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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

This Old House

My love of New England antiques extends to New England antique houses. I've owned several over the years, all of which have needed restoration. In the early days we did the work ourselves. As time went by we found some craftsmen who had the sensibility needed to restore 18th century structures. You can't hire the typical general contractor - for one thing, they want everything to be plumb and level. Early houses never are, and that's part of their charm.

I'm lucky to live in an area where there are many 200+ year old houses. The house we live in now was built in 1796, but after we finished restoring it (it was a major mess) it just didn't work for our family. So we added on. It is possible to build a new "old" house, and in many ways the result is much more livable than the restored old house. Fewer mice, for one thing.

You have to own a cat if you have an antique house! Morris was the best mouser ever. He was so proud of himself when he caught them. He would kill them and then drop them at my feet as a sort of gift. The worst was the morning, early, when I was barely awake, staring into space, sipping my coffee, and he dropped a live snake on my feet. It was a harmless milk snake, and a small one, but you could have heard my scream in Chicago. Old stone foundations are great for allowing mice and other critters to enter.

That's the thing about restoration - the house will not be perfect, nor should it be. They settle over time, warp and creak. This is the summer beam in the old 1756 saltbox we restored in 1998.

See how it has twisted? The beams were rock hard - just about petrified. The house was structurally sound, so we didn't attempt to untwist the beam. But the whole house leaned slightly to the left.

Here are two photos of the same ceiling beam on opposite ends of the front of the house. The window almost touches it in one, and is over a foot away in the other. My father, who was a pretty skilled carpenter, was appaled that we would consider living in such a crooked house. And all the door jambs tilted. I loved it. We did get mice, though.

That project took us years. The house was wonderful - old paneling, 5 original fireplaces, wide plank floors, narrow staircase that wrapped around the center chimney. But it was uninhabitable when we bought it. We pulled the old, rotted clapboard off the outside and then insulated it, put in new wiring, plumbing, heating, etc., before replacing the clapboard.

These photos are during and after restoration. Note the christmas wreath on the door - we did attempt to live in it while we renovated. That's only for the young.

The house was bad, but the barn was much worse. Since we needed a home for my 2 horses, we restored that too. It was practically a tear-down, but it ended up being a great place for them.

There was also a big old barn on the property that had come down in a hurricane 12 years before we bought the place, and it was just sitting there in a pile of rubble. The best solution was to burn it down. Local fire departments love to burn old buildings for training, so, for a donation to the fire department, the great burn-down was scheduled.

However, the town zoning people didn't like that idea and would not issue the permit. Ever resourceful, the fire department discovered that before the town was settled (in the 1720s) it had been Indian land. There was an ordinance still on the books somewhere that Native Americans could have ceremonial fires. The fire department found a local Native American, made him a fireman for the day, and had him do a ritual approval of the fire.

And that was that. It got burned down, much to the glee of the fire fighters from 3 area towns who came to help, blocking the main roads into town, snaking fire hoses from a nearby pond (there is no public water in the town) and generally causing the biggest ruckus the town had ever seen. We served coffee and donuts. The whole town was there. It was memorable.

The house we live in now used to be a parsonage. It is more formal than the rustic saltbox which was our last house. Litchfield, where it's located was a thriving center of commerce prior to Revolution. The first law school in the US is located here. George Washington met with his troops during the Revolution and stayed at the Sheldon Tavern, now a private home in town. Litchfield had one of the first female academies in the country, and incorporated the country's first bank. Money flowed into the town at that time, and Litchfield's residential architecture began to reflect the Georgian design favored by the British court. Even though our house is located in what was then a very rural area of the town, because it was built for a prominant man of the cloth, it had some Georgian detail. There is a wonderful book published in 2011, Litchfield, The Making of a New England Town, by Rachel Carley, which has a thorough discussion of the architectural history of Litchfield.

The house was more than a wreck when we bought it. It was really awful. But it had a beautiful, original Palladian window, and it sat on the most beautiful piece of land.

I'm such a romantic - I forget the pain of renovation. So we bought it. It was owned by the decendants of that first pastor. It had become a farm house after the church burned down. Some time in the 1930s running water and electricity were added, - but only to half of the house. When I met the elderly lady who owned the house at the closing she told me that her grandmother had decided that the farm hands didn't need running water or electric power, and they lived on one side of the house. She only improved her half. It was still like that when we bought it! It had been made into a 2 family house and the side with power had been rented out for decades. What a mess!

