summer reading

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For old house lovers, and for all who wonder what it’s like to do the dirty work of taking them down, taking them apart, saving and stockpiling their materials, preserving or restoring them  – you’re sure to enjoy this romp through Anne Baker’s life.  This may be her first book, but it reads like her tenth.   This passionate preservationist knows how to weave a tale.   From growing up in her grandmother’s old manse in Warren, RI to the house that “disappeared” overnight, her adventures in saving old structures are broad and captivating.

We met Anne a long time ago while in college.  She introduced herself as “Pete.”  Said her dad always wanted a boy.  We were up on the porch roof puttying the 2nd floor windows of the 1800’s house we’d bought in our last year of college.  (It had no heat, plumbing, electricity, a pump outside for water, and a bucket in the shed for when nature called)

Pete drove her big black antique car right onto our front lawn.   A petite blonde, with a pony tail, weighing all of about ninety pounds, spilled out of the driver’s side.  She wanted to welcome us to the neighborhood, thank us for fixing up the old place, and invite us to see her own labor of love just down the street.  We were used to people stopping by when we were working on old houses, but not used to meeting anyone who knew much about them, so we thanked her kindly but passed on the invitation.  Initially.

A few weeks later we decided to check out her project.  Needless to say we were stunned.  A whole new world opened up for us, and these neophytes were even further hooked.  She and her husband became valuable advisers in our next steps.   One of our finds was an ancient house nearby with a massive chimney that you could access and walk between the fireplaces via a cubby through the staircase – how exciting!  But it was in a terrible location.  We deliberated whether we could live there – then Anne and her husband Bob suggested we dismantle and move it.  What?!  We hadn’t heard of such a thing.   The rest was history.  We’ve dismantled, relocated and restored many since then.

You can read about her own house project along the banks of the Westport River, and many others, in this book.  What a storied life, what a woman.  Sadly, she passed about a year and a half ago, at the age of 82, still learning, always researching.  Sorely missed, but by example, forever inspiring.  Before there was women’s lib, this determined, confident, adventurous, passionate and independent woman was already doing what she wanted, in a man’s world.

Enjoy!

out of sight

Micro-switches to turn on lighting can be embedded in the edge of a door casing. Can you see it?  The main thing is there is no ugly light switch on the wall!

Micro-switches to turn on lighting can be embedded in the edge of a door casing. Can you see it?

Ambiance – one of the main reasons we choose to live in an old house.  The wood, the plaster, the history, the feeling that when we walk into a room, we’ve just stepped back in time.  To immerse ourselves in that and forget all that’s happening in the modern world outside our doors and small paned windows, we have to make sure that there are few, or no, traces of that world within.

In restoring or reconstructing an old house, one has to allow as little intrusion or change as possible.  If you let the harbingers of progress, aka the electricians, hvac folks and plumbers, have their way, each competing to have their craft stand prouder than the others, goodbye old house.   It’ll still be there, in the basement, in the attic, behind the walls. But the intimate spaces that you treasure will be marred.

I realize that some change is required, but there are ways to subdue it.  However, the homeowner will have to be pro-active.  They will have to walk softly and carry a big stick with the trades.  Inquire as to the least obtrusive areas to place outlets, switches, heat registers.  Think like a sleuth.  Plan like it matters.  You can’t just let the trades have a go with your rooms!  A plumber, who once arrived ahead of us, went right along and cut a hole in a wide plank floor board to run a pipe.  After our shock and subsequent repair we found another, hidden way.   We once let an electrician, who had been with us a long time, place the electric meter on an old house without our being there.  Turns out he let his apprentice do it without his direction.  We were shocked to find the meter on the front corner of the house!  Who does that?  Someone who cares only to get the job done and move on.  To them, I guess, an electric meter is a beautiful thing?  Of course, we moved it around to a less conspicuous spot on the side of the house.

Plan, persuade, rant and rave if you have to!  To maintain the integrity of these old structures, to witness them as they once were, you always have to take the path of most resistance!  And then you get to enjoy that ambiance, forever.

tiny micro-switch

tiny micro-switch

a little levity

When the world wearies and ceases to satisfy (the pocketbook) – grow a Money Plant.

