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Restoring a 1750s Farmhouse

By Sally Quinn. First published in The Review, Fall 2021, Volume LX, Number 2.


When my husband, Jack, and I bought our 1750s farmhouse in 2009, we were absolutely gobsmacked by the prices of houses in the area. For what Jack called our “half-million-dollar-teardown,” we could have bought the best house in our whole county in upstate New York! But we were undeterred! We had restored several historic houses in the past and knew that we could work a little magic on it.


We are generally great restoration partners: I have decorating and design skill and Jack is a master craftsman. The only thing we really come at from opposing perspectives is the question of how much to make new. I am of the “save it and make it work” mindset and he is of the “rip it our and start again.” We take turns winning.


Our first project was the garage. There wasn’t one, so he had a head start on that one. We looked at pictures we liked and came up with a design together which we had an architect draw up and we were off! I had a bit a a freak out when I saw it framed up because it looked so huge. (Did I mention that I call Jack “Rodney Dangerfield?") I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out really perfect. We put a cedar shake roof on it because no 1750 houses had asphalt shingles and slate was far too grand for these buildings. We then had to shake the house, even though the existing roof was fine, because we wanted them to age at the same rate. The roofs were expensive but made all the difference in the world in the look of the home.


The only other change we initially made to the outside was to replace the front door with a period replica. An interior door was being used as the front door. We created a slightly more elaborate surround for the door that enhanced the house, but didn’t make it something that it wasn’t.


The only other change we initially made to the outside was to replace the front door with a period replica. An interior door was being used as the front door. We created a slightly more elaborate surround for the door that enhanced the house, but didn’t make it something that it wasn’t.


When we started on the inside, we basically left almost everything as it was. I painted everything in neutral historic colors. Jack added some moldings. We fixed some dangerous electrical and structural conditions and raised the ceiling in the upstairs landing so tall people could actually stand up. Things on the inside sat for awhile, as I developed the gardens and did the landscaping.

It wasn’t until we decided to sell our much larger, much grander (and much cheaper) upstate house and make New Vernon more than a weekend home, that things really took off. We had been living out of suitcases for five years, as our bedroom didn’t have a closet.


We had a baby grand piano that needed to come down. The house didn’t have a floor that would support it, even if there had been a room large enough to hold it. We added a shed addition to the back of the house to enlarge the main bedroom, add a closet, and expand the tiny, dated bathroom. We also added a room on the right side of the house that could accommodate the piano. The addition vastly improved the balance of the exterior of the house. Both additions were in keeping with the farmhouse aesthetic, although a bit more refined with Jack’s decorative wood trim.


The hardest job, so far, has been replacing the wide plank floors. I was desperate to save them, but they were dangerous. They had been sanded so many times that there were no tongues or grooves left, and they were squishy to the point of inducing fear. During a library tour we gave, we ribboned off two rooms, just in case. The compromise was to replace them with reclaimed, wide-plank oak boards made from old beams from southern mills. We left gaps between them to mimic the old floors, which was my only demand. We stained them the exact color of the original oak floors.

The real trick was to get them level in the main house and with the two additions. It was a nightmare. The living room and kitchen were built on a stacked stone foundation which had settled as much as four inches over the centuries. The dirt was less than a foot down in some areas. All the sashes and structural beams had to be replaced before the floor work could start. It was the sort of improvement that is amazingly time-consuming, challenging, and costly, and nobody can see where the time, effort and money went.


The next two projects will be flooring in the dining room and family room to match the rest of the house, and an update to the kitchen. The kitchen has only had cosmetic improvements until now, because it is a bone of contention. I want it to look good and Jack wants it to cook good! We’ll get it!



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