restoration

Be careful what you wish for, right?  Sometimes we run headlong toward a dream only to crash into reality.  Fortunately, we were young, energized, and eager to tackle the job when it happened.  I couldn’t wait to rip everything out of that house that didn’t belong.  Beaverboard covered beamed ceilings and featherboard walls.  Newer, shallower fireplaces covered deeper ancient ones, wallpaper covered paneling – and black soot covered everything.  There was a huge coal fired cooking stove in almost every room, with the familiar hole cut out of original paneling to vent it.   Floors were bowed, and original boards lost at the first floor – that awful narrow tongue and groove replaced them.  Even those were painted and rotted.  In every room the floors leaned toward their sills, which were obviously termite ridden.  There were three magnificent doorways on the house, but their original doors were missing.  All of the windows were replaced with six over six’s.  They were made larger, which cut into the interior woodwork.

There was no heat or plumbing or electric.  But that wouldn’t deter us.  There were treasures to uncover.  And besides, we had just come from a project where, for a year and a half, we had lived with an outhouse in the woodshed and a pump outside for water.  We could handle this.

With a ten dollar table saw from a neighbor, a few tools and a lot of gumption, the journey began.

Here are some photos I’ve found.  Wish I’d taken more back then – especially with those monster cook stoves – which a local flea market merchant was so kind to take off our hands.  No easy task, moving those behemoths.

One of the first things we had to put in was, of course, a bathroom.  Since our budget didn’t allow for much more than purchasing the house, we would have to do everything.  By hand.  Here is a shot of the back of the house after taking down the later woodshed.  Yes, we’d be going out to the woodshed again, to use the bathroom.  But at least this one would be attached and have running water.  The big hole in the ground was dug by hand, by Edward, with a little help from a friend.  Then he constructed the cinder block foundation, block by mortared block.  No matter how much progress you think you’re making with an old house, sometimes, it seems there are as many steps in reverse.  The more you uncover, the more work you see ahead of you.  Another sill, or rotted post, and everything being connected – another stud to replace, or joist rotted at the end, or girt whose rafters no longer reach…and on it goes.

Thank God for the treasures!  And the youth.  This photo shows the hole covered and deck on, and the exterior wall of the original 1720 two story ell.   A picture’s worth a thousand words – but I’ll probably say them anyway.

The stair at the back of the house was for one of the many “renters” who lived here over the years.  Through the wall sheathing you can see the the back of the original chimney and a bit of the construction of the interior back stair.  My favorite part of the whole house – a narrow two panel door in the paneling leads to this primitive back stair with exposed and whitewashed studs and joists.  As as you wind up the stair, there’s a landing with a built in bookcase which has aged a deep chestnut color.  And on the featherboard wall beside it, there is faded writing, some of which says “war of 1776.” This entire stairwell area is lit by a casement window, boarded up in the photo. Years later, this stair is how our little one would get to her room at night.  Instead of candles as in the 18th century, she used a flashlight.

As I said, one thing leads to another.  Not until you uncover it all, do you see the extent of the work.  Here is the back wall of the lean-to section of the house.  By the way, the original two story section of the house was built in 1698, the two story ell was erected in 1720 (we found writing on the joists) and discovered the timbers were re-used, they came from an earlier house.  And the lean-to, that makes it a saltbox on one side, was put on around 1760.  Meanwhile, we had to remove the entire back wall, replace the girt, re-engage the joists into the new one, replace the sill, and re-stud.

One scary event – this wall was open, with plastic covering it overnight.  We were away – and a tornado came through our neck of the woods that day.  We thought there’d be nothing left – but fortunately it missed us.  I know – it looks like it hit us!

The hole where our future kitchen will be.

Another hole for – guess what?  We would add a small kitchen fireplace here, and a paneled wall.

More interior shots.  We have our work cut out for us.

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Original paneling, with a hole where that darn stove was vented.  To the right of this fireplace is the door to the “secret” stair.

A section of the room that was the original kitchen.  We’ve removed that old beaver board (forerunner to sheetrock) to expose original horizontal featherboards.

