Preserving the Past, Living in the Present
Photograph by Stacy Bass
Three years ago Kristan Peters-Hamlin was living in Wilton and commuting to Manhattan but found herself spending more and more time in Westport. She and her husband, Geoff Hamlin, and their three children water-ski, kayak and Rollerblade, and on weekends the family would head for Longshore and Compo Beach, which reminded her of her hometown on Long Island.
When the couple began house hunting in town, they soon found the perfect location — on Compo Parkway, across from Longshore — though not exactly the perfect house. Set to one side of a sloping, double lot, the eighty-year-old Colonial had been expanded to 3,300 square feet over the years, yet the rooms were still small, the ceilings low, the bathrooms tiny and the windows too few. It short, there wasn’t enough space or light for a young, active family of five.
Several contractors Kristan interviewed recommended tearing the house down, but that went against her grain. Despite the deficits, the existing house had history on its side and the strong New England character she has long admired.
“I’m opposed to teardowns,” she says. “I’m a preserver, and I feel it’s important to try to preserve the history of the town.”
Kristan also knew something about houses. Her mother owns a real estate company on Long Island; her sister renovates houses in New Canaan. And five years ago, as a weekend project, she bought, renovated and flipped a beach house, tripling her investment.
There were other advantages to preserving the old Colonial as well. Renovating the original house and adding on a new addition, she calculated, would cost about one-third of what it would to tear down and build from scratch. For another thing, the family could live on the old side of the house while sealing off and building the new side — in renovations, once you break through existing walls you can move into an addition.
With the help of an out-of-town architect who was too busy to take on the project, she had plans drafted for the Compo Parkway house in 2005 and broke ground in 2006. In short order, she found subcontractors, ordered materials and drew up plans for the design of the interior. It led to the brave thought: “Why don’t I start my own company?”
Last July, while still working on her new house, she formed a renovation company, Briston Development (an amalgam of her children’s names). She rolled up her sleeves and went to work.
Even as a relatively new Westporter, Kristan Peters-Hamlin has witnessed the leveling of many of the old houses that gave the town its New England identity. In the current cold twilight-zone of the residential real estate market, the hot spot is multimillion-dollar new construction projects covering property lots once dotted with old, small houses. Whole neighborhoods are disappearing in the wake of the wrecking ball and the dust of the chainsaw. Too many teardowns and clear-cuts could strip the land of important history and stories.
“People are going to wake up very soon and find all these places gone,” says Michael Glynn, an architect in New York City who grew up on Bayberry Lane in Westport. “The future of the town is in the hands of developers, and the town has allowed this to happen. There are only so many heroes and only so many people willing to put their wallets on the line.”
The Hamlins’ Colonial isn’t old by historical standards, but the owners’ decision to preserve and renovate the house may inspire others.
“The highest and best preservation of any building is not to change it and to use it for its original purpose,” says Southport architect John P. Franzen, who has been involved in dozens of historic home restoration projects in the area. “If you pick the right projects,” he says, “I think old construction competes with new construction very favorably because new construction has gotten so expensive.”
Franzen, who lives in an 1820 Federal farmhouse on Greenfield Hill, was attending a Westport Historic District Committee meeting late in 2004 when he was introduced to Mark Iuraduri, from I. K. Builders in Westport; Iuraduri was there seeking a permit to raze the Bradley Cottage on Sturges Highway. The person introducing the two was Morely Boyd, chairman of the Commission, and, at the time, secretary of the Coalition for the Preservation of the Bradley House, which was suing Iuraduri.
“It was one of the few surviving structures of its kind in the town,” Boyd says of the saltbox with an unusual gambrel roof. “What usually survive are large structures built by affluent families, but this was a farmer’s cottage and its original footprint hadn’t been altered.” The 750-square-foot house, built around 1800 as a replica of a house in Illinois owned by Abraham Lincoln’s great-grandfather, was basically a single room divided into tiny spaces around a ten-foot-wide central chimney. It had sat vacant, close to the road, for many years.
“From a preservationist point of view, this is a historic house,” Franzen says, “but to the average person, it’s just another old house. The win-win here was that we met the goals of keeping a historical landmark while preserving the builder’s right to develop the property.”
Franzen opened up the 26'-by-28' room, exposing the original beams and ceiling, then designed a 6,000-square-foot new home alongside it. His design allows the two buildings to coexist harmoniously, incorporating elements of the old roofline into the new and varying roof heights to keep the two in scale and reduce the mass of the combined structure. Iuraduri preserved the original well, stone wall and an old maple tree in front of the house.
Iuraduri and his partner, George Knapp, estimate the restoration added some $200,000 to the project, but he isn’t unhappy with the outcome. “What’s in it for me is an amicable resolution where we’re all happy and someone will be proud to live here,” he says. “This utilizes the property very well. And the renovated cottage gives homeowners a separate in-law apartment or an office. All the original character is there — it has an old feeling but with amenities.”
Boyd adds, “It was a good resolution to a difficult situation and represented the best possible outcome.”
