All photos/art by Hornick/Rivlin
It all started with a crooked-looking bay window in 1999. More than a decade on, that’s how Chris Allen remembers it. The window, made out of two old cabinet doors, was just a small part of a grand old house in downtown Groton, Massachusetts, that Chris passed each day as he made the daily drive from his home in Concord to Pepperell, where a horse of his was stabled.
“It just seemed to be calling to me,” Chris says. “It just made me want to find out what else was there.”
So he tried to do just that, slowing down just enough every morning to take in a little more detail. There was the way the house sat back from Main Street, tucked away from the traffic. The varying roof heights appealed to him. So did the seemingly forgotten yard, which sloped and meandered before butting up against a wall of trees. Even the crooked house lines drove his interest.
Finally, after a year, Chris paid a visit to a nearby real estate office and told an agent that if the place ever came up for sale, he’d love to talk to the owners. “Funny you should say that,” she told him. “I just got off the phone with them, and they’re thinking about selling.”
Let’s step back a moment. You see, this isn’t the first time this property has appeared in Yankee. In April 1950, in response to reader requests to feature homes that were actually on the market, our magazine took action.
“For some months now, we have been running, as you know, pictures and a story of some attractive house in [New England],” editor Richard Merrifield wrote in that month’s issue. “Naturally, this sort of story would not be as interesting as a similar story of a house actually for sale–one YOU could do something about.”
And with that, the genesis for Yankee‘s long-running “House for Sale” column was born.
In 1950 the property was the home of Robert Sturtevant, former director of the recently shuttered Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, an all-women’s institution in Groton and the first of its kind in the country. Sturtevant’s 115-year-old home was a patched-together place, a series of carriage and wagon sheds that years ago had been turned into “a dwelling with rooms blithely located at five different levels,” the Yankee Moseyer wrote.
Handmade doors adorned the place. There was an artist’s studio, a large “summer” room, and, under Sturtevant’s hand, a beautifully landscaped yard. “If you’re an imaginative family,” the Moseyer added, “this house could be fun.” The owner’s asking price: $16,900.
The property eventually sold–then sold again–and then a few more times. By the time Chris and his wife, Ellen Allen, owners of a successful printer repair and service company, decided to buy it in 2000, the value of the place had jumped to $350,000.
It had also fallen into severe disrepair. Old carpeting plagued the house. A decrepit roof was blanketed with 16 layers of tarpaper. The heating system was wheezing toward its finish. And a major support beam that ran between a couple of upstairs bedrooms had been cut in half for purely aesthetic reasons. Adding to it all was the general old-house feel of the place: small rooms, low ceilings, little light. “It was a knockdown,” Chris says.
And, in other hands, it might have been. For the next seven years, the Allens lived with a constant stream of construction crews. While the couple took up residence on the first floor, the upstairs was completely rehabbed. New support beams were installed. Two narrow bedrooms were opened up and turned into one large master bedroom. A new bath was added. And the roof was not only redone but raised 16 inches.
Downstairs, the rehab work was even more intense. Structural issues had resulted in the house’s running 9 inches out of plumb between living room and kitchen: a diagonal path for a good 40 feet. To secure the place, workers jacked up the house, constructed a new road into the property to bring in heavy equipment, and then dug out a new basement, where I-beams and new sills were installed. “At one point we had our washing machine outside,” Ellen says, recalling some of the more disruptive periods of the work.
Today, though, a walk through this home reveals just what drew the Allens to the property. Rooms meander from one to the next, and the large porch off the back, sitting high above the yard, can, on a summer day with the dogwood, magnolias, oaks, and maples in full foliage, give the impression that you’ve sneaked away to some secluded tree hut.
There are the little details, too, which the couple chose to complement and enhance, rather than override. Trim style and archways that existed during Robert Sturtevant’s residence have been replicated in other parts of the house. French roll-out windows in the dining room have been redone. Small cabinetry, including an old telephone booth and a milk cupboard, have been restored. Even that bay window, which started everything off, has been straightened out.
All of which raises the question: Would the Allens have taken on the house if they’d known of the time and money involved? “Never,” Chris says. “I would have been scared off.” Then a smile percolates, and it’s easy to tell he’s not being entirely truthful. “This is the house I’ll die in,” he adds. “I love it. I love its uniqueness.”