March 10, 2016

S.O.S. - Amazing Colonial Restoration Opportunity - 8 Ferris Hill Rd., New Canaan, CT

Jenny and I learned last week that a beautiful c.1735 house in the neighboring town of New Canaan is under the threat of demolition.  This is a spectacular house - one of the oldest in New Canaan - sitting on a gorgeous lot on one of the most picturesque streets in the area.  If one were to conjure up an image of old New England, the Hoyt-Burwell-Morse house might immediately spring to mind.

See for yourself - the property's owner has a nice site with some great pictures of the house:

I had an opportunity to tour the house two years ago, and was immediately blown away by how similar it is to our own home.  Although our house is larger by one bay, and while the two structures apparently were constructed around 50 years apart, they could be siblings.  Both are classic saltboxes, with massive chimney stacks, nearly identical room layouts, and an unusual stairway placement that diverges significantly from the typical-for-the-time center staircase.  The visible framing details, including the raised plate on the rear of the second floor, are also eerily similar. The original cooking hearths in both homes appear completely identical, down to the beautifully dressed stonework and the bake oven located in the back right corner of the enormous firebox.  I was interested to learn this week that the house (8 Ferris Hill Road) has the same large beehive bake oven located in the basement that our house possesses.  This is a particularly unusual feature that has elicited surprise from several architectural historians who have visited our property.

Our cooking hearth - near replica of the 8 Ferris Hill hearth

But for the 50 years between their believed construction dates, I would swear that both buildings must have been designed or built by the same individual.  As it is, I think that it is entirely possible that the Ferris Hill house might have been an inspiration for our house.  And while maybe a stretch, it is not impossible that they were designed or constructed by the same housewright, or by two individuals who worked together during the 18th century.  Given that the Ferris Hill house is literally "up the road" from our house, particularly by the standards of rural 18th century Norwalk/New Canaan, it is almost inconceivable that the inhabitants of the two houses were not well-known to each other (and probably related in some way, as was common at the time).  I can almost hear Enos and Lydia Kellogg planning their house in 1784 and deciding that they wanted a house "like the old Hoyt house up on Ferris Hill."

What strikes me when I think about our house and 8 Ferris Hill is the fact that while all historic buildings have something to teach us on their own, these structures, acting in concert, can teach us even more.  For example, we felt that it was critically important to restore our c.1784 barn because the barn and house, together, tell a far richer story about farm life in 18th century Norwalk than either one ever could on its own.  Similarly, having a house like 8 Ferris Hill enriches the story of our own house.  I know this to be true at a micro level - given their unusual stylistic similarities, original details that I observed in a 45 minute tour of 8 Ferris Hill answered a number of questions about our house that had long puzzled me - questions for which I probably never would have arrived at a satisfactory answer otherwise.  

More broadly, a seven minute drive along the ancient Indian trail that is now Ponus Avenue (where we live) in Norwalk, and Carter Street and Canoe Hill Road in New Canaan, provides one with an amazing, albeit condensed, tour of the evolution of rural Connecticut architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries. Removing any one of the antique homes along this four mile stretch, by definition, diminishes the story of how this area was settled, flourished, and evolved, and how our ancestors lived and interacted.  The damage is particularly acute when one ponders the destruction of a truly unique resource like 8 Ferris Hill.  Having sat at its current location for 280 years, this structure, to one degree or another, informs our understanding of every other building in the area from 1735 to today.

Obviously, this house struck a major chord with me, and to know that it might be demolished turns my stomach.  In no small part, this is because the parallels between this house and the Enos Kellogg Homestead remind me of how easily our house could have faced the wrecking ball if we had not come along at the right time.  Moreover, in our house, I see an example of what the Ferris Hill house could be in the hands of the right person.  Unfortunately, the clock is ticking fast.  While the property's owner has made it clear that he sincerely wants the house saved, the realities of a subdued real estate market, zoning regulations, the relatively small pool of antique house lovers with the money and vision to take on such a restoration project, and the inexplicable obsession in Fairfield County with newer, bigger, flashier McMansions (with as many rooms, gables and incongruous window styles as you can possibly cram into one dwelling) seem to be conspiring against a happy ending.  There is some hope in that New Canaan, in general, seems to be rallying around preserving the house, and a variety of options that could preserve it in its current location have been put forward. In my opinion, the best outcome would be for an individual to step forward with a plan to purchase the property and restore the house, either with or without a sympathetic addition to the structure.

So, if anyone out there knows of someone who might be interested in an opportunity to do something extraordinary, please reach out to them.  If anyone thinks that a house like this cannot be saved, I invite you to come for a tour of our place, which was in only superficially better condition than 8 Ferris Hill when we moved in.  If anyone thinks that a house like 8 Ferris Hill cannot be made safe and, indeed, extraordinarily comfortable for a modern family, I extend the same offer.  It can be done, and the process, itself, can be as fulfilling and satisfying as the end result.