Want to live in Paradise?

SunderlandOlcott

It was John Adams who deemed this stretch of land along the Connecticut River in 1771 Paradise.  “I have spent this morning in riding through paradise,” he wrote in his diary.  “My eyes never beheld so fine a country.  From Bissell’s Tavern, to Hartford Ferry, eight miles, is one continued street, houses all along, and a vast prospect of level country on each hand, the land very rich and husbandry very good.”

The land is still very rich – the meadows with corn, tobacco and squash, and the street with houses that span the evolution of unique and important architecture from the 17th to the 2oth centuries.  There is Wood, a memorial library that offers not only books and story times and gingerbread festivals, but also archives the stories of South Windsor’s people and their times.  Its galleries display art, birds and Indian artifacts, and its people are the kindest, gentlest and friendliest around.  You can buy local produce, meat, eggs, flowers, and more directly from the farmers who live here.  You can walk or ride your bike along this 8-mile stretch of level street.  It is 15 minutes to Hartford, or Bradley Airport.

And that is why, in all our travels over forty years, we have never left.  And why, we had to save the Olcott House for the next traveler who would like to share in this experience.

The house will be for sale at all stages of its restoration, and will be priced accordingly.  It is now at $250K.

Continued restoration will include: sill and foundation work, windows replaced with period true divided light 12/12’s, new chimney stack, new mechanicals, period kitchen,  the original double doors and frame will be reproduced, the coffin door returned and, most likely, new wood siding will be installed.  The interior will be carefully cleaned and repainted.  (The floors will not be sanded!)

If you are, or know of, anyone who longs for an original 18th century home, one that has retained so much of its original fabric – wall paneling, cupboards, wide pine flooring, exceptionally paneled front staircase, a Beverly jog with corner fireplace, and more – call the number above, or email info@sunderlandperiodhomes.com

The house sits on 1.7 acres of land on the meadow and river side of Old Main Street.  The street is the stuff of dreams for history buffs – once a part of Windsor, CT’s first town, there is still much to discover.  If not interested in purchase, come anyway to visit and enjoy our wonderful street, town and Library.

I’ll be happy to give a tour of either!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still peeling away

Here are some pictures of what we have uncovered so far.  We have removed walls that covered original paneling in the keeping room, and removed the layer of bricks that were applied over the surface of the original fireplace.  Of course, the original keeping room fireplace and walls now look like a big mess!  But rest assured, we do know what we are doing.  Cleaned up and restored, all will be well again!

This look had to go!

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before

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after- original brownstone lintel – but hearth is gone :(

It is obvious that this chimney was rebuilt, fooled with, and then some – old bricks were re-used to rebuild the stack.

We peeled away newly framed 2 x 4 and sheetrock walls in the keeping room to reveal original boards beneath – even the door was still in place!

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Keeping room wall, behind it is a staircase to the second floor; to the left is the back of the house.  The door and wall was hidden behind a 2×4 wall with sheetrock over it.  You can see by the green paint that the last time these walls were exposed, they had a kitchen sink and a cupboard applied right over the door!

The wall with the horizontal beaded boards have that awful kitchen window in it – but you can see where two twelve over twelves once sat.  We may remove this wall altogether (between the two posts) and continue the lean-to across the back of the house for a kitchen.  Then this whole space would be ample for a kitchen/dining area or kitchen/family room.

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Horizontal beaded boards are across this exterior wall of the keeping room – you can see the green paint, top right where that cupboard hung over the wall and door. 

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This is the wall to the left of the keeping room fireplace.  The horizontal beaded boards continue into the pantry/borning room.  Can’t wait to clean the paint off!  Where paint has peeled away from the boards you can see the original oxblood red color.

One of the amazing finds in this house is that it has almost all of its original wide pine flooring.  We have peeled away layers (x 10!) to uncover them, but they are mostly in tact.  Some, unfortunately, have been sanded and varnished, but some are untouched and dry as a bone.  How about the colors in this room?!

