It’s a good idea to dig deeply into the genealogy and history of an antique house before beginning restoration. Besides what the architecture of the house tells you, the local historical society, the library, and especially the State Library, are wonderful resources for finding information about the age of your house and the families who lived there. That will be the easy part. If you find that your house was built in one century, then added onto and embellished in another – what will you do? We know of a house nearby that, when found, was a lovely example of early 18th century architecture. When the new homeowners found an extremely large fireplace in the front room and what they thought were remnants of casement windows in the walls, they decided to restore it to the more primitive 17th century. The casements are beautiful, and the front door, reminiscent of the old Indian door at Deerfield, is very convincing, right down to the wrought iron ring door knocker. Recently, the town historian’s research found evidence that the house was actually built in 1750. What do you do with that? Obviously, they set their time machine too far back, and it would be not only costly, but a shame, to undo.
We almost made a similar mistake.
When Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, ” he wasn’t just a kidding. The three magnificent CT River Valley doorways that I mentioned are on our house – we actually considered removing. We were young, had done some prior restoration and renovation, but nothing of the caliber of this 17th century treasure. We knew it was built in 1698, appreciated all of the original fabric of the house, both 17th and 18th, and would never have disposed of any of it. We were simply deciding to which period we should return. Toward that end, we sought advice.
I had met a couple who were considered experts on early houses. They lived in a colonial they had personally restored to its original purity – and it had no electricity, plumbing, or other modern conveniences, at least in the main house. They cooked over an open hearth, ate by candlelight, and even dressed in colonial garb.
In hopes of learning a few things from them directly on 18th century architecture, I signed up for one of the classes they offered, at the local college, on colonial living. The husband and wife wore their 18th century attire, he, in the tri corner hat, and she, in the layered dress. While Mister C lectured on the merits of simple living, the use of herbs for “meate or medicine,” and on early customs from sparking benches to bundling, Misses C was busy building some 18th century snacks, and a Christmas punch, with punch. After Mister showed us how to grate some whole nutmeg into an ancient wassail with an odd tool, I introduced myself as a fellow 17th century home owner, and asked if I might ask him some restoration questions. Seemed a man wearing a tri corner hat was surely an authority on the subject.
Over a drink of wassail, I told him of our dilemma. We have a 17th century house, I said, in an 18th century skin. The early casement windows have been removed, and replaced with 12/12’s and doorways added in the 18th century. I described them.
Right then and there he should have replied – wayward child, you cannot remove those doorways! But he didn’t. He suggested there were merits to keeping certain architectural elements that document the evolution of a house. Then he agreed that, yes, it was a dilemma, especially when one yearns for the primitive. If the inside was to return to the 17th century, then would you leave the 18th on the outside? Would that work? He empathized. That surprises now, only because we know more. Because we’ve dug deeper. Because we understand the evolution of the house, appreciate the history and craftsmanship, the “flowering” that occurred in the mid 18th century along the CT River Valley. To have removed that original fabric, something so fine and so rare, so important a piece of American history and architecture, would have been a travesty.
We are not perfect; none of us are, in any field. It is a goal never attained. It is the striving toward it, though, that brings wisdom. Patience and persistence, and endless learning, is key. In restoration, as in life, we must move very slowly, dig deep and drink large the information needed to achieve the almost perfect.
Alexander Pope, 18th century poet:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
And drinking largely sobers us again.”