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Lunaria – money plant, aka honesty (a word rarely used in the same sentence with money) grows by many names.  It is a lovely herb for the garden.  Plant just one, then watch them pop up everywhere two years later.  A biennial, it’ll seed itself and surprise you when you least expect it.   Like finding silver dollars (another of its names) lying in a garden bed.  Its purple blossoms are fragrant, and its green coins when dried and rubbed together, reveal its silver.  Other than being a pretty face in the garden and later in a dried arrangement, that’s about all it’s good for, as far as I know.  Except for the part about how it wards off monsters, holds magical moon-charged dew, and somewhere, in some time, someone ate its roots – yikes.  It’s just fun to watch and participate in – so go plant some money!

Three Sisters – For Sale

Three of the most exceptional homes in my neighborhood, sited right along the old thoroughfare that was laid out three hundred years ago and called Main Street, are presently for sale.  There is a changing of the guard in this old town.  We old folks are fading.  What, we didn’t think it could happen to us?  Kids grow, we age, the old house ages even more, another chapter beckons.

So here we are hoping that another generation will be enticed by the charms of Main St.  Of course we’re hoping for a lot more than that.  We’re hoping the charms of the house will remain intact – original wood siding, wood or slate roofs, original windows, doorways, chimneys and its entire package of glorious trim.  I know, I’m hoping for a lot.  Landscape too – old trees needn’t be cut down and replaced with newer flowering specimens.

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Enough worry.  Let me tell you about these houses.  First, the Watson house.  All eight thousand square feet of it.  That’s a lot of square feet for a house without an addition.  Instead of sideways, this house goes up.  Way up.  Three amazing stories of antique house – the first of its kind in the CT River Valley.  In 1788 John Watson was a wealthy man, and it showed – pedimented doorways, Palladian windows, decorative cornices, columns, and brownstone steps galore.  Even the privy is elegant!  And the carriage shed, with pilasters and arched openings heavily molded with linen fold key blocks.

Inside is a walk through the history of architectural detail.  Original raised paneling decorates every fireplace wall (large and small), wainscoting, doors, flooring, molded cornices – it’s all there, on all three floors.  Some bedrooms even have original block printed wallpaper – some French, and one that was printed right here in Hartford.

Of course some updating is needed, some mechanical, mostly cosmetic, and very much daunting for a house of this size.  This is why they are asking only $359K.  And the fact that a major thoroughfare is nearby – a negative to some, but an opportunity for many – great spot for a home office.  The exterior needs repair around windows and eaves to prevent any further leaking, and the entire outside needs scraping and painting.  On the inside, some floors have been sanded and the nails sunk to enable the process.  Oh my goodness, I can’t think about that travesty.  But in spite of it, the house has overwhelming character.  Everyone who visits dreams of owning it, perhaps to run as a B&B – which it previously was – or perhaps just to dream.

So now we’re looking for a dreamer.  If there’s one out there, with a passion for history, a love of architecture, and a whole lot of either greased elbows or money – we welcome you with open arms and open hearts!

More pictures & info here –

http://www.realtor.com/realestateandhomes-detail/1876-Main-St_South-Windsor_CT_06074_M38701-28551

(PS – will add the other two sisters to this post shortly)

Second Sister (oops – this one may not be after all – but someday : )

The mother of all doorways is for sale.  The catch – you have to buy the house it’s attached to.  And the other CT Valley triangular pediments attached to that, the paneling and other meticulous detail that I’m sure is inside, and the slate roof over it all.  Oh, and the acreage.  And the history – the ancestral home and property of the family of Ulysses S. Grant.

Of course, you’ll also have to live in an historic neighborhood, on the east side of the Great River, in CT’s first town.  Hard to find a down side.

The only down side might be the occasional stopping of cars out front to admire the hand carved broken scroll pediment doorway and doors featured prominently in many books, magazines and publications as the premier example of its type in all of New England.

This house had an earlier start than its noted date of 1757, but its renovation and enlargement to a two chimney grand style, certainly did it no harm.  Its interior is probably as rich as its exterior suggests, but we’ll have to wait for those realtor’s pics, or be still my heart – an open house – for more elaboration on that.  I know it’s a gem.  Even if it were gutted on the inside, its place in history is rich and secure and sealed forever in time by the most magnificent 18th century doorway on the planet.

