a floor plan, but like Karen, from a recent post, many measurements were either missing and/or incorrect. Again, I don’t expect people who have not been trained on how to do this, to get it right. It’s just something to be mindful of. If you are going to make a plan, the measurements need to be precise to within an inch or two. There are people who measure spaces for a living. It’s not expensive and I highly recommend it.


One mistake Gail might have made (and, it’s one that’s easy to do), is to overlap measurements.


I did not verify this with her, but it looks like that might have happened from the photos of the fireplace.


vacation home-side view-overscale stone fireplace

I am thinking that she measured the widest part of the stone where the mantel sticks out and that is 35.” And then she went down and measured the hearth which is 20.” As we can see from the photo, the mantel overlaps the hearth.

Since that’s the part of the room that is especially difficult, we need every inch we can squeeze out of it.


When I am doing a room layout and my only objective is to see the usable amount of floor space, I do one OVER-ALL measurement taken on the floor.

It doesn’t matter which is the hearth and which is the fireplace. None of it is usable floor space. And, the good news is that this hearth is flush with the floor, not raised.

Okay. This is for Gail. Did you know that your home is only about a 25 minute drive to Nancy Keyes’ and Melissa’s homes. You are a little south of them.

And here’s what’s funny. Your stone fireplace looks like it was built by the same people as Nancy Keyes’ stone fireplace. It looks to be the same stone and same style of grout. If you click on that link, you’ll see how terrific her fireplace looks painted white.

There’s another post here about painting stone.


I made a floor plan and I think it will work better for you for a vacation home turned all-year-round home.


One thing I want to comment on is that I realize this is your casual vacation home. And therefore, many of the things in it are not what you would have in your year-round home.

Beach vacation home- space planning


I would not remove the fireplace. I think that we can work around it.

The first thing I did, however, was move the TV.


I moved it to the right of the fireplace. I realize that you’ll need your cable rewired. But I think this is so much better than walking into the house and the first thing you see is the black box down yonder. Besides, it’s just not the best location even if it wasn’t facing the front door.

Then, I moved your little desk to the wall on the other side of the dining room opening. I would not paint it.

I made a little widget so that it’s easier to see some of the ideas I have.


The main seating is a small sectional which I think is good for a few reasons.


And yes, it’s the same one I’ve been doing, but this one is not from Serena and Lily because theirs only has the three seat option on one side. And you don’t have room for that third seat, unless you don’t have a chair. I vote for a chair, but not the one you have. That is, unless you have it slip-covered so that it looks more casual.

Lee Industries is the manufacturer of the Serena and Lily sectional and I did double-check and you can have this configuration through a Lee dealer.


And while I do very much like your sofa, it’s not providing enough seating.

Now, the part I really love is that the back of the sectional makes a natural entry. And then, I put a sofa table behind the sectional. That piece should be from about 48″-60″ long. There are two buffet lamps for lighting. I wasn’t sure where the pipe is connected to the radiator, so if possible, the sofa and console table could go back a few inches towards the front door. There’s plenty of room.

The area rug by the front door is somewhere between 3 x 5 and 4 x 6. It’s a little small in my drawing.

The little round circle to the right of the sectional is a garden stool, but it’s not necessary if you’d rather have more breathing room.

In front of the sectional is either a small coffee table, trunk or ottoman.


My favorite part of this room is the painting over the sofa.

In fact, I ADORE IT! The colors are magnificent.

However, I think if possible, the color of the front door should be tweaked and made a little more teal and a little grayer.

gentleman's gray 2062-20

A very beautiful color and one in the Laurel Home Paint and Palette Collection is Benjamin Moore Gentleman’s Gray 2062-20.

It’s a deeper, grayer more sophisticated blue, I think.

Actually, there are several colors in the collection that I like. I can’t be sure from a photo.

The dining room needs a little work too, but I’ve done run out of steam and oh man. I have to pack.


I am leaving tomorrow for Copenhagen!


But, at least my clothes are all clean.

