Historic House Yields Vintage Harvest
by Edward Orzechowski

[Early American Life, Christmas 2005]

On a Halloween hayride some 15 years ago, John and Audrey Samek led a group of friends through the dark ruins of what had come to be known locally as the “haunted house,” a short distance from their home in Hardwick, Massachusetts.

The dilapidated shell had once been a grand federal style mansion, but – abandoned for two decades – the 200-year-old structure lay in shambles.  Every window of the once elegant farmhouse had become an inviting target for rock-throwing vandals or frustrated deer hunters on the fringe of the nearby Quabbin Reservoir.  Neighbors had observed pickup trucks backed to the entry, then leaving with loads of doors, latches and floorboards.  A family of raccoons had taken up residence in the debris, mice crawled through the remains of decaying furnishings, and bats swarmed in the chimneys.

As the Halloween celebrants descended the front stairway, John playfully kicked out a rotted spindle, and Audrey said, “What are you doing?  We’re going to own this house some day, and you’re ruining it!”

John said, “What do you mean?  Look at it.  It’s beyond ruin.”

Today that “haunted house” is the Sameks’ home and site of their Hardwick Vineyard and Winery, a successful family venture that includes a bed-and-breakfast and reception facility.  But it didn’t happen overnight.

In the early 1990s, the Sameks had been living in their newly-built, comfortable home just two miles up Greenwich Road, busy raising their young family, and keeping up with the seven-day-a-week chores of running a leased dairy farm.

“Our children didn’t want to move down here,” John says.  “They went by on the school bus every day, and this was The Scary House.”

But Audrey wasn’t deterred.  “You could see the potential,” she says, “even though the house was fallen in.  And the way the land lay, it was a very nice spot.  It was depressing to see every season more windows broken out, and the snow falling inside.”

“Old homes always interested us,” John says.  “We always had an eye for history and early New England.  The main driving force to pursue this property was when Audrey said to me,  ‘How are you going to feel when we drive by that place one day, and someone else is in there restoring the house, or tearing it down?  How are you going to feel?’  That was a real wake-up call.”

So the couple purchased the badly deteriorated structure and its 150-acre property in 1997, becoming only the fourth owners since a well-to-do farmer named Giles Warner erected his house there in 1795, when George Washington was president.  “The closing was on Labor Day weekend,” says John, “and we’ve been laboring to restore it ever since.” 

Giles Warner is listed on Hardwick tax documents as a “prominent farmer.” Records indicate that Warner and his wife built the house later in years, after their children had moved on.  Warner ran a dairy business successful enough to sustain a stately home, complete with two servants’ quarters, even a second floor ballroom with adjacent gentlemen’s smoking room.

Located at what is known as the “Four Corners,” the Warner House narrowly avoided being bulldozed in the years approaching the Great Depression.  Greenwich Road is the last road east of the massive Quabbin Reservoir, built in the late 1920s to slake metropolitan Boston’s growing thirst for water.  One of four adjacent communities razed to flood the Swift River Valley, the former Town of Greenwich now lies completely beneath water.  The Warner House stands less than a mile from the water’s edge.

More recently there was the threat of fire, on at least two occasions.  An early 1970s snapshot shows the former dairy barn ablaze against an evening sky.  “Normally we have a westerly wind,” Audrey says, ‘but you can see the smoke was heading toward the west that night.  If the wind had been blowing the other way, the house would have burned, too.

 “When we first bought the house, we put plywood over the windows so no one would go in.  One morning, we found the plywood pulled aside from a door.  Beer cans were tossed everywhere inside.  In the fireplace was a piece of window sash which had been wrapped in old clothes, and lit.  We could still smell the smoke.  We were lucky we didn’t lose it that day.”

After closing on their purchase, the Sameks’ immediate task was removing the debris of twenty years of neglect.  “With all the windows gone,” Audrey recalls, “the buttery was waist deep with wet clothes.  We took pitchforks, and threw everything into the bucket of our tractor.  Every time I dug in, I was worried about what type of animal might come running out.”

The couple pored over old photographs, minutes of town meetings, and records of the Hardwick Historical Society, concluding that the integrity of the house must be preserved.  That meant no central heating, no plumbing, and no electricity.

