Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Windham house for sale: Some disassembly required - by Walter Lunt

Adrianna Gibson of Newfield saw the ad on Craig’s List. A vintage cape for sale at a very reasonable price in Windham; the catch, it had to be disassembled and removed from its lot by late fall. 
Intrigued, Gibson encouraged her partner, Clifford Plummer III, to join her in seeing the property. The former Week’s farm, a landmark, of sorts, at the corner of Highland Cliff and Alweber Roads, had been vacant for about 15 years and considered structurally unsound.
Gibson remembers their first visit in July. She was standing on the second floor; “You know how some old houses can feel really creepy inside? This one was different. I was leaning on a ceiling beam, just looking around. Right then, I fell in love with the place.” She told Plummer, “This is the one. This has got to be our house.”

After exploring the inside further, Plummer told her he could see the “possibilities,” that is, incorporating many of the historic features into a new build. But Gibson, a builder from northern Maine and self-described purist disagreed, strongly favoring a piece-by-piece take-down and rebuild on their 8-acre property in Newfield. 

And the delicate demolition began. The couple rented a mobile storage container. Sections of the disassembled building were photographed, labeled, bundled and stored in the container beside the house. Slowly, the antique cape shed its unique features as Gibson and Plummer labored several hours a day, seven days a week, even while Plummer maintained his full-time job as a warehouse foreman in Westbrook.

On one work day, Gibson stood in the entryway admiring the beaded tongue and groove panels partially adorned with faded Victorian wallpaper. “It’s amazing the way they built…without power tools,” she observed. The 200 plus year old post and beam structure was a solid build; built to last. Time had only weakened it; Gibson knew that minimal structural repairs during the rebuild would restore it for a third century of life. Meanwhile, Plummer had come around to Adrianna’s desire to restore the house with its historical integrity intact. He said he used the house number in various combinations when playing the state’s Pick-3 lottery game. “I won,” he proclaimed, “And that’s when I knew this was a lucky house.”

Many residents in the neighborhood believe the antique cape, which once had an unattached barn, to be one of oldest homes in Windham. But the house is hard to date. Town tax records show the time of build to be 1800. County deeds reveal that Thomas Trott willed the farm to his daughter, Abigail, in 1809. Some members of the Weeks family and Windham Historical Society president Linda Griffin have speculated the house could date back to the mid-to-late 1700s. One society member recalls that oral tradition suggests the house had been moved to Highland Cliff Road from another location, a practice common in earlier times. There exists, however, no record of relocation.

The last occupant of the house, around the late 90s, was Gladys Weeks, then in her nineties. It is said that Grammy Weeks often complained about “spongy” floorboards as she moved about the house in a wheelchair. Visitors who frequented the deconstruction project shared memories of the house going back several decades, reminiscing about May baskets hanging in the yard, Easter egg rolls and political party meetings.

Much of the building’s history is revealed as Gibson and Plummer remove generations of renovation. In one parlor, sheetrock gave way to old paneling which in turn revealed two separate applications of lathe with horse-hair plaster; one of each side of the wall studs. Griffin said the inner and outer layers added strength to the construction and provided a dead-air pocket, an early form of insulation. She also observed the plaster formulas were different; the exterior application, probably the earliest, appeared yellowed and sandy while the inner coating was white, thinner and utilized pig or horse hair.

More historic revelations came to light as the new owners peeled back to the house’s earliest time. Pine roof boards, some more than 30 inches wide bore the tell-tale signs of rough circular saw markings, typical of early sawmill lumber.

Gibson also pointed to hand hewn beams, square nails and the 2 over 2 Victorian windows which probably replaced original 9 over 6 panes from the early 1800s. Griffin said the house displays a floor plan typical of late colonial houses: Two front parlors and kitchen and birthing/storage rooms in the rear.

Perhaps the most prominent feature to be exposed during the trim down is the chimney. Roof board removal revealed a double chimney in the shape of an inverted V – two single flues rising from the first floor and joining just above the second story. Disassembly in the center of the building revealed the remains of three fireplaces. Griffin believes the double flues serviced two stoves that replaced the fireplaces in the mid-1800s. The unconventional brick formation attracted much attention from passers-by, many stopping to take photographs. Gibson said countless people stopped by to chat, many multiple times just to observe the progress of the take-down.

One indignant observer rarely left the site. A tiny chipmunk scampered about the property, ducking in and out of the house remains, chattering noisily as if protesting the activity. Plummer said the pesky little fellow succeeded in achieving a triumphant moment. While removing clapboards, Plummer had set his ladder and started climbing. However, one leg of the ladder sunk into a small hole in the ground sending him crashing onto the lawn. As he regained composure, he observed the chipmunk chattering, seemingly joyously, as it disappeared into the offending hole. Plummer nursed a sore shoulder the rest of the day while Gibson, barely controlling laughter, shared the story with every visitor for the next two days.

One prodigious construction feature gave Gibson and Plummer a moment of wonder and surprise. Upon removing the boards from a parlor floor, they stared in awe; the floor joists consisted of small tree trunks with the bark still clinging, except for a portion of the circumference which was flattened to meet the floor boards. Limb knots and a few square nails protruded here and there. 

Joan and Ray Weeks, who are members of the family whose generations occupied the house for over 100 years, said they have mixed feelings as they watch the house come down from their home a few hundred yards away. “We are so, so sad to see it go,” said Joan, “but glad it’s being repurposed rather than bull dozed or burned.”

Walking by the Weeks’ house with a pet calf on a leash, Andrea (Elder) Stultz paused. “What they’re doing is amazing and heartwarming,” referring to Gibson’s and Plummer’s act of preservation over demolition. Dozens of others stopped with similar sentiments. Marnie Childress of South Portland, who was picking up her granddaughter from a nearby school bus stop, commented, “I absolutely love that it’s going to have a new life.”

The new life, observed Gibson, will be its third century of existence – same building, same construction techniques, just a new family and a new location.

Gibson and Plummer plan to have an open house after the reassembly in Newfield, probably in the fall of 2016. All the Weeks family, the neighborhood and the curious onlookers will be invited.

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