just when I thought I’d had enough of winter, it takes my breath away.
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:
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.”
Happy Holidays Everyone! In the spirit of the season – I have a few presents to share. First, a book suggestion, from my all time favorite old house photographer, artist and writer, Samuel Chamberlain. He did a series of books for Hastings House – all photographic documents of how these homes and rooms looked in earlier days, before we truly began modernizing them. The black and white/sepia photos have a wonderful atmosphere. I can just imagine him knocking on doors of strangers with his camera, hoping for a peek inside. His books are beautiful, and an invaluable resource for the homeowner as well as the restorer. You’re sure to find one in an antique book shop somewhere. I found this one on Amazon.
And here’s a link to an article about very early Christmases in New England by one of my favorite editors – New England Antiques Journal’s John Fiske. It’s an interesting and fun read.
Lastly, you must try this pumpkin pie recipe! It’s the best I’ve ever tasted. It’s from an old cookbook I bought at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston many years ago,”The Fine Arts Cookbook I.” I hope they don’t mind, and I thank Mrs. Curt Gowdy, of the Ladies Committee, for entering the recipe.
Pumpkin Chiffon Pie
1 baked pie shell
1 1/4 cups canned pumpkin (not pumpkin filling)
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 package plain gelatin
1/4 cup ice water
3 egg whites*
1/2 cup sugar
1 pint heavy cream
sugar and flavoring to taste
In a saucepan, mix pumpkin, salt, 1/2 cup sugar, egg yolks and spices, and cook over moderately low heat for 6-7 minutes. /Dissolve gelatin in water. /Stir into hot pumpkin mixture. / Set aside to cool. / Beat egg whites until stiff. / Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until stiff. / Fold into cooled pumpkin mixture and spoon into baked pie shell. / Chill until firm. / To serve, whip cream, adding sugar and flavoring to taste, and pile this on top of pie.
*I first made it years ago with real egg whites and it was delicious. And obviously – I lived to tell about it. But because of concerns with raw egg white, you can substitute meringue or egg white powder.
I couldn’t resist continuing this conversation after coming across a house that has been castrated, bastardized, sterilized, and all but ripped from its roots. Sorry about the language folks, but just when I think sometimes I’ve had enough, said enough, this happens. Of course it’s not the only one, but ohmygosh, all I can ask is why???
Why would anyone turn a house built in 1720 into a sterile cookie cutter concoction? Why make antique walls flat and straight, clean and new, or sand color, character and wear from floors that took two hundred years to achieve?! Why expose brick where it was never meant to show, and put ugly wood over fireplaces where surely lovely paneling had been? What is the mindset here?
Are there really not enough buyers out there looking to live in the real thing? Is the only way to sell an old house these days to open it up, sand the hell out of it and paint it a sterile white?
I call it Nantucket contemporary. I’ve seen a lot of them, new and old, in magazines, and in person. Not quite as bad as this one, but definitely made to look like half asylum, half home.
The bright side? At least it’s still standing. At least the outside covering is still those wonderful weathered shingles, and the proportions of the house are great. The chimney seems good – but too bad about that metal flue sticking up. The walkway, the paving, the garage doors, ugh.
Just had to vent. If nothing else, this is an example of what not to do to an old house.
Maybe someday, some kind soul will save it, again, the right way.
Here’s another one with just days to live. Don’t know exactly how this happened. Looks like it was loved, and lovingly restored, in the last few decades, yet here we are. I’m told it is to be dozed to dust in just two weeks’ time. But that was two weeks ago. Not sure I want to go back to verify. If we were younger, hardier, and less cynical than when we began, I would have called, would have pleaded, would have found a way.
But we’re in another age. One that has a lot more bureaucracy, regulations, and expense. One that cares more about the future than the past, as it is found in a few pieces of old wood, and wavy glass.
This one’s location is fairly remote, and a field of solar panels will inhabit its back forty for about that many years. It’s called progress.
I was never a fan of houses built into a hill, where the front looks like a two story farmhouse and the back, like a cape. The first level is essentially the basement and tends to be damp. It’s a bit confusing as to which should be the main floor, up or down? But this particular one retains a charm, at both levels. The last owners/restorers did a really nice job. The addition of glass and a door at the side of its basement/modern kitchen, I think, worked really well. They held the dampness and mold at bay.
