House For Sale: Winchester, Massachusetts

If you were planning to move to a town in the immediate Boston area, Winchester would have to be one of the top choices on your list. It’s a town known for its great schools, quality community life, and fine (and, sure, […]

By The Yankee Moseyer

Apr 10 2007

Garden Area

Looking across a garden area toward the chicken house (out of sight). Winchester residents may keep as many as 24 chickens — as long as there are no roosters. (In other words, crowing is forbidden!)

If you were planning to move to a town in the immediate Boston area, Winchester would have to be one of the top choices on your list. It’s a town known for its great schools, quality community life, and fine (and, sure, expensive) homes, and of course, it’s an easy 15- to 20-minute commute to downtown.

On the other hand, if your happiness depends on being in the country with no other houses in sight, where you can have a goat and a few chickens and be surrounded by old trees and stone walls, well, guess you’d better cross Winchester off your list. But wait! Not so fast!

Believe it or not, we’ve moseyed onto a chunk of historical, true country property right in the heart of suburban Winchester. The house is a three-story, nine-room Georgian-style farmhouse built in 1711, set back 120 feet off Ridge Street atop a hill and surrounded by so many magnificent old trees — including an 80-foot catalpa and ancient 15-foot-high rhododendrons — that there’s complete privacy. No other houses in sight. Also on the property is an office/garage/workshop, once a barn, with a 30-foot tower from which you can see over the trees to Boston; a tree house that would be any child’s dream; and the cutest little house that’s home to a batch of chickens.

One rainy morning, we paid a visit to owners David Pill, an architect originally from Newton; his wife, Hillary Maharam, a landscape designer from New York; their two young children, Jake and Liza; and their Alaskan husky, Maizie, who was limping around on a bandaged foot, hurt earlier that day on something she stepped on while romping around in the nature preserve that separates the property from Vinson Owen Elementary School. When they bought the property in 1994, they became only the second family to own it in almost 300 years.

The day before our visit, we’d read a long history of the property David had sent to us and noted that the occupations of the various descendants of the original family included surveyors, house wrights, a tanner, a wheelwright, teamsters, a butcher, a cordwainer (maker of leather goods, mostly shoes), church deacons, town clerks, and an Army commander who fought Indians in nearby Billerica. Of course, all of them were farmers, too.

The history also mentions that the property consisted of 103 acres in 1743, 68 acres in 1886, and 64 acres in 1922. It’s now just 1.26 acres. The original Johnson/Thompson family sold off most of the land in 1966 when a few Winchester suburban types (who, no doubt, were brought up in a city) made it plain they didn’t enjoy the sounds of farm animals nor the smell of manure spread over the fields every spring. But at least the remaining land cannot be divided any further. The Johnson/Thompson family had that stipulation put into the deed.

As we settled ourselves with cups of tea around the dining room table, we asked what had brought the family to Winchester 13 years ago. “This property brought us [here],” Hillary replied, adding that they’d been living in Brookline (a town surrounded by the city of Boston) at the time but were looking for “more of a country place.” When David answered a small ad in a local newspaper that said, “Old historic house, country setting, apple trees, old farm” and then discovered it was in Winchester, they could hardly believe it.

“The house itself needed a lot of work,” said Hillary, “but fixing up a place was what we wanted to do.” They replaced ceilings and windows, installed new wiring and plumbing, redid floors, installed a new boiler, put on a new roof, relined the four Count Rumford fireplaces with stainless steel, and then, besides all that sort of thing, David designed and built bookshelves, window benches, and such. They left the basic layout of the house intact, with the exception of opening up one wall from the living room into the dining room.

Since the only bathroom is upstairs, they considered converting the present storage area, woodshed, and laundry room off the good-size kitchen into a bathroom, family room — maybe even a master bedroom suite. It’s possible, they conceded, that new owners would want to do that.

As to the outside, they cleared large areas of brambles, uncovering blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry bushes. They also established a fully fenced vegetable garden as well as perennial gardens, repaired the old stone walls, put in an evergreen privacy hedge along Ridge Street, and provided tender, loving care to the larch, dogwood, catalpa, peach, pear, and apple trees as well as the various evergreens and the many mature flowering shrubs.

Next on our agenda that morning was a brief tour. We began by walking out one of the dining room doors onto a large cement-floored, glassed-in porch where, Hillary told us, she loves to have her lunch. (You can also walk from the dining room into the kitchen or, through the hall they opened up during renovations, the living room.) We marveled at the huge size of the birch tree just outside. A couple of doves were huddled together on one of the lower branches, enduring the rain.

“That birch was planted right after the Hurricane of ’38,” David told us. As to the doves, he said the property is home to many of them — as well as hundreds of other birds, including owls. “Lots of bunnies here, too,” he added.

We didn’t see the cellar. Just peered down some stairs to it. “I wouldn’t care if I never went down there,” said Hillary. But David said he loved the cellar, pointing out that the old rock foundations and huge supporting beams give a real sense of the place’s long history.

They agreed about their favorite room in the house, however. “It’s without a doubt our bedroom,” they said almost together. Once up there on the second floor, we could see why. It’s large, has windows on three sides (one of which overlooks the biggest catalpa tree we’ve ever seen), and has access to a large bathroom. And, oh yes, there’s a fireplace on the one wall without windows. Jacob’s nearby bedroom, filled with lovely furniture made by his father, and Liza’s room are also spacious and full of light.

On the third floor are Hillary’s office, a playroom, and a large, loftlike room in one corner of which was a professional set of drums. “Great way to relieve tension,” David explained with a smile.

A couple minutes later, crouching under a couple of umbrellas, we scooted across lawns, past the tree house and the chickens’ house, to David’s truly fabulous studio (reborn from the old barn), which also includes a workshop and garage. The studio part, with solid windows across the entire front, has roughly 600 square feet of uninterrupted space beneath a 13-foot-high cathedral ceiling. In the back is a bathroom and kitchenette. We were tempted to go out a back door to climb the tower, but with the sides and third floor (top) of it completely open to the elements, we decided, well, maybe another time.

Back in the main house a bit later, preparing to leave, we had to know why they had decided to sell. (They’re asking $1,295,000.) “The lure of the rural landscape has always been pulling at us,” replied Hillary, “and now that we no longer need to commute into Boston, we are finally giving in to it.” She said that when the opportunity came along to buy 44 acres of land in northern Vermont, where they plan to build a zero-energy home, they couldn’t resist. “Ironically,” David added, “exactly the same thing that led us to this property has also now taken us away.”

So it is that Winchester’s Johnson/Thompson House, as it is known to local historians — the oldest house in town, on land that, although shrunken, hasn’t changed much in more than 250 years — is now ready to take on its third family since 1711. And, you know, that was exactly 21 years before George Washington was born.

For more details, contact Nancy O’Herron at Coldwell Banker, 3 Church St., Winchester, MA. 781-729-7290;