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Whispering Spirits

The Walls of this Katonah Victorian can talk



Photo by Rana & Emmanuel Faure

Over a century of history whispers in the walls of the Longest family home on The Terrace in Katonah Village. “In the summer of 2000, we were looking for a Victorian in a walking town where we could raise our family,” says Ann Longest. “When I first saw this house with our realtor, David Turner, I fell in love. I showed it to Dan, and basically, he said, ‘You’re nuts!’ It was in total disrepair—in fact it looked like the Munsters might have lived here. But I fell in love with the tall ceilings, the rooms, and the possibilities of bringing it back to life.” After Ann confided her dreams for the house to Dan, he went back a few days later and agreed they could not let it go. By Christmas the family had settled in.

The Longests are only the fifth owners of their elegant gem that was moved by Dr. J. Francis Chapman in 1898 from its original location in the lowlands of old Katonah, less than two miles away. It is one of fifty homes that were transferred whole on a rail system with horses and pulleys when New York City flooded the valley to create a three-mile-long reservoir. 

“The houses were purchased from their owners and then sold back to them or others at auction. The men had a gentlemen’s agreement about not bidding on each other’s homes, so the Chapmans sold their house, bought it back, and then had to pay to move it,” Ann explains. “A lesser known aspect is that the homeowners lived in their houses as they were moved. We have photos showing the laundry hanging on the front porch as the horses pulled it along. Katonah lore has it that children would go off to school in the mornings and come home to find their houses in different locations when they returned each afternoon.

“One day, not long after we had moved in, there was a knock at the door, and I found Boo Kelly, a long-time Katonah resident, standing on my porch,” says Ann. “She had arrived unbidden with photos and an oral history of our home and those who had lived and worked here. It turns out that it had not only been a residence but also a boarding house and even a beauty parlor in the 1920s—which explains why we found watermarks and missing floor boards from plumbing when we pulled up the old carpeting in the dining room.”

At first the young family simply scoured the house, refinished the floors, and whitewashed the walls. Thinking they’d move in and dive into the fun decorative aspects of reviving an antique home, they were unfortunately surprised to find that the entire heating system had to be upgraded. “We were grateful to have lived in the house first before renovating, so that we discovered this very substantial deficit before we had invested a lot of money and effort into improvements that would have had to be ripped out. Robison Oil’s experts were amazing. They analyzed everything, got rid of old registers and ran ductwork with minimal damage. But the upheaval and expense pushed the rest of our plans back a full year.”

The two biggest projects were the exterior restoration and the new kitchen. “The outside of the house was covered with asbestos shingling,” says Ann, “and we were so excited to find the original clapboard hiding underneath. It was like Christmas in July when our contractor, Gabriel Florio, found inlaid herringbone woodwork that had been covered up. The wood itself was still in good condition, except they had used nails to apply the shingling which split the clapboard. One great thing about restoring an old home to its former glory is that while you bring back the period details, you can update the mechanicals and efficiency to serve a 21st-century family. So, we added Tyvek wrap and blown-in insulation where we could, and painted the outside to match some old scrapings that showed the original color of the house.”

One of Ann and Dan’s favorite characteristics of Victorian homes is the wrap-around porch: a quiet refuge from the bustling village mere blocks away. Potted mums and pumpkins welcome guests, and fallen leaves skitter across the floorboards past the massive French doors that lead into the family home. Within the pale-yellow foyer, an old clock—a family heirloom—marks the passing of the day with chimes that echo throughout the first and second floors. A herringbone-patterned ceiling and a graceful carved railing herald the fine woodwork that will be found throughout the home, and a guest can be ushered straight ahead into a small keeping room where a two-sided fireplace (that also opens to the foyer) and pocket doors recall an era when guests would be kept waiting—and warm—in such a room. Through the pocket doors, is a 21st-century family room with access to a side porch and the kitchen.

Keeping the basic layout of the kitchen was easy, as the flow worked well for the family of six. Ann tucked a table into one end where a bay window of original stained glass in shades of plum, teal, periwinkle, gold, and celadon twinkles in the sunlight. “There was no window seat in the bay, but it was just screaming for a bench for kids to sit on, so we built one there,” she says, as one child climbs up and nestles into the cozy nest to read.

“We wanted to stay true to the style of kitchen that would have been here a hundred years ago, so we went to NuWay Kitchens in White Plains for the white cupboards, and installed butcher-block counters, except for a slab of marble in the baking area.” A break from the traditional is the transom window they installed in the wall between the kitchen and family room. “It was originally over a door to the porch and it was too beautiful to discard when we changed the door, so now we can open it when things are getting crazy in the family room and say, ‘Leave your sister alone,’ ” Ann says, laughing.

Back toward the front of the house is the dining room where full-length stained glass windows look out to the porch. Ann chose a black-and-white toile wallpaper for this room and accented the walls with framed photos of the house in transit from its original location. With its elegant crimson draperies and antique furnishings, it is hard to believe that the ladies of Katonah once sat in this very room for a cut and curl.

There are two staircases that lead to the five bedrooms upstairs. The rear staircase was built for staff and boarders’ access to their quarters on the spacious third floor, which overlooks the extensive treehouse Dan and the boys built in the backyard.

“We’re so lucky to have found the right house in the right location for our family. For us, it wasn’t about finding a big house, but rather finding an old house that we loved and bringing it back to life. And we love living right in the town,” says Ann. “When things are happening, like a parade, we feel like we’re really in the thick of it—it’s a neat atmosphere to be part of.”

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