This Old House
Living in, and loving, an antique. We take a look at three.
SOME HOUSE HUNTERS will only consider new construction, not wanting to deal with cranky pipes, leaky windows, uneven floor boards, and other inevitable quirks that come with older homes. Then there are people like Peggy Garbus, Kate Woodman, and Manny Tamayo. Each lives in an antique house, with a tight footprint by McMansion standards. While their situations diverge—Peggy is raising three teenage children, Kate’s are away at school and Manny lives with his partner and three dogs—they share a willingness to overlook the eccentricities of a 200-something-year-old structure and embrace its charm.
“I grew up in an Ohio suburb with newer cookie-cutter homes. My dad didn’t want to have to do a lot of house maintenance. I went the opposite direction,” says Garbus, who moved from the city with her husband. “We agreed that if we were going to live in New England, we wanted an authentic New England experience.” A “for sale by owner” ad in the New York Times for a 1774 saltbox brought them to Wilton. Charmed by its wide plank floors, beamed ceilings, and two back-to-back stone fireplaces, they made an offer which the owner accepted. Peggy thinks the house was destiny. “I have a high school drawing I did of a fireplace that looks exactly like one in this house,” she says. The massive chimney serving both fireplaces and rising through the center of the house is exposed on the second floor and resembles a miniature mountain. “My kids and their friends used it as their indoor jungle gym. They loved climbing on it,” she laughs.
Although the Garbuses had planned to build an addition to accommodate their growing family, life intervened, and the expansion never happened. Now a professional photographer, raising three children on her own, Garbus admits living in a 2,000-square-foot antique poses challenges. “Half of the first floor serves as my studio, so I’m not sure what to call the space,” she muses. “We use it as a family room, dining room, conference room, and office.” Over the years, Garbus has made improvements, removing walls, adding much needed insulation, and redoing the kitchen, laundry room and mudroom. Demolition work revealed more old beams in the kitchen. “I uncovered them myself. It was pretty exciting,” she says. As she and her children cleared the property, they discovered old bottles, pieces of china, silver boxes, and other artifacts buried in the yard. Peggy displays all these treasures in a vintage wire basket. “For 14 years, my house has served me well. It is tight with three teenagers, but it makes for a lot of togetherness. And we do have four bedrooms, so everyone has their own space,” she adds. “For me, any place my family is, is home.”
Kate Woodman claims she’s never lived in anything built after World War II. She and her husband, Pat Loughlin, moved to Wilton from Brooklyn Heights 15 years ago. They only looked at antiques; the house they own was the first one they saw. “We fell in love with it immediately.” Her home, which dates from 1740, is roughly 2,600 square feet. “When we moved in, my sons were 2½ and 10 months. The house had five possible, but small, bedrooms. The boys shared a bedroom directly below ours,” she explains. Now, with the boys away, two bedrooms have been converted into an office and a workroom for her accessories business, Sharp Hill Designs. She admits living in an antique house has drawbacks. “We don’t have room for a big crowd. Our living room can only handle about 10 people comfortably. The ceilings are seven feet high. We have a six-foot-five-inch friend; when he visits, he just clears the beams,” she says. The kitchen, an addition expanded and renovated in the 2003, opens onto a deck and pool where they spend much of their time, weather permitting.
“The original house was ‘2-up, 2-down’,” Kate surmises, “with two bedrooms upstairs and a living room and kitchen downstairs.” The current dining room, with its massive fireplace and beehive oven, was probably the original kitchen, and includes several hand-hewn columns with visible hatchet marks. Like Peggy’s, Kate’s house has back-to-back fireplaces, one opening in the dining room, the other in the living room. She has found old horseshoes and square head nails in the garden; she’s been told there was once a blacksmith shop on her property. Although most of the windows aren’t original to the house, they’re definitely old. “We put up storm windows in the winter and I don’t notice any draftiness,” she explains. “We do get our share of mice and spiders, and some dampness. It’s an old house,” she shrugs, then adds, “but a house where you feel comfortable taking your shoes off and putting your feet up.”
Before buying their antique in Wilton six years ago, Manny Tamayo and his partner sold a new custom home. “It was built to our specifications, but we discovered immediately after we moved in that it wasn’t for us,” Manny admits. Before that, they’d lived in a 1930s center hall colonial. They realized they belonged in an older home. “We love the imperfections and craftsmanship, and didn’t want cookie cutter rooms,” he explains. Their real estate agent showed them several properties in Wilton, but they fell in love with their house the moment they entered. “We were willing to live with smaller rooms and lower ceilings in exchange for character,” says Manny. Town records indicate the house dates from 1800. It was owned by the same family, the Abbotts, until 1963. “When we bought it, it had one bathroom, layers of paint on the stairs and floors, a mustard and turquoise dining room, and a yellow and red bedroom,” says Manny, clearly amused.
It took them about a year to put their stamp on it. They stripped the floors and walls, and turned one of the upstairs bedrooms into a master bathroom. Later, they enclosed the sun porch to create a larger, updated kitchen. They replaced the garish color palette with historical colors, but left the original floors, doors, knobs and windows, even the cracked ones, intact. “The old doors and windows make the house drafty, but we didn’t want to change them. We just live with them; they add charm,” explains Manny.
The house is full of quirks, from the narrow, tilted staircase to the low railing at the top landing – people weren’t as tall 200 years ago—and uneven floors, tricky for arranging furniture. “Nothing’s level,” he admits. Another surprise came when they tried to move their bedroom furniture upstairs in the master bedroom. “The staircase is so tight the furniture wouldn’t fit. We had to remove the legs from the dresser and bed, and cut the headboard in half, then rebuild both in the bedroom,” he laughs.
When they first moved in, they had mice, but their three dogs seem to have chased them away. “The first winter, we also discovered the house shakes and rattles when the snow plows go by, because it’s so close to the road,” Manny says. “But we love sitting in the living room or dining room with a roaring fire. And in the summer, when the light streams in, we feel like we’re in the middle of a garden.”