The Personal Journal of the restoration of “this old house” from c. 1709 — early Colonial through Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian eras to today.
My journal of the this old house located in Orange County, New York, its history, architecture and restoration began more than thirty years ago when I bought the house. The house then had been a summer and weekend home for a couple of attorneys from the city. When they purchased the house it had been abandoned and long separated from its homestead of a 160 acres stretching from Ridgebury Road North to US Route 6. Some of the original architecture and assets of the old house were gone when I arrived. Enough of the original house’s architecture, however, remained and told a story from which to rebuild the architecture of this historic old house. In the end the story is more about the families who lived here over many, many generations than about the architecture and the house’s restoration which began as a one room settlers’ house in the 1700s when Orange County was a wilderness in “the new world”. Sixteen miles West of the house in Pennsylvania on the other side of the Delaware River is the settlers’ town of Westfall, a frontier in the 1700s made famous in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.
When I first entered the house the make-do renovations were apparent. Much of its integral architecture was hidden from sight. I liked what I saw at first, the floor-to-ceiling 8 foot tall window encasements in the front rooms and the wide plank wood floorboards throughout the house although discolored and marred at the time. The large fireplace in the kitchen was impressive, built with large field stones which dominated its space. Later, I was told that the old kitchen and its fireplace was actually a “keeping room”, a second kitchen where game and other food were brought inside the house for ‘keeping’ after they had been dressed and cleaned. All the dirty work of plucking and butchering took place in another structure once attached to the house but now gone. After passing through the keeping room I entered a large center hall, and what a surprise. The neo-classical architectural style of the center hall stood in sharp contrast to the recent renovations of the keeping room. Like the rest of the house the room cried out for attention, repairs and fresh paint. The room opened into five other rooms besides the front door. Only two doors remained, one to the keeping room and to another to a room opposite it in the hall. The hall itself, however, had a presence about it, graceful and imposing, especially the pilastered columns and the archway in the center of the room with all its intricate woodwork. Who would ever believe this was once a farmhouse? I remember just standing under the arch and saying to the agent, “I’ll take it.” I didn’t quibble about the price. I thought it may need a lot of work, but I will find the time as long as I had a place to sleep and make my meals. That was more than thirty years ago. I would never have imagined how time-consuming the work would be and the education I had to undergo. I also did not imagine how beautiful and imposing some of the rooms turned out once they were restored especially the center hall entry and the wallpaper on its walls, a copy of a wall hanging from “Gunston Hall”, the estate of George Mason of Virginia who was one of the original signers of our new nation’s “Declaration of Independence”.
I knew early back then that the house had a story to tell and decided to contact an historic architect. Craig Morrison, AIA. This proved to be the most important decision I made about the restoration of the house–beginning the time of my education in Colonial American history and the advance of American house architectures over three centuries.
The house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a rare example of single home with several distinct styles of American architectures within its walls — early Colonial, Federal, neo-Classical, Georgian and Victorian architectures spanning over three centuries.
As the house grew from a one to twelve rooms it preserved within its space the prevailing architectural styles of the day. All these periods of architecture are now permanently restored. Where I could identify the original house’s structural elements I restored them including original paint colors which I could identify including the bright blue wainscoting in the keeping room.
The process began with what historical contractors and architects call “reading the shadows”, peeling away wall surfaces to discover what first existed. The architecture of the keeping room which I described above revealed a room entirely different from the one I first encountered, the placement of windows, doors and wainscoting from an earlier era. I made many other historical discoveries while restoring the house’s architecture such as finding a pre-existing wall within the center hall wall. Since then I installed a movable panel to reveal the remnants of an older room with a pintle hinge for a heavy door, perhaps a Dutch door where another entrance had been. The two extant original doors in the center hall, one to the keeping room and the other to a room across the hall, were covered in crackled old varnish. A contractor suggested that something else may be underneath the vanish. He knew a museum curator who could take a look. The curator came and took both doors to his museum to make what possible restorations he could. When he returned I was dumbfounded by the beauty of the doors and the brilliant mahogany wood graining they revealed.
I can not tell the story about the discovery of a twenty pound clothes iron I found in the keeping room and wondered how many shirts could a woman iron with such a weight?
