old house fancy

Antiques and old house lovers like me always have their eye out for interesting architecture.  Going for a drive somewhere is elevated to a journey of discovery.  Whether it is the excitement of finding something unique in old house design or the satisfaction of coming across one that is well preserved and loved, there’s bound to be something interesting or new.

On a recent visit to Newport, driving around some of its tight streets where houses are knitted together within an inch of each other, I noted how clever the early colonists had to be in expanding their homes for growing families.  The juxtaposition of styles could be quite peculiar.  Considering the bit of land they had to work with, it’s no surprise that some expansions might look a bit odd – like this one:

Newport_charm

Whether old or new, odd as it is, it works for me.  There’s still a charm and fancy to it.  That collision of gable roof into gambrel, old materials and primitive odd chimney, the mix of clapboard and shingle, proud and sturdy window frames, crooked old door – this quirky little corner house, for me, just feels right.  It’s not just the materials – which are certainly key – but the proportion, balance, the weight of it.

Unlike some thoughtless additions done to old houses today, this one was thought out, each detail considered.  Down the street from me there is a late 19th century home that for the past year or so has undergone renovation (I use the term ‘undergone’ as in a patient who’s undergone a terrible surgery).  In original form, it was a simple, graceful, symmetrical little thing, but the new owner needed double the size.  Thankfully most of it went off the back.   All things considered, it could have been worse.  But then, out of the blue, out of necessity to house many vehicles, a garage the size of Mount Vernon arose.  Smack in line with the front of the house and dwarfing it, the three large bays face the road.  Really?  Wouldn’t you want to hide that?  Attach it behind the house if you must, or site it in the back forty, but don’t compete with the house.

There’s so much we can do to wreck the ambiance of a lovely home, to wake you from that dream glimpse into the past – but a major one that is hard to change is to build a garage (a giant one) with many bays of overhead doors and plop it right up front and next to your house.

How quickly this “acceptable” renovation went awry.  The builder/homeowner made a decision for convenience rather than aesthetic.  When a lovely old home lies outside of historic districts, there’s not much we can do.  There are no architectural police.  The old house doesn’t come with directions.

In the old days, their hands were tied, designs were few and fairly typical.  Carpenters tools were limited, their knowledge came from a few books, and there were rules.  They did their best to observe them, and when they stretched them the results were still “quaint.”

Now we have new tools, books and ideas – but no rules.  For old houses, that can only work in the right hands – the hands of those who have studied those old rules and are passionate about them.  Thankfully there are many.  There are experts to consult – for free!  Historians, historic district commissions and preservation groups – local, statewide, nationwide – all want to help.  Even museums to visit.  For any area outside of our own bailiwick, we need to put egos aside, and just ask.  Go on a journey of discovery – and may you find many surprises, fashioned by the “right hands.”

 

 

gingerbread

Gingerbread2012 (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays Everyone!

gingerbread2012 (3)Gingerbread2012 (2)Gingerbread2012

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.

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

lost and found

I found an old coin in our meadow the other day, an 1812 large cent.  We regularly walk this hundred acre meadow with an occasional eye out for an old arrowhead, stone tool or other treasure turned up by the farmer’s plow.  While others have amassed the meadow’s ancient gifts over the years, I have never found anything except a few interesting stones smoothed by wear and springtime flooding.  I’d imagine their use by Indians as tools for shaping or grinding,  with imprints where hardy fingers have held them tightly in their palm.  But in truth, they were probably from the river bottom, washed up by floods.

But this day, in the soil at the edge of the path, there was no mistaking something round and ridged and fashioned by modern man.  It was rusty, dirt covered, had some verdigris, and some weight, and decidedly worth taking home.  I rinsed it under the tap to try to reveal its image, read its date.  Still brown and a bit rusty, I tried a toothpaste scrub.  That part is a real no-no as it turns out.  Just so you know – the only thing to do with an old coin is to rinse it with water and rub it lightly between your fingers – just in case it really does have value.   You don’t want to scratch it with cleansers or remove its aged patina.  Luckily I didn’t use much toothpaste, but it wasn’t worth much anyway.  If you do find an old coin – ask a reputable dealer for advice.

Known as the “classic head” large cent these coins dated between 1808 and 1814 were made from English planchets, minted in Philadelphia, and were based on new designs by the engraver, John Reich.  Left facing Lady Liberty has her hair tied with a fillet inscribed “Liberty.”  She is surrounded by thirteen stars, seven on one side, six on the other, and at the bottom is the date, some dates are large and some are small.  On the reverse is the coin’s value.

While it is probably worth a few more cents now, the value of the coin, like an antique, or an old house, is not monetary, it’s history.  It’s the fun of discovering it, imagining the hands it passed through, and wondering how it got here.  On that note, there’s an interesting story.  A neighbor and longtime resident brought up the subject of how the farmers of yesteryear used to collect and use the “nightsoil” from the city to fertilize their fields.  (Now, if you haven’t heard of nightsoil, well here you go – warning – you might want to depress your “stinky” key as you read :)

She told me that long ago the “waste” would be collected from the city’s outhouses, where cans were used instead of a pit, and the farmers would turn this compost into their fields for fertilizer.  And she pointed out that outhouses were a goldmine for coins, where of course, change would slip and fall out of loose trousers.

So, my initial theory of the farm laborer losing a coin, or anything else, in the soil he was tilling, has been transformed to a much less romantic image.   While I’m glad to have this little treasure, lightly cleaned and scrubbed and added to my “old and found” pile, I will definitely think twice before retrieving any further coins from the farmer’s upturned soil.