And upstairs:

I love this shot.  This is the upstairs front bedroom.  It had been divided into two rooms by this wall which was constructed across it from the fireplace to the window.  They had to slant the wall, as though they’d built it across and then said “oops!”  The original plaster still barely clings to the walls and the whitewashed beams are exposed.  Awesome!

On the left you see the backside of that wall that divided up the room – and the bit of fireplace mantel showing!  Imagine building a wall right into the decorative mantel?!  Note the featherboarding covered with wallpaper – and the gunstock post to the right.  Through the hallway you can see the “apartment” they created in the other front room.  This room also was divided, painted six different colors, and a crude kitchen added.  Here’s an old polaroid I found.

Another room, another stove, another hole.  The room may be pink and green and yellow – but it’s all wood.  Original featherboard doors are still in their places, opening to tiny closet spaces.  The original flooring at the second floor is big and beautiful and wide, and serves as the ceiling of the first floor below.

And all of this, the heaviest, dirtiest work, Edward did alone.  I was working during the day to help buy materials, and food for the project.  Then nights and weekends were my turn.  He was still an aspiring musician/songwriter, and that future hit song was going to pay for the rest of this restoration!  Those were the days.  One of the many travels in pursuit of a music career took us to London – right after we bought the house.  We (and the band) came back with a record deal several months later, well, it was the promise of a deal – with just some fine print to work out.  Two weeks after our return, they called to say they could sign only one act right now – and decided to go with an obscure band from Texas – by the name of ZZ Top.

After two more years, spent in Los Angeles, and some interesting times, we came back with our infant daughter, and resumed the restoration – without the help of that million-dollar hit single.  Instead, LA handed us another “almost.”  While there, the manager spent the advance money, which was to record that single, on a house for himself.  It’s a long story.

Needless to say, this old house business was looking like a worthwhile career.   We began to do this work for others as well.  The rhythm and balance of art and music would serve us well over the years, incorporated into the design and restoration of 18th century architecture.   After all, like Goethe said –  “Architecture is frozen music.”

antique floors

The most extensive amount of woodwork in an original 18th century house lies directly underfoot.  These time worn boards set the tone of every room.  Their mellowed color, ancient widths and rich patina hold history in their very grain.  At first glance we have an intuitive response, and immediate respect, for the hands that shaped them, the years that mellowed them and the history that gave them character.

Original rosehead nails, embedded at the very edges, hold fast to the joists below with a strength forged by a long forgotten blacksmith.  Giant oaks, pitch pines, hemlock and poplar that once stood mighty in the surrounding hills, now lay across miles of New England floors, testaments to the pride and skill of a hardy generation that risked everything to help shape a new world.

Recently, we visited an 18th century home replete with some of the most coveted architectural trim and woodwork of the period.  The tiered brownstone steps led to a main entrance surrounded by a magnificent pedimented doorway.  The four foot wide paneled Dutch door still had its original brass knocker.  The arched fan light above shimmered with wavy glass.  Four fluted columns framed the sidelights between them, and an ornately carved Palladian window towered above it all.

It was hard to get past the front door, with so much to take in.  The outside adornment is usually a pretty good indicator of what lies within.  I could just imagine the trim – paneled staircase, wainscot, moulded cornices and mantels – in their earthen colors, and the flooring, I was certain, would be a glorious pumpkin pine.

The homeowners were excited to share their home.  It was a new acquisition, and they were eager to learn more about the treasures they had.   They wanted to do the right thing – music to our ears.  If only more people would inquire, delve deeper into understanding their old house before taking liberties with it, before changing woodwork, fireplaces, flooring – and even floor plans – on a whim.  Why would anyone buy an old house to gut it?  To change it?  To remove from it all that gave it character and meaning?  That’s a rant for another day.  We were there to consult about several tasks, but most importantly, flooring.

Over the years the boards had shrunk.  In some areas the gaps were as wide as an inch.  In some rooms the boards had been painted, but in most they had just been varnished or covered with shellac.  They wanted to know how to go about refinishing them and what did we think it would cost.  This is the part that is so hard for so many to fathom.   The grunt work, the elbow grease involved in reviving an antique floor.  You cannot bring in the refinishers from your local flooring showroom.  Armed with industrial sanders they can, in one day, or an hour, undo what took three hundred years of time and history to create.

