Old House Dilemma

It’s been a while – but I wanted to write about a dilemma that my neighborhood is facing now and that many neighborhoods will be facing in the coming years regarding the preservation of our old homes.

An 18th century house that was in the same family for years and not properly maintained, is in danger of being demolished.   We used to find these houses somewhere in the countryside, some half standing, some collapsed into their cellar holes.  But this one stands proudly in a neighborhood of other historic houses and is a prominent member of a National Historic Register District.

We work hard to maintain our own homes.  How do you politely ask your neighbor to please maintain the integrity of his?   Can you ask – when was the last time you checked your sills?  Can you say – your brownstone foundation is lovely, but it’s caving in a bit here, can you fix it???

No one ever does that.  Then the house goes on the market for a song and someone buys it because they just want to live on Main Street because it has all the charm and character they want.  But then it turns out they don’t want the house after all because it will cost too much to fix to their liking and lifestyle, so they decide to knock it down.  Next thing you know, another plastic spanking new maintenance free, history free, house is in its place.

If everyone did that with the 18th century houses that need work, well, goodbye history, goodbye charm.

And so here we are.  The dilemma.  How do we reach the soul of the new owners, teach them to be sensitive, to feel the wonder and awe that we  have for the character and charm of the old house whose every hand planed board we cherish?  Whose paneling and plaster walls and crooked floors mean more to us than a neighborhood of Toll Brothers homes????  Those homes are FINE for people who want to live in new and shiny, and only want to visit ours!

But our neighborhood is a part of American history.  It is packed with the stories of farmers and furniture makers, merchants and theologians, governors and silversmiths, stories that are kept alive and proudly displayed in the architecture they created, the houses they lived in!   For every house we lose, we lose another essential piece of the history of who we are and how we got here.

So I pose our dilemma to anyone who may read this.  The new owner of the Olcott House, circa 1750 – 1781 – a center chimney colonial with wide pine floors, fireplaces, raised paneling, and a Beverly jog that has a beautifully paneled corner fireplace – has decided that the cost to fix it will be more than the cost to knock it down and build a new one.  They decided it must go.  The brownstone foundation in one corner in the basement is “caving in”, the sills are rotted, interior alterations too many.   Sounds like a typical restoration to me.  If I had examined the house before buying it, I would have weighed these issues before handing over a check.  I would have known what I was in for.  Or I would have walked away and left it for the next guy who wanted this old house, wanted to be a part of its history more than anything.

What do you think?  It is a tough decision, that many neighborhoods will have to tackle.  At some point, is an old house just a total loss and we have to let it go?  Yes, sometimes.  But this one is restorable.   So, if the cost to restore is more than the cost to knock it down and build new – do you think we need let it go?  Feel free to weigh in.  Here’s a link to a Facebook page called Historic Hartford – a wonderful resource – for info, tours, workshops, history – in the Hartford area and all of New England.   Just scroll down to Olcott House – and let us know what you think!

when bad things happen to good houses

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Here’s another one with just days to live.  Don’t know exactly how this happened.  Looks like it was loved, and lovingly restored, in the last few decades, yet here we are.  I’m told it is to be dozed to dust in just two weeks’ time.  But that was two weeks ago.  Not sure I want to go back to verify.  If we were younger, hardier, and less cynical than when we began, I would have called, would have pleaded, would have found a way.

But we’re in another age.  One that has a lot more bureaucracy, regulations, and expense.  One that cares more about the future than the past, as it is found in a few pieces of old wood, and wavy glass.

This one’s location is fairly remote, and a field of solar panels will inhabit its back forty for about that many years.  It’s called progress.

I was never a fan of houses built into a hill, where the front looks like a two story farmhouse and the back, like a cape.  The first level is essentially the basement and tends to be damp.  It’s a bit confusing as to which should be the main floor, up or down?   But this particular one retains a charm, at both levels.  The last owners/restorers did a really nice job.  The addition of glass and a door at the side of its basement/modern kitchen, I think, worked really well.  They held the dampness and mold at bay.

These owners gave it good windows, a wood roof, and lovely clapboards.  Inside they insulated, plastered, paneled, designed a charming kitchen, added nice electric sconces.  It was obviously loved.  As to what happened – it’s anybody’s guess.  Since left abandoned, for all to enter, many have, and much has been lost.  Vestiges of what was, fluted corner posts, exposed beams, lovely stone fireplaces, are all that’s left.  The present (corporate) owners have no vested interest in having the house remain, and vandalism is their best excuse for erasing a history they previously pledged to preserve.

Another good old house, its owners and its history, become ghosts of our colonial past.

