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!

Portsmouth, NH

If reading about early architecture and history is not enough, if you yearn to literally walk through its pages – then Portsmouth, New Hampshire is the place for you.  It is a feast for the colonial soul.   Surrounded by original homes of wheelwrights and fishermen, governors and sea captains, you feel as though one might come round the corner at any turn.   Walking along the same paths and alleys as they did, you are immersed in its architecture – four square homes with gabled dormers, pediments scrolled and triangular, elaborately carved doorways with fans and flutes, clapboards held together with rosehead nails and chimneys tall and proud at the center, at the ends, at the four corners.  All stand shoulder to shoulder, to present a village proud of its heritage and dedicated to maintaining it for the future.

Moffatt-Ladd House

Jackson House - Historic New England

Jackson House - front

There is a museum village, open to the public – Strawberry Banke – Portsmouth’s original name given by the first settlers for the wild strawberries they found growing along its banks on the Pisquataqua River.  It is a wonderful place to spend a day on a self guided tour, and meander through early houses in various stages of restoration.  But when you step outside the museum, nothing changes.  The only difference is that the streets are paved and the houses are private.  They look the same, and they all overlook the water.  The day we visited, the tall ships were in port, adding to the ambiance.

Strawberry Banke

Downtown Portsmouth is a short walk away and is also studded with colonial homes mixed with 19th century buildings that have maintained their character and purpose.  There is plenty of shopping for tourists, a variety of restaurants, a square for the public to sit and relax with a coffee, or gelato (my favorite), and maybe listen to a street musician, all in an old world ambiance.

downtown landmarkTobias Lear house

It is said that we should live in the “now” – if that’s true, then Portsmouth is one of those places in which I would be forever delighted to do just that.

A short drive over the bridge to Kittery is pleasant.  Lady Pepperell house is there – it is private, but a feast for the eyes.

Further on to South Berwick, is the author Sarah Orne Jewett’s house.  I am a fan of her “Country of the Pointed Firs” – another story I would love to physically walk in to – and since her stories are based on her own experiences in her Berwick area, you can!  Her house is lovely, and the history interesting, but my favorite of all time is the house featured on the cover of Wendell Garrett’s book, “American Colonial” – Hamilton House.  Both of these houses are owned and operated by Historic New England, and the site manager of these homes was so kind to give us a tour of both!  Standing at the front door of Hamilton House, looking out over the water, is unbelievable.  If one could actually sell one’s soul for this paradise, then all I can say is I’m glad Lucifer didn’t show up to offer it to me at that front door!

Hamilton House - Historic New England

For more views, inside and out, of Hamilton house, click here –

http://www.historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/hamilton-house/photographic-tour

Saturday, June 5th, Historic New England (formerly SPNEA) is opening all 36 of their houses for free.  For only $55/yr per household you can become a member, gain access to all of their properties anytime, and help sustain their invaluable work.  Please support them.

ghost stories

In old houses we invariably see signs of inhabitants who were once there, but we don’t ever expect to see signs that they’re still there.  In our own travels and travails in old houses, in finding abandoned ones, restoring and living in them, I would have to say that our own paranormal experiences have been sparse.  Fascination with ghosts, and ghost hunting (as seen on more television offerings these days) has not diminished, and you’d think that now, in the 21st century, we’d have developed technology to explain it. I’m guessing the debunkers don’t want to ruin the fun, especially when there’s money to be made.

My grandmother was English, came over from the “old country” in the twenties on her honeymoon, and stayed.  Nana loved to tell tales of ghosts, goblins and galoshes.  I say galoshes because one story was of a serial killer named Johnny Galoshes, who roamed a dank, dark London in the dead of night.  Not sure if he ever got caught, or even existed, but it was a scary tale for a seven year old.  She had friends who read tea leaves, and a deck of cards that could tell fortunes.  For a fragile youth, she kept the fortunes light, but as a teenager she scared me with how much she knew about the new boyfriend she hadn’t met – like which obscure eastern European country he was from!

Needless to say, there’s a dark aura around memories of my grandmother, and her old country – which she always wanted me to visit – but I resisted because I believed it to be damp, dangerous, and haunted.