This has to be one of the most heart wrenching scenes – the aftermath of a day of sanding machines gouging across the floors of an antique house.  Three hundred years of original character and patina – lost.

Some people are truly sensitive to preservation.  They appreciate the past and the reasons to preserve it.  Even when they understand that value is maintained by preserving character, integrity, color and finish of original details, sometimes that devil, called convenience and economy, wins in the end.

And that is what would happen here.  We advised, they ignored, and that phenomenal antique house now has a lousy new floor.  The rosehead nails were sunk – a half inch below the surface! – which makes the floor look like it has holes gouged in it everywhere, and instead of a rich antique color to ground and tone the rooms, a light blond finish screams from below.

Henry Francis Dupont, in decorating Winterthur cautioned that, in good design no one thing in a room should stand out.  Newly finished floors stand out.  They overwhelm.  They scream of their loss.  And invariably, the homeowner who has been talked into taking these “convenient” and “economical” measures, regrets it later.

So I urge you, please, to love your old floors, even if they’re covered in stubborn paint or shellac.  Strip them carefully,  by hand, reveal their color, and enjoy their rich history.

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.

New London, CT

There is something about whaling cities.  I grew up in one in Massachusetts.  The sound of the gulls in the early morning as they follow the fisherman into port with his catch, the crisp salt air, cool mist and fog that greets the early riser on his morning walk, before being burned off by the rising sun.  The docks lined with fishing fleets that still embark on distant journeys, carrying on a tradition that no longer includes, thankfully, the “harvesting” of whales.  Wind vanes, the landlubbers compass, shaped like whales, ships and seabirds, direct us from rooftops along cobblestone streets.  Widow’s walks are everywhere atop four square colonials, where we romanticize about the wives and lovers who wept and awaited their sailor’s return.

Everywhere the architecture reminds us of a hard won treasure. Blubber, whale oil and bone were transformed by savvy merchants into marble mansions, grand colonials and bigger, sturdier ships with colorful carved figureheads to guard their way.  The affluence that this now distasteful endeavor created, was immense.  Subject to no taxes, these men were able to build grand houses, cities and towns with their fortunes.  Thank goodness.  Our cities are the better for them.  While we may not have approved of their means, we certainly appreciate their gifts.

If only we could have stopped there.  If only the next generations of rich folk hadn’t felt the need to build grander monuments, skyscrapers of concrete and glass, where they could stand in the clouds to survey their minions.

Of course, I am just a common man, but all the common folk I know are much more comfortable at ground level, with materials they understand, bricks and mortar, posts and clapboards, where they can look into the windows of a shop to select a pastry, or step through a door at street level to greet their friend, postman, or merchant.  This was a time when architecture was on a human scale, user friendly.  If a board cracked, anyone could repair it.  If a glass broke, it was easily replaced.  No one I know knows how to fix a skyscraper.

But I’m off on a tangent again, when I really wanted to tell you more about New London and some fascinating places to visit there.  You can walk down the city streets and read its stories through the architecture.  17th, 18th and 19th centuries are well represented.  So much has changed, but with a keen eye, you can see it, a history that is plain and plentiful along the sidewalks of Bank Street, Thames, and Main, Starr Street and Whaler’s Row.  Gables, porticos, colonnades, distinguishable artifacts of another era.  No matter how many times you visit, there will be more to see and much to learn.

On a recent visit, we wanted to see the Hempsted house again, but it was closed.  So we tried the Shaw Mansion, which houses the New London Historical Society – but that was closed.  Determined to explore New London history, we drove down Bank Street and found something open – the Customs House.

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But first, back to the Hempstead house – a wonderful restoration which every old house lover should visit when it opens again in the summer.  We happened upon it years ago when we’d begun researching for the restoration of our own 17th century house in the early 1970’s.  I remember our surprise at happening upon such an ancient place in what seemed the most unlikely neighborhood.  The corner of Jay and Hempstead Streets, smack in the middle of a city neighborhood, across the street from a school, sat Joshua Hempsted’s 1678 house.  Apparently, it had once enjoyed water views over Bream’s Cove, but that had since been filled in and it now overlooked city streets and houses, very unlike its own.