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white dust – it’s powdery, mildew or something from the underlayment?

and then there’s this amazing paneled wall in here…

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never saw a wall that juts in like this for the fireplace before; and that’s a closet to the left, with featherboarding inside, and some scribbling I can’t quite make out – yet. And, we have the original closet door, and passage door – this one’s a modern replacement

There’s more – but will save for the next post.  I’ll leave you with this – under the front stair (there was a suspicious opening) I found a name written on the stringer – it looks like “Grant” to me – can’t make out the first name (Asa?).  Could be one of the Grants noted for their wonderful CT Valley Doorways.  Have some research to do…

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this is the underside of the front hall stair, going to the 2F; I’ve turned the picture to get a better view of the name on the stringer – if anyone recognizes it – please let me know!

 

Here we go again…

Now that we’ve saved it from the wrecking ball, we’re going to have to fix this old house.  Where to begin?  Just begin, from the ground up.  Pick a room and start stripping everything that doesn’t belong.  We started in the Beverly jog.  What a delightful fireplace, what a great space, just off the keeping room.  Breakfast nook?  Anytime nook.  I am daydreaming ahead!  First we have to pull up the rug, the linoleum under that, debris, etc to get to the floor boards.  The good news – they are all there!  The bad?  They’ll have to come up to see why they’re sagging (extremely) in the middle.  Broken joists?  Disengaged joists?  Rotted sills?  We expect all of it.  No worries as to falling through, the dirt floor is probably just a foot below.  (Now there’s a selling point!)  Doesn’t bother us, we live with that now in three quarters of our house.  But most buyers are not looking for that.  What to do?  We have a plan.

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Beverly Jog, first floor

Oops – we didn’t find that leg under the debris – carpenter’s still working : ) which is why the room now looks like this, floor uncovered and fireplace open:

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Beverly Jog has its brownstone hearth! And work to do at the back wall…

Some before pictures…

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front room wall was firred out all around, and can you believe – a fake beam was added!  they modernized, then tried to make it look like an old house???

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propane heater installed and exhausted right at the front wall of the house!

Oh my.  This room felt small when we first walked in, the windows were deep and newly framed.  Turned out the whole room had been firred out almost a foot to add insulation.  Even the ceiling and floors were firred up and down.  The good news, under the rug, firring strips, linoleum, tongue and groove flooring, more linoleum, etc. we found the original intact wide board flooring!  They even framed over the coffin door area, with door in place.  Terrible door, guess it was better to incorporate it than dispose of it.  Now here’s what it looks like in there stripped.

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Crooked chairrail of course, lower section of wall is canted out – hmmm, rotted sills and posts, you think?  Of course.  But still can’t get over finding the original flooring in tact.  And – the chairrail has grooves on top and the framing has traces of guides for interior window shutters.  How cool is that?  And, we actually have one of them!  And there’s an original cupboard to the right of the fireplace.  Doors are missing of course, and trim, but the dark original color of the wood lining it is preserved under the neon wallpaper.

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Much to do here.  Can’t wait to see the “after” pictures myself!

Some must be thinking we’re a little crazy.  At this point in our lives, I should to – but instead I find that the discovery and possibilities still excite!  Can’t wait to transform this little gem.

Stay tuned…

 

Old house dilemma solved – for now…

The only way to solve it was to buy it.  But it will continue to be for sale – to the person who loves it for its history and its features and doesn’t want to knock it down.  We had to buy it to keep it safe.  The restoration will be a long, slow process as we are otherwise engaged in a very long and time consuming project elsewhere.  But little by little we will peel away the awful things that have happened to it – vinyl siding, home depot windows, layers of neglect.  The chimney will be rebuilt.  Because of its location, this million dollar project will be reclaimed for much less and may need fundraising efforts.  I am thinking of selling bricks.  Perhaps for a small fee one can have their name live forever on a brick in the to-be-rebuilt attic chimney of the Asahel Olcott house.

There will be little or no profit here, at least financially.  This is not an upscale neighborhood.  It is a humble farming community, desirable only to the folks sensitive enough to value the quiet ambiance of this street along the Great River, that brought initially the Dutch and then the folks from Dorchester to settle here, Connecticut’s first town.  The profit is to the street, to the neighbors, and to Connecticut’s rich history.  We are doing this out of respect for Asahel Olcott who responded in 1775 to the Lexington Alarm.  Now we’ve responded to his alarm, to preserve the homes of our ancestors, who not only fought for our freedom, but gave us a rich architectural heritage that sustains us physically, aesthetically and psychologically.  We still wonder at, and learn from, their courage, their efforts, their class.

