A Sunnyside Revival
Preserving the past is one man’s passion
Photographed by Rob Karosis/Produced by Marsha Jusczak George found the parlor’s copper chandelier in the attic; the giant Buddha dates from the nineteenth century.
The deep-red-and-yellow Victorian house in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, commands your attention. Surrounded by stately trees and a sprawling complex of outbuildings (including a windmill!), it conveys a unique sense of history. There are stories here from the past and one man’s story of rejuvenation. His story guides the home’s rebirth.
The first owners of the home, known as “Sunnyside,” were the Honorable Warren Brown, a state senator and gubernatorial candidate, and his wife Sarah, who taught school prior to her marriage. Sarah designed the house, which was built around 1880. In the Browns’ day, much of Hampton Falls was rolling farmland, and from her cupola, Sarah could see past the village green to the ocean. Warren was a leader in agricultural education and made Sunnyside a showplace with thriving orchards, a dairy farm, sheep, and vegetable crops. Sarah died in 1917, and by the 1960s, the remaining Browns had died or moved on. The home lay vacant for years and survived a succession of owners who made ill-advised attempts at modernization.
In August 1999, George Blaisdell and his family were living in Danville, New Hampshire, unaware that their lives were about to change. George went white-water rafting in northern New Hampshire; in a rough stretch of rapids he was catapulted from the boat and pinned underneath. He suffered a massive concussion and temporarily lost his eyesight. Waiting for the results of a CT scan, George’s wife, Michelle, read him the real estate news featuring Sunnyside. The write-up urged potential buyers to “own a piece of history.” For reasons he cannot explain, George felt compelled to visit the house, though he could see only shadows. At the house, he asked his wife if there were a figure of a woman holding a light on the stairway’s newel post. There was, and that convinced George to buy the property.
The family moved in Halloween night and began more than a decade of restoration work. Crumbling fireplaces, a sagging kitchen, and a basement once flooded with two feet of water were some of the challenges they faced. George estimates that hundreds of dead squirrels and bats along with 12 tons of junk and debris were removed from the attic alone.
During the restoration, George saved viable materials. Brick, stones, wood, and furnishings were put aside for future use. As work progressed, nearly everything was repurposed. “I’ve tried to follow the same creed that the original owners of the estate followed,” George says. “In those days, nothing was wasted, and we do not waste anything either. Good materials can always be reused.”
Today, the home’s transformation is nearly complete. George is building a ballroom—a feature he feels Sarah intended—and adding a few finishing touches, but the restoration is mostly done. Each room in the home is hand painted, a feat that took years to accomplish. George wanted walls true to the period but also unique with artwork that tells the story of the house. In the living/piano room, the cool cream of the sofas and the fireplace surround offset shades of brown, gold, and burgundy on the walls, an Oriental rug, and accent pillows.
The wall art is a honeycomb pattern topped with a bee-motif border, a tribute to the return of honeybees to the estate. Legend has it that the bees left Sunnyside when Sarah Brown died, but they returned since the Blaisdells have been in residence. Moldings are original to the home but were restored. The floor, an expanse of golds and browns, has inlays of two different tropical woods, massaranduba and ipe, in a pattern echoing that of the ceiling moldings. “The wood is incredibly heavy,” George says. “It is four times as heavy as oak.”
The copper chandelier dates from 1880 and was found in the home. George had it electrified and set into the existing, hand-painted ceiling medallion. Also original to the house are the piano, living room fireplace, and the mirror above with its dazzling gold-leaf frame. Statuary and artifacts, including striking Italian glass pieces on the mantle, a bronze from India, and a large nineteenth-century Buddha, fill the room.
Down the hall is the dining room, featuring wall art that George designed. Red-and-gold striping rims the top of the wall, below which is a floral border above a repeating pattern of red tasseled swags; the main expanse of wall features an ornate cream pattern on a rose ground. Rounding out the look are heavy, red velvet swags and jabots on the windows. The dining room table dates from 1840 and once belonged to a ship’s captain. It has 10 leaves and seats 12. A handmade antique Italian mirror, its glass frame embellished with etching and hand-blown glass rosettes, hangs over the mantel. The wainscoting in the room, and throughout the house, is made from mahogany.
The room’s focal point is a long crystal chandelier crafted in the waterfall style. Tiers of crystals, hundreds in number, cascade from the top. The chandelier, weighing 200 pounds, hangs from another hand-painted medallion, this one with a bounty of grapes. Gilded molding frames the chandelier and showcases the woodwork.
Like many Victorian rooms, this one is full of Asian influences, from the Oriental rug in reds, blues, and golds, to the Japanese samurai figure on display, and the eye-catching Japanese scroll, painted on rice paper, that fills one wall. Both the living room and dining room open into the main foyer, which features an impressive 375-year-old Japanese scroll painted on silk.
