summer reading

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For old house lovers, and for all who wonder what it’s like to do the dirty work of taking them down, taking them apart, saving and stockpiling their materials, preserving or restoring them  – you’re sure to enjoy this romp through Anne Baker’s life.  This may be her first book, but it reads like her tenth.   This passionate preservationist knows how to weave a tale.   From growing up in her grandmother’s old manse in Warren, RI to the house that “disappeared” overnight, her adventures in saving old structures are broad and captivating.

We met Anne a long time ago while in college.  She introduced herself as “Pete.”  Said her dad always wanted a boy.  We were up on the porch roof puttying the 2nd floor windows of the 1800’s house we’d bought in our last year of college.  (It had no heat, plumbing, electricity, a pump outside for water, and a bucket in the shed for when nature called)

Pete drove her big black antique car right onto our front lawn.   A petite blonde, with a pony tail, weighing all of about ninety pounds, spilled out of the driver’s side.  She wanted to welcome us to the neighborhood, thank us for fixing up the old place, and invite us to see her own labor of love just down the street.  We were used to people stopping by when we were working on old houses, but not used to meeting anyone who knew much about them, so we thanked her kindly but passed on the invitation.  Initially.

A few weeks later we decided to check out her project.  Needless to say we were stunned.  A whole new world opened up for us, and these neophytes were even further hooked.  She and her husband became valuable advisers in our next steps.   One of our finds was an ancient house nearby with a massive chimney that you could access and walk between the fireplaces via a cubby through the staircase – how exciting!  But it was in a terrible location.  We deliberated whether we could live there – then Anne and her husband Bob suggested we dismantle and move it.  What?!  We hadn’t heard of such a thing.   The rest was history.  We’ve dismantled, relocated and restored many since then.

You can read about her own house project along the banks of the Westport River, and many others, in this book.  What a storied life, what a woman.  Sadly, she passed about a year and a half ago, at the age of 82, still learning, always researching.  Sorely missed, but by example, forever inspiring.  Before there was women’s lib, this determined, confident, adventurous, passionate and independent woman was already doing what she wanted, in a man’s world.

Enjoy!

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.

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

Whitehall

While it’s the architecture that lures us to these houses in the first place, it’s discovering the unique  stories of the original builders that enliven the experience.  From heiress to sea captain, revolutionary soldier to merchant, post rider to pig farmer, all who had a hand in the birth and direction of this experiment, make every visit an adventure.  While the home of George Berkeley, 18th century theologian and philosopher, was not  open when we were there, it was still a treat to view the unique architecture outside, and impetus to discover the fascinating history of the man responsible for it.  A man after my own heart, in his love for art, philosophy and architecture.   One of the books in his vast library was by a British architect named Inigo Jones, who had studied the architecture of Palladio in Italy, a style that obviously struck a chord with everyone as it began to be reproduced in England and here in America in the 18th century.  George Berkeley thought it the perfect addition to his little cottage as well.   Only thing is, to achieve this double doorway on his center chimney house with tiny front hall, one door would have to be false.

I love knowing that someone of his substance was willing to sacrifice convenience for the sake of good design.  Good design is everything.  And he was willing to live with the minor annoyance that he would never be able to open the door on the left.   But it was worth it.  I imagine that every time he walked up that pathway his new doorway reminded him of his travels through Europe and the magnificent architecture he had witnessed there.  He must have been excited to bring it here to this new land.  Thank goodness he did.

Whitehall,  what once sat on a hundred acres, now sits on one.   That it exists at all is a miracle.  Divine intervention, perhaps, since its owner was a famous clergyman.  Dean George Berkeley was a minister, teacher, philosopher, one of the leading thinkers of his time, who counted among his friends Alexander Pope and  Jonathan Swift.  He was considered one of the big three 18th century philosophers with Locke and Hume.  His philosophical work Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge made him famous at home and abroad, he entered Newport in 1729 a celebrity.   He was attracted to Newport for its forward thinking and religious freedom.  Here he planned to establish a plantation, a home base, from which he could furnish crops and supplies for the college he planned to establish in Bermuda where the sons of the colonists would be trained to become clergymen.   The promised funds never materialized, and he would soon return to London, then to his native Ireland where he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne.

His influence in just three short years here, from 1729 to 1731, was grand.  Before he left he donated most of the thousand books he brought with him to Yale, the rest to Harvard.  The divinity school at Yale was named after him.  University of California Berkeley was also named after him, inspired by a line from one of his writings – “Westward the course of empire takes its way…”  He influenced King’s College (Columbia) and Brown University.  He helped found Newport’s Redwood Library and the Literary and Philosophical Society.  He donated his house and land to Yale, the proceeds were to fund scholarships for students studying Greek and Latin.  Now a scholar in residence spends a few weeks a year in the apartment upstairs – amidst the books and spirit of the great mind that once inhabited it – how glorious!

February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

who will be the caretakers?

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Mr. Fiske,

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

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

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

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

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

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

gone fishin’

Well, gone fishin’ for fun historic adventures.  It’s summer!  Great time to visit all the houses listed in Historic New England’s “passport” – especially the ones in shore towns.  I’m anxious to visit Nina Fletcher Little’s in Essex, MA next.  A quick trip to the Massachusetts shore always brings surprises.  The trick is to go with a general destination in mind, and then let yourself be wowed by the great architecture along the way.  The scenery and the people are pretty good too.

It’s been a hot one so far this year, so the sea is a perfect escape.  On a recent trip to check out a sailboat in Gloucester, MA, we visited one of the most interesting houses, I think, ever created – Beauport.  This house sits on a cliff overlooking Gloucester harbor, with views that rival the Mediterranean.  It’s worth a three hour drive just to sit on the grounds!  Even if you don’t get inside – the outside has a story to tell, if not, there’s enough texture, detail and carvings to make one up.  Go, find out the story of how Henry Sleeper created this masterpiece, from its humble family cottage beginnings and turned it into a fun and eclectic trip through interior design history.  I guarantee an adventure!

Here are some photos to whet your appetite, or to just enjoy if you can’t get there yourself – but I urge you to try!