Old house on Unquowa to get new look
Published 1:05 am, Wednesday, November 18, 2009
When winter comes, Debbie Hanrahan's childhood home gets abnormally cold. These days, corn cobs stuffed in the walls are not the usual means of insulation.
"Oil bills are high for now," said Hanrahan, pointing to a wall of peeling paint. "This place is a little further along than band-aids. My husband says it's the only house he's ever been in with a wind-chill factor."
The house -- a large, white Saltbox on the corner of Unquowa Road and Mill Plain Road -- presents myriad challenges for its residents. The kitchen ceiling is a little more than 6 feet high. Hanrahan's husband is 6-foot-4. The tops of doorways are often slanted. The floorboards creak and in several spots they sag. Stepping on one section near the front staircase gives the feeling that one is about to create a new shortcut to the cellar.
"It's got every problem under the sun," said Dean Kardamis, a building constructor in town. "With one more heavy snowfall the roof could collapse."
Come January, Kardamis and his crew will begin what he calls the project of a lifetime: dismantling the roughly 260-year-old home and rebuilding it as painstakingly as possible: storing mantles, beams, floorboards and chimney parts in the backyard, and re-inserting them into a modernized, hospitable, identical-looking home.
The house that David Barlow built in the 18th-century is set for an overhaul.
"The house could be just knocked down and a new one built," said Kardamis. "She doesn't need to do this. But she wants the original house she grew up in, but safe and energy efficient."
Once finished -- the house should take six months to rebuild, though longer to furnish -- Hanrahan will move back in with her husband.
"Every once in a while, in any business, you get a certain customer who wants to do a certain project -- and is willing to spend the money -- that you've really always wanted to do," said Kardamis. "And this is it. This is like a flagship project for any builder."
"Oh, I just can't stand it," Hanrahan said. "We're very excited."
Although Hanrahan is not certain when exactly the house was built, she has a copy of a pamphlet put together in 1935 to celebrate the 300th birth-year of Fairfield that places it somewhere in the mid-1700s.
The pamphlet said, "This is the farm home of David Barlow, who called himself `cidevant farmer' when he moved to northwest corner of Old Post Road and put up a stone with that on, in 1790."
In the mid-1800s, another historical document stated, it was occupied by the farmer Ebenezer Burr. But Hanrahan's familial connection to the home, located at 1024 Unquowa Road, begins a century later.
Her mother, Dorothy Savacool, grew up on a working farm in Vermont. There, she went to school with two other girls in a one-room schoolhouse. Her family relocated to Fairfield in time for her to enroll at Roger Ludlowe High School (then in the building that's now Tomlinson Middle School). Coming down from Greenfield Hill one day, Hanrahan said, her mother saw the house and decided she'd live there some day.
"That was my mother," Hanrahan says. "They sang `I Did it my Way' at her funeral.'"
True to her word, in 1955, Dorothy moved into the home with her husband, David Savacool, and their two children, Debbie and her older brother Doug.
Hanrahan fondly remembers long hours spent in the downstairs in front of one of the three fireplaces that converge into a single chimney that rises out of the center of the house. (The chimneys will be kept, explained Kardamis, and are a focal point.) The Christmas tree, she said, stood by the bookcases that separate the living room from the kitchen. Every year, everyone sat in the same spot. Doug would bring a yule-log.
Then there was the outside decorating: "My mother took a fake Christmas tree, cut it in half, decorated it, and hung it on the front door," Hanrahan says. "Since we started telling people that we were taking on this project they've been asking if we will keep putting on the Christmas tree."
And will she?
"Absolutely," she said. "My mother should have patented it. Years later we went to Gloria's [a store] in Milford and actually saw one."
The biggest change between the area in the 1950s and today is traffic, Hanrahan says. On Monday evening, it took a couple of minutes for her to back out of the driveway.
"It's much worse when school's getting out," she said.
She can recall two times, over the years, that cars have flown down Mill Plain Road, missed the curve outright and plowed into the front yard, she said. One took down a tree; the other crashed into the house.
Downstairs in the living room, Hanrahan explained some of the house's charm.
"We used to joke that you could be in the second floor and tell that the basement light was on because you could see through the cracks in the floorboards," she said.
At this, she crouched down with a guest and yanked a corner of the carpet with a screwdriver and a pike. The nails gave way and the carpet pulled back. The floorboards were dark wood and looked to be in good condition. They were over 16 inches wide. Something shone in the basement.
"See? The light's on down there!" she said.