It was open to the public, and had undergone recent restoration.  I remember a lovely lady of slight frame, silver hair and striking blue eyes, welcoming us at the front door.  It was one of the most ancient houses we had visited at the beginning of our old house journey, and we were completely enamored with its medieval presence.  The diamond leaded glass, the old plaster, the charcoal color of the rived wood siding, we wanted to know it all – who built it, who restored and cared for it, and how they did it.

We learned as much about the lovely docent at the front door as we did about the house.  Kind people with rich histories, who are willing to share them, are often as much a treasure as the house itself.  It’s been years, but I remember that Edward R. Murrow counted among her friends and he’d visited her there.  Her tales were as plentiful as our questions.  She also shared the secret formula to achieving that rich, dark color on the short scarf joined clapboards.  She said that she watched them fill a barrel with creosote, linseed oil and thinner and drop the clapboards in there before nailing them up.  Lucky for us, creosote, which was like a liquid black tar material, now outlawed, was still available at the time, and we couldn’t wait to get home to use it.

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We finally entered, crossed that threshold, and left the 20th century.  Overwhelmed and excited by its presence, we savored every architectural detail, and processed and filed it all into mental inventory.  That house had cemented for us our love of the late 17th to the early 18th century period, and we’d refer continually to the rich inventory of its historical precedents.

An interesting note about Joshua Hempsted, among so many others – he was born in this house in 1687 and is especially noted for the diary he kept from 1711 until his death in 1758.  Besides being a window into society of that time, it is also one of the earliest surviving documents to talk about whaling in Connecticut.  In 1718, he mentions hiring out his whale boat to locals to fish the whales which then populated Long Island Sound.  Imagine!

The house is owned and operated by the CT Landmarks Society, and is open in the summer and for special events throughout the year.  One event, coming up in time for Halloween, is about, what else – ghosts!

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Now, back to the Customs House.  Oh my.  1833 – beyond the period of our usual interest in architecture, but the history is wonderful.  As wonderful as the docents who greeted us inside.  Ruth was kind and apologetic about the temperature which she found frigid – the furnace was on the blink.  Someone was working on it.  I thought, how nice, the full experience of the building in 1833 – no heat.  But it was soon working, and cooking us!

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The front doors, she explained, had been fabricated from planks donated during the restoration of Old Ironsides in the 1830’s.  I had to go back out and touch them!  We’re hardly in the entrance and we’re “entranced” already.

We had just wanted to breeze through without a tour, to take what we could of the architectural elements, but found ourselves lingering at the door listening to the docent who had just finished a tour.  This is the oldest continuously operating customs house in the country as the US Customs service still maintains an office there.  For two people who wanted to rush through, we instead found ourselves spending over an hour in the hallway and one front room!  The docent was so knowledgeable and our questions were endless.  Customs made our government go round back then – there were no taxes – they paid for everything!  How and when and why it worked, how it evolved to become the Coast Guard, was fascinating, but our time there was limited.  My husband reminded me we were burning daylight, there was much else to do and a sailboat to see.  We will be returning soon for a full tour with Bill – a gentle & informative Customs House docent, who is steeped in stories and knows how to tell them.  Having heard my story that the places we had intended to visit were closed, he assured me that the Customs House was open every day except Monday, with tours from 1 to 4.   There was something very comforting in that, knowing that he and Ruth and whoever is responsible for maintaining that building and all its history, would be there to welcome us back, anytime.

Here are some photos of the Customs House, and the plaque in front with facts about its Amistad connection.  I don’t want to give away too much information – you must visit!

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Also, I had noticed a small gambrel a few buildings away, which Bill mentioned that if we look to its left, in the alley, we’ll see that it still retains its old cobblestones.  The poor gambrel has restaurant fans and vents and other cooking artillery and heating paraphernalia sticking out of it.  We wished we had a billion dollars to buy it all up, the whole street, rid it of blight and bring it back to its whaling days!

Let’s all buy lottery tickets just for that purpose.  If we buy a few thousand, and win – heck, we could rebuild a city!

