If these walls could talk: A look at some unique local dwellings
Some folks leave a light on in the window.
Jason Pilalas, a summer resident of Noank, opted for a dedicated "lantern room" towering 52 feet over his front door instead. Granted, not everybody has one; but then again, not everybody lives in a refurbished, 19th century, granite lighthouse.
Pilalas is one of a handful of southeastern Connecticut and nearby southern Rhode Island residents who had the vision to peer past the façades of old, commercial/institutional buildings (lighthouses, mills, churches, etc.) and recognize therein a dream house.
"When I was a kid, growing up in Belle Haven [in Greenwich, CT], my dad gave me a row boat and I used to row past the lighthouse on Great Captain Island, and say to myself, ‘I’d love to live there someday," said Pilalas, 75, a retired financier. Back in 1991 he got something close to his wish, when Noank’s Morgan Point Lighthouse, at the mouth of the Mystic River, came up for sale. Dating to 1868, the lighthouse was one of several, nearly identical, contemporaneous lighthouses built along the shores of Long Island Sound and Block Island, including Great Captain.
Decommissioned in 1919, the property was sold at auction in 1922 (for $8,625) and later bought by a New York couple who did some renovations, including a ranch-house style addition. By that time, the original beacon and lantern room were gone, either removed to serve another lighthouse, or blown away in the 1938 Hurricane (stories differ).
Pilalas wanted to restore the look of the lighthouse, while making it habitable. This meant renovating the addition, while opening up the sorely-neglected interior of the lighthouse itself, making it light and airy. The solid granite skeleton was sound enough, but the original lighthouse keeper’s quarters were cramped and small, plus the building lacked adequate plumbing and electricity. Where masonry did need replacing, contractor John Hassinger of Mystic tracked down blocks of Westerly granite from the very source of the structure’s original granite in Ashaway, R.I. Today, the tastefully decorated interior includes nautical memorabilia (ship’s bells and the like) throughout and an oak-stepped spiral staircase rising to the most ambitious and challenging element of the 20-month, multi-million dollar restoration: the lantern room.
"My father based the design on other lighthouses," recalled Hassinger, whose father, the late Herman Hassinger of Moorestown, N.J., served as architect. The 12 by 12 foot, circular, glass and aluminum room was custom built by a marine metal works company in Portsmouth, R.I. On clear days, the room provides stunning views of Block Island, 25 miles away, while cushioned benches ringing the unique space offer a relaxing spot for sipping morning coffee or evening cocktails.
"It’s not a historically accurate restoration, but it’s very livable, let’s put it that way," Ron Foster, president of the Groton-based New England Lighthouse Lovers organization, told The Day when the group toured the lighthouse several years ago.
A guiding light of a different sort directed the original construction of the old Seventh-Day Adventist church on Lester Avenue in Pawcatuck, while a bit of imagination, not to mention faith, helped transform it into a residence fifty years later. The congregation was founded in Westerly, R.I. in 1912 by Westerly-Pawcatuck Seventh-Day Adventists who previously had to travel to Worcester, Mass., to worship at the nearest Seventh-Day Adventist parish at the time. In 1927, the congregation stitched together a small plot (0.05 of an acre) from scraps of neighboring properties on Lester Avenue and built itself an austere but graceful little church, with arched windows, a peaked roof, and cypress trim work. (Blurring the dividing line between church and state a bit, the original deed on file in Stonington Town Hall states that the purpose of the property transaction was "for the furtherance of the gospels of the Lord Jesus Christ.") Yet by the early-1960s, the humble congregation had dwindled to an even humbler handful.
"There were only eight to ten members, and the youngest was 65," recalled former pastor, Rev. Marion E. Kidder, who served the parish from 1961 to 1964. With the help of a friend from Norwich, Kidder replaced the church’s rubble and dirt foundation with poured concrete, creating a proper basement with classrooms for Sunday school and bathrooms (the original alternative was the gas station down the street.) Soon after Kidder left, however, the congregation joined a larger church in New London and the little church sat vacant until December of 1978, when Charles and Deborah Hayden moved in.
The Haydens weren’t especially looking for a unique, let alone spiritual, space to transform into a residence. In fact, the decision to purchase the church was a decidedly earthly one.
