Detail Work for a Towered Italianate
A period-sensitive redo highlights the original woodwork—and charm—of a unique 1850s house
It's hard to explain an infatuation, especially when the love object is a house. By definition, infatuated means irrational—it comes from the Latin, "made a fool of"—and seems apt for various owners of an 1853 folly in Salisbury, Connecticut, called Holleywood, after the pocket-knife baron who built it.
Call him "house obsessed." Enamored of Renaissance-style Tuscan villas, Alexander Holley had to have one of his own, complete with turret and Juliet balcony. As for the equally eccentric woman he married three years later, who promptly uprooted the gorgeous three-story front-hall staircase as part of a major redo, a better term might be "house mad."
Shown: The towered Italianate, with its low-pitched roof and 1860 clapboard wing, stayed in the same family nearly 160 years before new owners salvaged and rebuilt it.
The next wave of home improvements came in 1915, when one of the Holley heirs brought plumbing indoors, electrified the lights, and swapped out the front doors for something equally modern. During the heady days of the late 1960s, another heir went at the kitchen, lowering the ceiling and burying a pantry behind a wall of trendy metal cabinets.
Luckily, though, down through the years much of the original layout and detail remained intact, including the arched crowns and crossetted corners that wrap first-floor openings and sky-high windows like frosting piped around a wedding cake. Still, it is a big house even by today's standards, built with nine bedrooms and something like 12,000 square feet, making it hard to heat and expensive to maintain—not everyone's idea, in other words, of a cozy forever house.
Shown: Homeowners Donald Ross and Helen Klein Ross relax at an informal spot outside a clapboard wing that predates the Civil War.
Which brings us to Helen Klein Ross and Donald Ross, by all accounts levelheaded empty-nesters—he a lawyer, she a novelist, with two grown daughters—who found themselves sizing up Holleywood on a lark about four years ago and suddenly signing papers to make it their own. Helen fell fast. "Rumor had it that it was a teardown," she recalls. "I could see its original grandeur underneath the holes and watermarks and wallpaper damage. I could see what it could be."
Shown: After Alexander was twice widowed, he married his third wife, Sarah Day. They added on to the house and moved the three-story staircase from the front to the back of the center hall so that it wouldn't interrupt traffic flow when Holley, newly elected governor, was having people in.
The couple had been introduced to the house by their general contractors, Robert Anderson and Ellen Burcroff, and their architect, Frank Garretson, who all recall Helen's instant, well, infatuation. "But you should have seen Donald's face," Anderson says, conceding that the drafty old house was "in really bad shape, and overwhelming."
Shown: A vintage bench catches passersby in the front hall. Above it is a remnant of a faux-marble decorative fresco that is believed to date to 1853.
General contractor: Anderson Enterprises, Sharon, CT; 860-364-5194
Architect: Frank Garretson, Sheffield, MA; 413-717-1968
Gradually, the resident skeptic came around: The limestone foundation was sound, the basement dry, and the chance to revive the villa's style and glory irresistible. Sitting on eight acres in the scenic Lakeville area, Holleywood was poised to become a road-trip magnet for friends, family, and historic-house fans. Fixing it up could be a project; it could be fun.
Shown: Homeowners Donald Ross and Helen Klein Ross found striking white-ash-and-mahogany parquet floors under decades of grime, and luminous fruitwood trim under layers of paint. The couple set aside this room, on the ground floor of the octagonal tower, as a showcase for artifacts unearthed during the redo.
Flooring contractor: Frank Monda, Sheffield, MA; 413-229-3434
Coincidentally, Anderson, Burcroff, and Garretson were just mopping up a renovation at the couple's former forever house nearby. "We were putting in a kitchen, transforming a shed into a writing room for me, getting things we'd wanted for years," Helen recalls. "We were almost finished...."
Shown: An original built-in in the tower's first-floor "museum room" holds artifacts found during the redo.
Though the couple held onto that house three more years, the team's focus swiftly shifted to Holleywood, where at first all thought they were looking at a mainly cosmetic job. "It appears that only two of the rooms require renovation: The kitchen needs updating and the master bedroom needs its own bathroom," Helen noted in a blog she began after the initial walkthrough. "The rest of the rooms will be cleaned and painted and left otherwise untouched, to preserve the integrity of the house. And also our solvency."
Shown: Craftsmen smoothed the original plaster and parquet in the dining room and polished up the ornate Greek Revival casing and window trim.
Plaster contractor: Zordan & Sons, Torrington, CT; 860-489-5938
Paint contractor: Jason Hanley, Lakeville, CT; 860-307-1965
Decorative painting: Lance Middlebrook, Millerton, NY; 518-821-4690
Anderson and Burcroff, partners for more than 30 years, are in such demand that they don't bid on jobs, preferring a pay-as-you-go policy, which turned out to be the right idea here. Who, after all, could have predicted almost two years of heavy lifting and gentle handling, not to mention extraordinary attention to detail and more than two dozen subcontractors?
Holleywood's comeback, Helen says succinctly now, "unfolded little by little."
Shown: The front parlor's substantial molding, baseboards, and trim include elliptical casing against the far wall, possibly at one time an opening within a ballroom. Paint colors throughout are custom blends based on historic palettes.
It began in that bone-dry basement, where Anderson, a dedicated repurposer, found a working oil burner and a trove of useful materials, including the original front doors. Garretson, a fellow old-house zealot, got caught up in the detective work, matching the doors to a 1908 photo and identifying an original interior opening hidden in a wall. Helen used her blog to document Holleywood's past and its rebirth, interlacing the names of Holley family members and latter-day members of the crew.