We restored it to its original floor plan - a center hall colonial with chimney stacks on both sides. One of the chimneys had been removed and the other made smaller over the years. There was a warren of tiny rooms inside, a divider down the middle, 2 staircases, an ancient kitchen on one side and only one really disgusting bathroom.

There really wasn't much left of the original detail the house must have had. We used the wide - very wide - original attic floorboards to re-do the floors in the house and otherwise re-built the whole thing. But that beautiful Palladian window remained.

When we took the old clapboard off we discovered that it had been practically holding the house up. The support beams were hollow from termites. It wasn't even safe to walk inside. That was a big setback - all the beams had to be reinforced. This photo was taken after we did that and when we were starting to insullate and to replace the old windows. See that palladian window I fell in love with? Was it worth it? I would have told you no at that point.

But we persevered - rebuilt the chimneys, installed all new systems, put the walls back where they would have been, and added bathrooms and a kitchen. Two years later we moved in.

And I hated it.

I had loved that center chimney saltbox. There was a flow to the rooms. This house had a center hall with 2 rooms on each side. There was no flow. It felt small, even though it was a lot bigger than the saltbox. 5 years later we had recovered enough from the renovation (we didn't attempt to live there through it), that we decided to build on. This is where the learning experience came - you can create an old house- with detail true to the period - from new construction.

We wanted a family room - we call it the "great room" - at the back of the house where we could relax and entertain. And we wanted it to look authentic and like it had always been there. Mostly, I wanted a big cooking fireplace like the one I had left at the old saltbox. We hired a local architect who lived in a 1730 house and who understood what we wanted. And we hired a construction company who had a number of old timers who wanted to do things the old way. It was quite a journey.

My first request was that the fireplace in the saltbox be re-created in this house.

This is it. It has an old wood lintel, which is no longer to code, but otherwise, the fireplace that we have in this house is almost identical.

We did a granite lintel.

The old house had a beamed ceiling. We found old beams from a house that was taken down and the craftsmen installed them in the old way. It fools even experts.

We love the house now. The rooms on either side of the hallway now feel cozy, not cramped. We found some antique paneled walls at a flea market for a few hundred dollars. The carpenters retrofitted them to our needs and then made additional panels to match them. We bought 18th and 19th century doors and hardware where we could find them. All the doors in the house are antiques as is the hardware. You can find old bean latches on Ebay and in flea markets for not a lot of money. I found a box of them, along with a bunch of junk at the Elephant's Trunk flea market in New Milford, CT one day.

A fellow antiques dealer told me of a barrel back 18th century Connecticut valley cupboard in original paint. It had been a built-in in at 18th century house in Wethersfield CT. I bought it and put it in the formal parlor. The wonderful carpenters reflected its design in cupboards built into each side of the fireplace in the same room.

This is how the house looks today:

Gotta love that palladian window!

When you own an antique house it is natural (at least for me) to want to learn about the people who built it. Town property records are available to the public, and have a wealth of information. I've researched each old house that I've owned. Our current house was built by the congregational church to house the pastor. It was the parsonage and was next to the old church, which burnt down 100 years ago. The local historical society has lots of interesting records and maps.

I found out that the house used to face the town green which was surrounded by shops and houses. There is no trace of them now, but someday I'll get a metal detector and see what I can find. The town green moved in the 1840s, leaving our house to sit alone. It doesn't face the street, which I always found odd until I saw an old map. If you are interested in learning about your house's history, even if your house isn't an "antique", this book is a great resource: Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood by Betsy J. Green, May, 2002. It is available on for $14.95.

So that's my old house story, or stories. I think I'm done restoring. If I were to do it again I might just build a new "old" house. The advantages are that you can pick your location - most 18th century houses are right on the road (my current house being an exception because the road was removed!). You can have modern conveniences, like heating systems that work, a lack of drafts, foundations that don't let in wildlife, and way fewer mice. But then again, if I happened upon a nice old saltbox on a lonely road, with a For Sale sign,........


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