{Old} House Stories: An Interview with Ken Staffey

The Ephraim Burr Beers House, circa 1810 – Clapboard Hill, Westport CT. Read more history about this house here. Photo by Ken Staffey.

Nora Roberts once wrote “it was a mistake to think of houses, old houses, as being empty. They were filled with memories, with the faded echoes of voices. Drops of tears, drops of blood, the ring of laughter, the edge of tempers that had ebbed and flowed between the walls, into the walls, over the years. Wasn’t it, after all, a kind of life? They carried in their wood and stone, their brick and mortar a kind of ego that was nearly, very nearly, human.”

Recalling those faded voices, those human experiences, those memories, the forgotten details and the covered over contributions of the places that Nora nuanced, in today’s post we are tackling a discussion about the very interesting life found in and around old houses of early America as discovered by a modern day history lover. If you are a fan of any old house photo feeds on Instagram, chances are you have come across Ken Staffey’s gorgeous account simply called House Stories.

Ken features primarily photographs of historic homes in the Northeastern United States and dives into the interesting family histories behind them with a mix of interesting facts, personal details, and quirky insights. Most often he features houses from the 18th and 19th century that tell the story of how New England grew up. The places where merchants, farmers, sea captains, doctors, writers, politicians, extraordinary people and everyday citizens raised their families and found their footing among the blooming new frontier called the United States.

Located in Marblehead MA, the Sandin House was built in 1714 for fisherman William Sandin and his wife Joanna. Marblehead was once deemed the greatest town for fishing in New England.

From the bones that make up the frames of these centuries-old places, Ken has pulled stories about past occupants, owners, and architects; about city plans gone awry and country enterprises gone right; about dreams found and opportunities lost, about big events and tiny details, all of which remind us how the past is still very much present in our modern daily lives. We’ve caught up with Ken interview-style to learn more about his passion and his process of bringing history home. Included are his top-picks of places to visit for any architecture enthusiast and his thoughts on where current trends are headed when it comes to living with old houses in a new world.

{Note: Ken’s house photos have been featured throughout this interview. Click on each image to read Ken’s Instagram enties.}

In The Vintage Kitchen: What ignited your idea of posting house stories on Instagram?

Ken Staffey: In the beginning, I posted random photos like everyone else. I found that the house photos seemed to get the best response.  Then I started to add a bit of history along with each home and eventually it evolved into what it is today, House Stories – history told one house at a time.

This house was part of a planned community built in the 1870’s as imagined by Alexander Turney Stewart, a dry goods entrepreneur who emigrated from Ireland to New York.  Read more about this house here.

ITVK:  How do you decide which houses to feature?

KS: I pretty much photograph whatever catches my eye.  Later the challenge of finding some history that goes with the home is a big part of the fun. Just about all the homes I have featured date from the colonial period to about 1920.

In Ken’s post about the 1871 Wells-Catlin House, in Brookline, MA  he talks about the history behind the name of the town. Read more about it here.

ITVK:  Explain a little bit about your process of researching these old houses. Do you find that their histories are pretty easy to obtain or do you find yourself knee-deep in archive vaults and old records?

KS: Thankfully, I am never knee deep in archive vaults and old records, but I am often in deep with virtual equivalents, which is much easier thankfully.  Many old directories and records have been scanned and are now online.  Usually, I will just start with the address and see what I come up with there. Often once I get past the online real estate listing for a home, I can find something interesting about the home or its early occupants.  And thank God for historical societies and preservation groups that have not only saved these wonderful old homes but also recorded a good deal of their history.

Yale graduate Nathan Hale taught school in this shingled house in New London, CT in 1774, a few years before he was accused of being a spy and hung by the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The schoolhouse has been moved several times around town but through the support of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution it is being well maintained and offers tours for visitors.

ITVK: Do you ever speak with the property owners to learn more about each house? If not, do you think that most homeowners are aware of the interesting histories their homes have?

