Splitting up a family home in order to preserve it
When settlers from the Hartford area incorporated the town of Sharon in 1739, they carved out sixty sections along the Green and what would be South Main Street. One segment, bought by a lawyer, Ansel Sterling, was distinguished from the others even then by a large elm tree that would a century later be designated the largest elm in Connecticut.
My father, a Texas oilman, searching for a home in which to bring up his family, bought the Sterling property in 1923. It consisted of a two-storey frame home, several barns and stables, a tenant’s cottage, and an icehouse. At the time, Father had only four children but over the years there would be six more, including my brother Bill (No. 6), founder of National Review and of the modern American conservative movement. (I’m No. 3.)
As the family grew, so necessarily did the house. Father added two wings in the early thirties and built an open-air Mexican-style patio between them. A fire in the mid-thirties caused us to evacuate Great Elm, as the property was by then called, for a year during which time Father added a third storey to the house, and glassed in the patio so it could be used winter and summer. Children could run through and around the patio, play tag and hide and seek, causing very little damage. And as we grew older, the patio became the scene of New Year’s Eve parties, weddings, and debuts, one of which attended by Sylvia Plath, a Smith College friend of my sister Maureen (No. 9). Plath would write her mother a long letter about the party, which was later published in one of her books.
Great Elm provided us with everything good and exciting any child could desire. Years passed and the running children became parents themselves with their own homes and responsibilities, and children, but Great Elm continued to be the family heartland. Four of the older five would bring up their 25 children in and around Sharon, causing Father to turn a sprawling barn on the property into a sort of dormitory for his grandchildren—a purely defensive act. My sister Aloise Heath (No.1) and her ten spent summers in the barn; brother Jim (No. 4) and his Ann lived there one winter while converting a farmhouse on the White Hollow Road into their first home; sister Jane (No. 5) and her family moved in when her home, Stoneleigh, the old Van Cortlandt mansion, was destroyed by fire. As time passed, only I, the unmarried member of my generation, continued to weekend in what the grandchildren called The Big House.
In due course, Father died and Mother, in her early eighties was afflicted by a gentle but enveloping vagueness that made the situation untenable. Great Elm was a luxury we could no longer afford.
Some solution had to be found. We thought at first of turning Great Elm into a country inn. But this was the late seventies—the time of the oil embargo and gasoline shortages, and country inns were a notoriously perishable species at best. Then we came up with the idea of a retirement home with the main house and the sprawling carriage house and barn as administrative centers, and a cluster of one- and two-bedrooom units in the nearly 40 acres of hills and orchards behind the big house, out of sight of the main street.
Well, sir, you would have thought that we were proposing to build an extermination camp, or at the very least, a nuclear waste site at Great Elm. Our neighbors erupted with Vesuvius-like fury to the proposition. Petitions were passed around. Every issue of the weekly Lakeville Journal carried vituperative letters outlining the devastation the Buckleys were about to inflict on the community. Not joining in the hullabaloo, incidentally, were the townspeople of Sharon. Perhaps because as children we had gone to catechism class with the Pitchers, Carberrys, Carleys, Kenneys, and Bartrams who by this time ran everything in town, and maybe because Sharon and the Buckleys had lived together amicably for fifty years.
At this point someone suggested we have a feasibility study made of the situation. And the answer came back loud and clear. Look, they said, what you have on your hands is a white elephant, a very old 35-room frame house at a time when the cost of oil is at a premium and interest rates are reaching 18 per cent. The building is going to be torn down, they told us, unless you can divide the equity in it. They proposed that we convert the Big House into five or six condo units. Sell them for roughly $200,000 to $250,000 each—the market rate. Then what you have is five or six owners whose interest is to preserve not destroy the property.
So we shifted gears, which, incidentally did absolutely nothing to abate the anti-Buckley clamor. By now the neighbors were conditioned to object to anything we did.
A Sir Galahad came to our aid in the person of Tony Peters, who owned the Interlaken Inn in Lakeville and would later build the successful and tasteful Lion’s Head development in Salisbury. Tony loved the idea. He suggested we hire an energetic and effective young associate of his, Larry McGovern, to mastermind the project and he put us in touch with an architectural firm in Hartford that specialized in remodeling white elephants. Tony also built himself a huge home at the top of the property. A genial couple from Westbury, New York, bought the barn, and Jane and I contracted to buy the two larger of the five new units which gave us both of the wings Father had built and joint ownership of the fabled three-storey patio. The three other condos in the Big House each had two bedrooms, a dining room, living room, kitchen, and two and a half bathrooms. With the capital from these original purchases in hand we proceeded with the conversions and the tedious job of obtaining the necessary permits.
When the smoke had cleared away, the town of Sharon was clearly the winner. Where there had been one owner at Great Elm, paying one property tax, there were now 17 owners paying 17 property taxes: eight in the condos and another 11 in buildings on the grounds. Seven new houses went up in three- and four-acre lots, only one of them visible from the main road. The town of Sharon was required, in turn, to educate only three children. Edward Sobol, the master carpenter in the remodeling, got the job as superintendent. He and his wife Sylvia and two boys moved in to the caretaker’s cottage and soon, Rachel, the “Great Elm baby,” joined them (Rachel is now a dietician at Sharon Hospital). And Ed keeps the place, the buildings, the pool and the tennis court in shipshape fashion.
The Sharon-Lakeville-Salisbury area is also an unexpected winner of all this, in that Jeanne and Herbert Wagner, who bought the third-storey condo, would organize the Taconic Learning Center, which to this day provides the elders in the community with courses on a variety of subjects every fall and winter.
With Great Elm, certain facts of historical interest have been preserved. Albert Jay Nock, founder of the original Freeman, was a frequent Sunday lunch guest of Father’s in the thirties; Ronald Reagan joined in a family touch football game when he and Nancy and Ron Jr. spent a Thanksgiving at Great Elm in the late seventies. And just this year, Young Americans for Freedom, which was founded at Great Elm, published a book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its principles, “The Sharon Statement.”
But for me, personally it is as simple as this. I get the same joy today as I did as an eight-year-old, watching the long summer evenings fade into dusk and splinter into fairy flecks of dancing fireflies. I take it slowly as I drive up the hill to Jim (No. 4) and Ann’s house for supper in the fall because deer will be munching on the crab apples as they did so many years ago when the old orchard was new. And best of all I sleep at night in the old master bedroom my parents occupied 87 years ago, when I was two years old.