These owners gave it good windows, a wood roof, and lovely clapboards. Inside they insulated, plastered, paneled, designed a charming kitchen, added nice electric sconces. It was obviously loved. As to what happened – it’s anybody’s guess. Since left abandoned, for all to enter, many have, and much has been lost. Vestiges of what was, fluted corner posts, exposed beams, lovely stone fireplaces, are all that’s left. The present (corporate) owners have no vested interest in having the house remain, and vandalism is their best excuse for erasing a history they previously pledged to preserve.
Another good old house, its owners and its history, become ghosts of our colonial past.
For old house lovers, and for all who wonder what it’s like to do the dirty work of taking them down, taking them apart, saving and stockpiling their materials, preserving or restoring them – you’re sure to enjoy this romp through Anne Baker’s life. This may be her first book, but it reads like her tenth. This passionate preservationist knows how to weave a tale. From growing up in her grandmother’s old manse in Warren, RI to the house that “disappeared” overnight, her adventures in saving old structures are broad and captivating.
We met Anne a long time ago while in college. She introduced herself as “Pete.” Said her dad always wanted a boy. We were up on the porch roof puttying the 2nd floor windows of the 1800’s house we’d bought in our last year of college. (It had no heat, plumbing, electricity, a pump outside for water, and a bucket in the shed for when nature called)
Pete drove her big black antique car right onto our front lawn. A petite blonde, with a pony tail, weighing all of about ninety pounds, spilled out of the driver’s side. She wanted to welcome us to the neighborhood, thank us for fixing up the old place, and invite us to see her own labor of love just down the street. We were used to people stopping by when we were working on old houses, but not used to meeting anyone who knew much about them, so we thanked her kindly but passed on the invitation. Initially.
A few weeks later we decided to check out her project. Needless to say we were stunned. A whole new world opened up for us, and these neophytes were even further hooked. She and her husband became valuable advisers in our next steps. One of our finds was an ancient house nearby with a massive chimney that you could access and walk between the fireplaces via a cubby through the staircase – how exciting! But it was in a terrible location. We deliberated whether we could live there – then Anne and her husband Bob suggested we dismantle and move it. What?! We hadn’t heard of such a thing. The rest was history. We’ve dismantled, relocated and restored many since then.
You can read about her own house project along the banks of the Westport River, and many others, in this book. What a storied life, what a woman. Sadly, she passed about a year and a half ago, at the age of 82, still learning, always researching. Sorely missed, but by example, forever inspiring. Before there was women’s lib, this determined, confident, adventurous, passionate and independent woman was already doing what she wanted, in a man’s world.
Over the years, I’ve pounded rose head nails into old floors, mixed plaster and sloughed it onto walls, burned, scraped, and zip-stripped paint off of antique woodwork, stenciled, wallpapered and painted plaster walls, oiled & urethaned, dug holes in the ground for water, and even once or twice plumbed a copper pipe.
That said, with most of that hands-on work behind me, I now prefer simpler chores. Actually, I prefer reading, gardening, walking, sailing, enjoying the sunshine and outdoors, and of course living in my antique house. But my hands, forever impatient to create, especially something useful, something to clean off the grit and memory of all that labor, now likes to make soap. Good old fashioned, handmade, simple, natural,pure, organic, soap.
In the days of yore, when Abigail was matron of her/our 1698 home, she would have made lye from the wood ashes, and rendered the tallow saved from the animals to make her soap. It would have been soft, brown, and ladled from a bucket. Salt would have made it hard, but was too precious a commodity to waste.
Potash, and the houses and people who collected and sold it, are now long gone. Lye is now readily available, and the tallow, lard and/or oils used to make soap can be purchased at the local grocery store. Curious, as always about how things are made, I tried it and was hooked. But the problem with that is, one kind leads to trying another, and before you know it you have a lot of soap.
So I decided it was time Abigail started the shop I always thought she should have. Thing is, it’s a 21st century shop. Just like the info on this blog about old things brought to you by a new thing – Abigail Strong is now selling on Etsy. If you need some good old fashioned handcrafted soap made with all natural and organic ingredients, that contains all the good stuff Abigail used in her soap, and then some, but now comes in nice hard bars – click on the Abigail Strong link on the list at the right.
See you there!