history adventures

Finally, Spring.  Time to ready the garden, clean out the cobwebs and best of all go on an adventure.  A simple, New England style one, in search of country ambiance and colonial architecture.   A pleasant drive on a sunny day, at the ready to detour down forgotten roads – what could be better?  Roads with names like Old County, Horse Hill or, like one in my own town –   Beelzebub.  You’re bound to find a story there – a building, a church, a landscape, to stimulate the senses, tickle the imagination.

On a recent drive to Brooklyn, CT, a place we’ve been so often, we decided to take a road never traveled, and happened upon this.

Old Trinity Church How sweet the lines, how bittersweet the atmosphere.  Old Trinity Church.  Google has provided some history, (there’s way too much about hauntings), but I found there several good reasons to return:  Putnam Farm,  Putnam Elms, The Israel Putnam Monument (and grave) and of course a visit inside these gates.

Happy Spring!




german engineering – circa 1778

My dad was a prisoner of war in WW II.  From his camp, he and fellow American soldiers watched as the Germans tested a new “jet engine” plane.  They laughed that a plane without a prop  would never get off the ground.

Had they seen the engineering in this chest, built circa 1778, with only hand tools and imagination, they might have thought otherwise.


Roentgens' Berlin Secretary


this new england


just when I thought I’d had enough of winter, it takes my breath away.

old house fancy

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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




Happy Holidays Everyone!  In the spirit of the season – I have a few presents to share.  First, a book suggestion, from my all time favorite old house photographer, artist and writer, Samuel Chamberlain.  He did a series of books for Hastings House – all photographic documents of how these homes and rooms looked in earlier days, before we truly began modernizing them.  The black and white/sepia photos have a wonderful atmosphere.  I can just imagine him knocking on doors of strangers with his camera, hoping for a peek inside.   His books are beautiful, and an invaluable resource for the homeowner as well as the restorer.  You’re sure to find one in an antique book shop somewhere.  I found this one on Amazon.

Chamberlain Book

And here’s a link to an article about very early Christmases in New England by one of my favorite editors – New England Antiques Journal’s John Fiske.  It’s an interesting and fun read.


Lastly, you must try this pumpkin pie recipe!  It’s the best I’ve ever tasted.  It’s from an old cookbook I bought at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston many years ago,”The Fine Arts Cookbook I.”   I hope they don’t mind, and I thank Mrs. Curt Gowdy, of the Ladies Committee, for entering the recipe.


Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

1 baked pie shell

1 1/4 cups canned pumpkin (not pumpkin filling)

1/4 tsp salt

1 cup sugar

3 egg yolks

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp ginger

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1 package plain gelatin

1/4 cup ice water

3 egg whites*

1/2 cup sugar

1 pint heavy cream

sugar and flavoring to taste

In a saucepan, mix pumpkin, salt, 1/2 cup sugar, egg yolks and spices, and cook over moderately low heat for 6-7 minutes. /Dissolve gelatin in water. /Stir into hot pumpkin mixture. / Set aside to cool. / Beat egg whites until stiff. / Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until stiff. / Fold into cooled pumpkin mixture and spoon into baked pie shell. / Chill until firm. / To serve, whip cream, adding sugar and flavoring to taste, and pile this on top of pie.

*I first made it years ago with real egg whites and it was delicious.  And obviously – I lived to tell about it.  But because of concerns with raw egg white,  you can substitute meringue or egg white powder.

when bad things happen…cont’d

I couldn’t resist continuing this conversation after coming across a house that has been castrated, bastardized, sterilized, and all but ripped from its roots.  Sorry about the language folks, but just when I think sometimes I’ve had enough, said enough, this happens.  Of course it’s not the only one, but ohmygosh, all I can ask is why???


Why would anyone turn a house built in 1720 into a sterile cookie cutter concoction?  Why make antique walls flat and straight, clean and new, or sand color, character and wear from floors that took two hundred years to achieve?!  Why expose brick where it was never meant to show, and put ugly wood over fireplaces where surely lovely paneling had been?  What is the mindset here?

Are there really not enough buyers out there looking to live in the real thing?  Is the only way to sell an old house these days to open it up, sand the hell out of it and paint it a sterile white?

I call it Nantucket contemporary.  I’ve seen a lot of them, new and old, in magazines, and in person.  Not quite as bad as this one, but definitely made to look like half asylum, half home.

The bright side? At least it’s still standing.  At least the outside covering is still those wonderful weathered shingles, and the proportions of the house are great.  The chimney seems good – but too bad about that metal flue sticking up.  The walkway, the paving, the garage doors, ugh.

Just had to vent.  If nothing else, this is an example of what not to do to an old house.

Maybe someday, some kind soul will save it, again, the right way.

when bad things happen to good houses

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Here’s another one with just days to live.  Don’t know exactly how this happened.  Looks like it was loved, and lovingly restored, in the last few decades, yet here we are.  I’m told it is to be dozed to dust in just two weeks’ time.  But that was two weeks ago.  Not sure I want to go back to verify.  If we were younger, hardier, and less cynical than when we began, I would have called, would have pleaded, would have found a way.

But we’re in another age.  One that has a lot more bureaucracy, regulations, and expense.  One that cares more about the future than the past, as it is found in a few pieces of old wood, and wavy glass.

This one’s location is fairly remote, and a field of solar panels will inhabit its back forty for about that many years.  It’s called progress.

I was never a fan of houses built into a hill, where the front looks like a two story farmhouse and the back, like a cape.  The first level is essentially the basement and tends to be damp.  It’s a bit confusing as to which should be the main floor, up or down?   But this particular one retains a charm, at both levels.  The last owners/restorers did a really nice job.  The addition of glass and a door at the side of its basement/modern kitchen, I think, worked really well.  They held the dampness and mold at bay.

These owners gave it good windows, a wood roof, and lovely clapboards.  Inside they insulated, plastered, paneled, designed a charming kitchen, added nice electric sconces.  It was obviously loved.  As to what happened – it’s anybody’s guess.  Since left abandoned, for all to enter, many have, and much has been lost.  Vestiges of what was, fluted corner posts, exposed beams, lovely stone fireplaces, are all that’s left.  The present (corporate) owners have no vested interest in having the house remain, and vandalism is their best excuse for erasing a history they previously pledged to preserve.

Another good old house, its owners and its history, become ghosts of our colonial past.

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