About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

GOODBYE OLD HOUSE? NOT YET!




PART ONE

SAVING THE WORST OF THE WORST

As a new Realtor I decided to specialize in selling antique or historically significant houses and that is what I did for more than 25 years.  From the beginning I felt compelled to come to the rescue of the worst, endangered houses that came on the market causing one broker to announce that "Pru doesn't work for the buyer or the seller.  She works for the old house."  Selling old wrecks did not make me rich.  In fact, I probably earned the lowest commissions in the business because I sold the cheapest houses, all of them worthy of restoration.

One of the first was an old center chimney house, the Conant house, dating to 1775 in Ipswich, the town where I worked.  The salvage rights to the old center chimney house had been sold.  After the house was removed the land would be sold as a house lot. 

What could look worse than this?  There was moss on the
floors! Notice on the left the roof of an ancient
 rusted out school bus in the bushes!



The salvage man removed paneling and was seen carrying the panels out to his truck.  The historical commission stepped in and persuaded the salvage man to stop while I listed the property.  The house would be sold by the salvage man as personal property and the land sold by the owner as real estate.  A buyer was found and the house was saved.




Here is the house today.  Many years have passed since the owner toiled there in all kinds of weather saving the house which has housed his family ever since.  The primitive fence and the vegetation protect the house from the road.  The yard is not manicured but more in tune with its 18th century roots.  The solar panels are a nod toward the 21st century on the south facing roof.






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Shortly thereafter, I became a part owner of another central chimney house, the Moses Jewett house, dating to 1759.  

Tired old house with date on the chimney and Greek Revival door surround.



As naive buyers we thought we could just fix it up, sell it and make a nice profit.  We soon realized we were dealing with a serious antique house and knew that we had to do a good job and respect it as the landmark that it was.  And that is what we did, learning a tremendous amount along the way as we did our homework and proceeded carefully.



We didn't make any money on this restoration.  Antique houses do not make good projects for speculation.  However, we researched and learned more than we ever could have without this hands on experience.  Restoration is doubly hard when the house will be sold and you have no idea who the buyer will be so you try to get it right but also try to incorporate features that will appeal to a broad range of buyers.  Our understanding and appreciation of old houses was greatly advanced by this experience.

Here is the house.  Restorers did not paint the trim, only the sash.
All of the houses illustrated here have been brought back from ruins.  We tend to think of them as a permanent restoration but without care they can start to slide down hill again.  These houses are definitely a success story...hopefully for the ages.


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Another house that I sold was an 18th century half house needing everything.  It was dismal.  There was a dead rat in the toilet.

This was a pretty dismal house before experienced
restorers turned the situation around.
It was purchased by a young couple trying to find a good antique in Ipswich.  They had the energy and the smarts to know what to do with it.

At the closing the representative of the estate said they had a few things still to take out of the house.

Shortly after the closing I had a call from a very irate buyer.  Not one thing had been removed from this stuffed, miserable house.  After a day the buyers started hauling it out and leaving it at the curb.  The piles extended way beyond their own frontage and was quite a sight to behold.

Finally the sellers came to grips with the problem and sent teenagers with a truck to remove the stuff to a barn somewhere.  It was just tossed into the truck as it had been tossed to the curb.  I have often wondered if anyone ever went through it or found anything to save.

Maybe the contents weren't worth saving but the house was.  It was beautifully saved and attractively painted.  It is very much a credit to the neighborhood but most importantly, it was saved.

What could be more charming that this sweet old house.  It has come a very long way.

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Today, as I write this, it is April first which many people around here remember for the April Fools Day Blizzard.  At the height of this late in the season blizzard an enormous, ancient tree fell on a shabby old house.  The oak summer beam under which the owner was sitting on the second floor saved her as the tree crashed through the house.  She was carried out without even shoes never to return as the inhabitant of the old house.

Part of the house was early first period, perhaps just before 1700.  As the old house broker in town I got the job of selling the wrecked house which was in bad shape before the tree fell.  It was purchased by a contractor and became a lovely home.