Those modern amenities were to be provided in two additions for the family, guests, and visitors to the winery, but the historical character of the 1795 Warner House would remain intact.

Faced with the daunting question of where to begin, Audrey and John realized they had a dream and plenty of ambition, but they needed expertise.  They would find it in two places. 

They were already familiar with a nearby living history museum.   “We had been taking school field trips to Old Sturbridge Village, going back to third grade,” says John.  “So we decided to call John Curtis, who used to be their chief curator.”

Audrey, who had been collecting Early American Life magazine since its first issue, had noticed an ad for Sunderland Period Homes, and contacted Ed Sunderland.  “He couldn’t believe there was still a home that had never had electricity,” says Audrey.  “He was more concerned, I think, than we were with people doing the wrong thing with the house.”

Restoration then began in earnest, from the bottom up. 

The original fieldstone foundation was in good shape, but a gravity feed water line had created moisture damage in the sills. 

“The new addition would abut the east sill, so we excavated, poured a new concrete foundation, and did the repair work at the same time,” John says.  “To match the original, the exterior is fieldstone with granite sills.  We kept the concrete two feet down, and put used granite on top, so everything that’s exposed from the exterior matches the old house.  For the later barn addition, we used totally dry-laid fieldstone right from the farm.”

The shattered windows presented another challenge to find the right person for the job.  One contractor wanted to rip out trim and fit the old house with vinyl replacements.  Eventually, the Sameks were successful in locating Walter Phelps of Vermont, who replicated 12-over-12 light sashes from pieces of mullion found lying on the ground.

“We had other tradespeople in here like the vinyl window people,” Audrey says.  “But after a walk-through with them, we knew they didn’t have the knowledge.  We had people say: ‘Pull out all the plaster and put up blue board, so you’ll have nice smooth walls.’  ‘You need to have heat in here, you need to have electricity.’  ‘Let’s turn this keeping pantry into a bathroom.’  Obviously, that’s not what we were looking for.”

With no plumbing or wires running through the original structure, the walls are actually solid.  In 1795, it was the practice to apply horsehair plaster to wood sheathing, not lath.  The process involved nailing a pine board to the wall, then splitting it with an axe to allow the keying for the plaster to adhere.  Beyond the pine sheathing are wide chestnut boards, then the exterior clapboarding.

Of course, a good deal of the plaster had to be patched, a task that fell to the Sameks’ three teenaged children – Jennifer, Jack and Halley.  “One of their jobs was to come home off the school bus, take a pail of spackle and a putty knife, and fill in the cracks,” says Audrey.  “We’d tell them, ‘Do this 4X4 section.  When you finish, you can do whatever else you want for the rest of the day.’”

The downstairs includes a keeping room, dining room, and parlor, plus a buttery and pantry.  The second floor has a bedroom, two servants’ quarters, a ballroom (sectioned into bedrooms by the previous owner), and smoking room.  The old plaster throughout absorbed paint like chalk – 70 gallons of paint, to be exact. 

An invitingly large brick fireplace dominates the keeping room, where breakfast is served to guests.  The center chimney is wide open, “large enough for two Santas to come down,” says John.  “You can look right up through to the sky, it is impressive.”  With no flue tiles or damper, it has three chambers, one to service the main hearth, two others for the adjacent dining room and parlor. 

Bed-and-breakfast guests have the option of staying in the second floor bedroom of the restored mansion, sans heating, plumbing, or electricity.  They are provided battery-operated “candles,” a small concession to modernity, and a precaution against fires. 

“Given the opportunity, though, they usually prefer staying in the new addition with a few more comforts,” Audrey laughs, “mainly a bathroom.” 

The house has both front and back stairways, with risers higher and railings lower than modern building code would allow.  Because the front dog-leg staircase, from the main entry to the second floor ballroom, was used only on formal occasions, its steps show very little wear.  In fact, they retain their original paint; but cupped treads on the back stairs reflect daily usage by the Warners and their servants.

Original colors throughout the house were revealed by scraping away multiple layers of paint, then carefully matched by Old Village Paint.  One particular area, however, a large panel surrounded by rope molding above the dining room mantel, remains untouched for future restoration.  There’s a strong possibility that the existing paint conceals a landscape view of the house, perhaps even a portrait of Giles Warner himself.