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New England Doorways

Doorways of Old Main Street

Who doesn’t love a beautiful doorway?  Here are twenty five historic doorways from lovely old Main Street, but they could be from almost any neighborhood in New England.  These entrances are on Connecticut River Valley homes spanning two centuries – 1698 to 1898 – and are available as 12 x 18 posters at only $20 a piece.  I put this together myself – from snapping the photos to learning some 21st century technology in the process – all for the benefit of the South Windsor Historical Society.  It was fun to do, and the end result is a wonderful piece to hang anywhere in your home.  It looks especially charming in a barn wood frame, and makes a great gift for the holidays.  To order a poster, send your check, made out to the South Windsor Historical Society, for $20 plus $5 for shipping, and mail to:

Restoring Home, PO Box 362, East Windsor Hill, CT 06028.

You can also email me at restoringhome [at] gmail [dot] com if you have any questions.

Have a wonderful holiday!

galleting and sneck harling

So sorry to leave you at the “outhouse” for months (last post), but there’s been too much to do and see outdoors these days.  So here are some wonderful pictures of a recent visit to an early stone-ender in Lincoln, Rhode Island – the 1693 Arnold house.  And yes, galleting and sneck harling is real,  and what the Scots call their method of parging the stone end with lime-based mortar.  Some of us will miss seeing the lovely stones, but SPNEA, now Historic New England, decided after much research, that, as in Europe, this was the original treatment to stone ends to protect them from weather.  Here are two examples, one with, and one without, in the same town.  The one without, I believe, is a private residence – and they seem to be doing just fine, without.

Also, because the Arnold house is unfurnished, I was able to take a few interior shots.  Enjoy!

The Village of Wickford – A Rhode Island Gem

Center of Wickford

Rhode Island may be the tiniest state, but it offers some of the grandest treasures.  Not the least of which are its charming seaside villages.  While Newport gains most of the attention for its yachting history and marble mansions, there are many other towns chock full of history to be discovered as well.  Wickford is one of them.  Architecturally, nothing has changed there for over a hundred years.  There are no too-tall buildings, instead they’re simple, charming and on a human scale.  You can window shop your way down Brown Street, buy hand made jewelry, a t-shirt or antiques, and then take a stroll down residential Main.  Here time will slow to a snail’s pace.  You can feel it as you pass within inches of old doorways that have witnessed centuries of change, but haven’t succumbed to it.  It is so quiet on the residential side that you can’t help but wonder if anyone lives there, or if even the same old names might still reside in their original homes – names like Updike, Williams and Smith.

Roger Williams, founder of this Rhode Island colony, was banished from Plymouth in the 1630’s for clashing with their religious ideas.  So he headed west, befriended the Narragansetts along this bay, and set up a trading post with another settler, Richard Smith, in an area a mile north of Wickford, called Cocumscussoc.  He later sold his trading post to Smith, whose landholdings here would expand to a staggering size – nine miles long by three miles wide.   Now, greatly diminished in size but not in historical importance, you can visit this old trading post.  Well, the “newer” version of it, which was rebuilt in 1678 by Smith’s son, after the old one was burned by Indians.  It is now a larger and more elegant house, known as “Smith’s Castle.”  The museum is run by the Cocumscussoc Association.  There is a particular marked grave on the grounds, noting where soldiers fell during the King Philip’s War.  Forty men are buried in that grave.

"Smith's Castle" at Cocumscussoc

Grave marker at Cocumscussoc

In the center of Wickford, is a “new” church, St. Paul’s, built in the 1800’s.  It is called the “new” church because it replaced the “old” one, just a hidden walkway away.  The Old Narragansett Church was built in 1707.  It was established by the “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts” in 1706.  The minister told me that it is the oldest continuously operating church this side of the Mississippi.  Worship services are still held in the summer months.  Gilbert Stuart – our most famous colonial portrait painter, noted for portraits of Washington, including the one on our dollar bill – was baptized here.  On the first Sunday in August every year there is a service called Queen Anne Sunday, where a 1710 Communion service gifted by Queen Anne, and a prayer book of the time, is used.  Familiar names adorn the stones around the grounds.  Many Updikes, heirs to Smith’s Castle, are buried here.

Old Narragansett Church, 1707

Pulpit of the Old Narragansett Church, 1707

Here are some scenes to give you a sense of Wickford’s old world ambiance.  The merchants and residents love of their village is obvious in the well kept facades and lovely landscaped grounds.  Sit, relax on a bench with your morning coffee, or afternoon ice cream, enjoy the sea breezes and song of the gulls, and pretend for a day that you are part of an earlier, simpler time.

House on Main

Main St. Residence

Typical Wickford Doorway

Street Scene

Exploring the lanes

Sweet gambrel with one simple dormer

Love the simplicity of this gambrel, and the single dormer

You can feel time's weight on this one, but carrying it well!