And yes, my passport is already in my handbag. :]

This Tuesday’s post will probably be on Wednesday as the hot sales are taking a vacation this week too. But, Melissa does remove the items that are no longer available and changes promo codes as necessary. Please check out this week’s hot sales page. So many beautiful items and the One King’s Lane “private sale” is still going strong.

Oh wait! I have a little surprise for Gail. She sent me the most adorable photo of her granddaughters frolicking in the ocean. And I turned it into a painting– well, digitally, that is.

Gail's granddaughters playing in the ocean

Too cute, they are!

Thank you to all who voted for me for the Amara blogging competition. They announce the short list on Wednesday at noon, London time. So, we’ll have to wait to see if I received enough votes.

Please have a beautiful week! I will still be around but not as much.


57 Responses

  1. Great job as always, Laurel. Love your floor plan. Love the idea of painting the fireplace. Love the possibility of a gas fireplace insert. Love the new entrance area, thanks to furniture placement.

    Am enjoying the idea of seasonal decorations . . . . In the summer, a basket of seashells along with toss pillows in blue and white stripes and buffalo checks. And then in the winter, swap out the seashells for a basket of pinecones and maybe a bowl of walnuts. And swap out the blue and white toss pillows for tartan plaid pillows in blue and green and red. Then add a thick throw or two in colors to match the colors in the tartan plaid.

  2. Laurel – you’re a genius!

    “Gail” – pleeeeeze share updated photos of the new living room once you’re finished!

    About that monster fireplace – we took one out like that a year ago, and it made a HUGE difference to the flow of the room (an awkwardly long skinny room – and the fireplace was on a long side!). It wasn’t original, and we found the original 1870s wallpaper behind it. It was a helluva mess, but worth it, as it was also a fire hazard (chimney overheated to dangerous levels) and drafty when not in use. It wasn’t cheap to have it removed, and it was worth every penny. We’d looked into having a gas insert stuck into it, and I’m glad we didn’t: it would have cost the same as having the thing removed, funnily enough.

  3. The key is this is a VACATION home. Especially a VACATION home near the water. So guess what? Zero screen time. Yes, I mean zero. Ditch the television, ditch the computer. If you are not enjoying the outdoors and the weather forces you indoors, then I suggest the following: listen to music, read, cook. NO SCREEN TIME. How do you like them apples? Live life, people!!

    1. You are right, Susie. As a vacation house we do not use the TV, except for the occasional DVD — TV is not even connected to cable. I know as a year round residence though I will need TV. I’m preplanning so I don’t have to do too much when the day comes and we retire.

  4. Love this layout, it makes me feel better about my own smallish TV room. However, I’ve been struggling with the concept of a sectional. To me they don’t seem classic- and a bit at odds with your wonderful timeless interiors- so obviously I must be mistaken! Can you explain your thoughts on sectionals a bit?

    I also visited NC recently (like, hurricane-Florence-recently but that’s another story) and spent quite a bit of time in a manufacturer’s warehouse/showroom, quite a learning experience which I heartily recommend to any homeowner! The designer there recommended a sectional, as well, but liked a radial (rounded) inside corner for practicality. Thoughts?

  5. Hi!
    So many wonderful solutions put forth.
    In re-looking at the fireplace and Laurel’s floor plan, would it make the fireplace seem less bulky if a lovely media/bookcase/storage unit were built out to the same depth as the coat closet?
    I think the fireplace doesn’t look so massive on the left side. Then, when the fireplace is painted, and If the built-in matches, it would give a more cohesive look to the wall and the fireplace would sort of visually seem less voluminous. I realize the little desk would not fit but maybe could go into a different room.
    Just a thought…

  6. Laurel, hope you’re having a great time! This was another great post, of a beautiful little house. Who wouldn’t want to live there full time if given the chance! Loved the floor plan. I like the fireplace, painted, schmeared, or left alone. It’s unique. The one thing that seems off is the small, low firebox, which I think could be concealed by a tall fire screen, or maybe a panel with a mermaid or some other image on it.

