Every old house has a story. Here is mine:
In 1998, my husband and I said goodbye to our corporate lives and moved with our two young children to the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts to purchase a 12-room Bed & Breakfast Inn in the sleepy, historic village of South Egremont (est. 1761). Our beautiful home was built in 1786 by Col. Joseph Curtis, who came to the Berkshires in 1780 from Newington, CT with his wife, Rebekah, and infant son, Jasper. Joseph was a 22-year-old yeoman and young father with not much more than a pension from serving in the Revolutionary War, but he purchased a large tract of farmland from the original proprietor lots in what is today the Village of South Egremont and built a family home on what became 150-acres of farmland that he worked until his death in 1810. When his wife died 12 years later, the house passed to the couple’s son, Wilber Curtis, and a majority of the farmland was divided among the couple’s three other children, leaving the house with 10 acres. Joseph and Rebekah Curtis as well as their four children, their respective spouses, and their children are all buried in the cemetery that abuts the property line of the house on land that the family donated to the town at the turn of the century to establish what today is known as Mount Everett Cemetery.
The story of Joseph Curtis and the life of our 200+-year-old house fascinated me, and I spent the next 10 years researching the family, the evolution of the house, and the subsequent homeowners after Wilber Curtis sold the house and property in 1848 to Joseph A. Benjamin, who named his new summer “cottage” Twin Pines after the two majestic pine trees on the front lawn.
Over the next century, the original Georgian Colonial two-story wood-framed structure that Joseph Curtis built for his family became encircled by additions that enlarged and modernized the house, most notably an 1836 Greek Revival addition that added a formal entryway and parlor to the main floor and provided for additional bedrooms on the second floor to accommodate Wilber’s large family. The original beehive oven and fireplace remained at the center of the original section of the house as the downstairs space morphed over the next century from a single kitchen/family room into a more informal living room. Future additions added a separate kitchen room and pantry, dining room, and back porch overlooking Karner Brook that was later closed in and used as a breakfast room when the house was converted to an inn in the 1940s.
There were plenty of tell-tale signs of the house’s age above ground – small windows on the second floor, the original wide-planked pine floors under the carpet, the beehive oven, uneven floors and walls – but the real evidence of the house’s age was found in the basement with its dirt floor, drainage channel that ran through the center of the room to prevent the buildup of rainwater and melting ice, original stone walls that provided the house with a root cellar, and an obstacle course of lally columns installed over the years to reinforce the sagging main floor.
When we purchased what was then The Weathervane Inn, our home was among the five oldest surviving structures in the Village of South Egremont. The oldest was our neighbor, The Egremont Inn, built in 1780 as an inn and tavern along the County Road extension that connected Albany with Hudson, NY, and the ferry to New York City. Over the years, as building regulations in our town became more stringent, the owners of this 20-room, three-story beauty of a building became financially burdened by the unending structural issues and fire and safety upgrades required by the town and the state to keep their license.
For decades, terms such as “pre-existing, non-conforming use,” “grandfathered in,” and “National Historic Register” designations had been circumventing and overriding regulations and codes, allowing historic structures some leeway and relief when it came to what needed to be done, and how quickly. All that went out the window with the 2003 Warwick, Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 and injured over 230. Shortly after, fire marshalls and building inspectors in towns across New England began instituting a zero-tolerance, zero-delay position when it came to upgrading centuries-old historic structures to meet 21st-century building codes and fire and safety requirements, regardless of the impact on the structure’s historical integrity or the cost. It was a necessary hardship for us all – painful and expensive, but understandable.
On December 11, 2009 at 4:45am, the silence of the night in Egremont was shattered by the sound of sirens as fire trucks and emergency service vehicles sped past our house. Looking out our window we could see flames rising into the last of the night sky. But by then, it was too late. Within 20 minutes of the (delayed and faulty) alarm sounding, the third floor collapsed, taking with it the second floor before the building caved in and buried the main floor. The Inn’s patchwork, non-invasive approach to fire safety, known for years as being inadequate, failed, and there was nothing to be done to save it. The Egremont Inn burned to the ground that morning, taking with it a huge piece of the town’s history. Nothing but the sign on the road could be salvaged. Thankfully no one was in the building at the time.
Purchasing a historic home or building is not for those unfamiliar with what it takes to maintain an old house or who have limited funds. Homeowners have a responsibility to preserve and prepare these homes, as well as the history that lies therein, for future generations. The importance of preservation and renovation cannot be overstated but too often homeowners ignore or defer needed improvements and restoration/renovation projects because of the cost. As my husband would say when we looked at the projects in front of us towards the end of our tenure, “NO,” which stood for Next Owners. Without deep pockets, even well-intended homeowners will find themselves in a perpetual triage situation. But you can only kick the can down the road for so long…somebody must pay the price or the building with its place in history, will.