A Historic Sensibility
Furnishing and maintaining an antique home
Old houses harbor the triumphs and tragedies of people who lived in a different era. Owners of antique homes become stewards of history, and Sally and Jim Chandler are no exception. They love their historic home in the Point Shore area of Amesbury, Massachusetts, and cannot imagine living in a newer house.
“I have always lived in an eighteenth-century house,” Sally says. “I grew up in one in New Jersey, and I absorbed my parents’ deep interest in its early history.” Her husband, Jim, studied architecture in school and was raised among the North Shore’s historic homes, so he too has an appreciation for history.
Point Shore is a village nestled on the banks of the Merrimack River. Once a shipbuilding region, it is the site of Lowell’s Boat Shop, the oldest continually operating wooden boat shop in the country. The Chandlers first moved into this historic neighborhood in 1967 before purchasing their current property in 1976. “For the first 10 years we lived in the neighborhood, this was our favorite house,” Jim says. Compared to their previous residence, they chose this house because it had more square footage and land on which to raise their two daughters. It also had more historical and architectural details, and the fact that the house was located on the river was a great incentive to move.
The Chandlers had their 3,100-square-foot house professionally researched and know its entire history from the time it was built in 1765. The home belonged to Ezra Morrill, a blacksmith who worked in the local shipbuilding industry. Originally, the house was situated about a block away; it was moved in 1922 to its current location and turned sideways to the river. Neighbors who witnessed the move told the Chandlers how a team of oxen pulled the house up Main Street by walking around and around a capstan, or rotating vertical winch. The Chandlers are only the fourth owners of the home; it remained in the Morrill family for 157 years.
Because the house was restored after its relocation, the white exterior and dark shutters demonstrate the Colonial Revival period. But it still retains many of its original eighteenth-century Georgian features, particularly its elaborate paneling. The house’s front facade has four windows on the first floor and a door in the center, while there are five windows across the top floor. This style, characteristic of the Georgian period, is referred to as “five over four.”
The house was already in good condition when the Chandlers bought it, so they did not need to do much restoration work. One misconception about historic homes, Sally says, is that they require more maintenance than modern buildings. “One thing we have noticed is that the materials used when the house was built are still in great shape. I am constantly surprised by people who think that an old house must need so much more maintenance than a new house, when in reality, the 200-year-old wood beams and planks are in much better condition than newer material.”
While their neighborhood is not designated as a historic district, Sally and Jim wanted to stay in keeping with the original features as much as possible. “We have been very careful not to change the architectural detail visible from the street,” Jim says. “However, we added a lot of glass on the river side of the house to take advantage of the southern exposure and the views. We added a sunroom off the living room as well as a large deck, accessible from both the living room and the kitchen.” They also added the perennial gardens.
Not only did the Chandlers design the gardens themselves, they decorated the interior of the house as well. In restoring and decorating the home, Sally says that her inspiration came from the place itself. “What we followed was our knowledge of how this house should look for its period in time.”
The Chandlers’ art collection mixes old and new, incorporating pieces done by Sally (who studied fine arts in college) and other family members. “We have not been concerned about keeping artwork in the same period as the house; it makes for a more interesting blend,” she says. For instance, in the living room, she paired a French painted wooden sculpture of the Madonna and child, dating from the seventeenth or eighteenth century, with a small abstract painting commemorating September 11, 2001. In the dining room, there is a 1930s painting by prominent Newburyport artist Sam Sargent depicting Jim’s father’s Sonder sailboat and an 1803 needlework “mourning” picture memorializing a young child who had died.
The antique furnishings are works of art, too. Jim suspects that the “North Shore” dresser and corner cupboard—built-ins original to the home—are made from pine, as was typical of similar dressers from the area. “Both pieces are fine examples of their period, and we are lucky that they are here,” Sally says. “We’ve had to collect things to put on them for display over the years.” That collection includes Canton export porcelain and a few pieces of Delft and Dedham pottery. The Chandlers sold an Avanti car in order to buy a tall case clock made by David Wood of Newburyport in the early 1800s from a dealer in Exeter, New Hampshire. In addition, they purchased an early-eighteenth-century William and Mary highboy, which came from a Federal-period house in Newburyport. Other pieces are family heirlooms.
Of special importance to Sally are her family’s handworks. Scattered throughout the home are tiny pieces of furniture made by Sally’s father, who was an economist by profession. These miniatures are exact replicas of the Chandlers’ antique furnishings, all executed with incredible detail. Sally kept the file of scrupulous notes her father wrote as he measured each full-size piece. She says, “He was always very creative and could make anything.”
He made a miniature of the tall case clock, which even has a key like the original as well as hanging weights on chains and a moving pendulum. He made a William and Mary highboy, the drawers of which are completely functional. He made the tiny drawer pulls and devised a technique to replicate the look of walnut burl veneer by using a window screen and toothbrush. He also made a dollhouse for his granddaughters, a model of Jim’s Whitehall rowboat, and full-size pieces of furniture, too. One of his miniatures is now at the Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware.
Sally’s mother did the large crewel embroidery piece to the left of the fireplace in the living room about 50 years ago, and she also did the crewel embroidery for the curtains in the dining room. Sally created the curtains’ design while her mother did the needlework, a project that took a few years to complete because there were three windows to cover. Two semi-miniature slipper chairs were another collaboration: Sally’s father made the chairs, Sally designed the pattern for the fabric, and Sally’s mother did the crewel embroidery.
Through their efforts to preserve the traditional character of their historic home, the Chandlers clearly have a profound desire to extend the past into the future. “Antique houses are so rich in history and stories, and we think they are very much worth the effort to save and nurture,” Sally says. “I hope that people who buy antique houses will educate themselves on the right kind of details that need to be part of any upgrades so that the authentic look of these homes isn’t lost forever.”