"It was the cheapest property in the listings for New London County," recalled Charles, who paid $21,000 for the church. A contractor by trade, he devoted nights and weekends to transforming the house of God into the house of Hayden. The pews had already been removed (with the exception of one that ultimately served as a porch bench), so he was working with a relatively clean slate. He sectioned off an area in the sanctuary for the kitchen, built a staircase and loft with bedrooms, and added a wood stove at the end of the church where the organ and pulpit once stood. One job he didn’t tackle were the old rope-and-pulley windows which were in dire need of replacement – a task he left to the next and current owner, Andrea Carey.
"I used to have to prop the windows up with a stick," recalled Carey, who moved into the property with her two daughters in 1983. Rolling up her sleeves, while dipping rather deeply into her own personal collection plate, she replaced all the windows with customized panes that conformed to the gracefully arched frames. She added her own decorative touches, by frosting the window peaks with dove silhouettes and suspending stained glass crosses and other designs in the panes. Another of her stylish touches was painting the original front doors a jazzy, magenta pink. While the church elders might have been horrified, at least one visitor has routinely admired Carey’s taste.
"At voting time, when [Connecticut State Legislator] Diana Urban comes by, and I’m not at home, she leaves a note that says, ‘I like your doors,’" she chuckled. Carey said she enjoys living in the unique, open space, which was an interesting place to raise children.
"When they had friends over, I told them, ‘This is a church; no swearing!’" she smiled.
Of course, from a kid’s perspective, perhaps the only thing worse than spending all your time in church is doing so at school. Yet such was the fate of the Carter children – Carron, then 16 and Alexandra, then 6 - back in 2000, when their parents, Stuart and Patty, purchased the Lower Pawcatuck School, at the intersection of Greenhaven, Stewart and Mary Hall Roads in Pawcatuck.
A classic, one-room schoolhouse, the building dates to 1870. It replaced an earlier structure that stood on this prominent crossroad since at least 1856, surrounded by farms, most of which were owned by the Davis family. The Davises ultimately deeded the land to the town’s "Eleventh School District" in 1906, while filling a good number of the classroom’s seats over the years as well. John Lawrence Davis, who entered first grade in 1905, recalled that one teacher had students gather and carve their own, customized whipping sticks. She lasted only a year and "we all felt glad to see her go," Davis concluded in his history of the family’s farmstead. Students also had to fetch their own well water and carry coal to fuel the cast-iron stove. Two teachers taught all eight grades, yet faced an uphill battle with a student body that, literally, had to walk a mile or more (yes, and through the snow), just to get an education.
"Most of the children being young and having from one to two miles to travel, must, in consequence, suffer from much loss of school-time . . . a low grade of scholarship and comparatively small average attendance," concluded the school board’s report for 1895.
By 1938, enrollment had dropped to ten and the town closed the school. A year later, Westerly resident Frank Shippee purchased the property, but the school sat vacant until Shippee sold it a few years later to Louis and Eva Bellerose who moved in with their young daughter, Leonora.
"My mother remembers writing on the chalkboards that were still on the walls," said Leonora’s daughter, Linda Keena of Pawcatuck.
A millworker at Stonington’s Velvet Mill, Louis was both handy and resourceful. He salvaged copper pipes from the town landfill for plumbing and divided the roughly 1500 square feet of open space into bedrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen. Leonora inherited the former schoolhouse which changed little until the Carter family moved in in 2000.
The Carters rejiggered things a bit, adding a modern kitchen and opening up the area where the teacher’s desk and cast-iron stove once sat. An L-shaped addition now accommodates a workout room for Patty, a personal trainer. The old, rickety wide-planked wood floors regrettably had to go – "We kept catching our feet on the nails," said Patty – while a spike in enrollment, as it were (twin sons born in 2007), prompted the biggest renovation: the addition of a second story.
"It was either that or move to another house," said Stuart.
With a front-facing picture window looking out on a welcoming porch and leafy Greenhaven Road, the former schoolhouse retains the simple charm of its 19th century origins, while offering the Carters the comforts of a modern home.
This kind of balancing act is required of most homeowners who convert one space into another. At least Yvette Nachmias-Baeu and her late husband, Dietrich Baeu, had plenty of room in which to pull it off when they moved into their repurposed home: a 10,000 square-foot, 19th century textile mill in the Hopkinton village of Hope Valley, R.I.
