Catherine and Alfredo De Vido restored a rare 1830 farmhouse in the middle of New York City
By James H. Schwartz | From Preservation | November/December 2009
Imagine restoring an 1830 farmhouse that's been moved, "improved," elevated, enveloped, amended, and enlarged. Now imagine doing it on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Sound challenging? Some homeowners might describe the task as overwhelming.
But not Alfredo De Vido. "We knew what we were getting into," says the Brooklyn-born architect, who in 1996 initiated a dramatic residential restoration with his wife, Catherine. "I called Realtors and deliberately asked them to find me a wreck," he says. "A wreck I asked for, and a wreck I got."
The three-story clapboard house the De Vidos purchased was a rare survivor—a frame structure built near the East River when the area was turnip fields and farmland, then moved south to 85th Street just before the Civil War. By the time the De Vidos discovered it, the house had undergone a series of wholesale changes. Previous owners had tacked additions onto the back, lopped off much of the original front porch, applied courses of wood shingles over the facade (including over the window frames), and turned the front yard into a showroom for cemetery markers.
"One of the neighbors said it looked like a house you might want to take your kids to see on Halloween," Catherine remembers. But even with black trim around the windows and a large gap where the porch once stood, both De Vidos were enthusiastic about restoring the place. "I knew there were some elements that we wouldn't be able to repair," Alfredo says, "but I was determined to preserve the best parts of the house and replace the lost details."
He started in the basement, slated to become his office. Originally a stable (he found a horseshoe while digging in the garden), the room boasted hand-hewn beams from the 1830s supporting a large living room above. "I wanted to preserve the beams, of course, but the ceiling sagged terribly. One of the first things we did was jack it slowly back into place and install steel tube supports that I concealed in my new office walls." With the ceiling stabilized for the first time in years—perhaps decades—crews of workers moved upstairs.
In the stair hall and throughout the first floor, decorative elements had been pierced by pipes or destroyed entirely. "It didn't matter if there was molding in the way," De Vido says. "The old plumbers seemed to have said, 'I'll bloody well go where it's cheapest.'" To bring back the molding, a painter applied a paste stripping solution and cleaned multiple layers of paint from the plaster, revealing what De Vido calls "its multicolored, faded glory." Then he filled gaps with plaster of Paris, rendering a continuous line of molding that looks the way it did in the mid-19th century.
Tools of the Trade
During restoration the De Vidos discovered several products they recommend without reservation:
Baldwin Hardware: "Their egg-shaped doorknobs are traditional, top quality, and extremely well made."Egg Knob #5425 is available in 16 finishes.
Peel Away 1: Red Barn (SW7591). "Our painter spread this paste over molding like a poultice, then covered it with paper, and a few hours later we heard a 'thud' when multiple layers of paint fell off." Works best when oil-based paint is prime coating.
Martin-Senour Paints: "They have a specific line of historic colors [called Williamsburg paints] with old colonial hues that are really beautiful." martinsenour.com
American Standard: "We used their pedestal sinks in the bathroom because they have the classic look for 19th-century houses." americanstandard-us.com
In the adjacent parlor, the painter also stripped matching fireplaces at either end of the room. Both had been painted numerous times and were covered with a topcoat of glossy white enamel. (The owner from whom the De Vidos bought the house told them, "You'll probably want to strip the paint off and try to find something nice under there—but believe me, you won't." He was right, Catherine says.)
Turning to a collection of architecture books, Alfredo found a reprint of a builder's handbook from the mid-1800s. "That author recommended faux painting poor-quality stone, something builders did in parlors all around New York," he says. Hewing to this traditional approach, the De Vidos asked a local artist to faux the mantelpieces and two central volutes, creating an elegant finish that looks like limestone.
Outside, contemporary clapboards on the house were in poor condition, but Alfredo couldn't confirm what had been there originally. Then crews installing insulation behind a second-floor wall stumbled across original beveled boards miraculously preserved when the apartment house next door went up. Honoring the robust form of the revealed clapboards, De Vido reclad the house with 1-by-10-inch beveled pine boards. And when traces of original hardware confirmed that shutters had flanked the front windows, he rehung pairs of working pine shutters that can cover and protect the glazing.
The most obvious element still requiring attention was the porch. Photographs from the New York City Municipal Archives showed that it had initially stretched across the first story, but previous owners had removed two-thirds of the structure along with a quartet of original brackets, a slender corner column, and most of the roof. "Sadly, the remaining scrollwork brackets above the front door were pretty much rotted through," De Vido remembers. Using the originals as templates, he fabricated new brackets and a new column for the restored porch. He also had a lumberyard on Long Island replicate the original balusters next to the front door and rebuild the newel posts at the bottom of the stoop. "They probably date to the late 19th century," he says.
Having lived in their house for more than a decade, the De Vidos know most of its quirks and appreciate much of its history. But Catherine admits that restoring a historic house is an ongoing process, and Alfredo agrees: "Every restoration is a kind of detective story. You simply don't know what you're going to find next."
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