KS: Typically I do not speak with the property owners, but I have had a good handful of requests from owners to feature their homes.  They often know a bit of the history about their homes, but that sometimes can be inaccurate. One family had been retelling stories from their home’s history.  Once I dug a bit, I found that the history had been twisted in the retelling over the years, so it was fun to set the record straight for the owners.

City streets and neighborhoods, in particular, are home to a slew of fascinating stories with so many people moving in and out and coming and going. Ken writes about the history of this street in NYC’s West Village here.

ITVK: Do you live in a historic house yourself? If so, does your house have a fascinating story too?!

KS: I grew up in a house that was built in 1940 and since college, I have always been drawn to apartments in older buildings, most of them over a century old.  The home I now own is 89 years old and was built as part of a wave of new housing to accommodate the thousands of factory workers who found work in the once-thriving factories here in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My home is not historic and the funny thing is that I have never even tried to find any history. I do know that the same family owned the home for decades and people have told me a bit about them here and there.

ITVK:  What are three things that modern architecture lacks that all these great old houses contain?

KS: I am a big fan of all types of architecture, but I am partial to the homes of the past.  I think modern architecture has a style all its own, but what modern homes lack is a history and stories about the people that lived there and the surroundings.  Over time even the most modern of homes will have a story to tell.

One great example of a modern house having a fabulous “new” story to tell was Ken’s post on the First Year Building Project designed by students at the Yale School of Architecture. One hundred years from now (fingers crossed that it survives that long) this house will have made a  marvelous contribution to its neighborhood. Read more about the project here.

ITVK: If you could live in (or own) any one of the houses you have featured to date, which would you choose and why?

KS: I am not sure about a particular house, but I was enamored by the recreated New England village circa 1820-1830 at Sturbridge Village. It is a living museum with interpreters who go about their business as New Englanders did two centuries ago.  The buildings were moved there from around New England, so you can see a village that is free of modern structures and vehicles, which gives you a good idea of life in that era.  Also, you can watch the interpreters engage in activities like farming and weaving as they would in Early America.

Old Sturbridge Village – an 1830’s living history museum.

ITVK:  If you could have cocktails with any famous person, living or dead, in any house in the world, who and where would you choose and why?

KS: It would be interesting to have drinks with someone from the colonial era.  Many of the colonists brought the tradition from England of having beer as a drink instead of whatever and a review of their habits show that it was not unusual for them to have a beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The White Horse Tavern in Newport RI was founded in 1673 making it the oldest operating bar in the US. See more historic libation stations on the oldies list here.

ITVK: One of my most favorite houses you’ve featured so far is the Jonathan and Abigail Starr house in Guilford, CT that was built in 1732…

The Jonathan and Abigail Starr House, Guilford CT built in 1732.

You shared this information about the house:

“This Church Street home was built for Jonathan and Abigail Starr in 1732 on land obtained from Jonathan’s father, Comfort Starr. Jonathan was a fourth generation New Englander. His great- great-grandfather was a surgeon, also named Comfort Starr, from Ashford, England, who sailed to America aboard the ‘Hercules’ in 1634. Joining him were his wife, Elizabeth, their three children and three servants. Dr. Starr’s parents clearly had a preference for unique names. His sisters were Suretrust and Constant and his brothers were Joyfull and Jehosaphat. The Starrs of Ashford lived a comfortable life with an estate about 60 miles southeast of London, but their move may have been motivated in part by grief as the grave of their son was said to be “not yet grass-grown” when they set out from the port of Sandwich for the “Plantation called New England in America.”

Do you have any other fun details about this house in particular?

KS: I do not, but I did love the names of the Starr children.  I featured the Comfort Starr house (below) a few days after the Jonathan and Abigail Starr post.

Portrait of Comfort Starr and one of his daughters alongside Ken’s photo portrait of Comfort’s house built in the mid 1650’s and a detailed side view sketch of it’s traditional saltbox style.

