A 1700s Colonial Home Inspires its Owner
My daughter came home disappointed from a fifth-grade visit to Keeler Tavern Museum, constructed in 1713 and famed for the British cannonball still embedded in its flank. “It’s just like our house,” she complained. Indeed, the interior of our colonial farmhouse on George Washington Highway, built circa 1739, modestly reveals its age: wide chestnut floorboards; a beehive oven for baking; ancient, bubbled glass in 12-over-12 paned windows; a steep, spiraling front staircase; three fireplaces; a closet that doubles as a secret passageway; and a massive, central column of mortared fieldstone in the basement that supports the fireplaces, chimney, and the house itself.
My wife and I bought the place in 1987, as a young couple with an infant son. We were drawn by the charm of the well-preserved living and dining rooms, the waxed floors that gleam in firelight, and a property distinguished by the enormous birch trees near the barn, lordly sugar maples, elegant lawns, and a field adjoining acres of open space. We surrendered our hearts to it early one morning in May, while meeting a contractor to test the well water. The orange and gold light, filtered through tender spring leaves, highlighted the beauty of the land and the solid simplicity of the house.
Like any old-house owner, we appreciate the connection to history. One exterior wall displays a sign: “c. 1739 Daniel Taylor, Jr.” By the southeast corner is the stone-lined well that, in 1781, quenched the thirst of General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, and his officers, as they marched by on their way from Newport, Rhode Island, to meet General Washington. They continued on together, to victory over the redcoats in Yorktown, Virginia. British troops also had marched past, in 1777, before the Battle of Ridgefield. Washington himself passed by in 1780—which is why our street is named after him. As far as we know, George Washington never slept in our house—but Rock Hudson did. We’ll settle for that.
The property, too, has history. Digging a foundation for our swing set, we discovered antiquities: blue glass bottles, metal tools, shards of china—thrilling archeological artifacts for the kids.
Owning an historic house isn’t easy: There’s intrinsic tension between comfort and respectful preservation. Some things can’t be fixed without major surgery—the closet space, for instance, sufficed for the limited wardrobes of colonial farmers but may frustrate a 21st-century clotheshorse. While the ceilings are high for a period house—signaling the original owners’ wealth—homeowners grown tall on modern diets must duck their heads for low doorways. And caring for a house of such character requires more thought, and more specialized skills, than quick fixes with sheetrock and plastic.
From our son’s Boy Scout troop, we learned a rule that articulated our unconscious intention for the house: Leave it better than you found it. We invested in preservation, improving the infrastructure rather than altering what we found. The exception was a crude mantelpiece in the dining room, which a previous owner had carelessly rebuilt. After consultation with old-house experts, we hired a craftsman to take it down and build a replica on firm 18th-century lines. Our goal: leave behind a healthy house with no obvious trace of us.
We never encountered ghosts. You may think we’re crazy, but when we moved in, we burned incense and sage, moving slowly through the entire house while offering blessings to all who had lived there before. Over time, the house seemingly developed a spirit of its own, entirely benevolent. It was as if the walls absorbed my family’s happiness and radiated it back. The place has good vibes.
This is harder to explain: A house defined by its firm center—literally, that central pillar of mortar and stone supporting the structure—may influence its residents, in a subtle way. Living in a house that’s so balanced to its core somehow has helped us become more centered ourselves. Life in a house grounded in history also helped us maintain perspective about current events, as we’d read troubling reports of the day’s news on iPads connected to WiFi, in the comforting sanctuary of a well-built home that has survived 280 years.