The front of the house with the Greek Revival doorway dating from the
Ephraim Harris period of ownership.  The house was originally on
Market St. and moved to this location before Central Street was
laid out.
The house is looking great but no one has replaced the Victorian  door!
This house has had a happy ending and is once again a nice antique first period house.  It may date to the 1690's making it one of the rare surviving houses from the 17th century.

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As a new Realtor I decided to specialize in selling antique or historically significant houses and that is what I did for more than 25 years.  From the beginning I felt compelled to come to the rescue of the worst, most endangered houses that came on the market.  Selling old wrecks did not make me rich.  In fact, I probably earned the lowest commissions in the business because I sold the cheapest houses, all of them worthy of restoration.  Some of the houses I sold were beautiful and in top condition but I didn't discriminate.  If it was a wreck I tried to find a buyer who would save it disregarding the fact that the sale might be harder to put together and the commission much smaller than the norm.

On one of my first days as a new realtor I drove around with my manager trying to become acquainted with a town with which I was not very familiar.  Eventually my manager went back to the office and I struck out by myself to explore my new trade area.

Driving down a country road as I was approaching a dead end I suddenly saw the most impressive old house.  With its lean-to roof almost touching the ground it was a dramatic sight made more dramatic by a run down neighborhood, remains of an old slaughter house across the street and other unsavory buildings.  Returning to the office my manager offered to go back down there to see this great house in this bizarre neighborhood.


This dramatic lean-to caught my eye.

After being surrounded by several large dogs and finding no one at home we beat a hasty retrest.  Eventually I did get into the house and realized it was first period house.  Estimating that it was built at the end of the 17th century would not be an exaggeration.

There was a strange twist in the story of this house.  In the early to mid part of the 20th century it was owned by two brothers who did not get along.  The center entrance house was cut in half and one brother moved his half into the nearby forest where he took up residence and lived there until the house burned down.


This is what the Day farmhouse looked like after being severed into two pieces.

The owner was interested in selling the acreage that went with the house and it was sold to a builder.  I had envisioned new houses that would compliment the antique house with the old house being the centerpiece of the small subdivision.  The prospective buyer had other ideas.  He intended to bulldoze the old house.

A preservationist friend got the salvage rights to the old house and began to carefully dismantle it for reconstruction elsewhere.

Dramatic lean-to 

The buyer of the salvage rights to the house already owned a Royal Barry Wills cape style house and envisioned the old Day farmhouse becoming the main block of a new re-erected  Day house with the 20th century cape as an ell.  The project came together very nicely creating  a blend of old and new and assuring a long life for the old Day family homestead.

The Day house reassembled.






PART TWO

SORRY TO SAY, THEY DON'T ALL MAKE IT

THE RUSSELL FARM

One of my earliest exposures to restoration, preservation and saving an old house was in the 1940's when my parents took rides into the country to watch the progress of a house being restored.  I don't remember any particular details other than my parents being very interested in the progress.

Probably fifteen years later I found myself as a teenager spending time in that rural neighborhood as baby sitter for a neighbor.  At this time the restored house was occupied by a well to do doctor and his family.  I still remembered its restoration.
Time moved on and I had no occasion to see the old house for many years.  I lived at least a two hour drive from there.

By the 1980's I was selling real estate and meeting people and making new friends who had an interest in old houses.   From time to time with these new friends we would head out for the back roads of New England, exploring the countryside looking for interesting antique houses.  On one such trip we were in the vicinity of the "restored" house.  I wanted my friends to see this lovely house.

In 1987 the house was beginning its downhill spiral but still attractive.
When we pulled up in front of the house my heart sank.  The house looked terrible.  There were blankets nailed up over the windows in lieu of curtains.  The barn had burned and there were derelict vehicles littering the yard.  I was dismayed to say the least.

