Traditional Building Portfolio



Saltbox for a New Century

Reviving a Colonial-era house for modern living involves more than putting back missing pieces.

Project: David Field House, Madison, CT

Restoration Contractor: Gulick & Spradlin, LLC, Madison, CT; Peter Gulick, designer/contractor; John Spradlin, project manager

By Gordon Bock

Should you think restoring a Victorian house or 1910s bungalow in the 1970s had its learning curves, consider what it's like to resurrect an 18th-century house in the 21st century. While many of the old hurdles, like finding period-design hardware and paint colors, have gotten easier, working on a 300-year-old timber frame in the digital age brings another bag of challenges – not the least of which is how to thoughtfully blend pre-industrial craftsmanship and materials with modern sustainable building practices and energy efficiency needs.

Fortunately, that's just the intersection where the folks at Madison, CT-based Gulick & Spradlin like to operate. Firm principal Peter Gulick, designer/contractor for the restoration of the 1720 David Field house in Madison – a project that earned an award of merit from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation – recently shared some of the company's insights about very early houses and just how far building can come back after centuries of use and abuse.

Given the illustrious history of the Field house, it's hard to believe that there was a time when its future didn't look very rosy. Built by David Field, a great-grandson of one of the original settlers of Hartford, CT, the building has housed many famous Field descendants, from Timothy Field, who was a captain during the Revolutionary War, to Cyrus W. Field – the intrepid entrepreneur who laid the first successful transatlantic cable in 1858 – to Stephen Field, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The house was already a local landmark in the 1930s when the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) documented it in a set of 10 measured drawings.

By the early 2000s, however, the house had also made the ranks of the "most endangered" list of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Long out of the hands of the Field family, it sat empty for four or five years and fell prey to vandals who, says Gulick, "robbed it of a lot of the really nice features – some of the paneling, all of the best floorboards and many old doors." Then, to add insult to injury, a developer bought the Field House and planned to subdivide the 10-acre site into four lots – that is, if he could deal with the house. "Back then, it was boom time around here, with lots selling for $300,000, and the Field House sat on one of the proposed lots," says Gulick. "Being a volunteer fireman, I heard through the grapevine that the developer offered the house to the local fire department for training if they would burn it down."

Needless to say the fire department refused, leaving the developer's plans dead in the water as the real-estate market plateaued. Learning that the Field House and the undivided property might be available, Gulick contacted John and Diana Herzog, with whom he had worked on an earlier project. They acquired the property in 2007 and began the work of restoring the house.

The Field House is a textbook example of a Saltbox, a vernacular building form closely tied to New England. "In this area," says Gulick, "a Saltbox typically begins as what's called a two-over-two – two rooms on the ground floor with two above. At a later date, the lean-to gets added on the back – probably in the late-1700s in the case of the Field House."

Such characteristic growth spurts represent not only the expanding volumes of old houses, but their shifting uses, and one phase of the Field House rehabilitation was to bring its living space more in line with modern lifestyles. "It needed to be a little larger for a kitchen that would meet today's standards," says Gulick, "so we removed the rotting single-story wing that was on the back and put up a gambrel-roofed addition." Flowing from the addition is a new dormer in the existing shed roof that adds usable space over the Saltbox slope. Sited on the back of the building, the addition neither tampers with nor affects the primary façade, preserving the original floor plan as all of the original rooms in the front of the house. "The addition helps the second floor by creating a bedroom and, in the kitchen eating area, by extending the keeping room and making it larger," says Gulick. "It's really just the latest in a series of additions; beyond this, the rest of the house is pretty much the way it was in 1720, except for new windows, insulation and other upgrades."

When it came to the vandalized historic interior spaces, the HABS drawings offered valuable evidence – both of what the house could look like and what was gone without a trace. "In one room they apparently had a corner cupboard," says Gulick, "and in the 1930s the fireplace actually had an arch to it, but it had all been redone in a Colonial Revival makeover – probably in the 1950s." With original features so scarce, it wasn't possible to bring the house back to its exact original condition, but there were some lucky finds. "The upper parlor, which was a kind of bedroom, had been divided into two rooms after the Colonial era, and everything had been lathed-and-plastered over. Once we pulled off the lath and plaster, though, we found the original raised paneling underneath," says Gulick. Though Gulick & Spradlin had to reproduce the panels to the left of the fireplace, the panels to the right and on two other walls were still in great condition.

Bathrooms were another matter. "I don't know how other people wrestle with putting modern conveniences in an 18th-century house," says Gulick, "but my philosophy on designing bathrooms is that they should look like 19th-century bathrooms – the timeframe they first appeared in Colonial houses. Houses evolve, and part of our contribution is balancing the practical with the original, making conveniences efficient, but not over-modernized."

But that is nothing new for Gulick's partner John Spradlin. When they joined forces in 2001, Gulick had already been a building facilities manager, as well as retailer and restorer of a 17th-century house that he still owns; John Spradlin had a contracting business. Since then the company, which rounds out at around five to six people with crew, has specialized in the renovation and restoration of antique houses and barns. With Spradlin on site and Gulick as project manager in charge of design and marketing, they also do period additions to 20th-century houses.

When asked if working on an 18th-century building presents any specific challenges, particularly when the construction is a medieval technology like timber framing, Gulick has a surprising answer. "Timber frame houses are wonderful," he says. "They're actually less of a challenge to restore than stick-built houses, because you can take down interior walls and you don't risk the building fall down." Gulick & Spradlin's appreciation of pre-industrial craftsmanship also extends to the finishes. "We love to expose beams and chimney masonry; it shows how people built the house and the effort they put into it," says Gulick. "When we found the fireplace in this house it was closed up behind a wall and some closets." The company enjoys building their own kitchen cabinets too, especially for vintage building projects.

Since all the good sash were stolen from the Field house, all the windows had to be replaced, which presented the opportunity for using low-e, gas-filled pane units. Modern building practice, however, would also throw them a curve. "At the time, code required that the second floor have an egress window – large enough for an emergency entrance or exit – but there were no such windows on the market in the right size as double hungs," Gulick remembers. Fortunately the window manufacturer (Marvin Windows and Doors) was able to make casements that look just like sash windows from the outside, filling the requirement. "Now, if you can take out both sashes without tools you don't have to have an egress window."

"We feel pretty strongly about 'green building,' and probably our biggest challenge was integrating sustainable building products and concepts into the house in a sensitive way," says Gulick. In this project, technology helped, especially when it came to retrofitting services in tight spaces. The Field House takes advantage of a small duct, high velocity heating/cooling system from Unico System fired by a wall-hung, high-efficiency heating plant from Germany. In the same way, instead of installing conventional copper or plastic pipe, the house is plumbed with flexible PEX tubing using the "home-run" system that is more efficient to run in confined and awkward wall spaces. On the sustainable materials side, the flooring is reclaimed from salvaged timbers, and the clapboards are all new Eastern white pine – historically appropriate as well as locally produced in New England. "Using cedar that travels all the way from British Columbia is not green building to my mind," says Gulick. "I would love to go further in this direction. For example, on our last project, the whole back roof faced due south – technically perfect for solar panels, but could you put solar panels on a 1730s house?" Perhaps checking in on what Gulick & Spradlin is doing in a year or two will provide the answer.  

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