An old house is always a work in progress, according to David Bell, of Auburn, and the older the house, the longer the progress.
The Auburn farmhouse where Bell has lived since 1983 dates back to the 1700s. Members of the Bell family have lived in the farmhouse since the 1930s, when Bell’s aunt Lena and uncle Vick purchased the home and raised nine children there. Bell began running the family business in the '80s when he "bought the farm," he said with a laugh.
Before he had any children, and well before Jennifer Zanca came to live at the farm, Bell lived primarily on the first floor of the home, closing off the second floor in order to conserve heat. However, when a hurricane hit central and coastal Maine in the mid 1980s, the house sustained a significant amount of water damage. Hardest hit was the upstairs where the walls and ceilings became saturated and stained.
“I pulled everything down, leaving the beams exposed,” Bell said, but it would be a long time before he began the process of remodeling.
Bell’s first remodeling project began in earnest during the early 1990s when he tore apart the kitchen. As with the upstairs, when he began tearing apart the kitchen he found the heavy rough-hewn beams that stretched from wall to wall, forming the bones of the old house.
He found that the walls had been filled with gray wool, most likely from sheep, and with cellulose, a pellet like substance, both of which served as insulation. The original builders had used sawdust as insulation throughout the house as well, and all of the above insulation had settled to the bottom of the walls, leaving little or no insulation in many areas.
The renovations continued up to and through the birth of Bell's children and past 2003, when Zanca moved in. Since then, renovations have been ongoing.
“It’s really messy,” said Zanca. “When we tear apart walls, we have to use respirators to avoid breathing in the fine, ancient plaster dust."
Upon removing the plaster, which had been mixed with horsehair to give it substance, they found that the plaster had been slathered over hand-split wooden planks.
According to Bell, “The wood was rough and held the insulation, and the plaster had oozed through it to make the finished wall.” This technique was used throughout the farmhouse.
It is said that in Europe and New England, shoes were intentionally concealed in the walls of homes as they were built, particularly near fireplaces, doors and windows, as a lucky charm or talisman intended to ward off evil. Although Bell did not find any old shoes in his Maine farmhouse, he did find an old postcard and antique wooden spindles that may have once held wool or thread.
In another old house that she worked on, Zanca found a set of salt-and-pepper shakers in a wall. Whether those items were lost and somehow ended up in the wall, or placed there intentionally is one of the many mysteries of old farmhouses.
After tearing out the old kitchen, Bell insulated the new kitchen and reshingled the roof at the same time, installing two skylights and a ceiling fan, and leaving the beams exposed.
In the next few months, Bell and Zanca will install the granite countertops and replace the old Jenn-air with a Bosch gas oven and stove. Future plans include an island in the center of the kitchen to be used as a food preparation area and gathering space for family and friends. Though the old, stainless-steel, single-bay sink will be replaced, they will keep the large bay window behind it that looks out over the back yard toward the pond.
Although the rest of the home is a patchwork of different wood flooring, including antique wide pine and narrow oak, Bell and Zanca chose to install a laminate in the kitchen and mudroom because it is easier to keep clean. The mudroom, which also doubles as a laundry room, has new, wide pine wainscoting with decorative wrought iron hooks that are used to hold jackets and other items that are necessary for life on the farm.
With a number of avid skiers in the Zanca-Bell clan, necessity has bred invention.
“We used to carry the skis through the kitchen and then down the basement stairs to get them to the workroom,” explained Zanca, which created a mess along the way, as well as a potentially dangerous situation.
Bell designed a bench in the mudroom with a seat that lifts as if to reveal a storage area. This bench, however, opens to reveal a passageway to the basement workshop where the family tunes and stores ski equipment. Skis are fed through the passageway and deposited on a shelf adjacent to the primary work area. When tuned and ready, the ski equipment can be fed through the hole and bench to be carried directly outside.
Other completed projects include three bedrooms upstairs, all with exposed beams, polished wood floors, interesting angles and comfortable lighting, as well as a new bathroom with a corner shower and a triangular Jacuzzi in the opposite corner. The floors and halfway up the walls are tiled and finished with a decorative local-stone mosaic border.
The next room that Zanca and Bell will tackle, and which has already been ripped down to the studs and beams, is what will become the new family room. A mason has been hired and has begun creating a brick hearth for a new woodstove.
Given that the wood for the Napoleon woodstove in the basement is brought in through a bulkhead and stored in the basement, almost directly below the new hearth, Zanca’s plan is to install a type of “dumb waiter” to lift the wood from the basement to the first floor, saving the mess that is always associated with use of a wood stove. They plan to keep the wood ceiling exposed, sealing it with a clear finish, refinish the oak flooring and, possibly, install wainscoting throughout the L-shaped room.
Later, the old family room will be transformed into the dining room, a new hallway will be created and a new bathroom installed on the first floor. After that, they say, “We’ll work on the barn.” And after that, who knows?