Feast your eyes on this:

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Third Sister

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I have been researching the American Picturesque movement of the 19th century and its reason for being.  Gothic Revival, Carpenter Gothic – known by many names – highly popular movement away from our classical roots in the antebellum days of the 19th century – strongly influenced by the collaboration of noted architect Alexander Jackson Davis and landscapist Andrew Jackson Downing.  Two men with confusingly similar names, kindred spirits in a romantic time.  I had not been a fan of this architecture, but the more I learn, the more I appreciate it – especially its grace and simplicity when compared to the later chaos of Second Empire and High Victorian Gothic.  The only one of its kind in town, and quite possibly in  Hartford County, designed by AJD.  It really is exquisite in its detail, high ceilings, and dare I mention – I had previously posted this – its two story outhouse! (which is attached by the way, so maybe it should be “in”-house?)

Lovely barn, two and a half acres, history, lovely neighbors, local library and post office, everything a soul could want – on the market for $575K.

more pics & info –

http://www.realtor.com/realestateandhomes-detail/660-Main-St_South-Windsor_CT_06074_M40846-44187

gingerbread

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Okay, I admit it, I like gingerbread, but gingerbread houses, in their many architectural forms from the Victorian type to the cookie and candy type, have never been my cup of tea.  This year, I came around to giving it a try to help contribute to making our local gingerbread festival become the largest in New England.   My first effort ever, so much to learn, thank you internet!  So much figuring, from the best recipe to use for the gingerbread, how much, how thick, how strong, the best royal icing – raw whites vs powdered whites vs meringue powder, what candy to use or make your own, create small paned windows? yikes! pedimented doorways? yikes; roof shingles – wheat thins, necco wafers, cereal – most won’t do for this simple house; what materials for  landscape, animals, snow…..Oh my goodness, really, it’s a full time job – if you wait until the last minute, which I did.  But if you start way before Thanksgiving, so you can take your time and be thoughtful with it, enjoy the process, I’m sure it can be fun.

It’s amazing how quickly the grocery store transforms from a food source into an architectural source for a miniature version of your home.  Your dry goods cupboards become filled with warning signs for the family – do not eat – this is not cereal, these are roof parts; these are not snacks, they are wagon wheels; this is not frosting – it is glue!  Someone did eat half the roof shingles for breakfast and I had to buy more.

Putting the whole thing together is as tiring as building a real house!  Melting candy for windows, measuring your house to scale so the proportions are correct, drawing & cutting it out for a pattern;  mixing the dough, or house walls, roof, chimneys, doors & doorways, etc. then building it, using only edible items, quite a challenge.  Then there’s the landscaping, and story to add.  Something needs to be going on to make it come alive.  But by the time you get to that part – especially when you’re in a hurry – you’re not feeling so alive!

I appreciate all the candy additions to other whimsical houses – hats off to you folks with your amazingly clever buildings & embellishments – but for this simple 17th- 18th century gingerbread house, those just won’t work.   More appropriate accoutrements had to be figured out.  Maybe it’s just me, spending so much time figuring out how to make snowmen without ready made products like marshmallows in a bag, or making a tree with chocolate from scratch, the birds, and a cat – with whiskers!  (that was a fun accidental discovery).

Besides the festive greenery, nothing looks and smells of Christmas more than a gingerbread house – so I just had to share this one – to prove that old houses without all that fancy gingerbread/candy – can still add to the spirit of the season, and look lovely.  Figuring all this stuff out was enormously challenging –  good for the brain.  Soon to be good for the stomach : )

Happy Holidays Everyone!

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old wood and wavy glass

warped doors and slanted floors, crooked walls and drafty sills – what’s not to love about an old house?  There are stories in all of them.  A love story etched into a pane of glass, a revolutionary war registered in a back room closet, a ferry ride long ago remembered on a beam.  All part of what make living in an old house an “experience,” a privilege – and an exercise in patience.  Real wood, real glass, real human hands have imperfectly shaped them for over two hundred years.  Ordinary lives like our own, who loved, lost, worked and prayed, have left a character and integrity lingering in the walls, a warm spirit in the patina.   I do hope the next generation will remain “real” enough to feel it.