While known as the Comfort Starr House, this Guilford home was actually built for Henry Kingsworth around 1646. Mr. Starr, a tailor, purchased the home from Kingsworth’s heirs in 1694. He and his wife Elizabeth raised eight children here: Abigail, Elizabeth, Hannah, Comfort, Submit, Jonathan, Jehoshaphat, and Amy. The home was in the family for almost 200 years. Among the last to live here were seven Starr sisters, who were nicknamed ‘Pleiades’ for the seven sisters constellation. When the last sister, Grace, died at 83 in 1874, the home was sold outside the family. Today it is one of the oldest homes in Connecticut that is still a private residence.

ITVK: Is there one New England town, in particular, that should be on every house enthusiasts must-see list?

KS: I think that depends on what type of architecture you like. If you are a fan of first-period homes (1625-1725), Ipswich, Massachusetts has the highest concentration of those homes in the country.  There are enough clustered together that it is not too hard to imagine what the area looked like centuries ago.

Ipswich, MA. Photos courtesy of the Ipswich Visitor Center.

If Victorian architecture is your thing, you could head to Willimantic, Connecticut.  The town saw rapid growth as the textile mills expanded there.  Because Victorian architecture was in style at the time, there are many Queen Anne homes along with other Victorian treasures.  In both cases, the prevalent style reflects a period of growth followed by an economic downturn, which is why the homes were not updated or replaced with more recent styles.  But those are just two examples, you can find architectural gems just about anywhere.  Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised how much you’ll find.

A collection of Victorian, Greek Revival and Queen Anne styles houses that can be found in Willimantic, Connecticut

ITVK: What is your most favorite style of architecture, and why does it appeal to you?

My tastes have definitely changed to favor the simple early American homes.  If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said Victorian homes, but I have grown to appreciate plain design with few distractions from the colonial period. Also, the history from that period is fascinating.  Life was harder in so many ways in terms of having to work hard to get things done, but there was also simplicity to life without all the distractions of today. That being said, I enjoy modern conveniences as much as anyone else, but I can appreciate a simpler existence.

In addition to telling house histories, Ken also incorporates fun facts and other interesting tidbits relating to holidays or customs or historical pop culture which keeps each post from being formulaic.  Read more about this 1720 Brookfield, CT house here.

ITVK:  Have you had the opportunity to look inside any of the houses you’ve featured? And if so, do you have any memorable kitchen stories from them?

A visit to Louisa May Alcott’s family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts is a treat. Because 80% of the furnishings are original to the home when the Alcotts lived there, you can see how the author and her family lived.

Orchard House – home to Louisa May Alcott. Read more about her and her house here.

They often endured lean times, but Louisa and her sisters enjoyed putting on shows for guests right there in the parlor. Upstairs, you can see the small desk where Louisa wrote her best selling books. It’s really nothing more than a shelf along the window, but it was there that she produced works that touched readers the world over.

The kitchen at Orchard House where the entire family spent time together. Photo courtesy of louisamayalcott.org

The kitchen is another wonderful window on the past. It was here that the Alcott women cooked, cleaned and drew water from the pump beneath the trap door in the kitchen floor.  The author herself says, “All of the philosophy in our house is not in the study, a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and cleans.” I highly recommend a visit to this house museum.

ITVK: So many old houses revolve around the idea of family, whether they were built to accommodate them, or given as wedding gifts or passed down through generations. Because we are such a transient society these days, and on average only stay 7-10 years in a house before moving on, do you think we are slowly losing a sense of place in our modern day world that connects us to the history of our land? Do you think this is why, fundamentally, old houses still hold so much appeal and nostalgia for us?

KS: Overall we have definitely shifted to a more disposable society, but if you look more closely, there is a quieter celebration of the past. People are still restoring our treasured antique homes and many others will furnish their homes in a throwback style such as farmhouse, colonial or even midcentury modern.

This house was built in Fairfield, CT in the 1990’s but the exterior contains elements of classic French chateau, colonial and federal styles that could give the impression that it is older than it actually is. Read more about it here.

