Save That House

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Luckily the staff fundraiser for a well-known regional history museum was willing to give us advice. “You’ll never get anywhere,” he clucked, “if you don’t offer naming opportunities.” This, it turned out, was a genteel term for auctioning bits of the Bigelow House off to major supporters. In exchange for a large contribution, a donor would be “recognized” in the old home’s formal front parlor or its wainscoted dining room. A much lesser sum would secure the back porch or an unseen utility closet. By the time the fundraiser was finished poring over the floor plan, every alcove and corner had received a suggested price.

“This will be easy,” he promised. “You’ll have most of it pledged by July.” The fundraiser encouraged pledging., Folks would give more money, he said, if they didn’t have to give it right now. But “pledged” is not the same as “paid,” and by July we were still far short of the cash we needed. With less than a year remaining to pull off the restoration, our struggling band of volunteers could think of just one thing to do.

We closed our eyes, took a deep breath, borrowed sixty thousand dollars, and bought the Bigelow House.

From the beginning we had clung to the notion that if we could manage to get there, restoring the house would be fun. We would choose lush period wallpapers and pretty Victorian carpets, and visitors would swoon when they saw the authentic job we had done. “Hold on,” our architect warned us. “With the budget you’ve got, and what this house needs, there may not be any money left for wallpaper and rugs.” First we would have to replace all the plumbing, heating, and wiring that had been added, somewhat haphazardly, to the house in the past hundred years. We would have to install a staff room, where tour guides could hang their coats. A security system. A fare alarm. Protective film on the windows to block ultraviolet light.

“Not to mention,” continued the architect, “your handicapped parking, your barrier-free entrance, and your wheelchair-accessible restroom.” Suddenly the grant from the state sounded like small change. Fitting a new public restroom into a pre-Civil War-era house was not an easy assignment. The only practical option was to convert the laundry room, a shed-roofed extension behind the house with its own exterior door. We would have to demolish the existing room, rebuild it nine inches wider, pour a concrete entrance ramp, then move the Bigelows’ washer and dryer into an upstairs closet. This would cost, the architect estimated, twenty thousand dollars—just about what we’d hoped to spend on wallpaper, carpets, and draperies.

On a dismal January day, as drizzle turned to ice in the streets, a dozen stalwart vol-unteers moved the historic furnishings out of the Bigelow House. Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow had packed up their things and departed; we were storing, as agreed, the Bigelow family artifacts that we hoped to purchase one day. Out went the Empire-style sofa, and Grandfather Bigelow’s desk, and watercolor paintings in seashell-encrusted frames. Tables made from trees that early Bigelows had felled on their acreage. Chairs that Grandmother Bigelow had brought west on the Oregon Trail.

Seeing the house without furniture, stripped down to its architectural bones, was exhilarating and dreadful. Acoustical tile ceilings, installed in the 1950s, glowered in all three parlors. Ancient plaster crumbled in most of the upstairs bedrooms, and extension cords slithered like dangerous snakes throughout the entire house. It was thrilling to know we had moved at last from thinking and planning to doing . But it was hard not to wonder silently if the house was in fact worth the fuss.

It helped that the construction crew was smitten right from the start. They loved the chance to work on a house with wooden pegs at the corners and a foundation of fat, whole logs. Their dashing gypsy king of a foreman studied old photographs of the place until every lost historic detail was burned into his brain. “You want what’s shown in the architect’s plans?” he’d ask when he didn’t like the drawings. “Or do you want what really was here?”

An interior designer, working for us pro bono, scraped off layers of wallpaper and soaked them apart to discover rich Victorian designs. When he showed us new wallpapers he had chosen to approximate the old patterns, we fell head over heels in love. Visitors would be spellbound. By postponing —maybe forever—restoration of the kitchen, we squeezed enough out of our budget to do the parlors up right.

Work on the Bigelow House foundation took three times longer (and cost three times more) than expected. But as the 1950s ceilings came down and the Gothic Revival porches came back, the Bigelow House began to look like the fabulous landmark it was.