End of Main and Harbor

Harbor at end of Main

Heading back up Main from harbor

Spire of the "new" St. Paul's from alley

This building on Brown St. is for lease – just how does one get into that doorway???

There are several restaurants with waterside dining – but when it’s hot outside, this little diner on Brown St. has the best “clambake” chowder and clam cakes!

There’s a big surprise on the ride out of town – if you’re visiting at the end of July/beginning of August.  Everyone stops to photograph these giant lilies – but you really have to be there!  They are breathtaking in size and beauty.

Giant Water Lilies

Portsmouth, NH

If reading about early architecture and history is not enough, if you yearn to literally walk through its pages – then Portsmouth, New Hampshire is the place for you.  It is a feast for the colonial soul.   Surrounded by original homes of wheelwrights and fishermen, governors and sea captains, you feel as though one might come round the corner at any turn.   Walking along the same paths and alleys as they did, you are immersed in its architecture – four square homes with gabled dormers, pediments scrolled and triangular, elaborately carved doorways with fans and flutes, clapboards held together with rosehead nails and chimneys tall and proud at the center, at the ends, at the four corners.  All stand shoulder to shoulder, to present a village proud of its heritage and dedicated to maintaining it for the future.

Moffatt-Ladd House

Jackson House - Historic New England

Jackson House - front

There is a museum village, open to the public – Strawberry Banke – Portsmouth’s original name given by the first settlers for the wild strawberries they found growing along its banks on the Pisquataqua River.  It is a wonderful place to spend a day on a self guided tour, and meander through early houses in various stages of restoration.  But when you step outside the museum, nothing changes.  The only difference is that the streets are paved and the houses are private.  They look the same, and they all overlook the water.  The day we visited, the tall ships were in port, adding to the ambiance.

Strawberry Banke

Downtown Portsmouth is a short walk away and is also studded with colonial homes mixed with 19th century buildings that have maintained their character and purpose.  There is plenty of shopping for tourists, a variety of restaurants, a square for the public to sit and relax with a coffee, or gelato (my favorite), and maybe listen to a street musician, all in an old world ambiance.

downtown landmarkTobias Lear house

It is said that we should live in the “now” – if that’s true, then Portsmouth is one of those places in which I would be forever delighted to do just that.

A short drive over the bridge to Kittery is pleasant.  Lady Pepperell house is there – it is private, but a feast for the eyes.

Further on to South Berwick, is the author Sarah Orne Jewett’s house.  I am a fan of her “Country of the Pointed Firs” – another story I would love to physically walk in to – and since her stories are based on her own experiences in her Berwick area, you can!  Her house is lovely, and the history interesting, but my favorite of all time is the house featured on the cover of Wendell Garrett’s book, “American Colonial” – Hamilton House.  Both of these houses are owned and operated by Historic New England, and the site manager of these homes was so kind to give us a tour of both!  Standing at the front door of Hamilton House, looking out over the water, is unbelievable.  If one could actually sell one’s soul for this paradise, then all I can say is I’m glad Lucifer didn’t show up to offer it to me at that front door!

Hamilton House - Historic New England

For more views, inside and out, of Hamilton house, click here –

http://www.historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/hamilton-house/photographic-tour

Saturday, June 5th, Historic New England (formerly SPNEA) is opening all 36 of their houses for free.  For only $55/yr per household you can become a member, gain access to all of their properties anytime, and help sustain their invaluable work.  Please support them.

ghost stories

In old houses we invariably see signs of inhabitants who were once there, but we don’t ever expect to see signs that they’re still there.  In our own travels and travails in old houses, in finding abandoned ones, restoring and living in them, I would have to say that our own paranormal experiences have been sparse.  Fascination with ghosts, and ghost hunting (as seen on more television offerings these days) has not diminished, and you’d think that now, in the 21st century, we’d have developed technology to explain it. I’m guessing the debunkers don’t want to ruin the fun, especially when there’s money to be made.

My grandmother was English, came over from the “old country” in the twenties on her honeymoon, and stayed.  Nana loved to tell tales of ghosts, goblins and galoshes.  I say galoshes because one story was of a serial killer named Johnny Galoshes, who roamed a dank, dark London in the dead of night.  Not sure if he ever got caught, or even existed, but it was a scary tale for a seven year old.  She had friends who read tea leaves, and a deck of cards that could tell fortunes.  For a fragile youth, she kept the fortunes light, but as a teenager she scared me with how much she knew about the new boyfriend she hadn’t met – like which obscure eastern European country he was from!

Needless to say, there’s a dark aura around memories of my grandmother, and her old country – which she always wanted me to visit – but I resisted because I believed it to be damp, dangerous, and haunted.