  7. Gail you have a wonderful little house and it is going to be so functional, cozy and stylish with Laurel’s advice. GREAT floor plan Laurel–I’m a bit jealous (okay more than a bit!) of your talents at creating outstanding floor plans and of Gail’s great space! How long does it take you to size up a room and come up with such practical and wonderful ideas?! I also really love the stone fireplace. Someone else mentioned using plaster or doing an over-grout on the fireplace which I think would look fantastic because the amount of texture in your stone is such a nice feature and immediately gives that period feel. You could just leave very small areas of the stone exposed and use a white colored plaster or light gray grout. I also think the stone color is very organic and real stone is not cheap. You can google over-grout or schmear or plaster to get some ideas but the mason doesn’t even have to leave very much of the actual stone exposed to give it that European cottage look. Painting will look great too but just make sure that it is your preferred option because it would be very messy and costly to remove the paint to do another treatment with grout or plaster later and have it adhere. Gail, I hope you enjoy your wonderful little home for years and it provides a wonderful place for retirement. A little bit of quirkiness and working with that is going to immediately give your space that charm and feel that is really hard to get otherwise. Safe travels Laurel.

    1. Thanks, Travis, for your thoughts on the schmere technique. I have seen something like it in Europe and it is certainly worth exploring. I think I need to get some test rocks and try different techniques! And the house will be enjoyed for years (beyond my lifetime) by my family!

  8. Beautiful job Laurel!!!! I totally agree about keeping the fireplace and painting it white. Loved the link you provided on that! My daughter had that identical monster fireplace and demolished it thinking it would give her more room. With it gone the room actually looks smaller. Possibly because the focal point is gone? Not sure. Thanks again for another magnificent post!

    1. Good to know that, Tracey. It never occurred to me that the room might look smaller with the removal of the fireplace. I think this format is great—I’m learning a lot from the comments.

  9. Well, you’re a genius, Laurel. Beautiful idea with the sectional creating an entry as well as solving the seating/TV problems. And there is still excellent flow! (I would not do the round garden stool myself, to keep the flow as straightforward as possible.) This was such a tricky room IMO but you made it look simple as pie.

  10. I may be the only one who loves the fireplace stone. I would absolutely paint it and use a very flat paint that mimics lime wash but IMO the fireplace has soul.

    1. Do you have any thoughts on chalk paint, Mary? I read an article about that awhile ago, but will have to search for it now that painting is the direction I am going in.

      1. I probably wouldn’t use chalk paint since it is not very durable. I would suggest an acrylic paint instead since it is quite durable compared to latex. It may take 30 days to fully cure but doesn’t lift off like latex if something heavy is placed on it. You could experiment with adding grout or baking soda to the acrylic paint on a salvaged brick to see how matte it is and how durable. It is always reassuring to test on something other than your project. But I think a flat acrylic would be beautiful. It is pricey paint, but you get what you pay for. Thirteen years ago I painted a faux rock fireplace using a couple coats of primer first and then a couple coats of paint. It was in a rental and it has held up all these years. I am going to repaint now just to freshen it up, but that is a long time with tenants.

    2. Me, too, Mary! My fireplace is MASSIVE, with a huge hearth to sit on. The masonry extends down into the lower level of the house where it becomes a stone wall with a pad for a freestanding gas fireplace. It’s the coziest! If it wasn’t for the fireplaces, my house would be altogether lacking in character. Of course, the living room is large, to go with the big fireplace, otherwise I might not love it so much.

  11. Thank you Laurel! You are delighting us with intelligent ideas. I would love to see the afters from Gail.
    Hope you are winning first prize!
    Enjoy your trip and relax!

  12. Thank you, Laurel, for all your thought and talent you put into for making my LR functional and attractive. You have given me a direction…YAY!!! As a first step in transforming the space I will paint the fireplace (after removing the protruding gargoyle shelves) and have a gas insert installed. I love the idea of creating a foyer and moving the desk there! Step-by-step I will get it done. BTW the painting over the sofa is of my husband and his brothers as young boys. It was done by my mother-in-law who is a nationally acclaimed artist. The digitized art of my grand cherubs will be a nice companion to it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    PS: I appreciate all the readers’ thoughtful comments. I especially think Gloria’s comment was quite wise!

