Historic Charlestown Restoration
After downsizing from 17 acres in Vermont, husband and wife duo found potential in a Charlestown historic home
October 29, 2013
Andrea E. McHugh
A few years after they retired, Bob Long and Hope Norman decided that the 17 acres they lived on in Vermont might be a lot to manage down the road. The husband and wife team had warm memories in the Green Mountain State, but decided to spread their wings and consider somewhere new. “We loved the place and wanted to move on before it got too big for us in a philosophical and psychological sense,” says Bob. After a visit to Hope’s daughter and son-in-law’s home in Charlestown, the couple decided South County might just be an extraordinary place to live. “We fell in love with Charlestown,” explains Bob. “There’s a nice, small town feel.”
After a thorough search, the couple ultimately made an offer on perhaps the least likely of all the homes they visited. Despite its “enormous amount of charm,” Bob says, the best way to describe the antique Cape-style home they discovered was “a diamond in the rough.” The phrase sugarcoats the reality that the home was on the verge of collapse. And to call it “old” might just be the understatement of the year. “The home was originally built circa 1685. It’s a killer,” he laughs.
The couple encouraged their contractor, Greg Bressler of Picus Woodwrights, to swing by and take a look. “It was locked and I could only see the interior through the windows, but [I] almost immediately started thinking that this was not an ‘old house’ but truly a remarkably old house,” explains Greg. “I didn’t understand how it could be as old and original and decayed as it looked without having been identified as historically significant already and jumped on by a hundred contractors.” He reached out to his friend Bruce Lyons, who knows a thing or two about old houses. “Bruce has at least 30 years of experience as a timber framer. [He’s] a scholar of early New England building, architecture and restoration,” Greg explains. When they met at the property, Greg kept his distance, allowing Bruce to form an independent opinion. “I was waiting for him to tell me I was wrong, show me why and then remind me that I was wrong, but he just nodded and said, ‘It’s old.’”
Pamela Lyons, president of the Charlestown Historical Society, says she was delighted when Bob and Hope came in to breathe new life into this treasured, albeit needy home, explaining that its history is inextricably intertwined with the town itself. “It is probably the oldest house standing in Charlestown, from all accounts we have,” says Pamela. Architectural preservationists have examined the house, she explains, and agree with the historical society’s findings, adding that it’s no surprise that the building style is quite similar to that of a whaling ship.
Charlestown’s historical records only date as far back as 1737 because prior to that, the town (incorporated in 1738) was part of Westerly. Bob is planning to embark on a journey back in time this winter by searching Westerly’s records to learn more about their home. “It will keep me out trouble,” he smiles. Here’s what they know: the house is included on the earliest known map of Charlestown, dated 1870. It’s confirmed that in 1898, the home belonged to the Browning family, and that the house was named for a Ms. E. Babcock. Today, the home is referred to as the Betsy Babcock House.
“Babcock is the oldest, if not one of the oldest names in the Charlestown/ Westerly area,” explains Pamela. “We know that the family came to the area in the 1660s and it’s really special [that] one of their descendants lived in that house.” During the early 1900s, Pamela says Mr. Robert Patton Brown lived in the home. “He was instrumental in laying down Charlestown’s paved roads, around 1907.” The Old Post Road, she continues, where the house is located, was one of the town’s first, but she notes the imprint for the road dates back centuries as its beginnings were as an Indian trail.
Greg soon began the restoration process, moving forward with a sense of wonderment and awe. “For me personally, it is perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity. There are so few buildings from that period still in existence and those still standing tend to be very well known, cared for and documented. I also feel like Bob, Hope and I have had a mutual commitment to bring ‘Betsy’ back. That relationship has been incredibly rewarding to me,” says Greg.
“Once we started opening the ceiling, we saw it was post and beam construction, mortise and tenon,” says Bob. Mortise and tenon, which adjoins two pieces of wood tightly together for a joint that can sustain a heavy weight, is a simple method that has been practiced by woodworkers for thousands of years. Picus Woodwrights carefully removed the ceiling, followed by all of the siding, functionally leaving a skeleton of the property. Working within the original footprint and maintaining much of the original post and beam infrastructure and the center chimney, Greg was able to retain the authentically historic elements of the home while offering modern, comfortable living. “Preservation can be a scary word but really all it means is that rather than ripping everything apart and buying new ‘stuff’ to put in a house, we are going to use what is already there whenever it makes sense to do so,” explains Greg. Two of the 150 to 200-year-old walls remain intact, blissfully juxtaposed with modern conveniences including Hope’s beloved Hobart mixer, an homage to her career as a professional pastry chef.
There’s a palpable sense of past and present throughout, a deliberate design. “We didn’t want it to look like an old antique place because then we’d look like old antique people,” laughs Bob. But he explains that he and Greg discussed that over the more than three-and-a-half centuries the home has stood, it was likely renovated at least 25 times, and each time, brought up to date.
Getting there took a lot of patience and lot of elbow grease. Bob says they uncovered at least 18 layers of paint and removed about five layers of wallpaper. “The first layer was newsprint and a piece had the date 1862 – not way back for this house,” notes Bob.
Today, Bob and Hope are able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and are proud they’ve christened a new chapter in this home’s history – while making some new friends, like Greg and Pamela, along the way. “I do love this house, and I love Bob and Hope,” says Greg. “I’m so happy that they decided to retire in Rhode Island.”