Several times since then I have returned and the scene only worsened.  By the 1990's the house was unoccupied and uninhabitable.  By 2010 or so the house was wide open.  We walked inside but felt it was not safe.  Animals had been living in there.  Even I, the die hard preservationist, deemed that it was beyond repair.
This photo is from the town assessors' records taken in the last
few years.  Is it still standing?  I'm not sure but I wouldn't be
surprised to find it gone.  The chimney still looks good!
I haven't been back for several years and not sure if the house is still standing.  What a shocker.  It had been "saved" once.  How could this have happened?  Obviously, nicely restored houses, once saved from the wrecking ball, are not always saved forever.

I found a listing for the land surrounding this poor house.  It offered an update and on this property.  Did the brokers even know that this had been a stately Federal period house, now reduced to being a dilapidated farmhouse?  In just a matter of time until these acres will probably be dotted with new houses.  Here is an undated real estate advertisement for the property. 
Property Overview - Drastically reduced, Vacant land with Dilapidated Farmhouse. Ample frontage on both sides of street may allow for multiple home sites. Buyer to verify all dimensions and perform due diligence

Post Script

On a beautiful sunny morning this week with two friends I took a road trip to see for myself what was happening to the house before reporting the final chapter.  Was I prepared for what I would find?  The answer is no!  Not surprised or prepared.  This photo says it all.  There are no words.

It is hard to believe that this is a house that this house was restored during my lifetime and now this.
There was no sign of the chimneys or bricks anywhere.  We wondered if the chimney or chimneys were removed to salvage the bricks leading to this total collapse.  That this could happen is a very sobering sight to witness.

That's all that's left.

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ELM FARM

Sorry this old Polaroid photo is blurred but the best I could do.
In my home town from which I had been separated for maybe forty years was a wonderful old house known as Elm Farm or the Fisher Farm.  It was never in good condition even when I was very young. On return visits, maybe once a year I lamented the condition of this house.

Relatives in my home town knew of my interest in what had been a great old house dating to 1790.  Each time I visited I inquired about the house.  I'm sure they thought I was a little strange if not downright crazy to be interested in this two hundred year old derelict house.

Here is what happened on one of my visits.

It was about a week before the 4th of July and the town fathers insisted that the old, unoccupied house be removed before the 4th of July, about a week away, fearing that if someone set fire to the house a transformer outside the house could plunge a large area into darkness.  The only reason the house was still standing was because the town had been unable to find a landfill that was willing take the house.   What an ignominious end for a grand old house!

I quickly grabbed a phone and called an old house salvage company with which I was familiar and told them the story.  It had to be removed on the double or would be bulldozed. The salvage shop owner got right on it and called another company in Connecticut for extra help.  This all took place on a Sunday afternoon.

I also called one of the selectmen for the town to plead for an extension but they wouldn't hear of it.  There had already been extensions and there would be no more.

I then called the chair of the Historical Commission who was most sympathetic but whose hands were tied and could not do any more than had already been done in an attempt to save the house.  The end was in sight.

True to their word the salvage people were there the next morning taking the house apart just as fast as they could.  There was no time to photograph and label the parts for complete reconstruction on a new site.  By Friday it was all down except for a very few pieces.  The wreckers wouldn't or couldn't wait any longer.  The engines were revving and moving forward.  The salvage men had done all they could and almost all of the pieces and parts were saved and available to others for incorporation into restorations jobs elsewhere.  The wreckers were impatient.

My son, Bob, and I made the two hour trip to see for ourselves what was going on.
It was a sad ending but better to have only the left over debris go to the landfill and not the major elements of the house especially the frame and the beautiful front door and surround.

Son, Bob, looking at the devastated house.
For those interested I wrote a more detailed history of this house four years ago.  It can be found on this blog. It was called "Could This House Have Been Saved".

https://prudencefish.blogspot.com/2014/01/could-this-house-have-been-saved.html



The house had a very fine fanlight doorway.  I don't know where it went but it must be gracing someone's restoration somewhere.  Maybe in my travel some day I will recognize it on another lovely old house that someone did save.

The bottom line is that it is best to rescue these houses but sometimes it is just too late.


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