A lot has happened since I posted that snowy photo of Maine in the middle of last winter.
Now here it is, the beginning of the summer season, and my cabin is still perched high in the air as the slow layers of a new foundation take shape underneath. The ground is so boggy on the north side that Ben Webb, my pragmatic excavator, decided that this side had to be poured after the rest of the structure, and that is the reason I will be forced out of the place during the first week I use the main house as a summer vacation rental.
More on that tomorrow. For today, enjoy some beautiful flowers from the property back when I visited in May.
This was the house that brought me to Sedgwick. I loved everything about it — the ramshackle steps leading up to it, the torn-off shutters, the way it was situated on a little rise above the water.
In fact, I had built a whole fantasy world around this house based on the few pictures of it posted on the Internet. I imagined fashioning a small caretaker’s apartment out of a falling down ell at the back and living there in the summer while I rented out the house to amiable summer tourists for whom I would leave baskets of salad ingredients that I grew in my own vegetable garden. In the autumn, I’d walk my dogs through the streets of Blue Hill, stopping for coffee and gossip at the Coop and the bookstore. You know, stuff like that. I even changed real estate agencies to get my hands on the inspection report. I knew the place needed work and that I would probably not purchase it, but I was tired of not following through on things I wanted. What if I was missing out on the perfect thing?
My enthusiasm proved short-lived. Despite its splendid facade, the Parsonage had been ravaged over time by the poverty of the twentieth-century Baptist ministers who lived there. They fought back against the home’s decline in ways that seemed downright spiteful. Someone had installed a mid-century bathroom with flamingo pink fixtures on the second floor, and the original kitchen fireplace had been removed, leaving an awkward space between the hall and dining room. But even these faux pas were nothing compared to the most horrible transgression — someone had torn out the main chimneys, leaving only holes in the attic where they had once stood.
I suppose this might seem a bit hypocritical, coming from someone whose last post was about tearing down a chimney stack. But a Federal home is supposed to look like this —
— and I could not get the lack of chimneys out of my mind even as I walked through rooms with far more immediate problems: crumbling plaster, soft floors, and collapsing windows. The youthful contractor who’d been invited by the representing agent turned out to be the perfect antidote to my idealistic reveries.
“I’d just gut renovate the whole thing and put up drywall. And you really don’t want to keep painting the outside. You’ll want to put siding.”
A representative from the Sedgwick-Brooklin Historical Society had come along to meet yours truly, complete with his own agenda. For him the Parsonage was the means to an end, a plain girl he was willing to court as a way to stay close to her beautiful sister. In the tactful, almost regretful way of any hopeless suitor, he wanted to see if I might be able to help. He walked through the rooms with me, listening to my restoration schemes with a preoccupied air. I had the feeling that he didn’t have much faith in the Parsonage. Or at least, he
Finally, he told me there was something else he’d like for me to see.
This Greek Revival church is his baby, a high maintenance broad with a penchant for self-destruction. As I tried unsuccessfully to find a good angle from which to snap a photo, he was hurrying me toward the entrance so that he could show her off. We paused on the portico, beneath a row of peeling Doric columns formed from concave pieces of wood that were jointed together and painted to look like marble — just long enough for me to note the placard above a central stained glass window, commemorating the date.
The church was built in the early days of the village as a triumph over those parsimonious “sprinklers,” the Congregationalists. Minister Daniel Merrill, who founded the Congregationalist church in Sedgwick in 1794, underwent a righteous conversion to Baptistry just ten years later, taking the majority of his parishioners with him. After Merrill’s death, they hired a prominent Bangor architect named Benjamin S. Deane to build the church, which was completed in 1837.
Like several of Deane’s other buildings, the church is listed on the National Registry. It is a perfect gem of a building; some consider it one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the state of Maine. It is also a mess. Early attempts to correct the foundation have led to misalignment in the structure of the building higher up. No one has been able to stop leaks in the belfry, and the interior smells powerfully of mildew.
The real surprise was waiting for me inside: seven glorious stained glass windows, each one donated by a wealthy parishioner at the turn of the last century to commemorate the centennial of the church. An expert confirmed that they are the work of neither Tiffany nor LaFarge — the windows have been attributed to both — but whoever made them had considerable talent; they are some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve seen in an American church. Although stained glass is appropriate to a Revival building, there is something incongruous and oddly secular about the rich and flowery windows. It adds a touch of eccentricity.
While I walked around examining the windows and other, more homely details of the interior, I heard the story of the Historical Society’s many efforts to restore the church. There had been errors in judgment and experts who proved unworthy of the challenge. Even if the society sold the Parsonage for the full asking price, it would be a drop in the bucket; the cost of having just one window professionally restored would be something like $100,000. It’s fair to say he went on at great length. I don’t mean this unkindly. The Blue Hill Peninsula is a place where people come to wage war with historic properties, and regaling others with tales from the battlefield is a hard-won privilege. I sensed a weariness, perhaps a shade of bitterness, and as I embark on my own war with time and architecture, I can definitely see why.
It’s hard to love a building when she doesn’t love you back.
Community efforts to restore the First Baptist Church of Sedgwick are ongoing. Please read this 2010 article in Bangor Daily News to learn more, or contact the historical society directly if you are interested in helping.