 

This house in Westport, CT was also built in the last 20 years. New to look old, it was modeled after early colonial designs. Read more about it here.

Also, there are more people drawn to be what we now call “makers.”  They may be crafters, foodies, or designers and together they have recreated an echo of the cottage industries of our ancestors.  Two centuries ago, artisans worked and sold their goods out of their homes and today there are plenty of people working, living and creating from their homes.  So, I think we are more connected to our homes than we realize today.

The Roe House, built in the 1680’s, now serves as the Port Jefferson, New York Chamber of Commerce. Read more about it here.

 

In New York City’s Soho neighborhood this building originally hosted a tobacco shop in the early 1800’s. Now it’s a clothing store with a 19th-century murder story to tell. Read more about it here.

 

This house built in 1781 in Litchfield, CT has been home to a number of cottage industries throughout its life including an apothecary shop, a grocery store and now a doctor’s office. Read more about it here.

Does place dictate who we are or who we have the potential of becoming? Not always.  But it certainly does have the opportunity to indulge us and to nurture our life’s pursuits just like Orchard House had done with Louisa May Alcott who drew so much of her own environment into her works of fiction. Had Louisa never grown up in that brown clapboard house would Little Women have been the same book we know today?

Orchard House photographed sometime between 1860-1920. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Images.

Like dipping your toe into the pool of history and watching the ripple effect the entire body of water, Ken’s House Stories are mini in content but mighty in impact. He shows us that behind every person stands a physical structure that was impacted by them or for them. He reminds us that a person’s individual history, although singular at the time eventually becomes our collective history as a nation. One country formed by billions of individual contributions. Big, small, humble, grand.. the old houses stand as truth showing us where we have been and where we have the potential to go.

A sampling of houses Ken has featured on House Stories that range in age from the 1670’s to the 1860’s.

A very big cheers to Ken for spotlighting the stories of our country’s founding families. Find him on Instagram here. And cheers to all the people who loved, saved and protected our early American architecture from re-development and decline and continue to do so every day.

Other historic architecture-related posts from the Vintage Kitchen can be found here…

Other interviews by artisians, craftspeople, collectors and interesting characters from around the world can be found here.

From New York City to Rockport, Massachusetts: A Love Story

Mid-February marks two special events for Ms. Jeannie and her valentine. First, the holiday of love of course, and then two days later, February 16th, marks Ms. Jeannie’s wedding anniversary.  Each year, her and Mr. Jeannie Ology alternate planning something special between the two events.

It’s fun to keep each another guessing as to what’s in store for a special treat. Some years, there are elaborate plans like a weekend getaway or an expensive gift, but mostly they are simple celebrations – a special dinner, a movie, a bottle of champagne. Time spent together is all that matters. Really they could sit at home and do nothing and still have a grand time together.

It was like that right off the bat for them. They struck up this wonderful conversation when they first met here…

nyhilton

in the lobby of the New York Hilton Hotel. Both were there on work purposes involved with running a tradeshow. Ms. Jeannie on the corporate side, Mr. Jeannie on the entertainment side.  Ms. Jeannie had just been promoted to a new position with a ton of responsibility and Mr. Jeannie was there to keep the show moving along at an interesting clip. For three days, they worked side by side. For three days, they talked, they laughed, they got to know one another. For three days, they kept discovering small things they had in common…

A profound love of Ireland. Photograph by TootsFair.

…a profound love of Ireland. Photograph by TootsFair.

The same taste in movies.  Vintage movie real canisters from PassedBy.

…the same favorite movies. Vintage movie real canisters from PassedBy.

The exotic appeal of white cherries. Photograph by AmeliaKay Photography

… a newly discovered fondness for white cherries. Photograph by AmeliaKay Photography

The art of spontaneous travel. Vintage suitcase from epochco.

…the thrill of spontaneous travel. Vintage suitcase from epochco.

and a shared respect for each other's dreams. Inspirational art from typoem.

