Restoring an Abandoned House

Fixing up an abandoned house became a healing act for this owner, at a time of personal change. Delightful surprises were to be found along the way.

“I was in and out of all sorts of places, and nothing struck my fancy,” says Sallie Dunham–Davis. “But this house became a labor of love, a project of healing for me.” She’d begun house hunting after going through a divorce.

When Sallie Dunham–Davis removed a rotting front porch (a later addition), this beautiful front door was revealed. The window sashes are new, but casings are original.

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This house, with about 1400 square feet, was built in 1804 in Milford, New York, about eight miles from Cooperstown. Dunham–Davis speculates that it might have served as a barn, at first, seasonally housing farm animals. By the time she saw it, the Federal-era survivor was in rough shape.

“No one had lived here for several years,” she recalls. “The windows were broken, the front porch was falling off, the foundation under the kitchen was gone, and the mechanicals were outdated or non-existent. The wiring was downright dangerous. 

In the front parlor of the 1804 house, early-19th-century stencils were discovered during renovation, and have been preserved.

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“But when I walked in, what I saw were the 22-inch-wide pine floorboards and the original pantry.”

A clinical social worker with a private practice, Dunham–Davis says that she’s always been drawn to old houses, inspired by her antiques-loving mother. This house looked decrepit, but she saw past that to its timber-frame construction and classical proportions, those floorboards and period woodwork. She decided that it could be the home she wanted to establish for herself, with room for her grown children and grandchildren when they came to visit. 

The living-room fireplace occupies space where a door once led outside. Owner Sallie Dunham–Davis designed the fireplace surround and used old chimney bricks for the firebox. It holds a gas stove.

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“The house inspector, who kept on giving me bad news, called me up to the attic to show me the pegged frame. ‘Look how straight it is . . . this house was built really well’, he said.”

Sallie bought the property in 2007 and spent the next year and a half working on it. She removed the later-addition porches, revealing a Greek Revival-period door surround. She installed new systems and a new roof, rebuilt the foundation under the kitchen, and installed a new kitchen. She took down a wall to open the dining room to the kitchen. The old ceiling beams were exposed and a new fireplace built with salvaged old bricks. Dunham–Davis built a new staircase, installed a full bathroom downstairs, and converted a small upstairs bedroom into a bath. In October of 2008, she finally moved in.

Sallie Dunham–Davis removed one wall; now the view from the kitchen looks into the adjacent dining room and the living room beyond. The color red is repeated throughout the interior.

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Along the way, she met Timothy Northup, an antiques dealer and lighting designer, and he collaborated with her on the interior design. Before the house was finished, the two became romantic partners. (Northup’s own 1820s house nearby was featured in the January 2018 of Old-House Journal.) 

Another surprising bonus was wall art that had been hidden. When Sallie removed 20th-century paneling from the walls of the front parlor, early folk-art stencils were revealed.

The dining room features a table painted with blue milk paint.

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“No one knew they were there,” she marvels. “The stenciling was most likely done by an itinerant artist in the early 19th century.”

Her interior decorating, she says, was driven by a desire to play up the warm tones in the pine floors and bricks. To that end, she chose red fabric for the window treatments, which she stitched herself. The color echoes in the saturated red of the sofa, and repeats in such details as a red-painted kitchen stool.

Window treatments were designed and sewn by the homeowner.

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The original pine pantry is a special source of pride. Just inside the front door and across from the new staircase, it lines the wall leading into the kitchen. “The post that forms the corner of the pantry is oak, and it’s massive,” she says. “The boards in back are very wide, and the pine front is faux-painted.”

With a massive oak corner post, faux painting, and cherry knobs, the wall pantry is a prized part of the house.

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The new kitchen has soapstone counters and a vaulted ceiling with skylights. Bracketed hoods above the kitchen windows provide shelves for displaying country collectibles. Hooked rugs, baskets, and pottery from Northup’s gallery furnish the kitchen. 

“This house is very restorative,” says Sallie Dunham–Davis. “During the holidays, when we have a gas fire going and I’m entertaining and preparing food, it’s such a joyful, comfortable place.”

The bedrooms on the second floor became bright and spacious with raised ceilings and skylights.

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Inside the front door, a rebuilt staircase rises to the upper floor, and a hall leads to the renovated kitchen at the rear. A pegboard and bench are opposite the old, built-in wall pantry.

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A pegboard and a yellow-painted bench provide simple storage inside the front entry.

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interior design Tim Northup, Northup Gallery
restoration John Hoffmann, Oneonta, NY
kit. design/install Bob Goble through Munson Building Supplies, Oneonta, NY
kit. cabinets KraftMaid
countertops Vermont Soapstone
ext. paint clapboards Windham Cream HC-6 • trim Dorset Gold HC-8 • doors Georgian Brick HC-50, all Benjamin Moore
int. paint walls Atrium White PM-13 • trim Clay Beige OC-11 • mantel Barrington Green HC-122 • stencil-room walls Jute AF-80 • trim Thicket AF-405, all Benjamin Moore
custom paint-color schemes, all eras & styles The Color People

Tags: OHJ October 2021

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