Will keep you posted on the progress.

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:

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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.”

 

 

out of sight

Micro-switches to turn on lighting can be embedded in the edge of a door casing. Can you see it?  The main thing is there is no ugly light switch on the wall!

Micro-switches to turn on lighting can be embedded in the edge of a door casing. Can you see it?

Ambiance – one of the main reasons we choose to live in an old house.  The wood, the plaster, the history, the feeling that when we walk into a room, we’ve just stepped back in time.  To immerse ourselves in that and forget all that’s happening in the modern world outside our doors and small paned windows, we have to make sure that there are few, or no, traces of that world within.

In restoring or reconstructing an old house, one has to allow as little intrusion or change as possible.  If you let the harbingers of progress, aka the electricians, hvac folks and plumbers, have their way, each competing to have their craft stand prouder than the others, goodbye old house.   It’ll still be there, in the basement, in the attic, behind the walls. But the intimate spaces that you treasure will be marred.

I realize that some change is required, but there are ways to subdue it.  However, the homeowner will have to be pro-active.  They will have to walk softly and carry a big stick with the trades.  Inquire as to the least obtrusive areas to place outlets, switches, heat registers.  Think like a sleuth.  Plan like it matters.  You can’t just let the trades have a go with your rooms!  A plumber, who once arrived ahead of us, went right along and cut a hole in a wide plank floor board to run a pipe.  After our shock and subsequent repair we found another, hidden way.   We once let an electrician, who had been with us a long time, place the electric meter on an old house without our being there.  Turns out he let his apprentice do it without his direction.  We were shocked to find the meter on the front corner of the house!  Who does that?  Someone who cares only to get the job done and move on.  To them, I guess, an electric meter is a beautiful thing?  Of course, we moved it around to a less conspicuous spot on the side of the house.

Plan, persuade, rant and rave if you have to!  To maintain the integrity of these old structures, to witness them as they once were, you always have to take the path of most resistance!  And then you get to enjoy that ambiance, forever.

tiny micro-switch

tiny micro-switch

restoration

Be careful what you wish for, right?  Sometimes we run headlong toward a dream only to crash into reality.  Fortunately, we were young, energized, and eager to tackle the job when it happened.  I couldn’t wait to rip everything out of that house that didn’t belong.  Beaverboard covered beamed ceilings and featherboard walls.  Newer, shallower fireplaces covered deeper ancient ones, wallpaper covered paneling – and black soot covered everything.  There was a huge coal fired cooking stove in almost every room, with the familiar hole cut out of original paneling to vent it.   Floors were bowed, and original boards lost at the first floor – that awful narrow tongue and groove replaced them.  Even those were painted and rotted.  In every room the floors leaned toward their sills, which were obviously termite ridden.  There were three magnificent doorways on the house, but their original doors were missing.  All of the windows were replaced with six over six’s.  They were made larger, which cut into the interior woodwork.

There was no heat or plumbing or electric.  But that wouldn’t deter us.  There were treasures to uncover.  And besides, we had just come from a project where, for a year and a half, we had lived with an outhouse in the woodshed and a pump outside for water.  We could handle this.

With a ten dollar table saw from a neighbor, a few tools and a lot of gumption, the journey began.

Here are some photos I’ve found.  Wish I’d taken more back then – especially with those monster cook stoves – which a local flea market merchant was so kind to take off our hands.  No easy task, moving those behemoths.

One of the first things we had to put in was, of course, a bathroom.  Since our budget didn’t allow for much more than purchasing the house, we would have to do everything.  By hand.  Here is a shot of the back of the house after taking down the later woodshed.  Yes, we’d be going out to the woodshed again, to use the bathroom.  But at least this one would be attached and have running water.  The big hole in the ground was dug by hand, by Edward, with a little help from a friend.  Then he constructed the cinder block foundation, block by mortared block.  No matter how much progress you think you’re making with an old house, sometimes, it seems there are as many steps in reverse.  The more you uncover, the more work you see ahead of you.  Another sill, or rotted post, and everything being connected – another stud to replace, or joist rotted at the end, or girt whose rafters no longer reach…and on it goes.