One morning nana was upstairs making the bed when she saw what she thought was my father in a dark robe, or bathrobe, walk down the hallway – toward the dead end of it.  She thought that was odd, because he should be at work.  When she came out to look around, there was no one, no one else was home.  Later that day, she received a letter in the mail, from England, that her brother had died.

Sometimes, I suppose, the ghost comes to you.  But most of the time, they come with the house.  We all have our stories, or know someone who does, of bumps in the night, odd footsteps, and even apparitions.  We don’t talk much about them, usually dismissing them as tall tales.  But what about these otherworldly souls we strive to ignore.  Can we live with them?

In my new life in old houses, I never gave ghosts a thought.  Eyes were on the prizes inside, the architecture, the woodwork, the history.  But I have to say there have been a few that have left me feeling cold, strange.  One house had been abandoned for years, left empty, damp, dark and cold.  Not a sign of life had been left in it – not a chair, a stove, or bit of trash.  Nothing.  There was a hole in the keeping room floor where you looked down into the dirt basement.

Only animals roamed there now.  While we found many abandoned houses, there was something strange about the atmosphere in this one.  It was unwelcoming.  Surrounded by a hundred acres of verdant fields, beautiful uncluttered views from every window, it tempted us to trade in our own treasure for this one.  But the feeling inside the house was inexplicably cold.  The land beckoned, but the house forebode.

While this one was just a bad feeling, another offered “experiences” – a fourteen room farmhouse, with a full basement that included a summer kitchen with a large fireplace and bake ovens.  Its long ell was all to one side – which made it feel like it stretched on forever.  One could get lost in it.  It had been built by a sea captain said one historian.  Another said he’d been hung as a hog thief.

At night, while sitting quietly in the keeping room, my mother in law would hear footsteps on the stair to the second floor above.  Having lived in a few old houses, and loving them and their spirits, she was fine with this.  My husband also heard those footsteps.  I dismissed them.  My own experience was nothing tangible.  I was alone one night in that house, for the first time, and as I lay in bed I was suddenly overcome with extreme anxiety.  I had no idea why.  I was so frightened I had to turn the lights on, and even the television, anything to distract me from the panic.  My husband wasn’t due until long after midnight, and I thought he’d be too late.  I survived, determined never to sleep alone there again.

Years later, after we’d sold that house, we happened to be driving by and thought we’d stop and introduce ourselves to the new owners.  They were delighted to visit, and invited us in for a tour.  They’d changed a few things, but all in all it was a great trip down memory lane, and they enjoyed hearing about the restoration process and our history there.  Just as we were about to leave, the wife shook my hand and before letting go, a bit uncomfortably, asked if we’d ever had any “experiences” there.  When we said yes we had, the flood gates opened.  They were eager to share their stories with someone who’d understand.  They spoke of hearing their son return from a trip – the outside door slammed shut, heard his footsteps across the floor, go up the stairs, his shoes drop one at a time in the bedroom above – then in the morning learn that he hadn’t returned at all.  No one was there.

She spoke of having to sweep up small piles of sand from that bedroom floor every now and then – not knowing where it came from.  And one day while vacuuming in her kitchen, she turned and there it was.  She was face to face with an apparition.  In shock, she just turned back to her vacuuming – what else was one to do?  And it was gone.

This is certainly an extreme case.  But there are many stories like this, and as many homeowners who are comfortable living with them.  I’m not one of them. I think they don’t want to cause harm, and surely they know they could give me a heart attack.

Our plumber was working in an old house one day.  He was in the basement, crouched down and tending to a pipe by the boiler, when someone tapped him on the shoulder.  He got up thinking it was his assistant, but no one was there.  Figuring he was mistaken, he went back to work.  It happened again.  Got up, nothing.  The third time, he realized something was obviously provoking him, and like a man? – he yelled at it.  He said he told whatever it was in a firm tone not to bother him anymore, he had work to do and he’d be out of there soon!  It didn’t bother him again.

A neighbor of ours has a rather large house with a storied history.  A significant architect built the house and a small child died tragically there in the early 1800’s.  Both seem to still be inhabiting the house.  A visitor there, who, as it turns out, was a medium, told them the older gentleman needed help “crossing over” and the little girl liked it there, and played pranks on them, like unscrewing the light bulbs.  The homeowners were often walking into dark rooms and having to tighten the light bulbs.

