Michael Fredericks photo
Following ‘love-at-first-sight’ came the hurdles of securing a mortgage and a rehab loan. The company that financed the restoration specified that the house had to be the Gurins’ primary residence to qualify. So they rented out the Norwalk, Connecticut, condo where they were living at the time, and on December 6, 1997, moved into their dream house, oblivious to the challenges that lay ahead. Construction began less than two weeks later.
Walls came down and floors came up. In their first week, the Gurins discovered the drilled well yielded rich brown water because of its elevated iron content. In addition, the property’s high water table had resulted in flooding the cellar each spring. An L, which had been added in 1810, had no foundation. All the floor joists, plates and beams in that part of the house had rotted and needed replacement. A powder post beetle infestation had disintegrated the main carrying beam.
The primary contractor, Kevin Rooney of Silver Mountain Builders, jacked up the house and dug below foundation level to install crushed stone and drainage pipes, and poured a cement slab to further reduce dampness and discourage vermin. The old wiring, dating to the 1920s, had to be upgraded, and filtration and water softening systems added to the well.
Since work had to occur on so many parts of the house simultaneously, there was nowhere for the owners to be, and the disruption of living amidst the chaos was almost too much to bear.
“Oh, my God,” said Bree. “It’s something I’m glad that I experienced, but wouldn’t want to repeat it. After the apartment in NY, we had a pristine condo in Norwalk, and I had never lived in a single family house, so it was mind-boggling to me to see floor joists – ‘Don’t step on that board, you’re going to fall through!’ – the cellar hatchway open, bats and other critters, holes, walls falling down. It was unbelievable to see this. What do I do?
“We had all of our clothes in the keeping room. Trying to live in a house when it’s being renovated, with all your belongings and nowhere to put them, is very stressful. Everything was upside down. I couldn’t cook. I had gotten a brand new Wolf range, but it was covered in plastic. You’re trying to protect your things from the dust of sanding – your clothes, the computer. Every day after the workers left, I was sweeping up dust and debris.”
“It was tough,” Alex agreed, “living in one room at a time, eating dinner in the borning room. There wasn’t much room in there, probably 3 X 6. The old oil heater was running at full capacity because everything was open.”
“We nearly froze to death,” Bree said. “The temperature was 48 degrees indoors. We had stuffed a big hole in the borning room wall with a sleeping bag. One morning I washed my hair, and got so cold I was sobbing, so the workers put kerosene heat on in the cellar.”
Although it seemed even longer, the reconstruction ordeal lasted about six months. The result – a warm, lovingly restored home, accurately furnished with early American artifacts – is truly remarkable. The original 1754 portion of the house includes four rooms: a keeping room, master bedroom, “best room” (a second bedroom), a borning room, and bath, converted from a former pantry.
Adjacent to the keeping room, the circa 1810 L has a summer kitchen, apart from the rest of the house to keep it cooler, and a pantry. As someone who loves to bake and to entertain, this section of the house is Bree’s favorite.
“I was raised with food being an expression of love, and that’s how I live my life,” Bree said. “Baking is a talent I have … it’s how I can show people that I care about them. Food is important, and I love having people come here to see this house brought back to life, being able to share it with us.”
Two prominent features of the keeping room and summer kitchen are an early nineteenth century doughbox with original paint, and a handsome reproduction copper-lined sink, served by both an antique faucet connected to the newer well, and an old-fashioned hand pump that raises water from the still-functioning hand-dug one.
Bree does her serving on pewter dishes, lead-free reproductions by retired craftsman J. Thomas Stauffer. “We use our pewter every day,” Bree said. “They’re not breakable, but the very soft metal is sensitive to heat, so they cannot be put in a dishwasher. I wouldn’t have a dishwasher, anyway. It may sound bizarre, but I love doing my pewter dishes by hand in my copper washtub.”
The L also accommodates some twenty-first century amenities – a computer office, and an exercise room in what used to be the woodshed. But in this high-tech era, it was the hand pump and five fireplaces that served the Gurins well when the old homestead was without electrical power during a four-day ice storm two years ago.
Each room of the house displays a blend of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century antiques and reproductions – a tasteful assortment of ladderback and Windsor chairs, rope beds, scrub top tables, Shaker boxes, pottery, redware, and pewter.
The Samuel Peck House has five functioning fireplaces, three of which operate off the main center stack.. Most of the house retains its original chestnut flooring, hardware, and windows. Even the kitchen shelves are original.
The Gurins used Benjamin Moore paints to refresh interior colors, and repainted the exterior in a more period-appropriate barn red. “Our research at Old Sturbridge Village and Williamsburg showed that the original house would not have been painted,” Alex said, “because it’s a poor man’s house, a farmhouse. When I opened the rooms that connect the L to the main house, I found the original unpainted cedar clapboards.” He said that if the clapboards need replacing in the future, they’ll remain unpainted.
The attic is currently unfinished, but used to include three bedrooms added by previous owners for children in the early 1900s. With attention to historical detail, Alex has meticulously dismantled those rooms, since they were beyond saving, and not original.
“I saved every single piece of lath, in its full length. I saved every lath nail,” he said. “Every piece of lath is numbered. I know exactly what part of the room it came from, the ceiling, walls. If anybody doing a restoration project needs original lath in its full length, I have it.”
The pair were successful in having the house designated a historic property, even though it stands some five miles beyond Harwinton’s official historic district. On the outskirts of town, this last house in Litchfield County had been largely forgotten by local historians.
“If not the oldest, this is one of the oldest houses in Harwinton,” Bree said, “but nobody knew about it because we’re not in the historic district. It took us two years of amending bylaws and attending town meetings, but we finally got the designation in 2001. And we found that local historic designation actually provides more protection than national.”