Thank God for the treasures!  And the youth.  This photo shows the hole covered and deck on, and the exterior wall of the original 1720 two story ell.   A picture’s worth a thousand words – but I’ll probably say them anyway.

The stair at the back of the house was for one of the many “renters” who lived here over the years.  Through the wall sheathing you can see the the back of the original chimney and a bit of the construction of the interior back stair.  My favorite part of the whole house – a narrow two panel door in the paneling leads to this primitive back stair with exposed and whitewashed studs and joists.  As as you wind up the stair, there’s a landing with a built in bookcase which has aged a deep chestnut color.  And on the featherboard wall beside it, there is faded writing, some of which says “war of 1776.” This entire stairwell area is lit by a casement window, boarded up in the photo. Years later, this stair is how our little one would get to her room at night.  Instead of candles as in the 18th century, she used a flashlight.

As I said, one thing leads to another.  Not until you uncover it all, do you see the extent of the work.  Here is the back wall of the lean-to section of the house.  By the way, the original two story section of the house was built in 1698, the two story ell was erected in 1720 (we found writing on the joists) and discovered the timbers were re-used, they came from an earlier house.  And the lean-to, that makes it a saltbox on one side, was put on around 1760.  Meanwhile, we had to remove the entire back wall, replace the girt, re-engage the joists into the new one, replace the sill, and re-stud.

One scary event – this wall was open, with plastic covering it overnight.  We were away – and a tornado came through our neck of the woods that day.  We thought there’d be nothing left – but fortunately it missed us.  I know – it looks like it hit us!

The hole where our future kitchen will be.

Another hole for – guess what?  We would add a small kitchen fireplace here, and a paneled wall.

More interior shots.  We have our work cut out for us.

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Original paneling, with a hole where that darn stove was vented.  To the right of this fireplace is the door to the “secret” stair.

A section of the room that was the original kitchen.  We’ve removed that old beaver board (forerunner to sheetrock) to expose original horizontal featherboards.

And upstairs:

I love this shot.  This is the upstairs front bedroom.  It had been divided into two rooms by this wall which was constructed across it from the fireplace to the window.  They had to slant the wall, as though they’d built it across and then said “oops!”  The original plaster still barely clings to the walls and the whitewashed beams are exposed.  Awesome!

On the left you see the backside of that wall that divided up the room – and the bit of fireplace mantel showing!  Imagine building a wall right into the decorative mantel?!  Note the featherboarding covered with wallpaper – and the gunstock post to the right.  Through the hallway you can see the “apartment” they created in the other front room.  This room also was divided, painted six different colors, and a crude kitchen added.  Here’s an old polaroid I found.

Another room, another stove, another hole.  The room may be pink and green and yellow – but it’s all wood.  Original featherboard doors are still in their places, opening to tiny closet spaces.  The original flooring at the second floor is big and beautiful and wide, and serves as the ceiling of the first floor below.

And all of this, the heaviest, dirtiest work, Edward did alone.  I was working during the day to help buy materials, and food for the project.  Then nights and weekends were my turn.  He was still an aspiring musician/songwriter, and that future hit song was going to pay for the rest of this restoration!  Those were the days.  One of the many travels in pursuit of a music career took us to London – right after we bought the house.  We (and the band) came back with a record deal several months later, well, it was the promise of a deal – with just some fine print to work out.  Two weeks after our return, they called to say they could sign only one act right now – and decided to go with an obscure band from Texas – by the name of ZZ Top.

After two more years, spent in Los Angeles, and some interesting times, we came back with our infant daughter, and resumed the restoration – without the help of that million-dollar hit single.  Instead, LA handed us another “almost.”  While there, the manager spent the advance money, which was to record that single, on a house for himself.  It’s a long story.

Needless to say, this old house business was looking like a worthwhile career.   We began to do this work for others as well.  The rhythm and balance of art and music would serve us well over the years, incorporated into the design and restoration of 18th century architecture.   After all, like Goethe said –  “Architecture is frozen music.”