Piece by Piece
A couple renews their heirloom Alford farmhouse
Photos by John Gruen
When the world at large imagines a classic New England village, a town like Alford is exactly what comes to mind. With its distinguished homes amidst a picturesque, natural setting, Alford embodies a venerable past at peace with an ever-changing present.
Jim Hall and Julie Scott live in a house that fits nicely into this picture. At 230 years old, the home has seen its share of changes through the centuries. It’s not the same house as it was in the 1700s, with frequent alterations to fit the times and the needs of the owners. “It was like every 50 years there was something that they added on,” Scott says. That’s a tradition Hall and Scott have continued, expanding and perfecting the house’s physical space, all the while honoring its history.
Hall grew up spending summers at the home with his family. It was originally purchased by his great-aunt and -uncle in the 1940s, then later in the 1950s as a summer and retirement home for his grandparents, who were motivated to buy the house because of an interest among their Brooklyn circle of friends in the Berkshire’s amateur theater scene. “They all moved up here because it was cheap, it was easy to get to, it was beautiful,” says Hall. “My grandfather used to take the train right into Great Barrington for the weekends.”
Hall and Scott moved into the house with their daughter in 1997 and immediately began making changes. Hall is an electrical engineer who worked locally and had lived in Alford in his post-college days, then a cook at Alice’s Restaurant. Nowadays, he divides his time between Alford and Alaska. Scott is a book illustrator who works from home, now concentrating on her own projects.
The oldest part of the house served as a center for the renovations to come, with its solid, barn-like timber frame. The previous add-ons were often done on a budget—no foundations, just laid on top of stone—and deemed by contractors unstable enough so that when modern renovations began, one of those old additions literally crumbled to dust because of dry rot. As a result, Hall and Scott’s plan involved removing old, precarious add-ons and replacing them with new, sturdy additions that honored the house’s historical ambiance. “It was a modest little farmhouse, and the goal was let’s not screw it up and make it into something it’s not,” Hall says.
The work included shifting the kitchen and stairway into the newly built addition and readjusting that space for a different use, one that included a bar. It also meant eventually adding a second floor to the addition, with an office and bedrooms, as well as rebuilding another addition as an in-law apartment. The old house’s original attic was transformed into a bedroom for the couple’s daughter. “When I was a kid, my grandfather and I shared that room,” recalls Hall with a laugh.
As much of the original material from the house as possible was used in the new spaces, such as a sink base from the old kitchen that is now in a powder room, the original living-room floorboards, and some of Hall’s grandparents’ furniture. When something wasn’t savable, the couple sought out appropriate replacements, like the kitchen sink, from salvage yards.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that the two shifted their renovation sights to the old barn in back of the house. Their insurance company refused to insure their home until the barn got a new roof, an expense that didn’t make sense. The barn needed to be straightened because of a failing foundation, and the couple only used it as a chicken coop. One night, a bear burst into it and destroyed one side to get to the chickens. Where some might see wreckage, Hall and Scott saw opportunity. Soon after having the barn dated to pre-1820 (with hand-hewn beams, a rarity), the couple decided to do a complete rebuild. The remaining chickens were relocated to a friend’s farm.
No alterations would be quite as crucial as moving the barn six feet away from the house. “The barn used to be crowding the house,” remembers Hall. “Now it’s a good distance. It feels right. We were able to put that little breezeway connector between the house and the barn.”
The main section of the barn includes both new and old boards and siding since much of it was in bad enough shape that it had to go, though all the beams are original. With expansive doorways on either side and a deck in back, that area of the three-season barn has become a multi-purpose space, perfect for entertaining. The completion party last spring featured a jazz band, and the couple holds recurring foraging-dinner parties at which guests forage for wild food and bring it back to cook and eat.
The barn also has a creative workspace for Scott. She has an enclosed, heated studio in back, while the main area is roomy enough to hold a monotype press. She’s currently experimenting with the press and applying the results to her own book, a work in progress that provides a break from illustrating other people’s words. Downstairs, a formerly dark, wet area with old troughs for animals, is a music studio for Hall, home to his guitar collection and a space for jamming. Next to that is an outdoor shower inspired by those the couple saw on Martha’s Vineyard.
The property has come a long way since the days before Hall’s family owned the house. Back then it belonged to a woman named Mrs. Place, who is still remembered by some in Alford. “She had a potbelly stove, there was no running water, there was no electricity, there was a tiled water cistern that collected all her water off the roof,” Hall explains. “She lived totally by herself, and she ran a reading room. There was a village blacksmith across the street, and people would bring their horse to be shod and come to the reading room.”
Mrs. Place might not recognize her former abode, but she would surely approve. “Really, the goal was to take the old farmhouse and keep it feeling like a farmhouse,” says Hall, “and generally, I think we’ve pulled it off.”