Labor of Love
A centuries-old home enters the 21st century
Architect and designer Antonella Cericola-Schmidt of Antonella Designs and Susan Pizzo, the in-home design consultant at Calico Corners in Wilton, lent their talents to the effort.
Photo by Karen Morneau
On the corner of Ridgefield and Belden Hill roads sits a 207-year-old house, with historic red barns and a larger-than-life American flag. You’ve likely driven by it, unaware of its pedigree.
One of the finest examples of Federal-style architecture in town, the residence is listed on the National Register of Historic places. It was originally home to the Comstocks, a prominent Wilton family who played a significant role in the Underground Railroad. In 1962, the Wilton Congregational Church purchased it as a parsonage for the senior minister.
Built in 1810 and periodically repaired, the once stately dwelling had not been restored in half a century, and was in need of some serious TLC. When WCC member, Peter Kirchof, approached the church leadership about renovating the parsonage, he was met with enthusiasm. When he proposed a budget of $300,000, excitement gave way to disbelief.
“No one in the congregation thought we’d come in on budget—not a single person—except me,” says Kirchof.
The kitchen and bathrooms were sorely outdated, the main staircase was treacherous, the insulation ancient, every window needed replacing—the list went on and on. Kirchof formed a committee, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work. After vetting several builders, the team retained Rick Koellmer, whose reputation for craftsmanship and commitment to the community were exemplary.
“Rick did a phenomenal job,” said committee member Ellen Keithline Byrne. “You’d see his truck in the driveway every day, from morning until late at night. I don’t think his wife saw him for six months.”
Constructed entirely by hand, there wasn’t a true angle in the house, which presented significant challenges. “There were crooked walls, crooked floors, everything was unlevel,” says architect and designer Antonella Cericola-Schmidt. “But we always found a solution.”
Koellmer used more than 6,000 shims to level the windows, doorways, ceiling and wall joints, before recreating historically accurate moldings, and installing new windows.
Cericola-Schmidt worked closely with Koellmer and the committee throughout the project, contributing her extensive services pro bono. “I’ve always wanted to volunteer, and when Pete said it was for the parsonage, I thought, why not? I wanted to do something to help the community.”
Restoring an antique Colonial is not for the faint of heart. The renovation, which stripped the house down to its studs, revealed 22 animal dwellings, seven fireplaces partially constructed with newspaper, horse hair insulation, rusted out iron piping, and a servants’ staircase only the smallest, most nimble, adult could climb. “The most challenging structural thing was the staircase, which was moved to accommodate the addition of two more steps,” says Cericola-Schmidt.
Restoring the lead adorning the iconic front door also proved arduous. The elliptical transom and side windows hold great historical value and aesthetic beauty. In addition to installing a heating and air conditioning system at a greatly reduced price, Servco donated $5,000 to the project. So did Ring’s End, who also provided materials at cost. Wilton Electric Services, Wilton Plumbing, Security Solutions, Palace Oriental, Bolton Landscaping, and others contributed resources above and beyond their paid scope of work. In some cases, such as Cericola-Schmidt’s, contributions were made entirely free of charge.
Even passersby found themselves drawn to the project. One Weston resident noticed the exterior work going on while driving by. Interested in the history of the house and the integrity of the renovation work, she scheduled a meeting to visit the residence. A week later, she donated $25,000.
The parsonage renovation was officially unveiled to great acclaim last June during the 2017 ABC House Tour. Preserving the historic signficance of this stunning dwelling while modernizing it was no small feat. Yet it was accomplished with tremendous success, thanks to the talents and contributions of so many.
“The parsonage has such a meaningful history in town,” says Byrne. “We knew that there was so much potential here. The pleasure of watching this tarnished old beauty get transformed was incredibly rewarding.”