The kitchen, which was in disrepair when the Blaisdells moved in, has been opened up from three small rooms into one large space. Much of the original fireplace and hearth remain. The kitchen flows into an enclosed patio, which in turn opens onto a sunny porch.
Running the length of the house is the basement, now divided into a workout room with a cedar-walled sauna, game room, card room, and wine cellar. The original basement was flooded, but George saved the brick and stone to reconstruct these rooms. The card room features two televisions, a professional card table, refrigerator, and other comforts. The bathroom is done up to resemble a mock jail, complete with barred door, cot, and a tin cup for water. Air-dried pine, hung rough side out, covers most of the basement walls. The boards are not old but are an impressive 12 inches wide. Two long, rough-hewn benches were made from a large tree that came down on their property in a storm.
Sunnyside’s restoration is as impressive outside as it is inside. Most striking is the soaring windmill, which once powered the estate’s water supply. “The well here is 60 feet deep and 12 feet in diameter,” George says. “It is the deepest hand-dug well in the state. You can only imagine the labor involved.”
The windmill and outbuildings house some of George’s collections and workshops used in the renovation and maintenance of the estate. A structure resembling a small water tower is really a hot tub and outdoor shower. The interior of the windmill, located near the outdoor pool, includes a fully functional kitchen, shower, changing room, and workshop. The showerhead is an old watering can, and the indoor “privy” is really a modern toilet. An old-time hand pump generates hot and cold water.
George left the workings of the windmill visible, including the impressive wellhead. This room now houses his collection of old tools and a working wooden bathtub. The windmill’s upper floors contain a rope bed made from the wood of the same tree used for the basement benches.
The former chicken coop by the pool is now a summer kitchen. The carriage house contains an upstairs apartment for an estate worker, below which is space for George’s car collection. The original barn had to be torn down, but George built a new one to match the house. The barn houses a metal shop and work areas for much of Sunnyside’s restoration; George says it holds “every tool known to man.” The recently completed silo showcases coppersmithing and ironwork done on the property. Wooden steps with wrought iron railings wind up the 30-foot-tall stone silo, while copper lanterns light the way. At the top, a copper ceiling gleams. Fashioned by Justin Gray, George’s “right hand” who lives on the premises, it is comprised of 700 copper shingles, all hand cut and folded, as they would have been in the 1880s.
George has a collector’s eye, and once he moved to Sunnyside, he found the perfect home for his collections, which encompass varied interests. Buddhas are found throughout the home. Two large ones in the foyer “give good energy,” he says. The enormous bronze Buddha at the top of the main staircase hails from Nepal; it weights 800 pounds and was installed with a small crane. Buddhas also watch over George’s gym workouts, supervise the pool area, and guard the patio, and two statues of Kwan Yin, a Buddhist saint associated with compassion, stand at the gates to the property. When asked, “Why so many Buddhas,” George smiles. “I like their energy and feel that they belong here.”
With bats long gone, the renovated attic holds the movie theater, complete with candy counter, cotton candy machine, and popcorn machine. George’s team made a red carpet for the entrance, theater curtains, sound baffles, and a marquee with repeating lightbulbs from Las Vegas. It also contains a collection of toys, games, and action figures, numbering in the hundreds. Large glass cases display movie memorabilia, including Spider-Man costumes, Power Rangers, Star Wars Stormtroopers, Godzilla artifacts and other monsters from Japanese classic films, one of 500 Darth Vader costumes, and life-size Mike and Sully characters from the film Monsters, Inc.
“Yes, it’s valuable,” George says of his collection. “But mostly I collect for fun. I was fortunate to be a child at a time when kids still used their imaginations and played with real toys—toys you made up stories for, toys you held in your hand and flew through the air. They represent childhood to me.”
His beliefs are equally strong when it comes to his car collection, which includes 11 classic cars, all American makes. To him, the cars are more than just cool vehicles. They, and Sunnyside itself, represent a time when America was America. “We used to build things,” he says. “We were innovators; we were an industrial power with high hopes and aspirations. We had dreams, ideas. This is what made America great. Everything at this farm was made by hand and it was self-sufficient. These cars were made by Americans—and sought after the world over. We have lost some of that. So for me, restoring Sunnyside and collecting these cars brings back America the way it was, the way it should be.”
George admits that he is not sure when he will be done with restorations. “The home is my passion,” he says. “You see its potential and you are consumed with achieving it. I feel like the house is guiding me in what I do. I’ll look around one day and realize the vision is complete. Until then, I’m having fun bringing Sunnyside back to life.”