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The Temple in the Field

A Landmark Massachusetts restaurant returns to residential use – in a new location.

Project: Pillar House, Lincoln, MA

Architects: Larry Sorli, Carlisle, MA; Ben Nickerson, Woodstock, VT

Contractors: Julie Kann, Maynard, MA; Stuart Worthing, Cambridge, MA; David Ottinger Antique Buildings & Materials, Boston, MA

By Nicole V. Gagné

June 29, 2001, was a sad day for Newton Lower Falls, MA. After operating for nearly half a century, the popular restaurant known as the Pillar House closed its doors for good. The 1846 Greek Revival house, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, was noteworthy for the four massive, 26-ft.-tall columns that graced its front and inspired the restaurant’s name. Once that business ended, however, the house’s site at the noisy junction of routes 128 and 16 became a liability in returning it to a residence. The state quickly seized the property by eminent domain and put the house up for sale at the token price of $1 – with the stipulation that its buyer relocate and reassemble it. As an added incentive, the state also offered to contribute $75,000 toward the demolition of the non-historical sections of the building, which had been added in its conversion to a restaurant.

"There was an article in the real estate section of The Boston Globe," recalls Chris Brown, "and the title of it was something like, ‘House Needs a Home.’ I brought the article home and my wife and I decided that it was a good project for us, because we had a very small house, but it was on a very large site – about 8½ acres. We decided the house was suitable for our property." An associate professor at Harvard Medical School, Chris and his wife Margaret Coffin Brown, a specialist in historic landscape architecture at the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in Brookline, MA, are ardent preservationists who were ready to meet the massive challenges of relocating, reassembling and restoring the Pillar House – and having it attached to their current home, as zoning laws restrict their site to only one house.

The Browns’ bid was accepted by the state in 2003, and in 2004 they hired David Ottinger of David Ottinger Antique Buildings & Materials, of Boston, MA, to disassemble and move the Pillar House to their property in Lincoln, MA, some 12 miles from Newton Lower Falls. To obtain help in dismantling the house, Ottinger turned to students of the North Bennet Street School in Boston. This venerable institution trains its graduates for careers in traditional trades that use hand skills, and emphasizes a balance between developments in technology and the preservation and advancement of craft traditions. Thus, the North Bennet Street School was an ideal resource when it came time to finding someone well versed in preservation carpentry to work on the Pillar House in its new location.

"There was a posting on the North Bennet Street School website, looking for a graduate student to work on window restoration for the Pillar House, so I responded to it," explains Julie Kann, who had completed the school’s course in preservation carpentry. "And one thing led to another. It’s gone way beyond windows by now; I haven’t even started on the windows yet! The first thing I did was to fix some rotted spots on the columns. From what we gather, the bases were added to the columns at a latter date but we don’t know when. Originally, the columns probably went all the way down to the deck. The end grain of the wood was sitting on a surface that was saturated with water from all seasons of weather, so there was a lot of rot – in the front parts more so than in the back sections of the columns, which are closer to the house. The bottoms of the columns needed epoxy consolidation, and when they asked me if I could do that, I said I could. Then, when the capitals to the columns came back from the stripper with all their paint removed, they also needed repair work and I was asked to do it. Most of my expertise is in architectural conservation, along with the carpentry; mostly, I like to preserve and restore the old objects of the house, rather than frame up new walls or what not. So as projects came up I would be approached and asked if I could fix it. That’s the thing about my career choice, you’re learning something new every day. Whether it’s the history of architecture or the new way to approach a repair – it’s just always something new. It never gets dull."

"Julie has been fantastic," says Brown. "She’s young but she’s very accomplished. This is one of her first big jobs out of school, and I think she has benefited from working with some of the more experienced people on the project, such as Stu Worthing, who’s been functioning as the general contractor – because I’m not a builder."

