John Aforismo knows a thing or two about persistence. “We kept trying to contact the owner with an offer to buy,” he says, referring to the 1873 Silas Robbins House, “but we got nowhere.” There was too much at stake, however, for John and his wife, Shireen, to just give up.
Their interest in the Second Empire landmark in Wethersfield, Connecticut, had been piqued in 2001, when they learned that its third owner planned to raze it and redevelop the land.
Wethersfield, about an hour from Hartford, has a long history that includes a vital role in the Revolutionary War. Silas Webster Robbins, born in 1822, prospered in one of the six seed companies that flourished here during the 19th century. (He’s also credited with introducing Jersey cows to the United States.) After 19 years of marriage, he and his wife, Jane, demolished her ancestral homestead on Broad Street and replaced it with their dream house in the latest style: 9,000 square feet of mansard-roofed, exuberant opulence, a grand and gaudy painted lady among sober Georgian Capes.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the house changed hands and began a slow decline. By 1996, though still inhabited as a single-family home, it was neglected and overgrown. Then someone dumped an ashtray into a wastebasket, and a third of the house went up in flames, while the rest suffered terrible water damage.
The charred, forlorn specter of the Silas W. Robbins House found its third owner in an attorney for the estate, who reportedly purchased it for $10. When he made plans to level the structure and build four new houses on the two-acre lot, the town demurred, instructing him to find a restoration-minded buyer for this important historic property.
That’s when the Aforismos, who lived nearby, began their purchase attempts. Shireen planned to retire from hairdressing and launch a new career as an innkeeper. The Silas Robbins House would serve beautifully.
Ignoring their calls, the homeowner attested at a public hearing, that, despite vigorous efforts, he had failed to find potential buyers. John and Shireen, present at the hearing, rose to their feet and described their many unreturned calls. Publicly called out, the would-be developer was forced to change his plans. The Aforismos bought the Silas W. Robbins House and began a labor-intensive, six-and-a-half-year project.
“I thought it was a nice big house that we’d fix up and have a place for children and grandchildren to visit,” John says. “I thought it would take two years. Ha!” Reality checks came immediately. “Our first job was to clean out the debris; we thought we could do it ourselves,” says Shireen. When professionals finally came, she says, “They brought quite a crew!”
Two years later, Shireen admits, “We were ready to sell.” They took a break when a family medical crisis intervened, but in 2004, the couple regrouped and recommenced.
“During those first two years, we replaced floor joists, walls, ceilings, the sill, the roof—it was more John’s project than mine,” Shireen explains. “I took over after that.” Now retired, she began preparing for her innkeeping career by studying mid-19th-century design. “I went to the library, I read, and I looked at pictures and houses,” she says. “I looked and looked.”
Her “perfect resource” was restoration contractor Gary Griswold of nearby Marlborough, Connecticut. Son of a Wethersfield builder, he had both formal education and experience working with 18th- and 19th-century houses.
“It took us three and a half years to do the inside of that house,” Gary says. “The beauty of the thing is that she wanted it done right. Shireen was the best person to work with: She learned quickly and always wanted to understand everything.”
When they bought the house, Shireen and John videotaped every element and took copious notes, information she and Gary used to re-create the interior. They also took their cues from charred beams and moldings, from the few surviving architectural elements and lighting fixtures, and from broken marble, tiles, and shards of stained glass that Shireen had painstakingly gathered from the mountain of ash and debris in the yard.
Among a thousand other tasks, Gary built new walnut and oak wainscoting, located butternut in Vermont for new stair balustrades, and, when plaster reproductions of the originals proved too pricey, built and installed pine crown molding in the hall. He also built and installed new wainscoting, baseboards, picture rails, and crown molding throughout the rest of the house.
“Indoors, the only things that survived were the front doors, a mantel, and the newel post,” says Shireen. “The only windows that survived were over the porte-cochère.”
Modern introductions included firestops and truss headers designed to meet contemporary building codes, a three-story elevator, a sprinkler system, air-conditioning, a new gas heating system connected to the original radiators, new wood double-glazed windows, and a great deal of insulation. Throughout the process, Shireen searched salvage stores, flea markets, old-lighting establishments, and antiques dealers.
“I started to shop for antiques as soon as we bought the house, storing things in rented storage bins,” she explains. Although she consulted several interior designers, Shireen followed her own instincts. “I like light,” she says. “Instead of multi-layered window treatments, I chose simple panels with pelmets, often studded with nailheads.”
One particular challenge came with the search for new bathroom fixtures. “The hardest part was finding new fixtures that looked old, but didn’t cost a fortune,” she says.
Shireen and Gary finished the enormous undertaking in September 2007, just in time for the formal debut of the reborn Silas W. Robbins House in a two-week-long house tour organized to benefit a youth facility built in memory of a local 9/11 victim. Chaired by the governor, staffed by more than 200 volunteers, and attended by more than 4,000 visitors, the tour was a massive project befitting the scale of the Robbins House.
John and Shireen’s first paying guests arrived in their home soon after, and they now host a steady stream of visitors in five en suite bedrooms. John goes to his day job as president of a medical information company, while Shireen manages the bed-and-breakfast business. The guestbook overflows with appreciative comments.
Reflecting on the massive project, Shireen quotes another Connecticut owner of a big, beautiful house. “Mark Twain said, ‘In order to be successful at anything, you have to be both ignorant and confident,’” she laughs. “I don’t regret doing it, but I would not do it again.”
Her husband agrees. The process was long, arduous, and expensive. “But looking back,” he says, “I see that we saved a piece of Wethersfield history.”Published in: Old-House Journal October/November 2011