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.

antique floors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

progress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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