And on it goes.  So many stories, so many old houses.  Our own is happy and free of spirits, thank goodness!  At least as far as I know after thirty five years.  Perhaps that medium might find one here, but if so, I believe they are happy and leave us alone.

In finding a husband, a wife, a good friend – chemistry and intuition are key. The same goes for old houses.  In your search for the perfect old house to make your home, spend some time in it alone, and if it speaks to you, well, all I can say is – run like hell!

a beautiful day for – sash repair?

Weekends in New England lately have been heaven.  Seventy degrees in springtime draws out man, beast and foliage, and instills in us an urge to burst out of the pall of winter to rejoice, regroup, renew.  For those of us with old homes, it’s the perfect time to address, and renew, whatever havoc Jack Frost and Father Winter have wrought.

On a recent weekend I decided to tackle some of that havoc.  It was a sunny 72 degrees, birds were chirping, bees buzzing – a delightful backdrop to re-nail a clapboard, oil a rusty latch, and get to that kitchen window repair.  The day before, I had tapped a little too heavily on a pane of glass and quickly found myself tapping on air.  The little 6 by 8 inch glass plunked to the ground.  Obviously, it was time for some maintenance.

Old wood windows, with true divided lights and wavy glass, are aesthetically pleasing, but they take a terrific beating in all seasons.   The thin bead of putty that holds the glass in and the weather out, goes in pliable but over time will harden and crack.  If the paint finish is kept up, it will stay in good shape for years. But left untended, like anything made of wood, it will deteriorate, crack and fail.

It was a warm and perfect day to remove a window.  First, all of the impediments had to go – the clutter, the interior storm, the jamb – to get to the 12/8 sash.  The original plan was to replace one pane, repair the putty in the rest, lightly sand and repaint.  What’s that they say about the best laid plans?  Before the robins had chirped thirty three times, I had denied twenty panes of glass, their window glazing.

With just a putty knife and an occasional coaxing with a utility blade, the old putty was scraped out and into a pile beneath my sawhorses.  I cleaned the glass, installed new points where needed, oiled the beds with a mix of linseed and turp, and began to re-glaze.

Now, for some folks, this is where heaven ends (no matter how beautiful the day) and hell begins.  I remember those frustrating days years ago.  Never thought I’d get the knack.  I could roll the worms alright, and press them into the bed just fine.  But running the knife down along the pane to get that perfectly smooth and angled shape, well, it pulled and cracked and frustrated the hell out of me.  Thirty thousand glazed panes later, (we used to make a lot of windows) I had the knack.  And although now many years removed, it all came back, just like riding a bike. The exercise can be relaxing and satisfying to see all those tight little panes framed in soft white, refreshed and ready for paint.

Something that could have been an annoying chore was actually a delight.  Coaxed by the birds and sunshine, it is rewarding to create a little order out of chaos now and then – if only in eight square feet of house.  But it’s a start.  With over twenty more sash to go, I figure it’ll take at least twenty more nice weekends.  Then again, maybe forty, since I won’t want to use them all up on window repair.  Then again, what’s a few more years, and a missing pane of glass now and then?

another find

Just when you think they’ve all been found, moved, rescued, or demolished – there’s another one.  I will concede though, that the best, i.e., the earliest or the most architecturally complete, are, in all likelihood, accounted for by now.  But a few abandoned later ones that retain good frames and some of their interior trim, can still be found.  This old house sits on its acre island cut off from the mainstream by highway on all sides.  It faces a mountain sliced for development, and its backside overlooks the eighteenth hole.   Abandoned for years, it still stands tall and proud, despite vines, tree roots and varmints.  Inside (yes there’s always an opening somewhere) were signs of previous visitors, the kind that walk on two feet and come with crowbars for removing items of interest.  The paneled walls were missing their matching doors, holes were poked in the ceiling in search of good beams, and some beaded sheathing boards were missing from a pantry wall.  Surely they’ll be back for more.

