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.

WatsonHouse

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:

Main St 044 - Copy

Third Sister

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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.

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!

October surprise

Deja vu all over again.  After a six month reprieve, it was back.  No one imagined a little snow would cause so much trouble.  We love our trees and hate to see them trimmed, but since it would take years and millions to put power, phone and cable wires underground,  we are going to have to shed some greenery to prevent another hardship like the one Alfred just handed us.  Of course, living in a colonial home – it shouldn’t have been a hardship.  It’s one thing to live in an antique house, and quite another to know how to use it!  There are fireplaces to warm us – just need to keep plenty of kindling, dry logs and matches on hand.  You can cook over them as well – with sturdy iron pots.  As to water, you need a shallow well and a good hand pump.  An outhouse would be nice.  A few chickens, maybe a pig… Let’s face it.  It can be done, but in the 21st century, we’re pretty wired up and dependent on electricity to make everything work.  And there’s the internet, communication, cordless phones, cell phones that need to be charged.  Thank goodness for cars and car chargers, their heat and their radio.  Thank goodness for those CL&P workers who did their darndest, night and day, to get us all hooked up again.  Now everything is back to normal.  Our week without left us with stories to tell, lessons learned, and for a lot of us – a new generator.

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!

two story outhouse?

Can you imagine?   Whoever first suggested it had to have been laughed at.  But as houses grew and trips to the loo got longer, someone did, and got away with it.  Someone actually constructed it, and attached it to the back of this house.

It certainly surprised me, when I walked across the attic floor to a brightly shining little room on the other side, to find a small bare space with three lids – just like the one I had seen on the floor below.

Another three-holer – and they were sized small, medium and large!  It took a few minutes to realize how they pulled this off.  I was curious enough to actually stick my camera down into the dark hole to find out.  The flash lit up the answer beautifully, (however gritty the deed, the photo of which I’ll spare you), but with that I discovered how they did it.

(note the added “step” for the child’s seat)

Long vertical wooden planks (and painted by the way) created a shaft that ran just behind the “facilities” below.  Certainly not as sanitary as second floor toilets today, but just as convenient and better than heading outdoors at two in the morning.

We’ve come a long way since these, but sometimes I wonder – with all the plumbing and water and septic and pollution problems.   There have been some modern “simple” solutions, like the “Clivus Multrum” (I always wanted one – but family said no!).  They are definitely stuck on modern plumbing and our more civilized porcelain potties.

So the closest I can come to emulate the old is to install a lot of wood in the room and a half moon on the door :)

house moving

So often today we find old houses just inches from the road.   Encumbered by wires, telephone poles, trees out of control, so much has changed since the road was tranquil and dirt and the transport a slow and steady horse and buggy.  Now as we speed by in fast cars, we wonder how the homeowner can sleep at night without worry that they’ll be awakened by a crash into their living room.  Somehow these homes have survived, and their owners learned to live with the threat.  But they don’t have to.  When progress has encroached too much into your front yard it just may be time to move away from it – and take your house with you.

In the old days I suppose a team of oxen and a dozen hardy men tackled the task.  These days we have trucks and tractors and bulldozers, steel beams and pneumatic equipment to help a few hardy men.  Here are some photos of the process, in case you might be considering such a move, and want to know a bit of what it takes.  First this house had to be moved in two sections, so they were separated, secured, and weather protected.  The foundation, old stone and dirt, had to be dug away, jackhammered, excavated; the sills, framing and chimney supported; tracking excavated and created to roll the house sections to their new site, which of course had to be dug out for a new basement and foundation, creating a new, usable basement which is every old house owners dream.  Well, most.

It was amazing to watch these professional house movers work.  Their confidence in placing the steel, shimming the fireplace hearths and foundation (which had to be removed without collapsing!), and then moving the sections to their new spot, joining the two and leveling with their pneumatic system.  It was quite a feat, and flawless.

Aside from dealing with where to bury or move all the “potatoes” (giant boulders) the excavator removed from under the ground, the regrading of the site should go well, and the new landscaping will be an improvement.  The homeowners will feel like they moved to a whole new site where the landscape has changed, along with the views from every window.  Meanwhile they got to take their beautifully restored and very original antique house with them.

Enjoy!

getting started

separating sections and securing

main house to be swung around to join ell

placing steel

main house to be swung back and clockwise to join ell

the careful move back

almost there

February

It’s melting!  February is melting.  We stuck it out, through roof collapses, ice dams, wet ceilings, basements, hearths and dripping everywhere.  The sun is shining, for now, and the temps in the forties and fifties have us dreaming of Spring.   Of course, more snow is sure to come, with more frigid temps, but the respite is a welcome change and a reminder of the renewal ahead.  And not a minute too soon.

For those of us who were prepared for the worst – well insulated and weatherproofed, with freshly maintained windows, doors and roofs, all was probably well.  For the procrastinators, or the overwhelmed, like myself, all those repairs that were put off for tomorrow made nuisances of themselves today, and I can’t wait to address them!