“These were done generally by itinerant, not highly skilled artists, so they have a charming primitive quality about them,” says John Curtis.  “I always encourage people to have such panels X-rayed, or at least to remove a small area of paint very carefully to make sure there is nothing underneath that would be destroyed by overall removal.”

In addition to the obvious elegance of a second floor ballroom and adjoining smoking room for social functions, the white painted exterior suggests that Giles Warner was a man of means.

“That was unusual for the date of the house,” says Curtis.  “White was quite prevalently used only as a trim color because it was expensive.  It was made from lead, it was durable, the best paint you could get, and seldom used for an entire house, except when an affluent individual could afford it.”

In fact, it was not unusual for even such grand eighteenth-century houses to remain unpainted, or to have much less expensive earth spectrum colors.  “The reds, the browns, the ochres, come from earth oxides,” Curtis says, “could be manufactured domestically, and were relatively inexpensive.  That’s why barns and schoolhouses were traditionally painted red.” 

An original closet in the bedroom is further evidence of wealth.  In 1795, persons of ordinary means had their everyday work clothes and their Sunday best.  “So they had what they wore on their back,” says Curtis, “and they had what they kept in a blanket chest or a chest of drawers.  Closets, in most eighteenth-century houses, are quite uncommon.”

With so much effort toward maintaining the integrity of the original federal style mansion, designing the more modern additions for the family’s living accommodations and the later winery barn also required careful attention.  In order not to diminish the grandeur of the restoration, Curtis lobbied for a one-and-a-half story L, more period-appropriate.  But the practicalities of raising three children and planning for bed-and-breakfast guests called for more living space between the main house and barn. 

So a two-story post and beam addition (frame from the Hardwick Frame Company) was built in 1997, complete with central heating, plumbing and electricity. The assignment of tastefully blending an eclectic kitchen with the old house was given to restorer Ed Sunderland.

“I had a lot of fun because Audrey gave me complete rein, just a free brush to take different motifs and elements of eighteenth-century detail, mostly federal in character, and embellish on them – inventing cabinetry, essentially, to do whatever I felt would be good,” Sunderland says.

The task was met.  Stepping through the door from the 1795 keeping room to the rustic oak beams of the modern kitchen is a seamless passage across two centuries of living space.

In 2001, the Sameks added a timber frame barn to the east end of the structure, to house the family business –  the fermentation tanks, tasting bar, and sales room of the Hardwick Vineyard and Winery.  Oak was harvested from the Sameks’ property, and milled directly on site by Ted Baker on a portable sawmill.  The beams were then all hand-planed by Mark Berthiaume, who set the frame with mortise and tenon joinery.  The exterior of the barn is rough-sawn pine from W.R. Robinson Lumber, operated by one of the earliest families to settle in Hardwick.

With their shared interest of preserving the past, Audrey and John have become lifetime members of the Hardwick Historical Society.  Two years ago, the Giles Warner House was featured on House and Garden TV’s “Restore America” program.

But the Sameks are not yet finished.  On the drawing board are plans to resurrect a caved-in, one-room school house also on their property.  Built in 1858, West Hardwick School House #9 dismissed its last class in 1939.  When that project is finished, the 150-acre Samek property will include construction that spans four centuries of American history.

For now, the grand expanse of the original Giles Warner homestead, the Sameks’ living quarters addition, and their Hardwick Winery barn stretches 101 feet, and 210 years from one end to the other – an integrated unit of old and new.  Six catalpa trees from an earlier time, and one aging, but still-producing heirloom pear grace the lawn.  Beyond, on gently sloping land, lies the Sameks’ ten-acre vineyard, firmly rooted in the present.

“That house was probably the grandest house in Hardwick in its day,” says preservationist John Curtis.  “I found the location very evocative.  It’s the kind of house that you wish you could’ve seen around 1800, or 1810.”

Thanks to its current owners, that’s nearly possible.

“Obviously, over 200 years ago when Giles Warner chose this spot and chose to build this type of house, he had a vision,” says John.  “Audrey and I just thought it would be nice if we could continue that vision.”