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!

and good will to men

This is one time of year that we take that old adage to heart – to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.  Homes everywhere this time of year are ablaze with them.  Candlelight shimmers from every window – small paned and large – homes are aglow.  It’s a beautiful sight.  One that not only evokes memories of a special season and holiday, but one that celebrates hope.  Hope, a light that is never quenched. A light that, no matter how weak the embers,  someone will always come along to stoke it back to life.  That is the message of the season, whether you are religious or not.  Christmas was not celebrated in colonial times, but their homes were brightly lit with candles, at all times.  What was once a necessity is now a charm, and a reminder  from the struggles of their past that with  perseverance, kindness and compassion, good will prevail.

During the recession of the 1930’s FDR provided hope for the unemployed with his New Deal.  Through the Works Progress Administration, millions were put to work.  Artists painted murals, engineers built bridges and roadways, architects and draftsmen documented American architecture.

I was looking for a book recently on Georgian architecture and pulled one off my shelf called Great Georgian Houses of America.  Usually I just flip through the pages looking for specific design elements and details, but this day I happened to notice the cover text above the title which read – “Architects’ Emergency Committee.”  What on earth was that?  The Preface explained all, and it was inspiring.  Thank goodness that these men were given this task, to give them a sense of dignity and hope during difficult times, and in return, they rekindled the hope that our most important American architecture would be preserved for the future.

I want to share with you the words that Mr. William Lawrence Bottomley, Editorial Committee Chairman, wrote in his Preface to Volume II of this Dover Publication.

“….The object in publishing these volumes was to give work to draughtsmen thrown out of employment in the recent difficult years and in so doing improving their morale, giving them training in an exact and serious technique and rendering financial aid.  It has been a great pleasure to this committee to see that many of these men joining in this work did so with great enthusiasm and to find that from being in a state of discouragement, with all its attendant ills, new courage, energy and happiness were the result.

This committee has made it a policy to give employment to all men making application irrespective of their experience in this type of drawing.  Many were well qualified and experienced while others needed much coaching.  While this training was valuable to all from the educational and technical points of view it was particularly useful to those whose training had been more on commercial and less on artistic lines.

In brief we wish to report that one hundred and ten different men have been given employment in the period from 1932 to 1937 and that this represents nineteen thousand, two hundred and one work hours during this time.  The first edition of two thousand volumes is almost exhausted and all the funds from these two volumes have been expended on this object without paying any profit or overhead outside of the actual costs of publishing and mailing….”

May we remember these old fashioned values during our own difficult times, and find ways to light candles, instill hope, and help others during this season, and beyond.   May hope, health and good will be with you over the Christmas holiday and throughout the new year.

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.

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.

restoration cont’d

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

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

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

kitchen wall - before

kitchen wall after

kitchen fireplace wall - before

new kitchen fireplace wall - after

front room, early kitchen - before

to be continued….

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.