The worst culprit was the ice dam.  If the wood shingles at the roof eaves are threadbare, with no overhang to protect the soffit, the ice will melt right behind it all – and woe is us. Water water everywhere.  Or the valley flashing that has a hole in it from the last time you tried to break up the ice there, or the roofing has failed around it, well, goodbye ceiling below.

There is something to be said for petroleum products used somewhere in the antique house.  I hate to admit it but that product called “ice and water” is certainly suited for the winter we just had.  Our wood roof did fine without it for thirty years, but enough is enough.  Thirty years!  Imagine?  A wood roof just starts to look really good after twenty five, ancient, but then the moss takes over and the edges get threadbare, and the rest of the story is a frozen sloppy mess.  Can’t put it off any longer, and we’re first on the list for roofing this Spring.

I must admit the roof held up well under five feet of snow.  There were no flat roofs on old houses, well at least not 17th & 18th century ones.  They were built to shed snow, water, critters, well maybe not critters. The only “critters” that cause a problem are carpenter bees.  They love the crown moulding under the eaves – I can see the holes in the crowns from here.  Again, that crown was replaced thirty years ago, so guess it’s time to replace that when we re-do the roof.  We have pine siding on the house and they don’t drill into that, but they do love the crown.  I see them in Spring, big fat bees high at the eaves, seeking out the best spot to drill into their new home, fending off others who stray into the area they’ve claimed.  As long as they don’t drill their way into our bedroom, I’m fine.  As long as they stay twenty feet away, I’m good.  But one does drill into the screen door by the garden.  Every day I notice the wood dust on the door sill.  Quite a cave he has there, cozy I imagine, convenient for the garden commute.

All else seems to have endured.  Surely, windows will need going over, repairing/replacing putty.  (see previous post on sash repair :)  A sunny Spring day will be perfect for that.  Woodpeckers, I just remembered woodpeckers.  They do love to peck on the house.  Surrounded by trees, they still feel the need to whack their heads against the house!  Hmmm, is that the reason some people put those tacky plastic squirrels on their house?  Never considered they might actually have a purpose.  Well, we just throw open the window and yell.

And of course there’s paint.  The best thing we ever didn’t do.  I can’t imagine having to paint the house every few years.  We left it natural, which works for a 17th century house, and just oil it now and then.  Mostly then – I think the last time was about ten years ago.  I don’t know how this house puts up with us!  I rationalize the neglect as character. It’s starting to look like one of those sepia photos of old houses shot in the 1880’s.  But it’s on the brink.  Looks best on the brink.  But it’s time to oil again, sand and paint trim, re-putty windows, re-fasten clapboards where nails have popped, caulk around windows and doors where needed, fix fences, and rake gardens.  Oh, I like that last one.  We’ve grinned and bore it all winter, with just a few more weeks to go, we’re chomping at the bit to have at it.  Soon we will.

and good will to men

This is one time of year that we take that old adage to heart – to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.  Homes everywhere this time of year are ablaze with them.  Candlelight shimmers from every window – small paned and large – homes are aglow.  It’s a beautiful sight.  One that not only evokes memories of a special season and holiday, but one that celebrates hope.  Hope, a light that is never quenched. A light that, no matter how weak the embers,  someone will always come along to stoke it back to life.  That is the message of the season, whether you are religious or not.  Christmas was not celebrated in colonial times, but their homes were brightly lit with candles, at all times.  What was once a necessity is now a charm, and a reminder  from the struggles of their past that with  perseverance, kindness and compassion, good will prevail.

During the recession of the 1930’s FDR provided hope for the unemployed with his New Deal.  Through the Works Progress Administration, millions were put to work.  Artists painted murals, engineers built bridges and roadways, architects and draftsmen documented American architecture.

I was looking for a book recently on Georgian architecture and pulled one off my shelf called Great Georgian Houses of America.  Usually I just flip through the pages looking for specific design elements and details, but this day I happened to notice the cover text above the title which read – “Architects’ Emergency Committee.”  What on earth was that?  The Preface explained all, and it was inspiring.  Thank goodness that these men were given this task, to give them a sense of dignity and hope during difficult times, and in return, they rekindled the hope that our most important American architecture would be preserved for the future.

I want to share with you the words that Mr. William Lawrence Bottomley, Editorial Committee Chairman, wrote in his Preface to Volume II of this Dover Publication.

“….The object in publishing these volumes was to give work to draughtsmen thrown out of employment in the recent difficult years and in so doing improving their morale, giving them training in an exact and serious technique and rendering financial aid.  It has been a great pleasure to this committee to see that many of these men joining in this work did so with great enthusiasm and to find that from being in a state of discouragement, with all its attendant ills, new courage, energy and happiness were the result.

