Uncovering history while renovating Sanford-Bristol house

Restoration in early stages at historic Milford home

Lesley Mills hold the cover over one of the beehive stoves.

Lesley Mills holds the cover over one of the beehive stoves.

Lesley Mills donned a hard hat last week before heading into the old Sanford-Bristol house, which she bought in January, sight unseen, to save from demolition.

She and her friend Joseph Hartman have been in the house many times since buying it, mostly ripping things down and speculating as to how they want to put the pieces back together.

“We have to keep peeling the onion back before we know what we’re going to cook,” Hartman said.

The layers they’ve peeled back have been mostly modern wall coverings — the sheetrock primarily — to see what lay beneath.

They’ve also stripped out electrical and plumbing because Hartman said it had to be updated anyway, and it if was still there, it would be in the way.

Mills and Hartman started their massive renovation project by laying Luan on the floor: 40 pieces of 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of thin plywood set down to protect the old hardwood floors still left in the house.

A good deal of the wood had been stripped and sold before Mills bought the house, but a good amount remained and they want to protect it.

 The house

The Sanford-Bristol house was the center of controversy in Milford for several months last year.

The Sanford Bristol house on North Street.

The Sanford Bristol house on North Street.

The previous owners had purchased it for $150,000, despite its disrepair, and said they planned to restore it until they realized the extent of the work needed. They asked for, and received, permission to demolish the house and build a similar one in its place.

Local historians and the Milford Preservation Trust were not happy with that and, with the clock ticking on a court agreement aimed at saving the house, the Connecticut Trust stepped in and bought it Dec. 19, and Mills took ownership of it Jan. 17.

Mills, who owns Connecticut-based Griswold Home Care, compared the mission to restore the house to her mission as a business owner. Her business provides care for elderly people: She said caring for old homes is similar to caring for the elderly.

“For both, the cost to society is qualitative and quantitative,” she said. “In the case of older people, we risk losing their personal perspectives on history and the lessons they teach.”

 Questioning age

The Dutch half-gambrel saltbox is believed to have been built in 1790, according to city records, but some local historians think it may date back to pre-Revolutionary times.

Mills thinks it’s older than 1790, agreeing with those pre-Revolutionary theorists.

Steve Bielitz agrees with that, too. He owns a restoration company in Glastonbury and, having fought to save the Sanford-Bristol house, toured it last week with Mills. He looked closely at a wide feathered edge on a wood panel just inside the front door and said the woodwork says pre-Revolutionary to him.

He estimates the house was built between 1760 and 1775.

Then he looked at the beehive fireplace in the kitchen.

“This is not a 1790 fireplace,” unless the person who built it was very, very old, he said.

 Renovations

Mills can’t really say how long it will take to renovate the house. The process got off to a slower start than she expected because she planned to restore it to a two-family house, which it was at one time.

But the city doesn’t see eye to eye with her on that one. “So it will be a single family house,” Mills said.

She’s getting estimates, and pondering plans.

Lesley Mills in one of the main floor rooms of the Sanford-Bristol house.

Lesley Mills in one of the main floor rooms of the Sanford-Bristol house.

For example, she’s considering taking the ceiling in a bedroom upstairs from a traditional ceiling to a cathedral for the appearance and so the wood can be recycled and used in areas where floor boards are missing or damaged.

There are seven fireplaces in the house, and she thinks she’ll keep the one in the kitchen as a wood burning unit, and convert others to gas and make some decorative.

“I want to keep as much of the architectural detail, but make it energy efficient and functional,” Mills said.

She also wants to expose more of the fireplace that runs up through the center of the house because of the architectural appeal.

Also, there’s a knee wall upstairs in a bedroom that Mills has been eyeing with indetermination. She isn’t sure if she wants to leave it or pull it out to see what’s behind it and to open up the room a bit more.

 Some features

Mills said she wasn’t disappointed for a minute after walking into the house the first time, as its owner.