…and a shared respect for each other’s dreams. Inspirational art from typoem.

As you can see they covered a lot of topics! By day three, it felt like they had known each other for years.

On the afternoon of the third day, the show ended. Ms. Jeannie packed up. Mr. Jeannie packed up. Ms. Jeannie felt ill at ease. In just a short while Mr. Jeannie would walk out those hotel doors and disappear from her life.  Ms. Jeannie’s heart ached at the very thought of never seeing him again. So what did she do?

She gave him her phone number. This is a re-enactment for story purposes and not Ms. Jeannie's actual number, so please don't call it expecting to find her there.

She gave him her phone number. Please note: this is a re-enactment for story purposes only and not Ms. Jeannie’s actual number.

By the weekend they went on their first official date here…

The Central Park Zoo

The Central Park Zoo

As it turned out there was a special celebration going on for the sea lions that day, which involved free cake for all zoo-goers. There was also a  film crew, party balloons and a giant fish cake for the sea lions.  It all felt very festive! Ms. Jeannie took this as a good sign:)

On a quick side note: If you have never been before to the Central Park Zoo, you must visit. It is  a fabulous little hideaway tucked into Central Park and is often overlooked for the much bigger, much more well known Bronx Zoo.  A lot of people don’t even know it exists, because it is laid out in Central Park in such a way, that every time you visit you feel like you have unexpectedly discovered it.  Ms. Jeannie’s favorite exhibit is the penguins where you can watch them both on land and in the water in the same exhibit.

You can view them both above the waterline and below. Photo courtesy of penguinnewstoday.blogspot.com

It’s like one massive fish tank. Photo courtesy of penguinnewstoday.blogspot.com

Penguin exhibit.

Ms. Jeannie just loves these penguins. They have zippy little personalities and always seem to be having a ton of fun. If you are lucky enough to find yourself  alone in the exhibit – it can be very peaceful –  just you and the penguins.  Ms. Jeannie could watch them for hours!

Here’s a video of the exhibit Ms. Jeannie found on youtube. It gives you a feel for these active little guys…

So back to the date… the zoo, turned into an all day outing. And by the end of it, they still didn’t want to part. So they went for pizza. Then they went for cappucinnos.  Then they walked to the subway – the long way – 25 blocks in total.  They just kept walking and talking without realizing!  It turned out to be a record breaking 13 hour first date, from 10:00am in the morning until 11:00pm at night. It was grand.  Ms. Jeannie felt lucky to know such a great new friend.

Marvelous dates kept occurring.  Ms. Jeannie knew she had met her romantic match when Mr. Jeannie  took her up on the roof of an old hotel on the Upper West Side.  “So they could look at the city at night,” he’d said.

Few things are more romantic then looking down on Manhattan from that perspective.  The city almost looked fake. And all the lights seemed to twinkle. It was quite magical. New York provided quite the backdrop for falling in love.

manhattannight1

Fast forward a few years, and Mr. Jeannie proposed in Florida on a tiny little boat during a Christmastime vacation. Ms. Jeannie was surprised, she had no idea Mr. Jeannie had such big plans prepared! Ms. Jeannie said “of course” without hesitation.  Mr. Jeannie cried the whole boat ride back to shore:)

A few years later they were knee deep in wedding plans. Since it was so expensive to get married in the city, and because they were such big fans of road trips, they decided to get married somewhere else. They looked into Vermont, into Maine, into Connecticut, but couldn’t find just the right place.  A friend of Ms. Jeannie’s tol;d her about a fabulous movie she had just watched, noting in particular, the gorgeous coastal New England town setting.  Here’s the trailer…

The next weekend, Ms. Jeannie,  Mr. Jeannie and their newly adopted border collie, were on the road to Rockport, Massachusetts where the movie was filmed.  If you are unfamiliar, Rockport is located on the very tip of Cape Ann, just north of Gloucester (which, incidently, was the setting for the movie, A Perfect Storm). It’s a 5 hour drive from NYC and only a 45 minute train ride from Boston.

