decisions, decisions…

It’s a good idea to dig deeply into the genealogy and history of an antique house before beginning restoration.  Besides what the architecture of the house tells you, the local historical society, the library, and especially the State Library, are wonderful resources for finding information about the age of your house and the families who lived there.  That will be the easy part.  If you find that your house was built in one century, then added onto and embellished in another – what will you do?  We know of a house nearby that, when found, was a lovely example of early 18th century architecture.  When the new homeowners found an extremely large fireplace in the front room and what they thought were remnants of casement windows in the walls, they decided to restore it to the more primitive 17th century.  The casements are beautiful, and the front door, reminiscent of the old Indian door at Deerfield, is very convincing, right down to the wrought iron ring door knocker.  Recently, the town historian’s research found evidence that the house was actually built in 1750.  What do you do with that?   Obviously, they set their time machine too far back, and it would be not only costly, but a shame, to undo.

We almost made a similar mistake.

When Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, ” he wasn’t just a kidding.  The three magnificent CT River Valley doorways that I mentioned are on our house – we actually considered removing.  We were young, had done some prior restoration and renovation, but nothing of the caliber of this 17th century treasure.  We knew it was built in 1698,  appreciated all of the original fabric of the house, both 17th and 18th, and would never have disposed of any of it.  We were simply deciding to which period we should return.  Toward that end, we sought advice.

I had met a couple who were considered experts on early houses.  They lived in a colonial they had personally restored to its original purity – and it had no electricity, plumbing, or other modern conveniences, at least in the main house.  They cooked over an open hearth, ate by candlelight, and even dressed in colonial garb.

In hopes of learning a few things from them directly on 18th century architecture, I signed up for one of the classes they offered, at the local college, on colonial living.  The husband and wife wore their 18th century attire, he, in the tri corner hat, and she, in the layered dress.  While Mister C lectured on the merits of simple living, the use of herbs for “meate or medicine,” and on early customs from sparking benches to bundling, Misses C was busy building some 18th century snacks, and a Christmas punch, with punch.  After Mister showed us how to grate some whole nutmeg into an ancient wassail with an odd tool, I introduced myself as a fellow 17th century home owner, and asked if I might ask him some restoration questions.  Seemed a man wearing a tri corner hat was surely an authority on the subject.

Over a drink of wassail, I told him of our dilemma.  We have a 17th century house, I said, in an 18th century skin.  The early casement windows have been removed, and replaced with 12/12’s and doorways added in the 18th century.  I described them.

Right then and there he should have replied – wayward child, you cannot remove those doorways!  But he didn’t.  He suggested there were merits to keeping certain architectural elements that document the evolution of a house.  Then he agreed that, yes, it was a dilemma, especially when one yearns for the primitive.  If the inside was to return to the 17th century, then would you leave the 18th on the outside?  Would that work?  He empathized.  That surprises now, only because we know more.  Because we’ve dug deeper.  Because we understand the evolution of the house, appreciate the history and craftsmanship, the “flowering” that occurred in the mid 18th century along the CT River Valley.  To have removed that original fabric, something so fine and so rare, so important a piece of American history and architecture, would have been a travesty.

We are not perfect; none of us are, in any field.  It is a goal never attained.  It is the striving toward it, though, that brings wisdom.  Patience and persistence, and endless learning, is key.   In restoration, as in life, we must move very slowly, dig deep and drink large the information needed to achieve the almost perfect.

Alexander Pope, 18th century poet:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain

And drinking largely sobers us again.”

restoration cont’d

Out with the new – in with the old!  Isn’t that every old house lover’s motto?  In our restoration, anything that post-dated 1800 was the first to go.  Then we’d work our way back selectively.  The front room of the house, the original kitchen, the one with the half demolished chimney in a previous post, had newer sheetrock on the walls, new square trim, base, door and window frames, and a later plaster ceiling.  But we knew what lurked behind.  We removed the ceiling to expose the beams, and ripped the sheetrock from the walls to expose the original feather edge boards that lined the three exterior walls.  Isn’t this gorgeous?

I’m talking about the featherboarding!  As to the youthful, energetic woman in the foreground, well, she’s still the same – on the inside! And still loving those overalls.   Don’t you just hate wearing anything you have to worry about getting paint on?  Or cobwebs or sawdust, or chocolate frosting – I digress…

Since I’ve been taking you all down a dusty path, I thought it time for some before and after photos.  At least a sampling to show there was a reward down the road for the years of work.  Here are a few:

kitchen wall - before

kitchen wall after

kitchen fireplace wall - before

new kitchen fireplace wall - after

front room, early kitchen - before

to be continued….

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.

1720 addition

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.”

in the beginning

Well, not the beginning, but rather the start of the restoration of our own house.  I thought I’d share in a series of entries here, some photos and info on the work of it, which also took place at the beginning of time, or so it seems.  We were in our early twenties, and, surprisingly in counting back, it was our fifth house project.  My husband happened upon it one day, and of course, like a magnet, was attracted to its lines, its center chimney, doorways, and the sixth sense that told him it was empty.  Trespass, when it comes to old houses and helping them, is a risk, but a necessity.

After walking around it squinting through windows for a time, he heard the sound of a tractor behind him, and realized he was about to have to explain himself.  The farmer wearing a broad hat and baggy overalls, pulled up right onto the front lawn, turned off the engine, leaned over the wheel of the tractor, and gave him a stern look.

Edward was always charming, smart, and kind.  But in his youth complained that adults didn’t take him seriously because of his long hair and musician look.  His mom would always assure him then that as soon as he spoke, they’d see beyond his looks.  And she was right.

