There’s a huge granite millstone paving the way to the front door of Skinner Mill, the house in Wells, Maine, that Tom Joyal, of Old House Parts,built for Elaine Triplett and Bob McLaughlin. A small white dog named Tarragon is jumping up and down on it, barking loudly. The sound of Branch Brook, which runs under the house, babbles below the sound of the dog, and though the dog soon quiets down, the water is never silent.
The 1840 building that became this highly unusual home was “totally trashed” when they found it, says Bob, as he bids us enter. “My wife would not come in. She said it was the worst thing she’d ever seen; but I looked at the land and saw what it could be.” He also saw that building was going to call for creativity. Strict zoning laws required new construction to fit on the mill ‘s old footprint, a less-than-generous 30-foot square. Fortunately “I like art,” Bob explains, “and I believe in giving an artist the freedom to create.”
Enter Tom Joyal, who took the injunction “do your best,” and gave the couple a timeless house, at once vaguely 19th century and aggressively modern, made from bits and parts of more than a hundred old buildings.
The paneled ceiling of the entryway once graced a drugstore in Guilford, Maine. Some of the window sashes are from Newburyport, Massachusetts. Origins of the hand-planed pine crown molding that runs around the kitchen are now lost in the mists of time (Tom had the stuff in storage for years), but he clearly remembers the barn from which the stair rails came. They are simple, smooth poles, still suggestive of the small trees they once were. “I don’t know what they were used for,” he says. “Tool handles, maybe. I just thought they were beautiful.”
The house is full of Joyal touches: from circa-1870 bin pulls on the kitchen drawers to old doors everywhere. “Never buy a new door” is one of his cardinal rules for home builders. The old ones are stronger, handsomer (and sold in his shop).
“We did ask for a few things,” Bob admits. For instance, “we wanted the bedroom windows to be low so we could lie in bed and look at the river.”
The primary contribution of the original building was the design theme of open space and archways, a theme that repeats throughout. “The view through the window is through the window – down to the marsh,” Bob shows me as I leave, briefly touching the arched frame, now glass-free, that divides the small entryway from the kitchen while leaving a clear line of sight through the window over the (antique) soapstone sink.
Back at Tom Joyal’s shop I ask, “Where does all this stuff come from?” Tom pauses to reflect, but just for a moment.
“There are a lot of vacant churches,” he offers. But though there is one old kneeling bench and plenty of what looks like religious fenestration, most of this material doesn’t look exactly ecclesiastical. Sure enough, Tom admits, “the biggest source of architectural salvage in Maine right now is Rite Aid.” From a business standpoint, it makes sense for them to go in and take things down fast. “If people knew what was going to happen,” he says reasonably, “they might try to preserve the buildings, and whether they succeeded or not, they’d slow things down in ways Rite Aid would find expensive and troublesome. A salvage operation is usually all that stands between such buildings and outright demolition. Preservationists should hesitate before throwing stones.”
“There’s definitely an art to demolition. Among other things, you don’t want a building to fall on anybody,” he goes on, “but dismantling is another story altogether. I’ve got a crew of seven or eight guys who are basically just builders doing everything in reverse. There aren’t that many special tools; it’s more a matter of knowing how things are put together so you can take them apart.”
And apart is where the money is, unfortunately. While Tom is sometimes able to keep a roomful of paneling together or see a whole set of windows leave the shop in concert, most buyers want only fragments. Consider, for instance, the elegant ebony grand piano, circa 1840, which on the day of my visit has been reduced to a big black box, lying on its narrow side against a vast file of doors.
“I got that piano in payment for a debt, and I’ve had it for five years. I tried everything, offered it all over for 250 bucks. No one would buy it-the sound was never too good on those old square grands. Finally I sold the legs and the fret-carved music stand for way more than I wanted for the whole thing; they’re going on a new Steinway. A piano-repair specialist will buy the ivory keys, and someone will probably buy the wood, too.”
In other words, don’t think of this as vandalism; think of it as organ transplant. Tom gets cross when people accuse him of being a butcher. “Butchery is when you go into a standing house and change it all around. What I’m doing is closer to recycling,” he says, showing me a new use for an old safe deposit box. Turn it on its side, screw it to the kitchen wall, and presto-instant spice cabinet.
A picker pulls up outside. Rite Aid may deliver the big stuff, but pickers are a steady source, tentacles reaching into yard sales all over the state. The picker, a pleasant fellow named Fred, pulls out a box of assorted hardware, most of which I’d probably dismiss as junk. Shows what I know. As Tom goes through the box of miscellany, I realize this shop is, among other things, a singles bar for doorknobs. He has thousands and can discourse at length on the social significance of various doorknob materials.
“People would use a set like this downstairs, in the front parlor,” he explains, showing off a pair of crystal beauties. “The ceramic ones might go on the family’s bedroom doors, the metal ones on the maids’ rooms. Or you often found crystal on the front-hall side of a door, something less grand inside the room itself.”
Call him a historian of small things, an anatomist of old houses – call him a philistine, if you must. Just don’t call him a destroyer. No matter how much he tears down, he’s saving a lot of neat stuff.
Excerpt from “3 Ways to Love an Old House,” Yankee Magazine, March 2000