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….

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.

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.