Some photos of Bank Street and the “Antientest Buriall Place” in New London.  It is said that Benedict Arnold stood on the knoll of that burial ground and watched the British burn the city and attack Fort Griswold just across the river in Groton.   Fort Griswold is also worth a visit.  It is a park now, with the remains of this Revolutionary War fort with Civil War additions and an 18th century house where those wounded in the battle were cared for.

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a find

Sometimes you just can’t wrestle that dilapidated old house from the grip of an indifferent owner.  Whether it’s falling down or falling apart – they don’t care.  They may have inherited the property with an eye toward one day tearing it down and building a new one on the same spot.  Or may be considering it as a project for the future, and don’t want to think about it right now.  Sometimes, it’s just that it’s theirs, and it’s none of your business.  There are as many reasons for it as there are arguments among siblings who’ve inherited a house.

Once, we came across a lovely old place in a terrible location, close to a commercial thoroughfare.  It was next door to a gas station, and behind it were the remains of a working farm.  A few weathered barns, in various states of disrepair, struggled to maintain the ambiance of a long forgotten past.  Corn grew and cows grazed in the pasture beyond.  Settings like this attract us, and the abandoned old house is the magnet that draws us in, beckoning us to explore and yes, sometimes, to trespass in the name of preservation.

The front door of this one had been left ajar, and there wasn’t a soul around.  It was an early farmhouse with a steep pitch to its crooked roof, wide center chimney with a few missing bricks, and what looked like original windows with crown glass.  It was now dressed in asbestos siding, and some vinyl storms, but the overall shape still stood proud.

The front door’s raised panels were cracked and weathered, but repairable.  Iron strap hinges were still in place, as well as the arrowhead latch.  It groaned stubbornly across a swollen plywood landing as we swung it open.  We expected to step into the original front porch, with dog leg staircase and doorways to either side.  And that is exactly what we did.  The old staircase twisted steeply to the second floor, displaying its early turned balusters, newel post and simple handrail.  The unpainted treads were shallow and dry, worn thin in the middle from a thousand climbs to the second floor.  The thin whitewashed plaster that lined the stairwell was barely clinging to the lath beneath and was falling in clumps onto the stairs.  The entire wall in front of us was beautifully paneled, with a door to the basement, and a sparking bench between.  Musty and mildewed, cobwebbed and dirty, the entire space was a treasure.

We turned to walk through a doorway to the front room, but stopped in the nick of time.  There were no floors, on either side.  No first floors, no second, and no third!  Wanting to get a better view of the fireplaces, we walked across the joists, carefully, trying not to fall into the basement.  The fireplace walls, at the first and second floors, were paneled, one with a built in cupboard to the right of it.  The summers were cased, there was crown moulding around the perimeter, and wainscoting below.  All the treasures you hoped to find in an early house.  But where was the flooring?  Obviously, someone had been there before us, and had either stolen it, or had made a deal with the owners to buy it.  Surely they would be back for the rest.

While we are known to trespass in abandoned old houses, we have never removed anything from them.  Like the old birdwatcher’s motto – take a few pleasures, leave a few footprints – we have a thorough respect for their dignity, and desire only to examine and evaluate, to find a way to improve their situation, and to keep them whole.

We found the owners – two brothers who lived in town, and visited daily to tend the farm.  It turned out that they had sold the flooring, but were not interested in selling anything more.  We were glad to hear that, as it is always a shame to “part out” a house.  However, as it turned out, they wanted the rest of it to remain because it housed the water pump in the basement. This once proud homestead, replete with 18th century millwork treasures, was now a pump house.  No amount of coaxing could move these old Yankees into giving up the house.  We offered to build a more efficient shelter to cover their pump.  No luck.  We asked if we could purchase the paneling – for safekeeping, in the event that they might change their minds, or at the very least, to keep it from being stolen.  Not interested.  We asked if they might put a lock on the front door to prevent the house from being vandalized.  That was inconvenient.

We drove by once in a while after that, to see how the house was faring.  At each visit we’d notice parts missing, one wall of paneling gone, then another.  Then a hole where the built-in cupboard used to be.  The paneled door to the basement, easily lifted off its pintels, gone.  Paneling and sparking bench, all stolen.  Even the floor joists were missing.  We pleaded with the farmers, but their stubbornness prevailed.

