Old Westport farmhouse braced for centuries to come
WESTPORT — Indications were everywhere that the Town Farm farmhouse's long and varied run was nearing an end.
A check of the 8" by 8" oak sills that hold the house up revealed that they were no longer so massive.
"Powder post beetles, all sorts of things, had been dining on them for 300 years," said Town Farm Manager Steve Connors. "They were sagging, riddled with holes, hollow in places."
Stones had worked loose from the fieldstone foundation and the exterior siding was shot.
Inside, a main staircase was canted several degrees in one direction while the floor was slanted a few degrees the other way. "It was like a funhouse," Mr. Connors said. Plumbing and electrical wiring needed replacing too — the old wires resembled "spaghetti" in places.
But fixing the house was part of the deal promised when the Trustees for Reservations leased the Town Farm property from Westport a few years ago for 99 years.
A now, a year into the project, visitors to this weekend's harvest fair at the Town Farm can take a look at the changes.
"An amazing transformation," says Mr. Connors of the improvements wrought by Architectural Preservation Group headed by Steve Tyson, the contractor hired by the Trustees. "Anyone who saw it before won't believe all that has changed."
The house was jacked up so that all new white oak sills could be installed, the stone foundation has been reinforced, the wiring and plumbing have been modernized, and windows and doors have been fixed or replaced as needed. Exterior siding, even some of the old wood sheathing beneath, was stripped away — new cedar shingles are now in place.
Built as a farmhouse for the Kirby estate that once covered the better part of 1,000 acres from the river up to Main Road, "this has not always been a happy place," Mr. Connors said.
After a century as a farmhouse, a time when an addition or two were built on, the house and property were taken over by Westport and converted to the town "poor farm."
"It was the social safety net of the time," he said, the place where people down and out on their luck went to live and work.
Later it was a rest home for awhile and then a residence rented from the town. Although some work was done during the town's stewardship, much of it was cosmetic and the house had gone into decline.
That bothered some, none more than neighbor Geraldine Millham who thought the house and property too good to lose. For many years as a member of the town's Historical Commission, she volunteered there as manager, doing what she could to stem the decay.
“It is an oasis of land that has not changed over the centuries,” she said in an article for the Trustees' newsletter several years ago. “It cost the town money,” she said. “Some people said they should just tear it down.” But she wouldn’t have it. “I put myself between the town government and the property.”
Reinforcements came from the Westport Land Conservation Trust which helped arrange more lasting protection through the lease deal with the Trustees.
Mr. Connors said the restoration is as historically accurate as possible, although changes made over many decades complicated that task.
It may not be accurate "to Handy House (the even older Hix Bridge Road house now being restored) standards, but few houses are. That is a real gem. Ours is historically accurate to the extent that it can be."
Helping achieve that goal are local craftsmen, among them blacksmith Tony Millham (Geraldine's husband) who crafted precise reproductions of old wrought iron fittings. Doors that were replaced were also done with authentic design and materials.
It has been a big undertaking in part "because this is quite a big house," Mr. Connors said. The two-chimney structure is divided inside into two sections — one section that is rented to a tenant contains about 12 rooms, the other has about six rooms that will be used as headquarters by the Trustees and the town Land Conservation Trust.
As is usually the case, the project revealed house secrets. In some areas, oak flooring was pulled up to reveal much older pine flooring still in good condition. And an interior wall turned out to have been an exterior wall at one point, "helping to decipher and chronicle the house's additions and changes."