Shown: The living room has a working fireplace and a ceiling-high glass-front bookcase, a gift to the original owner, Alexander Holley.
The team left the layout pretty much as it was, simply adding two and a half baths, converting a bedroom into a laundry room, and fixing other loose ends. But the scope of the redo somehow grew and grew. Wiring, pipes, and roofing had to be replaced, chimneys rebuilt, and a kitchen built from scratch.
Shown: The living room still has its original oversize windows and shutters that fold into recesses behind the casings.
Each week seemed to yield some interesting new find. One day, while poking around in a crawl space over a china closet, Anderson spotted remnants of an Italianate frieze. Today, dinner guests like to peer in there and catch sight of it with a mirror.
Shown: The redo preserved names scratched on windowpanes in 1916 as part of a Holley family tradition.
Such discoveries energized the team's weekly meetings and also widened its circle of specialized subcontractors. Floor buffs arrived to refinish the first-floor parquet and laboriously hand-scrape hundreds of square feet of painted hickory on the second floor—a mechanical sander there would have destroyed the flooring's rustic flavor, Anderson explains. A hardware preservationist slow-cooked the paint off hundreds of hinges, knobs, and pulls; a master carpenter filled gaps in the spiral staircase's balustrade with quartersawn cherry to match.
Shown: The kitchen was gutted, then rebuilt with cabinets handcrafted from salvaged Douglas fir. Finishes include beefy soapstone countertops and 1920s subway tile.
Tile: Demolition Depot
Range and range hood: DCS
To protect the ancient, imperfect walls, workers cut holes for pipes and wiring by hand and kept insulation to a minimum. A pair of third-generation plasterers worked their way up and down and across the house, painstakingly raking, then pinning the plaster to pre–Civil War lath before mending it with fiberglass mesh and plastering again, keeping the walls' settled, uneven look. Windows—there are 103—were taken apart and sashes repaired; ornate cast-iron radiators were refinished and rejiggered so they no longer bang.
Shown: The island's soapstone countertop has an integrated sink. It faces the original walk-in pantry and a doorway to stairs connected to former servants' quarters.
Faucet: Old School Plumbing
Pendant lights: PW Vintage Lighting
You've heard of shopping your closet? Picture a 20-room spree. Light fixtures were rewired and rehung in new spots. A 1915 Mott tub was unearthed and moved to a new wall in what became the master bath, and a sink and windows collecting dust in the basement found their way into a breakfast room and adjacent potting area.
Shown: A walk-in pantry off the kitchen has its original shelves and glass-front cabinets.
Knobs and pulls: Whitechapel Ltd
When forced to look farther afield, the team sought out salvaged materials and new ones made to look old. A crate of vintage subway tile landed in the kitchen, salvaged wavy glass replaced 260 broken panes, and handmade bricks with natural color variations helped two new chimneys blend in.
Shown: A trough sink, retrieved from the basement, hangs in a potting area off the breakfast room.
Mason: Bill Anstett, Millerton, NY; 518-789-9142
While a number of subs set up workshops in the vast basement, where they could plug in their power tools, Anderson—who, incidentally, eschews computers, e-mail, and cell phones—migrated to the side porch, where he built kitchen cabinets from salvaged Douglas fir, hand-planing the lumber for a more crafted look and fashioning paneled doors to showcase vertical and flat grain.
Shown: A small powder room, squeezed under the stairs in 1915, was refinished with a salvaged sink and 1870s British maps.
Electric, phone, and cable wires disappeared underground. A metal roof and copper gutters fell in place. After much discussion, storm windows went up in back, leaving the front to look as it always has. The main exterior, still finished with Holley's concoction of mortar, gravel, and paint, stood strong—relatively speaking. Guests park their shoes at the door to avoid shedding stucco inside.
Shown: Homeowners Donald and Helen gaze up the restored staircase from the first floor.
If you include painters, landscapers, et al., Anderson figures the remodel absorbed about 10,000 man-hours, or a few more than predicted. When it was all over, the homeowners threw a party for their army of enablers, followed by a reception for Holley family descendants living nearby. Friends and family, who had gathered for Thanksgiving the first year in and hunkered down at picnic tables in their overcoats, now warm themselves before functioning fireplaces augmented by ample steam heat.
Shown: The winding cherry balustrade was repaired, stripped, oiled—three times—and waxed.
Working with interior designer Chris Brennan, who specializes in historic homes, the couple finished the house with vintage finds and reproduction lighting to complement the existing. Today, with five baths, three half baths, and eight bedrooms, there's plenty of room for extended-family reunions.
Shown: Crowned arched windows on the second floor look out on the front yard. The homeowners scoured tag sales for antiques like the butler's chest.
Interior design: Chris Brennan, Salisbury, CT; 860-435-0365
Donald has a second-floor office with lake views, and Helen a writer's retreat tucked into the tower. "What's interesting is that as soon as I began working in the house, I had a story, and something about the house allowed it to expand into a novel," Helen says. Titled What Was Mine, it's due out this year, coinciding with Holleywood's 163rd anniversary. Just possibly it's an unexpected love story.
Shown: The 1915 tub, previously set into a wall in the former hall bath, shifted position to become a centerpiece in the new master bath. A new marble sill doubles as a shelf for bath supplies.
Floor tile: American Olean