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!

 

Old House Dilemma

It’s been a while – but I wanted to write about a dilemma that my neighborhood is facing now and that many neighborhoods will be facing in the coming years regarding the preservation of our old homes.

An 18th century house that was in the same family for years and not properly maintained, is in danger of being demolished.   We used to find these houses somewhere in the countryside, some half standing, some collapsed into their cellar holes.  But this one stands proudly in a neighborhood of other historic houses and is a prominent member of a National Historic Register District.

We work hard to maintain our own homes.  How do you politely ask your neighbor to please maintain the integrity of his?   Can you ask – when was the last time you checked your sills?  Can you say – your brownstone foundation is lovely, but it’s caving in a bit here, can you fix it???

No one ever does that.  Then the house goes on the market for a song and someone buys it because they just want to live on Main Street because it has all the charm and character they want.  But then it turns out they don’t want the house after all because it will cost too much to fix to their liking and lifestyle, so they decide to knock it down.  Next thing you know, another plastic spanking new maintenance free, history free, house is in its place.

If everyone did that with the 18th century houses that need work, well, goodbye history, goodbye charm.

And so here we are.  The dilemma.  How do we reach the soul of the new owners, teach them to be sensitive, to feel the wonder and awe that we  have for the character and charm of the old house whose every hand planed board we cherish?  Whose paneling and plaster walls and crooked floors mean more to us than a neighborhood of Toll Brothers homes????  Those homes are FINE for people who want to live in new and shiny, and only want to visit ours!

But our neighborhood is a part of American history.  It is packed with the stories of farmers and furniture makers, merchants and theologians, governors and silversmiths, stories that are kept alive and proudly displayed in the architecture they created, the houses they lived in!   For every house we lose, we lose another essential piece of the history of who we are and how we got here.

So I pose our dilemma to anyone who may read this.  The new owner of the Olcott House, circa 1750 – 1781 – a center chimney colonial with wide pine floors, fireplaces, raised paneling, and a Beverly jog that has a beautifully paneled corner fireplace – has decided that the cost to fix it will be more than the cost to knock it down and build a new one.  They decided it must go.  The brownstone foundation in one corner in the basement is “caving in”, the sills are rotted, interior alterations too many.   Sounds like a typical restoration to me.  If I had examined the house before buying it, I would have weighed these issues before handing over a check.  I would have known what I was in for.  Or I would have walked away and left it for the next guy who wanted this old house, wanted to be a part of its history more than anything.

What do you think?  It is a tough decision, that many neighborhoods will have to tackle.  At some point, is an old house just a total loss and we have to let it go?  Yes, sometimes.  But this one is restorable.   So, if the cost to restore is more than the cost to knock it down and build new – do you think we need let it go?  Feel free to weigh in.  Here’s a link to a Facebook page called Historic Hartford – a wonderful resource – for info, tours, workshops, history – in the Hartford area and all of New England.   Just scroll down to Olcott House – and let us know what you think!

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:

Newport_charm

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

what’s wrong with this picture?

I have a complaint.  What a surprise.  I just don’t understand why some people want to change Paradise.  I suppose if they make it to heaven, they’ll be switching out the pearly gates for low maintenance fiberglass and changing the gardens to plastic!

In my own neighborhood these days some terrible changes have been taking place.  We have a historic district that is cared for by the historic district commission.  Within that district are a few houses built before it was designated historic.  These were not faithful reproductions, but acceptable.  Over the last thirty years, through the building booms, a few rear lots and approved building lots appeared that kept the neighbors and the commission busy and worried.  Builders and newcomers wanted to build and live on our lovely, historic street.  I completely understand wanting to reside in such a picturesque place, and we welcome any sensitive, like minded folk.  Two centuries ago there were many more houses here that were lost during the days of the Depression, it would be great to have them back.  Or let them come to restore some of the homes that have been neglected and need restoration. Come, love this place as we do, help restore, enjoy and protect it.

But that is not what most newcomers have in mind.  Someone please explain to me why these folks don’t understand what it is that drew them here in the first place.  It is right under their noses – wood clapboard houses, small paned windows, brick center chimneys, brownstone steps, split rail fences – how easy is that?  So simple.

These people need a lesson in seeing.  As in art – it’s about seeing.  Everyone should take a drawing or painting class at some point in their lives to learn to see.  It’s amazing how much is missed when you don’t.    In this case, one of the folks who built here, just one house removed from the historic district, saw a beautiful neighborhood but apparently missed every detail that made it special – and built herself an Arizona ranch!  Yes, big windows, stucco walls, flat roof.  Another, fortunately for them but unlucky for us, came in before the district was designated – and built a raised ranch.  Lord help us.  Mother nature cracked its foundation twice as they were building – she was on our side! – but as man is apt to be stubborn – he fixed it.

A more recent newcomer purchased an old timer’s reproduction home, that had weathered nicely over time and had a good stand of old tree growth and lush landscape.  He proceeded to replace the front door with a mission style/modern door, placed plastic domes over his basement windows and moved his electric meter smack in front of the house!  Guess he likes looking at electric meters?  Then proceeded to devastate the picturesque landscape, strafed it, cut down all the old growth trees, opening it up to the surrounding neighbors properties – so it now looks like a bomb hit it.  (and the neighbors wish it had).  He plans to build a ranch house on the lot behind (approved long ago).  Unfortunately, historic district commissions cannot dictate the style of house, only its materials and try to assuage the details.  Now why would someone with these intentions move into such a place?  Why would anyone want to upset their neighbors, destroy a neighborhood, thumb their noses at the past?  It is ironic that the very thing that draws them here, they do not see or understand, and thus proceed to destroy.  The neighborhood is forever changed.

The changes are insidious.  Decorative cornices are removed to make way for low maintenance aluminum.  Wood clapboards removed for low maintenance vinyl.  True divided lite windows replaced with vinyl and snap in grills.  Wood or slate roof shingles replaced with black asphalt.  It goes on.  Even wood split rail fences are being replaced with fiberglass!

I want to live in an old sepia photo taken in 1910.  I want to walk down around the bend on that dirt road that leads to the big crooked house with the well out front and the giant elm spread over it.  I want to live in a house that nature can take back any time and not leave a trace.  I like living in a real world.  It may be less convenient, but not by much.  An extra sweater in winter, a bit more elbow grease in maintenance, a floor that leans this way or that, but overall a much more human experience.  I look out my window, through the wavy glass held together by muntin bars fashioned by a craftsman’s hand, and I see the tree they came from.  I think of the floors it gave us, the paneled walls, the corner cupboard, the kitchen table, the salad bowl.   The bricks for the chimney came from the clay under the ground by the stream.   How can you not be moved by this?

If only the sensitive would move into these peaceful places, I guess we’d have found Paradise.  Perhaps that is not to be, but we must keep trying.  We must educate them.  We need to teach them at an early age, to open their hearts to the past, and open their eyes to see.

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