The old house has more than a few unique features, like a green marble hearthstone in front of the fireplace. The marble, from a Milford quarry, is the same that can be found in front of a fireplace in the White House, local historians have said.

The original front door to the house is what John Poole, an historic preservationist, called a “coffin door.”

The original front door of the house is called a "coffin door."

The original front door of the house is called a “coffin door.”

The door is hinged about three quarters of the way across. Partially open, the door offers traditional access. Fully open, extending that hinged part, would allow space to carry in a coffin, Poole said, explaining that in the old days deceased family members often were laid out in the parlor of the house.

“The doors were to accommodate the coffin,” he said.

Then there are the wide ceiling beams made of chestnut or white oak; and the two beehive stoves.

Poole said that earlier in the house’s history its occupants would have taken the coals or embers from the fireplace and put them into the beehive stove, then closed the metal door for baking.

 

The attic

The attic, while not very roomy height-wise, offers some interesting finds for the history buff. There’s a clear view of the wooden peg holding one of the roof beams together, and one of the beams is covered with tree bark.

Belitz said the bark is a sign that hungry bugs haven’t found their way here.

Hand-forged spikes or nails can be found in the attic.

Hand-forged spikes or nails can be found in the attic.

Then there are several clearly visible large, iron, hand-forged nails or spikes that speak of days gone by, and there are Roman numerals on the beams, which Bielitz and Poole said are called scribe rule. When the house was constructed, the beams would have been cut and marked, and then those markings matched up during construction.

 

The condition

“The original roof sheathing is in very good shape,” Bielitz said as a flashlight beam slid across the inner roof. He said it is constructed of mostly oak and some chestnut.

Some of the remaining wood throughout the house is original, though some was added later. Bielitz can tell the difference by touching it or just looking at it, almost like the wood talks to him. Some of original wood has been sanded so much that the original texture is hidden, he said.

Bielitz and Mills say the house is definitely structurally sound, though it needs some work.

Beefing up the structure will probably start in the basement, where the stone wall foundation bows dramatically inward in two places, possibly from water pressure over the many years. A buttress wall may be built to secure the main foundation wall, but that is still being determined.

The foundation, viewed in the basement, has a very noticeable inward bow, which will have to be addressed.

The foundation, viewed in the basement, has a very noticeable inward bow, which will have to be addressed.

 Champion

There is much work to do, Mills agrees, but she’s still happy with her purchase.

And history buffs credit her with saving a piece of history.

“I think she should be championed for what she did,” Bielitz said. “It was an heroic gesture, buying it without walking through it.”

 

 

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  • johndpoole

    Jill,

    Thanks for publishing this excellent article, and for sharing so much information about the Sanford Bristol House with your readers!

    One additional point of historical and technical interest I’d like to add is the following: The Roman numerals denoting how framing timbers were joined together are often called “marrying numbers”, or more generally, “marriage marks”. They were artifacts of an older system of timber frame construction known as “scribe rule” (as you point out).

    Roman numerals were frequently used, but often other symbols (sometimes very odd ones) were employed, as well. In the Sanford Bristol House, we’d discovered a pair of crescent moon-shaped marks, where a timber brace had been let into a post. These so called “sun” and “moon” marks often indicated how a particular framing member was to be oriented, or placed, relative to the south side of the frame.

    Certain marks were also overloaded with additional meanings or use. “Magic marks” were believed to keep evil spirits from getting into a home. And the well-known “daisy wheel” (a rare and desirable find on an old house or barn frame) was used by builders to derive standard angles without having to calculate them. It also possibly served as a sun or magic mark, in certain situations.

    Anyway, I point all this out just as an example of the sort of obscure and interesting historical-cultural information that’s nearly always embedded in these early New England homes. Whenever one of these homes is destroyed, that knowledge is lost forever. So I’m very glad that this home was saved. It’ll interesting to see, as time goes by, what other secrets the Sanford Bristol House eventually reveals.

    ~ John Poole

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