House History

A photo of our home, taken in 1910.

We bought this house in Upstate New York, built in 1855. We bought the house “as is” and for a phenomenal price. As young, fresh-faced new homeowners, we had no idea what lurked behind the “as is” stipulation. Learning more about fixing a home has opened our eyes: the electric, the plumbing, and some of the “newer” structural repairs were never brought up to code, and some things were outright dangerous. For example, when we had the electrician replace the old four-fuse fusebox with an updated 150amp circuit breaker, the electrician showed us the old blackened fuses and box. He was stunned that the house–which had a heavy-duty electric dryer installed– had not burned to a crisp before this. Another example is that we suffered for years with a sewer-like stench in our Laundry Room whenever someone took a shower. After reading about plumbing, we discovered that the washing machine drain line–installed by the previous owners– had no u-trap nor vent line. A plumber has since inspected the house and told us that the only fixture connected to a vent line is the upstairs toilet. So no wonder the downstairs toilet burps up bubbles when the upstairs toilet is flushed.

The house was built before electrical wiring and plumbing became standardized. Because our house has had many owners (one ten-year period saw 6 consecutive owners), a lot has been done to it, and none of it well done. We are essentially starting from scratch.

The photograph of the house, above, was taken in 1910. I own the old abstracts to the property, and so I’ve been able trace the history of the house.

The house was built by Henry Rogers, a very prominent businessman of New Hartford, NY, and member of one of the founding fathers of the Sauquoit Valley (the Rogers family emigrated to NY from Rhode Island). He built this spacious house on a 9-acre lot for his wife; they no doubt intended to fill it with children, judging by the size of the four bedrooms upstairs. Unfortunately, the Rogerses remained childless, and the wife died of pneumonia at an early age. A housekeeper took over the responsibilities of the household while Henry doted on a multitude of nephews and nieces who lived in the area. Toward the end of his life, suffering miserably from kidney disease, Henry moved back to Rhode Island while his housekeeper maintained the property. He died in 1898.

Henry’s will (of which I have a copy) divided his liquid assets between his favorite nephews and nieces, and all his household goods were deeded to his housekeeper. Henry had, for some odd reason, neglected to bequeath his property to anyone. A battle for the nine acres ensued, and a year later, a judge determined that the property be sold at an auction to the highest bidder. The housekeeper won the bid at $1,500. She promptly sold most of the acreage, leaving the house on a lot of two and a half acres. In 1910, she sold the property to a William Dewhurst. He immediately donated an acre to the United Methodist Church, to build a church. The old church still stands, and in it is a stained glass window in memory of “Mr. and Mrs. Henry S. Rogers.”

Dewhurst sold the house (now down to one and a half acres) to a Peter Decker. Decker died a year later, and bequeathed the house to his only child, Mary (who lived in Chicago). She sold the house to a couple named Ellinwood (for you in New Hartford, this is the same Ellinwood family for whom Ellinwood Court is named). The Ellinwoods did not stay long, and the house was passed on to owner after owner. It is probable that the house became run-down at this time.

Most owners of old homes also happen to love history. The thrill of the history helps to soothe the agony of owning an old (rickety) house. Believe me, my love for history sometimes hangs on a thread when I see some of the previous “improvements.”

The last private owner of our 1855 Greek Revival house (until we bought it in 1997) was John and Elizabeth Jones. They were an older couple. John Jones was a bit of a handyman. I know he did lots of projects, because his old home improvement debris burps up from the yard every spring, after the frost heave of the winter. We never know what we are going to find when we start digging a new flowerbed. Haven’t found a golden dubloon yet, though…

Some of the elderly neighbors say they remember the Jones’, especially that they had a big black dog who they named “N*gger.” Back then that name was a bit racy and elicited giggles and awe from children obsessed with strong words. Anyway, Mrs. Jones died first. John continued to live in the house. He sold a small portion of the 1 and 1/2 acre to the neighboring United Methodist Church, so that the church might enlarge their parking lot. I won’t delve into all the water run-off problems that has caused since….

I think Jones updated the house the most. Electric wiring had been installed in the 20’s (the porcelain knobs are still wired up in the attic); Jones rewired with “modern wiring.” I am not so sure about the plumbing– the house has a hybrid mixture of every kind of plumbing used– copper, galvanized, cast iron, and pvc. Sometimes all four kinds in one line of piping.

Jones also, I believe, installed central heating. A big circular footprint is impressed into the basement floor– obvious signs of the old octopus gravity-furnace. Before then, families had used the three coal fireplaces to heat the house. Currently, we have a high-efficiency furnace and still we freeze every winter. Some of the furnace ducts are wood, and others are leftovers from the octopus system.

In the 1950s, Jones sold the rest of the property to the church, to use as a parsonage. The house has seen a number of transient ministers. The Methodists poured concrete into the basement floor, installed a sump well, and rebuilt the exterior end of the chimney with cinderblocks. In 1972 or so, the house went through a 70’s remodeling (also known as “remuddling.”) I HATE the 70s. I hate the drab colors, the tiny dark windows, the Carter malaise, the cardigan sweaters, the paisley scarves, the avocado appliances, everything. What a lousy decade. People should have LEFT EVERYTHING ALONE during this time– NO remodeling until the 80s, okay?

The parson who lived here must have really liked the 70s. They went all out. Yellow linoleum (to cover the pine flooring) in all the bedrooms, gray indoor/outdoor carpeting in the Dining Room, dark brown Kitchen cabinets with yellow and brown tile vinyl flooring, yellow and brown wallpaper, a drop ceiling of fiberglass panels, fake brown paneling on the walls… you “get my drift, daddy-o.”

The church removed two of the home’s three fireplaces…. and buried most of the bricks in the yard. My husband and I joke how we can only dig 1 or 2 inches down before hitting rocks and bricks (well, he doesn’t joke about it anymore).

They also laid a huge concrete slab in the center of the side yard. It is a misshapen glob of thick concrete. Here’s the view from the second storey of the house.

Something lies under it. We have no idea what it is. I have forbidden my kids to stand on it, God forbid it should give way. No one seems to know what is under there.

(By the way, that pile of rocks are the things we pulled out of our latest dig– which was a small hole to plug in that 8″ arbor vitae plant).

Well, my husband and I bought the house from the Methodist church. The church had seen a dramatic drop in attendance, and keeping a tiny church and white elephant parsonage was too costly. I think they tried to sell the church and house as a package deal at first. No one wanted the house. A new congregation purchased the church, and we bought the house. “As is,” like I stated before.

So, homeowners of old houses must really love history to keep these money pits standing. My history lessons here have been rather expensive… but when we finally restore vitality and honor to this old Greek Revival, I think it will be for the better: for us, for the house, and for the neighborhood.