One morning nana was upstairs making the bed when she saw what she thought was my father in a dark robe, or bathrobe, walk down the hallway – toward the dead end of it.  She thought that was odd, because he should be at work.  When she came out to look around, there was no one, no one else was home.  Later that day, she received a letter in the mail, from England, that her brother had died.

Sometimes, I suppose, the ghost comes to you.  But most of the time, they come with the house.  We all have our stories, or know someone who does, of bumps in the night, odd footsteps, and even apparitions.  We don’t talk much about them, usually dismissing them as tall tales.  But what about these otherworldly souls we strive to ignore.  Can we live with them?

In my new life in old houses, I never gave ghosts a thought.  Eyes were on the prizes inside, the architecture, the woodwork, the history.  But I have to say there have been a few that have left me feeling cold, strange.  One house had been abandoned for years, left empty, damp, dark and cold.  Not a sign of life had been left in it – not a chair, a stove, or bit of trash.  Nothing.  There was a hole in the keeping room floor where you looked down into the dirt basement.

Only animals roamed there now.  While we found many abandoned houses, there was something strange about the atmosphere in this one.  It was unwelcoming.  Surrounded by a hundred acres of verdant fields, beautiful uncluttered views from every window, it tempted us to trade in our own treasure for this one.  But the feeling inside the house was inexplicably cold.  The land beckoned, but the house forebode.

While this one was just a bad feeling, another offered “experiences” – a fourteen room farmhouse, with a full basement that included a summer kitchen with a large fireplace and bake ovens.  Its long ell was all to one side – which made it feel like it stretched on forever.  One could get lost in it.  It had been built by a sea captain said one historian.  Another said he’d been hung as a hog thief.

At night, while sitting quietly in the keeping room, my mother in law would hear footsteps on the stair to the second floor above.  Having lived in a few old houses, and loving them and their spirits, she was fine with this.  My husband also heard those footsteps.  I dismissed them.  My own experience was nothing tangible.  I was alone one night in that house, for the first time, and as I lay in bed I was suddenly overcome with extreme anxiety.  I had no idea why.  I was so frightened I had to turn the lights on, and even the television, anything to distract me from the panic.  My husband wasn’t due until long after midnight, and I thought he’d be too late.  I survived, determined never to sleep alone there again.

Years later, after we’d sold that house, we happened to be driving by and thought we’d stop and introduce ourselves to the new owners.  They were delighted to visit, and invited us in for a tour.  They’d changed a few things, but all in all it was a great trip down memory lane, and they enjoyed hearing about the restoration process and our history there.  Just as we were about to leave, the wife shook my hand and before letting go, a bit uncomfortably, asked if we’d ever had any “experiences” there.  When we said yes we had, the flood gates opened.  They were eager to share their stories with someone who’d understand.  They spoke of hearing their son return from a trip – the outside door slammed shut, heard his footsteps across the floor, go up the stairs, his shoes drop one at a time in the bedroom above – then in the morning learn that he hadn’t returned at all.  No one was there.

She spoke of having to sweep up small piles of sand from that bedroom floor every now and then – not knowing where it came from.  And one day while vacuuming in her kitchen, she turned and there it was.  She was face to face with an apparition.  In shock, she just turned back to her vacuuming – what else was one to do?  And it was gone.

This is certainly an extreme case.  But there are many stories like this, and as many homeowners who are comfortable living with them.  I’m not one of them. I think they don’t want to cause harm, and surely they know they could give me a heart attack.

Our plumber was working in an old house one day.  He was in the basement, crouched down and tending to a pipe by the boiler, when someone tapped him on the shoulder.  He got up thinking it was his assistant, but no one was there.  Figuring he was mistaken, he went back to work.  It happened again.  Got up, nothing.  The third time, he realized something was obviously provoking him, and like a man? – he yelled at it.  He said he told whatever it was in a firm tone not to bother him anymore, he had work to do and he’d be out of there soon!  It didn’t bother him again.

A neighbor of ours has a rather large house with a storied history.  A significant architect built the house and a small child died tragically there in the early 1800’s.  Both seem to still be inhabiting the house.  A visitor there, who, as it turns out, was a medium, told them the older gentleman needed help “crossing over” and the little girl liked it there, and played pranks on them, like unscrewing the light bulbs.  The homeowners were often walking into dark rooms and having to tighten the light bulbs.

And on it goes.  So many stories, so many old houses.  Our own is happy and free of spirits, thank goodness!  At least as far as I know after thirty five years.  Perhaps that medium might find one here, but if so, I believe they are happy and leave us alone.

In finding a husband, a wife, a good friend – chemistry and intuition are key. The same goes for old houses.  In your search for the perfect old house to make your home, spend some time in it alone, and if it speaks to you, well, all I can say is – run like hell!