Back on Compo Parkway, the challenge Kristan Peters-Hamlin faced as her own GC was to blend the old and the new in a visually pleasing way, but let each have its own character and strengths. “I felt I could avail myself of the best of the old and the new by adding desirable features of a new house,” she says, “while preserving the features and details of the old house.”
Given the property’s pitch, the new, much larger addition is sited several feet lower than the original house. That allows for ten-foot ceilings on the first floor but a second floor that’s level with the old house’s second floor.
Kristan bumped the new section out from the earlier structure in front and back to create both more space and a prominent focal point for the new main entrance. The design also kept the combined buildings from resembling a long, unbroken facade and distinguished one structure from the other. “I wanted to celebrate the connections between the old and the new,” she says. “Instead of downplaying them, I focused on the them.” At the same time, she tied the two buildings together with clapboard and dentil molding.
Marrying the two interiors proved trickier, though. Where the Colonial kitchen was the size of a walk-in closet, the French Provençal-style kitchen in the new house is 935 square feet with a bi-level island that seats four, sofa and chairs in front of a fireplace, and a banquet-styled corner dining area for twelve. Despite the apparent extravagance of the Tuscany ceramic tile floor, white Calicutta Gold marble counters, and cobalt blue Viking Professional stove, Kristan trimmed costs where she could. By installing eyebrow curtains rather than Pella eyebrow windows, for example, she says she saved $9,000 per window.
Since the new first-floor spaces — kitchen, front foyer and living room — are three feet lower than the original house, getting to the older parts required not just stairs but a classy way to announce and celebrate the transition. At the far end of the kitchen, a sweeping arch frames a wide set of stairs up to a barrel-vaulted hall connecting new and old. Beyond, a lower- profile arch, installed in an original doorway, links the hall to the rooms beyond.
The transition from big spaces with high ceilings to small, eight-foot-high rooms required that the latter change, too. But those rooms have been given new identities and lives. The former living room, for instance, is now the dining room to the right of the vaulted connector. To avoid creating a narrow, enclosed hallway at the top of the stairs from the kitchen, Kristan broke through the outer dining room wall and used half columns and kneewalls to define the space.
Meanwhile, the former dining room has become a conservatory and library, and the old kitchen a mudroom with lockers for each child and cubbies for boots. “It was a postage stamp-sized kitchen,” Kristan says, “but it’s a spacious, adorable mudroom.” Vertical beadboard on the walls gives the room a seashore feel and look. Off the mudroom is the original front door and old main stairs. It’s now an interim space between the mudroom and the renovated dining room.
On the second floor, Kristan pulled two small rooms together to make a bedroom and study for one of her sons. But she preserved the original bathroom as it was, including the lavender sink and toilet.
Past the old rooms, the upstairs hall passes the new winding main staircase with a nautical oval window overlooking the stairwell, foyer and front door. Beyond, a second son’s bedroom also has a nautical feel, with a cathedral ceiling, crow’s-nest sleeping loft for friends, and a modern masculine bathroom with travertine limestone floor and walls and a limestone checkerboard sink.
At the end of the new house, the spacious master bedroom features a soaring ceiling, alcoved sitting room with fireplace and flatscreen, a balcony, walk-in closets, and his-and-hers bathrooms with a glassed-in shower joining the two baths. Kristan positioned an exercise room next to the master bedroom. “We figured if we put the home gym right outside our bedroom,” she says, “that we couldn’t pass it without seeing it, so maybe we’ll use it.”
In the end, Kristan got to preserve one house and build another, in the process learning the pros and cons of being in the renovation business.
“The pros are that you save money,” she says now. “By virtue of preserving the original 3,000-square-foot house, we saved about $600,000 to $900,000. And we have that great feeling that we saved another home in Westport, instead of tearing one down. But there are cons too. There’s a very steep learning curve and the headaches are severe until you learn what you are doing.”
Like the pains of childbirth, headaches apparently pass and are quickly forgotten. This spring, she is involved in two new restoration projects. And her preservationist spirit appears to be spreading beyond her own property lines: Since finishing her place, renovations have gotten under way on two other old houses on Compo Parkway.
Meanwhile, others see the makings of a possible trend in the coming months. “Builders are going to tear down,” says Maggie Smith, a broker with Al Filippone at William Raveis Real Estate in Fairfield. “But homeowners who want to keep the equity in their homes, or homeowners who may have found a great deal in this down market and want to make improvements, will renovate — we’re talking about the kitchen and the bathrooms — because they’re going to get more for their houses when the market turns around.”
Jim Ezzes, a Westport builder, goes further. “Renovation is going to be what predominates for a while because people aren’t going to spend $2.8 million for a new house,” he says. “They are going to stay where they are and renovate.”
Interested in more? See Westport Preserved/Westport Lost at the Westport Historical Society, an exhibit that features renovated or restored area homes; open until May 4. Also, Rachel Carly, an historic preservationist and author, will tell the history of the town through its buildings; April 26, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.