But would it work with an angry farmer?  Edward was passionate, sincere, and believable.  He was truthful.  But this farmer wasn’t buying it, at first.  He didn’t take out a gun, but his huge frame and angry scowl was intimidating.  The farmer just couldn’t believe that anyone might have an interest in this broken down old house that he was planning to let the fire department practice on.  Once finally convinced that this young man might actually be willing to pay cash for the place, the farmer’s ears perked up, his face brightened, and though in disbelief, his interest was peaked.

After much conversation, meetings and dealings, and in spite of the fact that the house looked on the inside like it had already been in a fire – we ended up with that crooked, broken down, dilapidated old place.  The farmer would continually scratch his head, feel guilty about selling it to us, and for years drive over in that tractor with a bushel of squash or cucumbers, homemade sauerkraut, even maple saplings from the meadow – three of which are planted across the front yard.  Offerings of old timbers from fallen tobacco sheds, which we’d use to replace rotted sills, and numerous other gifts of vegetables and Yankee tales, would sustain and entertain us for years.

creating atmosphere – 18th century style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

colonial kitchens

The most important room in a house, is arguably, the kitchen.  Not only to satisfy the building inspector who won’t let us live without one anymore, but to satisfy our own creative appetites.  We want them to be special, ample, with lots of storage and modern conveniences.  Because we love the old, we want them to be traditional and charming, as personal and unique as we are.  The trick today is to incorporate all of the new conventions into the old house.  The early builder could never have foreseen the evolution of the modern appliance!  The ten foot wide hearth, with its iron pots and utensils, and large brick bake oven, was more than ample for the early homeowner’s needs.

Needless to say, the huge old hearth is not for cooking anymore.   We’ve long since forgotten how to cook over the open fire, or how long to keep an arm in the oven to gauge temperature.  We use electricity or gas rather than wood for cooking, and dials rather than arms for setting temperatures.  While they used open shelving, and an occasional cupboard for storage, today we crave lots of cabinetry to house all of our “stuff.”  blueCab

We want a designated cabinet to house the mixer, or an “appliance lift” to make it easy on our backs; a space to hide the coffee maker, or the microwave, behind a custom retractable door; a slide out trash compartment, with bins for separating trash and recyclables; a tray cabinet beside the stove; a drawer with compartments for cutlery and knives; a drawer for spices; shelves that glide out of the cabinet for easy access to pots and pans;  “lazy susans” to take up that wasted space that occurs in corners where two cabinets meet.  Added to all of this is a stove – often in two parts, or three – a cooktop and one or two separate ovens; a refrigerator which is often way too deep; a dishwasher, and sundry other appliances.  All are usually in stainless steel, and all combine to create an enormous challenge in trying to capture the atmosphere of 18th century living!

kitchens_display

That old hearth is a place for reflection now, a place to consider how far we’ve come and how far we want to go.  The new kitchen can be incorporated subtly into the old keeping room, or preferably, in a wing off the house entirely.  It can be designed using all of the same ingredients of the old house –wood floors, perhaps beamed ceilings, crown mouldings, raised panel doors, iron hardware.  Putting them tastefully together, thinking like the early craftsman, copying his craftsmanship, even using some of his tools, helps us to achieve the look that works seamlessly with the original house.

new old Buttery The end result should be a room that will feel, when you walk into it, like a logical continuation of the old, or at the very least, part of the natural evolution of the earlier house.

Henry Francis Dupont said of his design at Winterthur, that no one thing should stand out when you enter a room, essentially, everything should carry its own weight.  That is true about kitchens as well – so good luck with the refrigerator!  And the stove, and the ovens!  Well, we’ve dealt with these for many years.  While they are challenging, they are not impossible.  It is never a perfect solution, but a pretty good one.  We do live in the 21st century after all, another evolution in design, which is not always kind to the 18th century.  We certainly don’t want to use chrome and glass or melamine and formica.  Well, we don’t want a lot of things.

litner_kitchen2 But what we do want are classical designs using the same elements that attracted us to the house in the first place.  The natural elements that keep us grounded, that remind us we are of the earth and want to remain in touch with it.

Clay, wood, plaster, stone, glass, and a few variations on those themes, as close to what is found in original colonial homes, will keep any new room in tune with the old.  Wood cabinets, plaster walls, brick or stone fireplaces and hearths, material selection is of utmost importance, as is the proportion and balance of design.  (I overuse that term, but it is everything!)  We are in a constant struggle between fitting in what the customer wants and what the house will not be overwhelmed by.  We don’t want to walk into the kitchen and have it scream at us –“I am a kitchen, and the most important room in your house!”

Shaker style kitchen cabinetry It should be a pleasant, useful space, whose cabinetry and woodwork do not overwhelm with over-design.  It is easy for a homeowner to be seduced by the array of cabinetry and gadgets on display in a kitchen showroom.  From the simpler Shaker style to European extravagance, a homeowner can be overwhelmed and end up “picking” a style they like right there on the floor, rather than one that works seamlessly within the context of their own home.

We purchase a home because we love its style, and recognize its possibilities.  That’s important to remember, and stick to, when choosing a kitchen design.  Custom design is worth it, to know that the cabinetry will be designed specifically for our working space needs, and fit seamlessly into our style of home.  Nothing will stand out.  The cabinetry and woodwork will feel like it was always there, contributing to, rather than distracting from, the charm of the colonial home.

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.

NewLondonEtc10-09 018

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.

NewLondonEtc10-09 025

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.