    1. Gail, I think you will be so glad to have that wonderful fireplace to keep you cozy and warm in the winter when you finally move there full time. Your home looks adorable, and the neighborhood seems to be so cute and quaint as well. You are Lucky! I hope sometime we can see your After photos.


  13. For a “least expensive, least disruptive” solution, I love this plan. I was particularly impressed with how an entry was created without sacrificing seating—such a clever use of space. And the simple change of moving the desk to the interior corner, so that the TV could be moved to a better viewing area. Genius. This plan really highlights the power of developing a layout of the room to envision a better layout of the furniture as well as solving problems. Putting in a gas fireplace insert would be lovely.

  14. Your simple solutions for Gail are terrific and easy to achieve, Laurel I hope she implements them and lets us see the result. I’m expecting you’ll win Amara and I hope Your Copenhagen trip is all you hope for.

    1. Perhaps we can connect sometime in the future and talk fireplaces. Laurel thinks we aren’t too far away from each other.

      1. Hi Gail,
        Just seeing your comment. Be happy to talk “fireplaces”. I will never love this stone but the difference painting made was enormous. I don’t take the easy way out, but this was a big enough change. My neighbor had the same stone, ripped it all out, redid it, and spent a lot of money. When he saw ours he wished he’d just left it alone and painted. on instagram

  15. Hi Laurel,
    If you did nothing but room layouts, I’d still be a very satisfied reader. I love these. You always nail it. I just hope someday one of the owners of these puzzling rooms sends you “after” pictures.
    I hope you have safe travels to Copenhagen & a glorious time!

  16. Such a lovely home! I prefer smaller homey homes! I vote for removing the fireplace–no matter the cost! I had an over-sized fireplace that ate up precious space in the living room AND kitchen of my 1200 sq ft home. So worth the money to get rid of that 2-sided monstrosity. I do not miss in the least!

    1. As an 80 year old, I would consider the fireplace removal option to be contingent upon ones stage in life. Retirement years are not necessarily conducive to enormous-unnecessary expenditures. IMO floor inches saved would not be commensurate with dollars saved in reserve for future family fun and games with those pictured little cutie pies. 🙂

      1. Such wisdom, Gloria! If I were 25 years younger, I would not have deliberated so much about the fireplace—it would be gone. But now the idea of the mess it would create, the toxins released in the process, and the expense lead me to painting it. And you are right about ways to spend your time and money, and family wins in my case!

  17. I agree that removing the fireplace would be way too expensive, especially for what they would gain. Painting it the same color as the walls would help, but plaster may be better – those grout lines are the real monsters. Love the new floor plan.

  18. Laurel, I liked your new plan. However, if the homeowner would consider switching dining room and living room, there is one more idea, that may or may not be feasible….If the closet next to the fireplace backs up to the kitchen, maybe you could get rid of the closet and make an entrance to the kitchen. Then you could move the dining table to what is now the living room with the giant fireplace. The current dining room could become the TV/family room. The TV could go on the wall where the chest of drawers is now, and the couch could go against the long wall. That room just looks so much easier to deal with as far as couches and the TV.

    Another solution that might work is to remove the wood part of the mantel and box in the fireplace completely and put the TV there but at a more comfortable level (lower than mantel.) The fireplace would be there behind sheetrock but not visible, which wouldn’t matter since it is nonworking now anyway.

    P.S. Thanks for sharing this cute home–looks like a fantastic vacation spot!

  19. Another really interesting and information-filled post!
    Lovely home and beautiful family.
    BTW on a different note: Gail: I love the glimpse of what looks like a Women’s March pussy hat on a milliner’s form in the photo of the living room looking toward the open blue front door. The hat is to the left of the door as you’re looking at it.
    Laurel: Enjoy Copenhagen and good luck on the Amara blogging competition!

