Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Another Empty House


Vermont farmer Theron Boyd became a folk hero for standing against Goliath. He inherited his grandmother's farm and held out against the Quechee development group in the 1980s in Quechee, Vermont. They wanted to buy his 1786 farm with its significant acreage--they were buying up properties all over the region for their extensive golf course, condo and country club resort. They offered him $1 million. He said, no this is my home and where am I going to go? Then they gave him a blank check. He still said no. Through many orchestrations, his family house was preserved with 30 acres of the original 500 and eventually turned over to the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation who intend to operate the house as a study property with minimal traffic.


Judy Hayward of Historic Windsor, Inc., whom I know from National Trust days way back in the 1980s, and John Dumville of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation led a tour there tonight. I've been looking forward to this for several months after hearing about the house years ago. This house is entirely empty and a blank canvas for interpretation. While some things were left with it, most items were auctioned off or purchased by the Vermont Division and put into their climate-controlled collections. The amazing thing about the Theron Boyd house is that most of it is as it was in 1786 with a few later, but minor, changes. Through benign neglect and a bit of architectural layering, the house is more or less its original self--ripped wallpaper, crumbling plaster, curling clapboards and all. Right now the Vermont Division requires significant funding to do some sensitive preservation work and stabilization--there is no intention of restoration to one period but to preserve the many layers of architectural and house history that the home conveys. There will never be attempts at reproducing the house contents for it is the shell of the untouched house that is most intriguing, that has the best story to tell.


Of course there is a pantry and what a pantry: while not full of canned goods the architectural treatment is of interest (and how many chances will I ever have to see an original pantry dating to 1786?). Long shelves have mysterious notches in them--another woman commented on those and mentioned they were also in the pantry in her early 1800s house--and a whimsical almost Gothic-like scalloped trim carved along the edges. Empty metal maple syrup cans line the bottom of the pantry and a few old food cans and jars are still there. While most everything was removed from the house, there are some vestiges of life that remain (like Theron's coat which hangs in the ell off the summer kitchen and his dentures left on a plate above the kitchen sink, to name a few things) and these items only fuel the interest in what the house was like when occupied. They are just enough to know that someone once lived here.

I am probably going to be writing an article about this house for OLD-HOUSE INTERIORS in their special EARLY HOMES issue (and the pantry will be going in my book so I can't spoil both now by writing too much or posting too many photographs). Like Drayton Hall near Charleston, this house is about the remaining palate of empty rooms and spaces. It is not so much about the people or their absent furnishings, but about the architectural picture and the mysteries or answers it presents. The house also was never electrified, plumbed or heated, except by fireplace and stove--a two-holer with its old blue door remains off the shed and one sink was eventually installed in the kitchen.

I was also struck by the many similarities to our Jaffrey farmhouse. For example, the front stairhall, while common in most center chimney Georgians (they call this a Federal and apart from the hipped roof, I see very little Federal in it--I must ask about that), had identically carved banister posts as at our farm (built in 1792). I always loved that stair landing at the farm and I enjoyed it at the Theron Boyd house, too (see photo under blog heading). In fact, for a brief moment I thought I was at the farm.

Tomorrow I will be going to meet my mother at the farm to go over issues of closure--logistic and otherwise. The phone, with its number held for over 60 years, will be turned off on August 1. Mom is already sleeping and living at her new house--I will go in that, too, for the first time. I am eager but ambivalent. I am expecting the surreal--like matter and antimatter world colliding for a brief moment in space.

A violent storm came through Vermont and New Hampshire this afternoon on our drive up to see the Theron Boyd house. We drove back home near dusk to see the most brilliant colors in the sky--pinks and grays and browns and blue sky beyond. A long cold front--from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico--has barreled through and tomorrow will be cooler, less humid, with clearer air.

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