Let’s go back to those early years. Before the big house came down, nail by nail, board by board, beam by beam. Before all those truckloads of old timber rumbled through the quiet center of Middletown, Connecticut. Before the tree clearing and the dirt moving. Before the curious onlookers came to see what all the […]
By Ian Aldrich
Apr 27 2015
The restored house as it stands today in its new spot.Photo Credit : Keller + Keller
Let’s go back to those early years. Before the big house came down, nail by nail, board by board, beam by beam. Before all those truckloads of old timber rumbled through the quiet center of Middletown, Connecticut. Before the tree clearing and the dirt moving. Before the curious onlookers came to see what all the fuss was about and then stayed to help out. Before family and friends poured time into the project, too. Certainly before the old home and barn went up again, looking just as straight and true as they had when they were originally built in 1810.
Let’s go back to that chilly December day in 1974 when Tammy and Doug Mackeown got their first look at what would become their new home. Yes, it needed a lot of work. And yes, the signs that it had sat vacant were clearly evident. But as the newlyweds stepped around the garbage, past the blown-out windows, the torn-apart staircase, and the beat-up plaster walls, a charge ran through them. This can be done, they kept telling each other. We can do this.
And so they did. Over the next five years the young couple took down the old barn, then the center-chimney Federal house, and rebuilt both on a country road across town. There were mistakes and mishaps, and, of course, long days. Work began after work, and then churned through weekends and vacations. They’d return home late at night, collapse into bed, exhausted, muscles aching, but ready to do it all over again the next day.
“We were pretty determined,” Tammy says. “And young. And we really wanted to own an old house.”
This isn’t the first time that the Mackeowns’ house has appeared in Yankee. The Moseyer wrote about it for our “House for Sale” column in our December 1974 issue. It was a curious property to feature. The boarded-up windows and vandalized interior made it more of a candidate for bulldozing than rebuilding. In fact, only a last-minute reprieve saved barn and home from becoming a training exercise for the local fire department.
But the bones of the buildings were sound: no sloping rooflines, still-sturdy support beams. Sure, a lot of good stuff was gone—part of that staircase, for example, the radiators, and all the copper piping—but many original details, such as the thumb latches on all the doors, remained. Even the Moseyer couldn’t help but gush a little.
“[The house] has an excellent fieldstone foundation and three fireplaces, one of which takes up an entire wall,” he wrote. “The barn has a few missing floorboards but, like the house, is in pretty darn good condition.” Both could be had, he added, “for a smile, a hearty handshake, and your signature.”
Well, not quite. The buildings sat on land owned by Northeast Utilities, which wanted the property for a new power plant. But in a last-ditch effort to save the structures, the Greater Middletown Preservation Trust took on their stewardship and proposed a unique real-estate deal to potential buyers: House and barn were free, as long as the new owners would pay to dismantle them and restore both to their original condition in a new spot within the town.
The Mackeowns read that Yankee story. Then read it again. Both had grown up in old houses; Tammy on the Cape, Doug in Schenectady, New York. And both knew what could be involved in restoring them. Tammy’s father made his living dismantling and rebuilding old structures, while Doug had helped his mother rehab old barns before he attended the University of Vermont. While at the school, he helped convert an old farmhouse into a ski club and dormitory. But the couple, newly married and recently minted Connecticut residents, lacked one important thing: money.
“Old houses were starting to become expensive, and we just weren’t sure how we were going to be able to afford one,” says Tammy, who recently retired as the longtime food-services director for Aetna.
Some 40 people put their names in for the place, but the Mackeowns stood out. Their application included a three-ring binder, several inches thick, outlining their plans for the property. There were blueprints that Doug’s mom, an architect, had put together; descriptions of the land to which they would relocate the buildings; and a breakdown of the home’s details (the trim work, the big center chimney) and how they planned to restore them.
The Trust awarded the Mackeowns the buildings in early 1975, and that April they began prying off the first roof boards from the barn and loading them onto a beat-up Ford 350 flatbed that Doug bought for $500. Back and forth that old truck went, over the Connecticut River, carrying doors and trim, siding and beams, floorboards and mantels. You couldn’t miss it, especially when the house’s main carrying beam, all 40 feet of it, came through the heart of Middletown.
During those first couple of years, the couple lead dual lives. Rebuilding at one site, taking down at the other. “Vandals kept targeting the old property,” Doug recalls. “They’d knock the door down and we’d have to put it back up. That first Halloween I spent the whole night at the site because there were rumors that a bunch of kids were going to go through the house.”
By February 1978, the barn was finished and the home’s skeleton structure had been erected. Two years later, much of the rest of the heavy lifting—the insulation, electrical, and plumbing—was complete, letting the Mackeowns move into the still-unfinished house. They moved from room to room, putting down flooring, plastering the walls. On cold, raw days they made up for the lack of central heat by getting the fireplaces roaring with the old lathe they’d pulled off the house.
In time, their project became a community home-raising of sorts, too. The local paper wrote about its progress, and the Mackeowns gave slide-show talks to local historical groups. At the job site one summer afternoon, a stranger rode up on a bike and offered to help; he became a mainstay for the next several years. Another dropped off a load of wood shingles; no note, no name. A local carpenter came out of retirement to build exact replicas of the original window sashes. A different builder made replacement trim boards, creating individual blades for the many molds.
Even their new neighbors embraced the project. On hot summer afternoons a woman down the street brought a tray of iced tea and cookies. A crew of locals helped place the home’s big beams. A neighboring couple let Doug and Tammy tap into their water and electricity and never charged a cent; for years, Knowles Road had a hose and several long wires running across it.
Family and friends turned out, too. A buddy from New York did all the excavation. Tammy’s father installed the beams. Doug’s grandmother pulled nails from old windows and doors. Cousins, aunts, and uncles all put in time. There were work parties and euphoric shouts whenever they reached a major milestone. At times the whole endeavor felt more like a celebration than actual labor.
Five years went by like that. And then late in 1980, just when the house was about done, Doug’s company transferred him to Alaska. Tammy stayed behind for six months, plastering and painting, prettying the place for tenants before joining her husband. Five years later, with a young son in tow and a daughter on the way, the Mackeowns moved back and moved into their finished home. “As much as we loved Alaska,” Tammy says, “we were just so happy to be home.”
Today, it takes a good eye for detail to know that the home’s property isn’t its original land. It sits on a country road populated by big maples and other historic homes, including a large center-chimney Federal directly across the street. So many of the details—the original clapboards, every brick from the big center chimney, the chestnut floorboards, those thumb latches, even the small upstairs bedrooms—have been preserved. “We put a lot of research and care into making sure things remained the same,” Tammy says. “We didn’t just go, ‘We can’t find dampers so we’ll make the fireplaces bigger.’”
But look a little more closely and there are subtle signs that this house has had a facelift: the modern wiring and central heat, the air conditioning, the tall basement ceilings, the insulated attic and walls. It’s the perfect blend: a house that looks old but doesn’t operate like it.
“We’ve had people who grew up here come back and they’re scratching their heads,” Doug says. “ ‘I don’t remember a house being here. I thought I knew this street.’ But the smarter ones look at the house and realize it’s too square, too plumb-looking, to have been here the whole time.”