Then the dreaded day came when we drove by only to find charred remains of the treasure that used to be.  I can’t remember how it happened, but didn’t matter, it was gone, another waste.

This wouldn’t be the only story of its kind in our travels.  There were many.  But they weren’t all losses.  Some, thankfully, we would win.

the forgotten

As young college students, some forty years ago, we were on one of our old house adventure drives between southeastern MA, RI and CT.  What used to take two hours to get from college to home now became four or five as we detoured endlessly in our effort to “discover” every old house on our route – to admire, to learn from, and perhaps to find some derelict we could fix.  On this day, we wound our way up some forgotten back road lined with moss covered stone walls, overhung with mature maples.  Their leafy arms arched over the road from both sides, blocked out the sun and created one of those sepia scenes in an old daguerreotype.   There were no homes, no development, just woods.  The kind of place where you feel you’ve stepped into the past, because nothing has changed, it’s as it always was.  We hoped to find an old saltbox, or simple farmhouse or cape at the end.  If someone lived there, maybe they wouldn’t mind our stopping by to admire it.   They might even offer to let us in, to share their “labor of love” as so many called it.

And then we came to the end.  It was a little clearing, overgrown with bushes and vines.  The sun streamed through the trees in a biblical light.   There it stood, directly in front of us, a grand stone chimney, some thirty feet high, fireplaces exposed up to the second floor with no way to reach them.  The bones of the old frame struggled to outline where the house used to be.  The rest of it, from floor joists to ridge pole, had collapsed into the cellar hole.   Girts, purlins, sills, and summers stuck out of the earthen pit like a grand carcass, licked clean by the twin vultures of neglect and time.   Squirrels scrambled along the fallen joists, birds scattered to the top of the chimney, where surely bats slept within.   Saplings sprouted in the damp, dirt basement, weeds and vines emanated from every crack in the foundation stones, and a giant walnut tree spread above, dropping its walnut harvest for the creatures that scampered everywhere.   The scene was bittersweet.  Another piece of history was lost, but in that loss, nature was reclaiming her own.

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forgotten

So many houses have been lost to neglect, in our own back yard, in our own historic neighborhoods.  The only way to view them now is in books or historical archives.  We regret their loss, but we can’t always blame the owner for it.  A neighbor, who had lived through the depression, pointed out to me that during that difficult time people just didn’t have the money to fix up these old places.  Sills rotted, houses leaned, roofs decayed.  What was one to do?

We can only do our best.  Maintenance is an issue with anything made of wood and exposed to weather.  Our early homes need a lot of help, more than new ones, but they’re worth it.  If we keep them oiled and painted, and repair or replace anything cracked or broken on a regular basis, if we care for them, they will last another two hundred years.  But abandoned, there is no hope, unless adventurers like us continue on our prowl to find them in time to save them from the compost heap.

progress?

So many, moving so fast, in the name of progress.  Yet where are we going?  Some of us chasing our tails, some striving for an unknown beyond.  So many take no notice of what surrounds them.  “Architecture is frozen music,” said Goethe.  We need to stop, now and then, and listen.  The notes are carefully crafted around us in small forms – a beading detail on a window frame, a bolection moulding around a fireplace opening, a paneled wall at a chimney breast, wainscoting, raised paneled or plank, with chair rail above, a corner cupboard built in to the corner of the room to house our precious things.   The curve of the shelf, the scallop of the back, the hand forged brass knob – all carefully considered, hand worked and forged with a pride that could carve a country out of a wilderness.

Yet, how ungrateful we have been.   How could we turn a blind eye to what these craftsmen created?  How could we forget the awe of their achievement?

We have strayed far.  Hundreds, thousands, dare I say, millions, of houses have been built since, without even a cursory nod to classical design.  They want to learn nothing from the past, just to rewrite it.  To pick it clean, selectively, according to their likes and dislikes, and mold it together as economically as possible, into one giant monolith.   And most builders cater to this.  They look only forward, never back.  Forward to the profit margin, to the devil with the result.  Thus, we have miles of plastic cities, plastic neighborhoods, plastic homes.  With wide empty spaces in which to lose dreams instead of create them, slippery spaces where nothing can stick, Teflon walls, padded floors, plastic paint.