"Stu Worthing has been a great resource of information when I have a question or get stuck trying to figure out something," says Kann. "He’s been a preservation carpenter for quite a long time, and his expertise is in historic moldings. He never went to the North Bennet Street School but he might as well have, because he knows all the traditional crafts." There are just basically the two carpenters and the Browns, who are making all the decisions and doing a lot of the work themselves too. There are also several architects on the project. Larry Sorli deals mainly in historic buildings, and he does a lot of consultation with the Brown family. "If we have questions about how to approach a task or what the design of something is going to be, Larry is a big help," adds Kann.

"Larry Sorli has been with us from the start," notes Brown. "He’s an historical architect, very familiar with Victorian and earlier time periods, and he’s been wonderful in terms of telling us what to do. We’ve added a rear wing and a side wing that’s connected to our existing house. Those had to be designed anew, and the designs were made by an architect named Ben Nickerson. When we first got the building, he was functioning as the main architect. He did the drawings so that we could get a building permit and he de-signed the wing. But he’s out of Vermont, and didn’t want to come here every day, so Larry took it over."

The restoration talent has also included other hands from the North Bennet Street School, according to Kann. "There are four pilasters on the corners of the building, and one of the capitals to a pilaster had been re-moved for an addition when it became a restaurant," she says. "Part of the capital was missing, so we had a fellow from the Cabinet and Furniture Making program carve a new piece for it. Also, the front portico was removed when the house was a restaurant, and we had to rebuild what had been there, based on historic photographs; some smaller Ionic columns had to be put there, and we had him turn a couple of the bases for those columns."

"A lot of the original parts were thrown out when the building was transformed into a restaurant in 1951," laments Brown, "so we’ve had to go around and look for new old parts. We purchased two wood columns for the entry portico at a salvage yard. The house’s original specifications called for window glass that was made by the Redford Glass Company, which was in business in Redford, NY, between 1831 and 1851. That company made windowpanes of crown glass, which has a just-noticeable arc stretching from left to right. We did purchase some original window glass for use in the sidelites and transom of the new redone portico, but it was a little bit too small to go in the main windows, which are pretty big on the Greek Revival building. So we’re still looking, but I think we’re going to come up empty handed. We are probably going to use old glass, but probably not be able to find glass made by that company."

The Browns’ work on the house has also resulted in an unexpected surprise in its exterior paint colors, according to Chris. "We’ve looked through our microscope and tried to determine as well as we could what the original colors were," he says. "Of course, the outside has usually been white. We counted 13 different layers of paint on the outside, 12 of which were white. One was a dark brown. Some people say that after the Civil War, some houses were painted a dark color in mourning for President Lincoln’s assassination. But it’s really anybody’s guess." Those numerous coats of paint produce only a shudder from Kann, however: "Scraping paint – that’s been horrible!"

Despite such horrors, work on the Pillar House has become for her almost as much of a labor of love as it is for the Browns: Kann plans to hold her wedding reception at the house this year, even though the work is far from over. "The exterior is basically finished," she points out. "We’ve been working on the deck right now, building exterior stairs and a deck and a railing system. But the inside is just stud walls and plywood floors. Once the deck is finished, I’ll be back onto the inside. Right now we’re waiting for the plumbers and electricians to start and at least try to get us some heat for the winter!"

"We’ll probably be done about a year from now," Brown comments. "But that might not be right."

"The Browns like to see things moving along, but since they already have a living residence, there’s no rush for them to move in," says Kann. "Because they’re so hands on, they want to make sure everything goes the way they want it to go, so they don’t have to do things twice. They’re taking their time with it and making sure it’s perfect for them when it’s all finished."

Margaret Brown already has a vision of that perfection. "The grounds are ideal for the Greek Revival architecture," she explains. "Typically the columns face the road, and in the case of this house, the columns face the road and the entry is on the side – and we’ll be able to accommodate that side entry with a circular driveway. When the house is finished, I plan just to relax and enjoy gardening for a change. It’s the temple in the field." 

 

 

 
 

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