I am reminded of these words by Margery Williams, “Velveteen Rabbit” author, about what it is to be “real.”  I do think that she was talking about an old house, and the people who love them.

“Real…doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse.  “You become.  It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

what’s wrong with this picture?

I have a complaint.  What a surprise.  I just don’t understand why some people want to change Paradise.  I suppose if they make it to heaven, they’ll be switching out the pearly gates for low maintenance fiberglass and changing the gardens to plastic!

In my own neighborhood these days some terrible changes have been taking place.  We have a historic district that is cared for by the historic district commission.  Within that district are a few houses built before it was designated historic.  These were not faithful reproductions, but acceptable.  Over the last thirty years, through the building booms, a few rear lots and approved building lots appeared that kept the neighbors and the commission busy and worried.  Builders and newcomers wanted to build and live on our lovely, historic street.  I completely understand wanting to reside in such a picturesque place, and we welcome any sensitive, like minded folk.  Two centuries ago there were many more houses here that were lost during the days of the Depression, it would be great to have them back.  Or let them come to restore some of the homes that have been neglected and need restoration. Come, love this place as we do, help restore, enjoy and protect it.

But that is not what most newcomers have in mind.  Someone please explain to me why these folks don’t understand what it is that drew them here in the first place.  It is right under their noses – wood clapboard houses, small paned windows, brick center chimneys, brownstone steps, split rail fences – how easy is that?  So simple.

These people need a lesson in seeing.  As in art – it’s about seeing.  Everyone should take a drawing or painting class at some point in their lives to learn to see.  It’s amazing how much is missed when you don’t.    In this case, one of the folks who built here, just one house removed from the historic district, saw a beautiful neighborhood but apparently missed every detail that made it special – and built herself an Arizona ranch!  Yes, big windows, stucco walls, flat roof.  Another, fortunately for them but unlucky for us, came in before the district was designated – and built a raised ranch.  Lord help us.  Mother nature cracked its foundation twice as they were building – she was on our side! – but as man is apt to be stubborn – he fixed it.

A more recent newcomer purchased an old timer’s reproduction home, that had weathered nicely over time and had a good stand of old tree growth and lush landscape.  He proceeded to replace the front door with a mission style/modern door, placed plastic domes over his basement windows and moved his electric meter smack in front of the house!  Guess he likes looking at electric meters?  Then proceeded to devastate the picturesque landscape, strafed it, cut down all the old growth trees, opening it up to the surrounding neighbors properties – so it now looks like a bomb hit it.  (and the neighbors wish it had).  He plans to build a ranch house on the lot behind (approved long ago).  Unfortunately, historic district commissions cannot dictate the style of house, only its materials and try to assuage the details.  Now why would someone with these intentions move into such a place?  Why would anyone want to upset their neighbors, destroy a neighborhood, thumb their noses at the past?  It is ironic that the very thing that draws them here, they do not see or understand, and thus proceed to destroy.  The neighborhood is forever changed.

The changes are insidious.  Decorative cornices are removed to make way for low maintenance aluminum.  Wood clapboards removed for low maintenance vinyl.  True divided lite windows replaced with vinyl and snap in grills.  Wood or slate roof shingles replaced with black asphalt.  It goes on.  Even wood split rail fences are being replaced with fiberglass!

I want to live in an old sepia photo taken in 1910.  I want to walk down around the bend on that dirt road that leads to the big crooked house with the well out front and the giant elm spread over it.  I want to live in a house that nature can take back any time and not leave a trace.  I like living in a real world.  It may be less convenient, but not by much.  An extra sweater in winter, a bit more elbow grease in maintenance, a floor that leans this way or that, but overall a much more human experience.  I look out my window, through the wavy glass held together by muntin bars fashioned by a craftsman’s hand, and I see the tree they came from.  I think of the floors it gave us, the paneled walls, the corner cupboard, the kitchen table, the salad bowl.   The bricks for the chimney came from the clay under the ground by the stream.   How can you not be moved by this?

If only the sensitive would move into these peaceful places, I guess we’d have found Paradise.  Perhaps that is not to be, but we must keep trying.  We must educate them.  We need to teach them at an early age, to open their hearts to the past, and open their eyes to see.