When Ms. Jeannie and Mr. Jeannie drove into town, this is what they saw…

Bradley Wharf in Rockport Massachusetts. Photograph courtesy of fineartamerica.com

Bradley Wharf. Photograph courtesy of fineartamerica.com

Bradley Wharf sits in the center of the scenic inlet that leads out to the Atlantic Ocean. The town of Rockport surrounds it on three sides.  The red barn, known as Motiff No. 1, is the most painted barn in America and Rockport, itself, is an actual artist community.  With views like this how could it not be?!

Rockport Harbor

Rockport Harbor

The town sits nestled against the hillside, facing the water and is filled with gorgeous, historic seafaring captain-type homes.

View from the harbor

View from the harbor

House built in 1711

House built in 1711

House built in 1900

House built in 1900

House built in 1771

House built in 1771

House built in 1840

House built in 1840

Ms. Jeannie and Mr. Jeannie stayed at Carlson’s Bed & Breakfast, the only b&b in town, at the time, that would accept pets.  Sven Carlson was a painter himself along with his wife (who dabbled!).  They were extraordinarily interesting hosts.

Carlson's Bed & Breakfast

Carlson’s Bed & Breakfast (on the left) . Ms. Jeannie and Mr. Jeannie stayed on the top floor in a yellow wall papered room that was bright and sunny.

Ms. Jeannie and Mr. Jeannie did all sorts of exploring up and down the coast. They went lobstering with a boat captain as he picked up his pods for the day, they went shopping on Bearskin Neck (see photo below) and they ordered take-out lobster from Roy Moore Lobster Company which they took down to the beach to enjoy. True picnic decadence:)

All the storefronts here are old fishing shacks and are wonderfully weathered. Some even have apartments on top too.

The shops of Bear Skin Neck.

You might also recognize Rockport from the movie, The Proposal, with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. The movie is supposed to take place in Sitka, Alaska – but it was actually filmed in Rockport  and the neighboring town of Manchester-By-The-Sea.

Ms. Jeannie and Mr. Jeannie returned to Cape Ann several more times for vacations. Each time having more fun then the last.  They decided on the Emerson Inn  as their wedding venue, because it was located on a bluff right above the ocean. Also Ms. Jeannie loved that it had literary connections in it’s namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson Inn by the Sea, Rockport, MA

It had been lodging house, always, since the very beginning in the 1850’s.  Ralph Waldo who spent summers at the hotel with his family, was said to have gathered poetic inspiration from the landscape.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Boston born poet and philospher credited with leading the transcendentalist movement in America.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Boston born poet and philospher credited with leading the transcendentalist movement in America.

Ms. Jeannie and Mr. Jeannie were married at 8:00pm in a small candlelight ceremony, by the town clerk. They wrote their own vows. They held each other’s hand.  Mr. Jeannie cried:)  They danced to Ella Fitzgerald’s At Last.  They had two cakes, a traditional lemon creme pound cake with rolled fondant and fresh flowers and then a red velvet  groom’s cake in the shape of a lobster.  Both of them agreed they were the best cakes they had ever eaten.

The Emerson Inn at night.

The Emerson Inn at night.

For their honeymoon, they traveled with their pup, up and down the Massachusetts coastline for a week, exploring each small town.  They visited parks  and cafes and antique shops. They ate lobster and drank wine and walked to the beach every day. On their last night, they stayed near the water’s edge until late in the night looking for their dreams in the depths of the stars.

Fast forward all these years now, and Ms. Jeannie and her valentine are still adventuring together and still dreaming. Their pup has come and gone, their lives have twisted and turned, and their love has lasted. And for all that, Ms. Jeannie feels incredibly lucky. To know such experience and to know such a man.

Thank you New York Hilton, thank you Central Park Zoo, thank you New York City, thank you best dog ever, and above all, thank you Mr.Jeannie for starring in the best love story of Ms. Jeannie’s life.