This is the third of several in a series of writings by Tim Lovejoy on his arrival, house, and garden in Hadlyme, CT. You can find the first part here.
We looped up and around, past the single post of an old stone gate, down a very short driveway, and then across in front to a parking area between the house and the barn.
Now out of the car, we went from window to window under the porch trying to see into the ground floor. A few windows and a door let out towards the barn, but there appeared to be no rooms, just a big space with a dirt floor and an old old furnace in the corner.
From the porch windows upstairs, we could see a long room, a living room it looked like, formed from the old cape parlor, its fireplace almost in the corner. Through an opening where a wall had been removed, we could see an equally large space in the newer wing.
In what looked to have been the smaller front parlor, the fireplace had been bricked up, a toilet installed where the hearth had been, and a bathtub placed against the end wall. But we found it charming, or I did certainly with its old windows and mantels, splendid random-width oak floorboards. I even thought the old gnarly radiators were charming.
But it was the dining room that made me think I might really want this house. Maybe even have to have it.
Where I came from in rural New Jersey it was all farmland, or certainly had been. But like most of the northeast, by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, many of the local farms had begun to fail. The farmers either sold their farms or abandoned them. Growing up after the Second World War a lot of them were still sitting there empty. As a kid on my pony, and later in my teens on horseback, I spent a lot of my time roaming around the old driveways and lanes, spooking around these old empty houses and barns, peering in windows, or sitting in the old farm gardens smoking cigarettes filched from cigarette boxes at home or from the jacket pockets of my much older brothers.
One of these houses I went back to again and again, with handsome doors and fanlights, carved mantelpieces and elegant stair rails. There was no furniture, nothing in the house, except in the big kitchen off the back where there was a large dutch oven fireplace, a four-legged stove with an oven to the side on the same level as the burners, an old white porcelain sink with two legs attached to the wall, a round dark-wood table and matching chair. Thrown over the back of the chair was a woman’s leopard-skin coat and a matching hat on the table top. I went back quite a few times and the hat and coat were always there.
Up and around to the back of the house, Christian and I found ourselves, each at his own window, looking in at the second floor. “This must be the dining room,” I said. We stood, hands pressed against the glass. Clearly, the room had once been the kitchen. There was a big fireplace with a beehive oven opposite us on the inside wall next to the door to the living room.
It was harder to see in from the north side of the house with the afternoon light reflecting off the cove, shining through the living room door. I was so busy trying to make out the still-intact beehive oven – I had never actually seen one before – that it took me awhile to realize that the only other things in the room were a round table and a chair with a woman’s coat with a fur collar thrown over the back of the chair, and a matching hat on the table.
Whoa, I thought, standing there not moving just staring into the room. “That is weird,” I said.
“What?” Christian asked. As we stood there staring in, I told him about the old house in New Jersey with the coat thrown across the table. “That’s spooky,” he said. “Yeah,” I answered. “It’s a little like it’s talking to me, this house.”
We stood there silently for a few more minutes, me especially, trying to take in this curious kind of echo, or musical repeat. Finally Christian said, “Come on, let’s go,” and nudged me ahead of him as we climbed the hill behind the house.
At the top, there was a view down to the house and cove, and we found an old graveyard full of stones leaning every which way surrounded by dark brooding cedars and pines. “I love graveyards,” said Christian. He wandered among the stones. “Let’s go down and have a look at the barn,” I said and we stumbled down the steep hill in the direction of the barn.
Like the house, the barn was built into the hill and coming down we could see that the front of it — below the wall and facing the house — had just two open bays for cars. So we headed around to the back where there were steps to a deck with some big windows and a door. Inside was a large room that filled the whole top of the barn, where someone had clearly tried to make a studio of sorts with the big windows either end, a skylight, and a potbelly stove.
How serendipitous can you get?
“I think I want to come back and really see this place. I’m not being weird about it, but I think I ought to pay attention here,” I said as we headed back to the car in the fading light. “Is that okay with you?” “Sure,” said Christian. “I want to look around some more too. Especially that studio. Let’s call tonight.”
Back at George’s, we spilled excitedly out of the car into the house, each talking over the other about this amazing house we found, and this beautiful spot. “But that’s my house,” said George. We stopped dead, staring at him. He went over to a table and hunted through some papers. “I saw it last summer when I came up to look around,” he said, spreading a handful of Polaroids of ‘our’ house out in front of us. “I never called about it because I thought ‘For Sale By Owner’ meant I was likely to be dealing with some nut case.”
“Well, we’re gonna call,” I said. “We want to see that house… I want to see that house.” “I do too,” said Christian. “But you have to come with us,” he added to George. “And, if you really want it,” I said not too happily, “you probably should get first dibs since you saw it first.” George hesitated. “No, we have to do it like that,” I said.
I dialed the number and found myself talking to the neighbor who had put the sign back up and who had the key. The owner it seemed lived in New York. We made an appointment for us all to go there the next morning.
The next day, mercifully, George told us he didn’t want it. “I’m too old,” he said. “It’s too big a job to do alone.” After touring the house, I knew he was right. It was maybe even too big a job for us.
The ground floor alone was almost too much, and I was pretty sure that I wanted the house. The ancient stairs leading down weren’t much more than a ladder. There was no floor, just dirt. Nor was there a foundation that I could see, just dry-stone walls built up from the ground. There was no insulation. Instead there were old burlap sacks hung from the floors of the rooms above. Scattered around, at what seemed like random, fifty or sixty iron posts, jacks really, held up the sagging floors and beams of the house.
But I was pretty excited — we both were — and I was pretty sure we could make it work. We told the neighbor, Mrs. Block, that we wanted to look around a bit more. And after George took off home to make lunch, we poked through the rooms, opening and closing doors, whispering excitedly about what we thought we would do, or thought we could do.
I was nudging Christian a bit, trying to convince him that, although I knew he was dreaming of a long driveway, come winter he would be glad to have that stump of a driveway. I reminded him that when we unbricked the fireplace in the little parlor and built the chimney at the end of the house, we would have six fireplaces – he loved building fires in the winter. And I quite simply bribed him. He could have the barn as his studio. I would paint in the small room behind the dining room. But he said (shaming me a bit for arm twisting), “I think this could be the right thing… It’ll be good. I have a house in Greece that I love… maybe this will be your house, the house you love.”
And so trying not to appear too obviously excited, we told Mrs Block that we were definitely coming back, but there were a couple of other houses we had seen and might want to see again — there weren’t — and there was an agent we wanted to talk to — there wasn’t — and of course we would have to have a contractor inspect it, and so on…
A few days later we made an offer and then waited for what seemed like forever for an answer, worried all the time that someone else would drive by, as we had, and snatch our house away. Finally, on the opening night of an exhibition we were having together in a gallery in Chicago, we got a call that we had the house.
This is the third of several in a series of writings by Tim Lovejoy on his arrival, house, and garden in Hadlyme, CT. Lead illustration from Into the Garden by Christian Peltenburg-Brechneff copyright © 2019
Into the Garden, a new volume of 185 illustrations by Christian Peltenburg-Brechneff, with a foreword by Bunny Williams, and essay by Donald Kuspit, will be released in June by G Arts. You can preorder copies of the book here
There will be a lecture, book signing and reception, on June 30th at 3 p.m. at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, followed by a sneak preview of the exhibition at 5 p.m. at the Cooley Gallery, 25 Lyme St. There will be an opening for the exhibition at the Cooley Gallery on July 6th, 5-7 p.m.