With a light touch, a Connecticut big house–little house configuration is restored after a fire. “Good old noncombustible plaster is what saved the historic house,” says the interior designer.
gardens surrounding Federal-era farmhouse

Unfussy but pretty, the gardens surrounding the house include a private pool area and a vegetable patch.   

This story is about the rescue of an antique Connecticut farmhouse, which got a sympathetic renovation after a fire. Parts of it were severely damaged from smoke and water. Then, inspections turned up structural problems and areas that needed to be brought up to code. Happily, the main house was mostly intact. A small bath had been added many years ago, upstairs at the end of a hall, and a kitchen put into the old, one-storey ell.

“I saw a house with plenty of history to preserve,” says interior designer Sarah Blank, “yet it needed to be made functional for the 21st century.” Sarah’s clients, the Ross family, had an emotional tie to the old house and agreed to a preservation approach. “We decided to add a second floor above the ell, for a master suite to include a needed second bathroom. Although the original chestnut framing and wall boards were found insufficient by the building inspector, the wood from this area of the house was salvaged and used for decorative purposes in the rebuild.”

antique dry sink

Purchased at an estate sale, the antique dry sink with its original blue paint survived the fire and was professionally cleaned. The Victorian bird cage is a favorite piece.

Sarah Blank, a Connecticut native who continues to study classical architecture, has been involved in the restoration of houses dating back to the mid 1700s. “I’ve spent a lot of time with

Thomas Hubka’s Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn,” she says, referencing the seminal book about New England’s historic vernacular dwellings.

farmhouse family parlor

In the family parlor, the embellished mantelpiece and split door (which leads to a closet) are original, and suggest that part of the house dates to ca. 1820. 

“When I got here, I realized that this house is a jewel, with its classic simplicity untouched.” The main block is the “big house,” with a “little house” connector to a “back house” later addition. Blank insisted that the ell and back house remain secondary to the main house in size, finishes, and importance, but the original proportions carry throughout the whole.

Using the old glass, the original windows were salvaged and restored, and new windows upstairs match exactly: They are single-glazed, multi-light wood windows with lead counterweights. “We had heat-loss calculations done,” Blank explains, “and due to the thickness of exterior walls and adequate insulation, the single-glazed ‘new old’ windows meet code. The house is quite warm and cozy.”

Many interior details were restored or re-created, and many furnishings and artwork conserved. “I have to say, Chubb Group was amazing,” Sarah Blank says about the insurance carrier, who offers a historic-house policy. “The company understood the family’s love of this house and its history. They were present through the entire project.

Overshot-weave coverlets

Overshot-weave coverlets were made with a plain woven undyed cotton warp and weft; repeating geometric patterns were made with a supplementary dyed woolen weft.   

“We were able to save the original chestnut framing, which was reincorporated in the reconstruction and design,” Blank says. The restoration, including the upstairs addition and kitchen and bath remodeling, was completed in record time in 2011. “Brian Ross, the homeowner, loves this old farmhouse,” his designer says. “He wanted to preserve its architectural heritage. All new walls are real, hand-troweled, three-coat plaster on wire lath. The finish is beautiful . . . there’s no drywall anywhere. In the kitchen, new plaster walls were left unpainted.

“I am a realistic designer,” Blank says. “We are all getting older, not younger! Brian’s office on the ground floor can become the master bedroom, if necessary, in the future.” Next to it she specified an accessible bathroom with a three-foot doorway and curbless shower—the shower floor is recessed into the basement.

Decorating and furnishing was a collaborative effort between the designer and Ross. “This is a country house,” Sarah Blank explains. “In general, we returned the house to what it had been before the fire. Plain plaster walls, plain window treatments. We added bathrooms, of course, but they are naïve in their design: wood floors, very simple vanity cabinets, a built-in bathtub. Everything simple.”

Furnishings include a mix of antiques and comfortable leather and upholstered pieces. A lot of the furniture already in the house was salvageable, after being professionally cleaned and reupholstered as necessary. Artwork, too, was restored.

“The house did not have a name, as far as we knew,” says Blank. “I asked the Rosses to pick one: It’s Colinwood, in honor of their son. In so many ways, this project was a labor of love.”

Shaker style kitchen

The kitchen in the ell had to be completely rebuilt due to structural concerns. Its design was kept simple: Shaker style, honed stone, plaster walls—and almost no upper wall cabinets.   

Kitchen’s Tale

The kitchen in the ell had to be dismantled and rebuilt, in order to support the second floor, which contains the new master bedroom and bath. All the old timbers were reused in the reconstruction.

Befitting the farmhouse, the kitchen design is frank, simple, and functional. Simple cabinets have a Shaker feeling. The refrigerator is masked behind cabinet fronts. A modest island holds a prep sink and beverage cooler.

New plaster-on-lath walls in the room were left unpainted, their hard surface beautiful as-is. Neutral grey paint on the cabinets softens the transition from the pale plaster to the black-granite counters. Everything feels timeless and elemental: wood floor, metal hood, stone counters, wrought-iron hardware.

chestnut millwork

Chestnut timbers were repurposed to frame the new master bedroom. They were painted white to brighten the room. 

The Millwork

Some elements survived the fire to be cleaned and restored or reclaimed: windows, a mantelpiece (above), the back stair. The chestnut frame was largely intact and reused or repurposed. After reconstruction according to modern building codes, the interior is virtually new, but woodwork and trim were patterned after what was here before.

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