New England Doorways

Doorways of Old Main Street

Who doesn’t love a beautiful doorway?  Here are twenty five historic doorways from lovely old Main Street, but they could be from almost any neighborhood in New England.  These entrances are on Connecticut River Valley homes spanning two centuries – 1698 to 1898 – and are available as 12 x 18 posters at only $20 a piece.  I put this together myself – from snapping the photos to learning some 21st century technology in the process – all for the benefit of the South Windsor Historical Society.  It was fun to do, and the end result is a wonderful piece to hang anywhere in your home.  It looks especially charming in a barn wood frame, and makes a great gift for the holidays.  To order a poster, send your check, made out to the South Windsor Historical Society, for $20 plus $5 for shipping, and mail to:

Restoring Home, PO Box 362, East Windsor Hill, CT 06028.

You can also email me at restoringhome [at] gmail [dot] com if you have any questions.

Have a wonderful holiday!

October surprise

Deja vu all over again.  After a six month reprieve, it was back.  No one imagined a little snow would cause so much trouble.  We love our trees and hate to see them trimmed, but since it would take years and millions to put power, phone and cable wires underground,  we are going to have to shed some greenery to prevent another hardship like the one Alfred just handed us.  Of course, living in a colonial home – it shouldn’t have been a hardship.  It’s one thing to live in an antique house, and quite another to know how to use it!  There are fireplaces to warm us – just need to keep plenty of kindling, dry logs and matches on hand.  You can cook over them as well – with sturdy iron pots.  As to water, you need a shallow well and a good hand pump.  An outhouse would be nice.  A few chickens, maybe a pig… Let’s face it.  It can be done, but in the 21st century, we’re pretty wired up and dependent on electricity to make everything work.  And there’s the internet, communication, cordless phones, cell phones that need to be charged.  Thank goodness for cars and car chargers, their heat and their radio.  Thank goodness for those CL&P workers who did their darndest, night and day, to get us all hooked up again.  Now everything is back to normal.  Our week without left us with stories to tell, lessons learned, and for a lot of us – a new generator.

arizona anyone?

This is some January we’re having.   Usually this month is kind to us, more of an extended Autumn, but this one’s a doozy.   Every year, after twenty inches of snow, I ask myself why we do it, why do we stay? Why don’t we head south, or southwest, say to, Arizona?  Well the obvious answer, besides work, is that there aren’t any New England colonials there.   If those hearty souls – the early settlers – could stand it without plowed driveways and with only fireplaces for warmth, certainly we, with our electricity, central heating, down coats and comforters, can handle it.  Heck, they even had to trudge through snow to use the outhouse…

I have to say, after all the shoveling, the icy paths, and icicles clinging like crystal monster teeth from every eave – I don’t mind it!  I’m enjoying it.  The cool, crisp air is invigorating, the clean white snow creates a picturesque landscape, especially of colonial homes and open spaces.  Red barns and cardinals, picket and split rail fences, saltboxes and farmhouses, against yard high snowfall is the stuff of magazine covers.  Photographers like Ansel Adams  created masterpieces from these environs – but the right stuff had to be there for them.   Streets, farmlands and villages that have preserved their land, their history and architecture are the right stuff.  It’s the stuff that speaks to our inner sense of harmony, peace and balance.

That is why we don’t head south.  I think to embrace and fully enjoy the fruits of Winter’s labor enriches the soul, and makes one feel more deserving of the richness of Spring.  So for now, until the icicles melt, the paths clear, and the river swells from the north’s flood, we’ll persevere, hunker down by the hearth, count our blessings and our progress over these last few hundred years and, of course, keep shoveling – with a smile.

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.

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?

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.

1720 addition

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.”

in the beginning

Well, not the beginning, but rather the start of the restoration of our own house.  I thought I’d share in a series of entries here, some photos and info on the work of it, which also took place at the beginning of time, or so it seems.  We were in our early twenties, and, surprisingly in counting back, it was our fifth house project.  My husband happened upon it one day, and of course, like a magnet, was attracted to its lines, its center chimney, doorways, and the sixth sense that told him it was empty.  Trespass, when it comes to old houses and helping them, is a risk, but a necessity.

After walking around it squinting through windows for a time, he heard the sound of a tractor behind him, and realized he was about to have to explain himself.  The farmer wearing a broad hat and baggy overalls, pulled up right onto the front lawn, turned off the engine, leaned over the wheel of the tractor, and gave him a stern look.

Edward was always charming, smart, and kind.  But in his youth complained that adults didn’t take him seriously because of his long hair and musician look.  His mom would always assure him then that as soon as he spoke, they’d see beyond his looks.  And she was right.

But would it work with an angry farmer?  Edward was passionate, sincere, and believable.  He was truthful.  But this farmer wasn’t buying it, at first.  He didn’t take out a gun, but his huge frame and angry scowl was intimidating.  The farmer just couldn’t believe that anyone might have an interest in this broken down old house that he was planning to let the fire department practice on.  Once finally convinced that this young man might actually be willing to pay cash for the place, the farmer’s ears perked up, his face brightened, and though in disbelief, his interest was peaked.

After much conversation, meetings and dealings, and in spite of the fact that the house looked on the inside like it had already been in a fire – we ended up with that crooked, broken down, dilapidated old place.  The farmer would continually scratch his head, feel guilty about selling it to us, and for years drive over in that tractor with a bushel of squash or cucumbers, homemade sauerkraut, even maple saplings from the meadow – three of which are planted across the front yard.  Offerings of old timbers from fallen tobacco sheds, which we’d use to replace rotted sills, and numerous other gifts of vegetables and Yankee tales, would sustain and entertain us for years.