Where is the pride in that?  Where, the reality?

Our American treasures, large and small, cannot be forsaken.   We cannot leave this work only to Landmarks Societies or Historic District Committees, their budgets and powers are limited.  We each have to do our small part, whether it’s saving, instead of knocking down, or calling in an expert for advice on how to restore, repair, reshape the old doorway, the sagging floor, the crooked windows.  There is help and expertise out there.  But one has to make the call.  One has to care.

How I wish I could have been with Henry James on his travels in 1904!  When the roads were still dirt, travel was horse and cart, and architecture so simple.  Before the advent of asbestos and aluminum siding, insulated windows and asphalt roofs!  When glass was wavy and doorways were made of wood.  When architects like Christopher Wren and Asher Benjamin based their designs on the classical, craftsmen honed their skills with pride, and town folks built their homes, and their lives, on principles.

We can do this again.  We need to slow down, turn our attention to the classical details that have outlasted all fads, to the places that have drawn tourists and students alike for a thousand years, and listen, ever so carefully, to the frozen music.

colonial homes

Obviously, a lot has changed in two hundred years, but American’s love for their colonial history and architecture has remained steadfast. As evidenced by preserved villages such as Sturbridge, Deerfield, Greenfield, Strawberry Banke and Williamsburg, and the hundreds of homes maintained by local historical and landmarks societies, colonial New England architecture is alive and well in the hearts and minds of Americans.

At first glance one notices the well designed façades, hefty proportions, the graceful balance and detail of the New England home.  The carved doorway, small paned windows, and smoke rising from the chimney beckon us to come inside and stay a while.  Henry James in 1904 while traveling through our fair New England, noted in the American Scene, “Look at them…at the fine old liberal scale, and felt symmetry, simple dignity, and solid sincerity of them…”

So why, you wonder, have we strayed?  Why has the countryside been littered with other than perfectly proportioned New England colonials? Where corn and tobacco used to grow, houses have been planted from a seed-book of generic plans that offer up what the builder believes will sell – space, convenience, economy.  Without a care for aesthetic, or for what history has taught us to please the eye and comfort the soul, proportion and balance is thrown out of the too tall pseudo Palladian window with the snap in grills in favor of ease and carefree living.

To say that a lot has changed in the last hundred years, architecturally, is an understatement.  Through the colonial revival period of the 20th century, designing homes was still an art, and adherence to aesthetic principles was still the rule.  The late 20th into the early 21st century has produced an abundance of ruthless architecture, the type that serves up to its buyers everything they could possibly want.   Space, lots of it, high ceilings, large bathrooms with whirlpool tubs, perhaps a slate foyer, and an indoor pool.  The rule became – give them what they want on the inside, and adjust the outside accordingly.  The designer may have done his/her best, given their training, to produce an aesthetically pleasing home, but once left to the interpretation of the builder and homeowner, who are left to select for themselves all of the details they ever dreamed of incorporating into their home – well, the apple ends up falling very far from the tree.  Sometimes it ends up a kumquat!

It reminds me of a story I used to read to my children, about a little bear who draws a picture of his mother at school.  On his way home he shows the picture to his friend, the alligator, who says the mouth is too small.  So he makes it larger.  Then he meets his friend the elephant, who says the nose is too short.  So he makes it longer.  Then he meets the giraffe, who says the neck should be taller, and so on.  You can imagine the picture by the time he gets home.  But of course, his mother loves it!  And, I suppose, from the inside of the house, the homeowner who got everything they ever wanted in their house, will love it too.  But from the outside, it’s probably hard to tell which is the front, the side, or even, which way is up!

This is alright for the fast lane folks, I guess, where a house is just a house, a place to get it done. But some of us want to move slower, savor every moment.  To some of us, it all matters.  We want to envelop ourselves in the hand made, where we can caress the paneling, admire the hand carved mouldings, ponder the past over a grand hearth.  We want to walk across old pine boards, open real wood doors, lift an iron latch.  We long to gaze out of small paned windows with wavy glass.  We yearn to enjoy the simple elegance of the colonial house, grounded in history and constructed by hand.