The Samuel Peck House was the first stand-alone property in town to be designated a historic home, and now the Harwinton Historic District and Properties Commission is very interested in seeking out other such properties.
Running her high-tech recruiting business from the simple efficiency of an office nestled in history is the best of both worlds for Bree. “Everything in our society is electrically based, even our heat and water,” she said. “Nobody is self-sufficient. At least we know if we’re out of power here for days, we can survive.
“It’s like stepping back in time when things weren’t so frenetic and automated. I love it. I look out this old window, and sometimes see bunnies out there. I don’t have to be in the midst of Manhattan. It’s a much more relaxed, slower pace.
The Samuel Peck House was built only 17 years after the incorporation of Harwinton, decades before the Declaration of Independence and adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Both unabashed preservationists, Bree and Alex are thrilled about living in a 250-year-old home, a structure whose first documented transaction was recorded in British pounds sterling. For the Gurins, this house is much, much more than a mere assembly of restored boards, nails, and antique furnishings. They each enjoy dreaming about all the lives that have passed through this primitive haven.
“Being from Russia,” Alex said, “this is truly the closest I can ever get to early American life. For me, it’s sort of an American dream, living in a house that was built 250 years ago. Every time I think of 1754, I start to think of the events that happened in that time, whether it was in Russia or someplace else. This house allows you to let your imagination go, to think in a different way, and transport yourself to a different time and place. If you think of the number of people that lived here, that gave birth to their children in the borning room ... there are so many human souls contained in this environment. For me, it’s not just a house.”
A few of those many souls have apparently made their presence known on more than one occasion. Bree said that one day, while she was lying on a sofa in the best room, recovering from back surgery, she heard voices. She thought she might have left the phone off the hook in her office, but checked, and the phone was secure.
Alex said, “Finally, after two or three years of living here, I admitted that I was hearing the same voices, too – friendly voices, coming from the keeping room. I’m not superstitious. The voices were not in my head.
“I would wake up at two in the morning, because there was something going on in the house. The furnace wasn’t running, and it’s dead quiet here, especially when there are no cars on the road at all. I distinctly heard three men talking. It was English, but you couldn’t determine what they were actually saying. You could tell they were having a very friendly, very peaceful conversation. It used to happen maybe three or four times a week, but not recently.”
A more earthly visitor from the past demonstrated the strong attraction that this cozy farmhouse yet retains. Jules Vernesoni had grown up on the farm with his brother Pete from 1923 to 1937, but the two couldn’t afford to keep the place when their father passed away. In his late eighties, Jules told his daughter that his fondest desire was to see the farm one more time. So a visit was arranged with the Gurins – a visit to the house that evoked memories past.
“Jules told us there was no traffic on the road then,” said Bree. “They had a horse but no car. He said mail got delivered to the big house at the end of the road, and they never got plowed out in winter. There was no TV, but they had musical instruments, so people would stop by, play the fiddle or piano, drink a lot of hard cider, and have a good time.
“As he was leaving, Jules said, ‘Oh, I remember the outhouse,’ because Pete had built it. ‘Do you mind if I use it?’ So he did, and then left. His daughter called us the next day to say that, two hours after leaving, Jules had a stroke, and died a few days later. She was extremely grateful that her father had the opportunity to re-visit his boyhood home.”
Bree loves showing their treasure to guests, and the Samuel Peck House is open for tours by appointment. “This house was really a gift to us,” she said. “It’s very special, and people can benefit from learning about history by seeing it here first hand.”
Alex added, “Growing up in Russia and seeing so many millions of architectural treasures destroyed in the 70 years of the Soviet system, for me, saving something like this gives tremendous joy and pleasure.”
“Preservation is important,” Bree said, “because once it’s gone, it’s gone. I love primitives. This era really touches me emotionally at the core. My son tells me I must have had a previous life in this period. I’m very drawn to it, it’s hard to describe why. We’ve lived here seven years, and I can still go into a room, sit down and think, ‘Ahhh, this is amazing!”
– Edward Orzechowski is a retired writing instructor and radio journalist. He lives with his wife Gail
in western Massachusetts.
But together they had long shared a dream of owning a primitive farmhouse, and had spent some ten years researching early American history and architecture. They looked at dozens of houses in Vermont and New Hampshire, but all were out of their price range. Then in 1997 they came across an ad for an estate settlement in Connecticut, and decided the property was worth a look.
Pulling their car up to the house, they were not impressed. “It was white with black trim,” Bree said, “and looked like just an old, run-down house built maybe in the 1900s, that somebody had neglected.”
But when they walked through the door, they knew immediately that they had stepped into history. “We realized we had actually stumbled on a gem,” Alex said. “The kitchen and bath had never been modernized, and we fell in love with it right away.”
Doorway to Lives Past:
A Restored Connecticut Farmhouse
by Edward Orzechowski
[Early American Life, October 2005]
Sometimes there is just something about a house that touches the core of your being. A connection that resonates so deeply, that it’s difficult to explain.
Such is the bond between a once neglected eighteenth-century farmhouse in the tiny town of Harwinton, Connecticut, and former New York City residents Alex and Bree Gurin, who now reside in their lovingly restored Samuel Peck House. Named after its original owner, this inviting center chimney cape was built in 1754 at the exact juncture of three towns and two counties, on County Line Road, 27 miles west of Hartford.
The couple had come from diverse backgrounds. Bree, who is a director of client services for a small boutique staffing company in Manhattan, had grown up in a New York City apartment. Alex, now a choral director, piano teacher and one-time assistant conductor of the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra, had emigrated from Russia in 1980, where he lived in St. Petersburg in a communal apartment for most of his early life, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with some seven other families.