This committee has made it a policy to give employment to all men making application irrespective of their experience in this type of drawing.  Many were well qualified and experienced while others needed much coaching.  While this training was valuable to all from the educational and technical points of view it was particularly useful to those whose training had been more on commercial and less on artistic lines.

In brief we wish to report that one hundred and ten different men have been given employment in the period from 1932 to 1937 and that this represents nineteen thousand, two hundred and one work hours during this time.  The first edition of two thousand volumes is almost exhausted and all the funds from these two volumes have been expended on this object without paying any profit or overhead outside of the actual costs of publishing and mailing….”

May we remember these old fashioned values during our own difficult times, and find ways to light candles, instill hope, and help others during this season, and beyond.   May hope, health and good will be with you over the Christmas holiday and throughout the new year.

who will be the caretakers?

One chilly New England morning in our drafty 17th century house, our daughter was hurrying around in nylon stocking feet across our splintery wide pine floorboards in search of shoes.  Needless to say, she was not in a good mood when her stockings caught on some protruding rose head nails  “completely ruining her day.”  More than thirty years of living  in this house, maneuvering through the worst of its restoration days, and she still thinks she can walk barefoot across the floors unscathed?  She swore that if we left her the house, the first thing to be replaced would be those ornery floorboards.

And I thought I knew this child?  I actually thought she would be the one who would care the most.  I thanked heaven for that revelation, and now know what to do with our house when we’re done with it.  There will be interviews!  There will be a protective covenant!  There will be photos and pleading and overseers.  I will pay someone to maintain “no trespassing signs” for perpetuity.  I’d rather nature took it back than have some ignorant soul replace the floors with smooth sanded tongue and groove, the windows with insulated ones with snap in grills, vinyl siding, asphalt roofs and aluminum doors.  Our biggest nightmare is to have a future owner disgrace it.  But unless you can leave it to a preservation society with a huge endowment, there are no guarantees.  Ignorance, naiveté, insensitivity, abound.  The only guarantee is that, if possible, future owner be forewarned – I will come back to haunt you.

This brings me to a question that many of us antiques lovers are asking these days – is there enough interest from today’s youth to sustain these old homes for tomorrow?  Everyone under 40 seems to be glued to their blackberries, computer screens, GPS’s and cable TV.  In between they’re fitting in everything from Yoga to Zumba, carting kids to a dozen activities, and trying to earn a living in a recession.  Who has time to care about old houses?  They’re expensive to fix, drafty to heat, and difficult to maintain.  In an age of quick fixes and cheap solutions, ambiance, character and history take a back seat.

It’s a cycle.  These homes have lived through this before.   Many were lost, but this time I think the indignities previously mentioned, like vinyl siding and asphalt, will actually sustain them until that next generation of sensitive, caring folk – enjoying a recurring prosperity – can rediscover and restore them.

Recently I wrote a letter to an editor of an antiques journal, commiserating with his laments on the digital age and lack of youthful interest in all things old.  Here are excerpts:

Hello Mr. Fiske,

…..I was just reading your article about the digital age.  Well done, as usual, and a bit distressing.  Yes, we are surely seeing a great change in technology and culture as we’ve previously known it, and we, as old dogs, will have to learn new tricks.  It’s disconcerting at this stage in our lives, but we were not promised an end to the challenges, just a little help with medicare and living expenses :)

But our hearts still warm at the sight of a banister back chair, or the warm patina of an old dresser.  And yes, there’s nothing like seeing it in person.  Of course, I have to touch it.  I have to reach into the past and connect with its maker.  (Which is why I’m dangerous in museums!)  ….. I have hope that the younger generation will eventually come around, and slow down enough to notice these treasures.  While they’re busy right now trying to carve a life out of a dense job market, and scramble through this awful recession, I believe they will turn their attentions backward again, when they realize that everything of substance is behind them.  The virtual world may be good for certain technical, medical and scientific progress, and a bit of entertainment, but we are still human.  We still long to touch something of quality, something hand crafted with style and grace.  We need to connect with our ancestry, and learn something of our past.

I think, for this new generation, it is not the product, but the packaging.  I believe they would love the product once they were introduced to it.  Their heads are in the stars right now, but their feet are still on the ground.  They live in houses that need furniture for comfort and art for the soul.  With patience, wisdom, and a little savvy, we can engage them in their world…..

….Toward that end I am presently fashioning a program to introduce students to 18th century architecture.  I think they’ll be inspired to see the early house frame and how they can take it down and put it up again with pegs, and how the early craftsmen fashioned their doors, their paneling, their cupboards, and how “green” is not a new concept, but it’s been right here in their own back yard for over two hundred years.  If even only a few are inspired, then we can gain satisfaction in knowing that the job of preservation and the work of caring for our treasures, large and small, will continue to flourish with them….”

We must be active and alert in our struggle to maintain enthusiasm for the treasures of our heritage.  It is not just the work of preservation groups.  We must be personally diligent, patient and persevere.

Now I have to go hug my house, and have a talk with my daughter.