"I just think this place is magical in every way," said Nachmias-Baeu, wandering about the creaking, time-worn pine floors of the mill/home she and Baeu shared for almost 25 years. She now lives next door, in a much smaller granite building that once served as the mill’s boiler and engine room. Meanwhile, her son, Jesse Saglio, a financial advisor, and his wife and teenage daughter now live in the mill’s refurbished second story, divided into rooms, yet with plenty of open areas. With its high, arched, 24-pane windows, raw brick walls, and towering ceilings, the light-drenched space could well be mistaken for one of lower Manhattan’s coveted loft apartments. This is no surprise, said Nachmias-Baeu, a native New Yorker, since the building dates to the same era and originally served a similar, commercial purpose.
The first mill on this spot, the Centerville Manufacturing Co., was built in 1846, astride Moscow Brook and dam, which supplied water power for the machining of textiles. That building burned and was rebuilt in 1865, by which time the Centerville mill was producing cotton cloth for Union Army soldiers. (The original coal-burning boiler and engine room, where Nachmias-Baeu now lives, survived the fire; she said she still unearths bits of coal and debris when she gardens.) It was a booming era, with mills up and down the valley, while Hopkinton served as a major stagecoach stopover between Connecticut, and Newport, R.I. Factory workers put in long days (13 hours average), after which they were encouraged to "spend the remaining time reading the Bible" while "[a]ny employee who smokes Spanish cigars" drinks, hangs out in pool halls or "gets shaved in a barber shop" risked getting fired, according to company rules of the nearby Ashville Mill. (On a more liberal note, male employees were given "an evening off each week for courting" and an extra night off "if they go regularly to church.") A quirky claim to fame of the Centerville mill was its bell – predecessor of the factory whistle – which was supposed to have once belonged to Admiral John Paul Jones. Its current whereabouts remain a mystery, and the whole story may have been generated by some of those pool-shooting, barber-shop dwelling employees with a bit too much time on their hands.
A fire claimed the top floor of the 3-story factory in 1947 and various commercial tenants subsequently moved in and out, including a gun manufacturer and the Boy Scouts, who bought the ten acre property for water rights to its six acres of pond. By the mid-1970s, the mill stood empty until its first residential tenant, Bill Johnson, moved in with his wife Joanne and their two young children.
The Johnsons were just the right couple for the space. He was an enthusiast of 19th and early 20th century manufacturing methods and memorabilia who hydro-powered his workshop with the dam; Joanne was a Euell Gibbons devotee who grew her own food and even tried making her own turtle soup from a hapless terrapin caught in a nearby pond. (Everyone one in her family, including herself and her neighbors "hated it," she later recalled.)
It was Bill who began the process of transforming the second story of the mill into a living space, which Joanne described in the Providence Journal in April of 1977, about a year after they moved in.
"[P]icture 3000 square feet of living space enclosed in mellow, work-scarred brick walls," she wrote. "Consider 11-foot ceilings spanned by heavy, exposed wooden beams and . . . diagonal wood flooring with history-laden burn and repair spots. And skylights! My kitchen is in a tower separated from the main space by a pair of graceful brick arches ten feet high. Eat your heart out, McDonald’s."
The description still captures the essence of the home which Baeu purchased in 1988 and Nachmias-Baeu moved into after the couple married in 1993. A furniture maker by profession, Baeu used the first-floor space (now vacant) as a workshop. He also added finishing touches to Johnson’s remodeling, crafting custom cabinetry and closets in the bedrooms and office. In 2015, Nachmias-Baeu gave the main building to her son and his family and moved next door, into what must be the most charming in-law apartment in town. The author of two books ("A Reluctant Life", about her husband’s illness and death from cancer in 2009, and the novel "Clara at Sixty"), Nachmias-Baeu enjoys a view of the pond and waterfall from her desk, where she writes and reflects on a unique life spent in a unique living environment.
"The light and the space were just a pleasure every single day," she remarked, recalling special occasions such as friends’ weddings she was able to host in the enormous living area, or parties for a 100 people or more. "It is an old building and everything is big, so every time something is needed, it’s not cheap. But every day, I just looked at it and felt happy to be there."
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