creating atmosphere – 18th century style

Our eternal goal, the creative essence of all of our work, our reason for getting up every morning – to recreate the atmosphere of 18th century living.  Insane, I know.  But we all have our quirks!  For some it’s the behavior of red ants, or others the nature of black holes.  Like the needle drawn to magnetic north, we are forever drawn to the domestic architecture of early New England, its history, craftsmanship, in all of its glorious detail.

Room by room, the excitement to fulfill that goal – to add all that it takes to create historic ambiance – has never diminished.  Achieving the proportion and balance – from the correct size bead on a door jamb to the right size bevel of a panel, from the hand planed surface to the marks left by the plane, knowing what to leave and what to leave out, make the difference in achieving the atmosphere of a room.  It’s a life lived in and around 18th century architecture, and having a passion for it, that instills this passion and knowledge.

Right now, we are cleaning, prepping and selecting just the right antique boards with just the right marks to put in all the right places to recreate a room we’ll be calling the Buttery.  Old boards skillfully placed horizontally (or vertically) along four walls, shelving milled and fashioned to fit, cabinetry and doors crafted to emulate two hundred year old cupboards, their knobs turned and installed at just the right height.  All will be carefully touched up here and there to cover new milling.  The design on paper is, perhaps, tweaked in the field according to the “feel” of the room, beams across the ceiling, casings at the edges, plaster in the white spaces, antique floors below.  The Buttery will become a space with its own identity, a small cozy nook you won’t want to leave.  Shelves filled with the garden’s bounty, a stone sink to wash the harvest, a window that overlooks the garden, a Dutch door that opens to it, this small space will provide as much for the soul as it will for the table.

Decisions – hundreds of them – go into creating even this tiny space.  From selecting the boards to cleaning and prepping them, deciding their arrangement and use – not all will be usable as they have to match.  You cannot sand them or you’ll lose the patina and the marks.  Yet they have to be milled for use – it must be done carefully with aesthetic decisions made all the way.  Do you keep the knot, which ones?  From species of wood to condition to thickness, some must be planed to match – watch out for nails!  What for counters, what for walls?  Which for the cabinet doors?  Drawers?  Shall we bead the drawer fronts or leave square?  What’s the style of the rest of the room?  What height the counters?  Same all the way around?  Lower under the window?  Can the room hold beams or is the ceiling too tall, or too low?  Oh – there are those awful cans in the ceiling – they have to go!  Shelves at the top?  Or cupboards – how deep?  Oh no – they want space for a microwave?!

Not just anyone can pull all of this together, make it work, or even wants to be bothered.  It’s a laborious task – finding the old wood, selecting, cleaning, prepping, then selecting again for re-use.  Whether working with old or new, it takes an intuitive sense of design, an intimate knowledge of the architecture, and a love for the craftsmanship and detail, to successfully recreate an 18th century space.

So, friends, if you’re wondering why we’re looking a little haggard after all these years – now you know.  Yet, while we may not be granted the years, we certainly harbor the passion, to continue for forty more.  So many homes, so many rooms, so little time!

It’s a welcome challenge, though, capturing time.  Can’t think of a better way to spend it – capturing and recreating for others the atmosphere they long to live in, the incomparable comfort, style and grace of the 18th century.

old houses

Our own interest began a lifetime ago, and our passion for the endless merits of 18th century design has grown exponentially in the past forty years.  Living in, restoring and reproducing the various facets of colonial architecture has served to increase our awe over what these craftsmen were able to accomplish  with so little.  Craftsmen who, armed with apprenticeships and a few tools, carved elaborate doorways, decorative cornices, and intricate fireplace surrounds.  From felling the trees to hand scraping a finish flute, their determination and their skill was boundless.  Guided by architects such as Bulfinch, Benjamin and Latrobe, 18th and 19th century American architecture was shaped by the capable hands of men who had a reverence for their medium and a pride in their craft.

Our passion and our pride have been to emulate these extraordinary men and to promote the growth of the architecture they began.  Toward this end, we turned our own hearts and hands to the design and construction of period authentic 18th century architecture while still in college in the late 1960’s.  After several restorations, in 1973, we purchased what would become our own home, a derelict 17th century house that needed work from the ground up.  Early dreams of a life in art and music were over, and it was time to earn a living in the “real” world.  Armed with a tag sale table saw and a pen knife, in the front room of our old house, we set up a work bench, strapped on a tool belt, and laid out an old four panel door across a pair of saw horses.

latLike doctors performing an autopsy, we carefully deconstructed it to see how it was put together.  Gently, we knocked out the pins, gingerly tugged at the stiles and rails, slipped the raised panels from their sockets, and studied all of the individual parts.  The tenons, the beveled edges of the panels, their sizes, shapes and thickness, the tiny pins, hand carved to be almost square pegs to fit securely into round holes, were all exposed again for the first time in two hundred years.  We inspected the pieces with a quiet respect, felt the hand of their maker on the planed surface, noted the secrets of their edges.   While we felt a certain irreverence for undoing the past, we sensed a silent approval for the mission on which we were about to embark.

Not only had we figured out how to reproduce that door, but we were so moved and exhilarated by the process, we felt that anything was possible.  If we could reproduce a door, we could build paneling.  If we could build paneling, we could build a cupboard.  If we could build a cupboard, we could build a kitchen!  But wait!  Old houses didn’t have kitchens, per se.  We would have to design something that could fit seamlessly into the atmosphere of an old house and not look new.  Those years of art training and music composition were the perfect background for composing the elements of 18th century architecture into working kitchens and bathrooms and additions and libraries that were desperately needed for modern living.  Goethe said, “Architecture is frozen music.”  It would become our lifelong passion to make every room, every kitchen, every “new” old house be just that.