The house is a home of doors, twenty-five altogether. You can not go from one room to another without opening a door or two, a primitive means of containing the heat from the fireplaces to certain rooms. Of course, the sun could not be controlled but the house was perfectly aligned to take full advantage of the sun’s heat and light especially in winter. By mid-morning the sun sits directly in front of the house to catch the light through its tall windows. In the afternoon the setting sun bathes the west wall of the front parlor through an alcove of five windows in the Federal parlor. All old houses, I have learned, are built on the north side of a road and have their fireplaces inside the house, not attached to its outside walls. The chimney in the center of the west wing of the house has back-to-back fireplaces, the enormous keeping room fireplace and the Federal parlor fireplace which when ablaze can adequately heat both rooms in winter. The chimney’ massive foundation is in the cellar. The west wing of the house was built around it. On the other original side of the house another fireplace once stood but was removed when the east wing Victorian living room was added sometime in the late 1800s. With the advance of coal stoves and furnaces in the 19th century fireplaces were no longer the only means of heating a home. The old black iron grates on the floors in the east wing attest to this. When the original one room house was converted into two rooms and the fireplace was later removed new floor boards covered the space where the old fireplace had been. The new floorboards continue into another room of the original one room pioneer house. In the cellar the original foundation still remains adjoined to the foundation of the rest of the house which came later. The front room became the second parlor, Victorian in style along with the reconstruction of bedrooms on the second floor in the late 1800s. A third small fireplace sits in the bedroom above the Federal parlor and shares the same chimney with the two fireplaces on the first floor. At one time it had a stove flue chiseled into the brickwork and was later covered.
What I found most revealing about the house is its floor plan for bedrooms upstairs, originally six. A seventh large bedroom was recently added in the empty walled space of the second floor east wing. At one time three of the upstairs rooms them were children’s bedrooms. They would be too small for adults. One of the children’s bedrooms sits between two larger adult bedrooms off the second floor hall and sitting room. The two other children’s bedrooms lie across the hall. All three rooms now serve other purposes, a store room, laundry room and two bathrooms. The adult bedroom in the center of the hall has a second door inside the bedroom to a child’s bedroom as does the other larger bedroom attached to the same small bedroom. Inside the center hall bedroom is a wall cupboard decorated with animal figures. This indicates to me that the grandparents slept in the hall’s center bedroom where they could “look in” on their grandchildren after their parents had gone to work on the farm early in the morning. The small cupboards decorated with animal figures suggest their purpose and whose bedroom it had been. “Here, play with this toy, Johnny.”
At that time there were no nursing or retirement homes, grandparents lived with their children and grandchildren. Everyone in the household had their role to play on the farm and in the family. There were no starter homes two and three hundred years ago. In the 18th century it would take two years to build a homestead, one year to clear the land and cut the wood and another year to build the house with only axes and hand saws. Back then houses were built to last. The superstructure and architecture of the house is entirely made of ax-hewn heavy oak and hemlock beams joined by mortise, tenon and large wood dowels. Not a nail in the superstructure, just wood on wood. The floor boards are hand sawed one inch thick wide-plank hardwood boards. Just read the “shadows” and see. Nearly everything then was hand made and therefore too valuable to be discarded. There were no large landfills as we have today. When floor boards were removed they were stored away for another day as were the floorboards discovered in the attic and now are the flooring in the keeping / dining room. They are white oak boards and have darkened with age. The new kitchen floors next to the keeping room are also made of white oak but are a much lighter color for their age.
We have a saying that still holds true today, “Home is where the heart is.” This journal speaks not only about the architecture and restoration of an historic house but more importantly about the families who built the house and how they lived. Sharing the same home with your children and your children’s children makes a house a better home and family.
The house has lasted from one successive generation and architecture to another for over 300 years. Something to think about today. In Colonial America children who grew up in such a home were married in the home with the bride coming down the staircase into the center hall for all to see. After living full lives they passed away in the same house where their funeral preparations and their final respects were made by family and friends. Their adult children would prepare their burial and personally carry them to the small farm cemetery down the road. It is about a quarter of a mile West of the house. Another local cemetery is a half mile East on Ridgebury Hill Road. Our history, traditions and home architectures — the important things we take into the future — prepare future generations for the lives they will live. Every day I have lived in “this ole house” I am reminded of that.