I will never understand how anyone can remove items from a house – especially items that are so integral to it.  The doors are part of the overall panel design of the wall – why would anyone remove them?  Why take the top two boards from a wall of beaded sheathing?  Once that wall is stripped to its natural color, the top two boards will have to be replaced with either new or antique ones – hard to match exactly.  That said, the house still retains some paneling, wainscot, and flooring – which I hope will remain until we, or another, secures the house for restoration or relocation.  Yes, relocation, because,  as you know, there isn’t much interest in a house surrounded by highways and modern development.  It deserves better, akin to the rural setting it once had.

It is a later house than we typically fawn over, but perhaps because of the scarcity now of earlier homes, I’m  appreciating the later even more.  While I might have driven right by in a previous life, today I want to save every old piece of wood.  It takes a hundred years to achieve that wear and color!  You can’t fake it.  The fake stuff – fooling with stains – wears off, especially if it’s on the floor.  There’s nothing like antique flooring with it’s aged color.  And I hate to remove parts of a house – if the house is viable, the floor should remain with it!  This house is probably after 1770, but its charms are enough to want to save it.  I’ll let you know if we do, ultimately, and hope I can one day offer some “after” photos to succeed these “before.”

double door with splayed header

front room panelingpaneled staircasestaircase walltwo roomssecond floor fireplaceold settingold path

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.”

Ct Valley Doorways

It’s one thing to be lucky enough to have a magnificent 18th century pedimented doorway on your home – but another thing altogether, quite amazing really, to have three!    Built in 1698, our home was added onto and “improved” in the mid 18th century by replacing the old diamond leaded casement windows with double hung 12/8’s.  Two doorways were added at the side and trimmed with triangular pediment doorways with carved rosettes, while the front door received the same treatment but without rosettes.  Except for one other home nearby, ours is the only one left in town to display these relics of “an 18th century flowering” along the CT River Valley, as it was called by Amelia Miller in her book on CT River Valley Doorways.

First, I want to share a photo of the entrances on the other house I mentioned.  The craftsmen who created these door surrounds probably also worked on ours.  This particular house has the mother of all scroll pediment doorways.  Besides that prize, there are two triangular pediment doorways at its side.  Here is a photo I took recently of them.  Now, one must genuflect, yes right there in the street, before the scroll pediment with its original double doors and hardware.  You will not find a more exceptional doorway anywhere.  Note the mimicking of the scroll at the pedestal base as well as in the bottom panels of the doors; the elaborately moulded entablature, foliated carvings, dentil mouldings, curve of the scroll, its carved six pointed star.  It is all beyond words.

There were several other houses nearby with triangular pedimented doorways, but they are now lost, as so many were in the early years of the 20th century.  Now, only two remain, testaments to the 18th century craftsmen of the CT River Valley.   A few of these men carved their way through the river valley from Wethersfield, CT to Deerfield, MA hired by the “nouveau riche” of the day, mid 18th century merchants, ministers and entrepreneurs, who could afford these services and wished to display them.  Homes along the river were embellished with scroll, triangular or flat pediment doorways by craftsmen anxious to express their creativity and display their talents, each trying to out-do the other.  There would be some variation in their styles, from the angle of the pediment to the carvings in the capitals.  Surely there was a healthy yet friendly competition, the fruits of which we get to marvel at today.

Triangular pediment with rosettes

Below is a photo of the three doorways of our own house, as found.   Original doors were missing, but thanks to early photos, we would reproduce them.  The two with rosettes are the matching side door surrounds, and the center one is the front.

Most of the original fabric of the entrances were in tact, but along with the sills beneath them, much of their bottom sections were missing.  Traces of the the design remained in outline on the backers, thus enabling us to accurately reproduce and replace them.  Using a strong magnifying glass to closely view the original details in 19th century photos of the house, we were able to make out the design and panel arrangements of the original doors that were in these openings.  Using old boards, that before mentioned ten dollar table saw and a few hand tools, our reproduction doors were fabricated – right there in the front room behind that CT Valley entrance.

Here’s a wonderful photo of a house now gone, that once sat directly across from ours.  It was truly unique with its brick ends, pedimented windows and front door.  Built by Jacob and Abigail’s son, Timothy, by the time this photo was taken it had seen better days.  There is a very nice lady living in the prim, white, four square house her uncle built in its place, after demolishing this one.  I can’t begrudge her for it, or her uncle, as I’m sure it was times like these in which the owners found themselves without the means to maintain it.   But it was certainly a gem.