    1. You are absolutely right about the hat! My daughter has participated in the Women’s March the last two years and will be doing so again.

  20. These beach houses are Granny Traps in my parts! A while back I bought that sea grass rug from One Kings Lane from your widget and I can endorse the look and quality. Actually I have bought three rugs from your blog and really am happy with each. Safe journey!

    1. Oh, thank you so much Eileen. You might notice that the option to subscribe to comments is missing. We think it is related to the change in servers but still can’t pinpoint it. So weird. Tim is working on it for me. You’d never know that I’m not packed yet but am leaving in about five hours. haha. I keep telling myself that it’s really like any other trip– except for my passport.

  21. Just a little info on drawing floor plans. I have used this one floorpad it is free and very useful.

    Major tip is when you open it on the right side is settings, click on that and then hit “plan” at top this will give you the option of changing the graph from meters to inches!
    You can even put furniture in but their sizes will still be in meters so you have to adjust.
    It also gives you 2D & 3D views from overhead etc. It is a lot of fun. I have drawn complete house plans and have become quite good at it!I think I was meant to be an architect, ah maybe next life!
    Hope Copenhagen is a Blast Be safe!

  22. First, I really like Laurel’s floorplan. It takes care of all the issues. Second, I like the fireplace in the living room. It’s part of what makes the cottage very cozy IMO. Getting it set up for gas is a great idea since she’d be there year round. Also, I tend to like smaller homes anyhow. With smart design and a new layout, like Laurel suggested, I think the space could work very hard and effectively for her.

    1. I would definitely get the fireplace set up for gas. I so wish I had a fireplace in my apartment. Some of the buildings in my neighborhood do have them, but not ours even though I believe it’s the oldest building.

  23. Hello Laurel, Some kind of stucco or plaster could be used to help cover up this fireplace, and not take as much space as boxing in. Painting is ok too, but does not go far enough. I looked at the Keyes’ fireplace, and while it looks better painted, it is still an ugly object that needs to be hidden. Especially those 3-D grout lines! Possibly they could be ground down before painting; that would help a lot.

    Stucco (preferably the smooth kind) would improve the look, but there is still the basic shape. It might be expensive, but perhaps a mason could dress the stone so that it is more like ashlar. Also, I don’t know about the structural mechanics of this monstrosity, but perhaps some of the thickness and protrusions could be cut away. Would it really be so expensive to remove it entirely and substitute a simple mantel? I would at least get some estimates!

    1. Agree 100% Jim. It’s the grout lines that are the worst part, always a crime against stone! That style was the fashion for old stone houses here in France in 1960s and 70s renovations, because people wanted to make the stone look “neat and clean” and to make the stones “stand out” — which was not the result, needless to say.
      The solution is to remove that grouting (a filthy job using a mechanical pick) and re-do a grout using lime which covers all but the most prominent part of the stones — but that requires wetting the stone with a power jet. Frankly, that would make almost as much mess as removing the whole lot.
      I don’t think that stone could be improved by dressing, it’s too random.
      The only solution I can think of is to box in the upper part (and take that round the side and down on the right hand side) with tongue-and-groove, and try over-grouting on the rest to get rid of the 3-D effect before whitewashing.
      Laurel’s floor plan is great, as usual, making the most of every inch!

      1. PS: We are still working on the subscribe to comment issue, Jim. My developer believes that my hunch about the new $600/month server (yes, you read that right.$600/month) is the culprit due to something in their software; he’s working with them, but they still can’t pinpoint it. If they can’t fix it, there’s a plug-in for comments, but I can’t lose all of them because that would make Mr. Google fall out of favor with me. haha.

  24. OK radical thought coming up …..I would get rid of the closet and if living in the home full time, tear the fireplace apart and move it back to normal depth (OK just a suggestion!). in my many remodels my fondest memories are tearing things apart and putting them back together bettern than the original. Not for everyone I know but it is the home you are living in so….worth the aggravation long term .

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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