(NB. My second post was going to be a nice story about my first visit to the village of Sedgwick, Maine. I’m afraid I need to hold that thought, however. I’m having contractor troubles.)
Sam Howzit, Mary Poppins
When I was a kid, I loved the film Mary Poppins. What’s not to love about magical servants who float from the sky, dance on rooftops, and can disappear into drawings on the sidewalk? I also loved making fires. One of my fondest memories was of a day I spent at my Aunt Nicky and Uncle Archie’s cabin on the shores of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia. The minute breakfast was over, I snagged a box of Everstrike matches and ran down to the water’s edge, so I could set driftwood ablaze. It was tricky, because of the winds off the Bay of Fundy. I finally used an old oil drum to get things started and managed to get a sizable bonfire going. I was about 11 at the time. No grownups came to yell at me, or even to investigate. A shallow lap of ocean was in, brackish and deceitful, covering the famous tides that trapped people and left them stranded. My grandfather warned me sternly not to walk out too far on the tides. But he would have approved of the fire. He was a pyromaniac, like me.
My feeling about wood fires and chimney sweeps was positively steeped in nostalgia, in short, and one of my top priorities in getting the Anchorage up to speed was having its wood-burning appliances properly inspected and maintained.
The Anchorage and Cabin have no fewer than six fireplaces between them, in addition to a Franklin stove in one of the kitchens. The oldest part of the house, which dates back to 1812, has two tiled fireplaces — just the words, “tiled fireplace” conjure images of Jane Austin and Dickens characters — above which are paintings or old fashioned prescripts. My goal is to drink bourbon in front of sparking flames, indulging my hard-wired primitive instincts with old friends and family members.
Enter the chimney sweep.
Let’s call him Woodstock. I was wary even before he and his hungry dog Pepper arrived. All the assurances of excellent service and love of everything I said seemed suspicious to me, especially after the laconic style of the average Maine contractor. He cleaned four fireplaces, making himself right at home by propping up a broken window with a piece of firewood and damaging a jammed storage door next to the dining room fireplace. I disliked his propriety air, his stories about “bromances” with musicians from the Grateful Dead and Fish, and his statement that my 77-year-old father was “a treasure.”
He was fey and narcissistic, a former hippie who’d done too much weed, and this is not my favorite type of person. However, he occasionally delivered knowledgeable snippets of information about damper installation and fireplace linings, and he worked solidly to get the fireplaces cleaned when he wasn’t holding forth on a variety of subjects. He also had some good ideas about what could be done to make the two unlined chimneys in the main house usable. I figured there would be no harm in getting him to do a few of the jobs he mentioned.
I also saw nothing wrong with putting half down on the entire job and paying $1800 just to remove one of the chimney stacks. I am from a fast-growing city where construction costs a fortune and most people annoy me for one reason or another. Besides, it’s always difficult to predict what a specialized job will be. I just paid over $4000 to have grates installed at the top of my driveway and a big plastic pipe buried around the yard to channel the water away.
Still, Woodstock didn’t inspire trust. He had eyed some of the things in the house in a covetous way, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how he propped the window in a strange house as though he were the homeowner. My friend Sharon, who had come up from Portland to stay at the house with me, agreed to be there as he worked; and when he didn’t show up when he said he would, I told the carpenter, Brian, to keep an eye on him.
My problems with Woodstock began over the demolition of the chimney stack. This tower of brick and masonry was in an absurd spot, serving a small sitting room behind the dining room. From the beginning, Woodstock had intimated that the chimney would be tough going. He’d seen some things. Man, had he seen things. I tried to ignore his alarmism — hard to do when he was texting me several times a day to complain that my chimney was the hardest job he’d ever seen, a $10,000 behemoth that had set off his “spidey senses” and forced him to quit after a couple hours to buy plastic with which to wrap the fragile yet deadly stack.
Ten thousand dollars? Let’s let that sink in for a moment.
Meanwhile, I had called around Boston, arguably the most expensive city on the East Coast, to see if $1800 alone was a reasonable price. One company allowed guardedly that it was — if he patched the roof and hauled away the brick. Woodstock, naturally, advised me that the bricks were valuable and “most homeowners desire them.” He suggested that I “consider a use” for the debris, perhaps a hole on the property? I refused to answer. For that price, he was hauling it away, and that was the end of the story.
The carpenter called me in disgust to say, “He’s trying to save the bricks!”
More phone calls followed. The “big fella” in Woodstock’s crew got in his truck and took a nap the entire time Woodstock was off doing whatever. The crew seemed unfamiliar with chimney work. Woodstock got ahold of the carpenter’s number and began texting him as well.
Brian, a practical man, assured me that he and his brother could take the chimney down in a couple of hours with a sledgehammer. I think it was the following post-bowl text from Woodstock that finally convinced me to let them:
I’m calling in a couple favors and bringing in some serious help. Of course no move without your okay. I am a member of the chimney safety institute, and care very much about this. I perceive a delicate balance here and urge that we avoid ‘contractor wars’ that can start over minutia. I agree with 2, 3rd and 4th opinions. There are 2 better chimney guys in Maine than me. I’d like for them to help. One has agreed.
I waited until 3 pm on the fateful day the chimney was to come down, took a deep breath, and dialed Brian. He was sitting on my roof, finishing the shingle work on the spot where my chimney used to be. “We got there at 7:30, and the thing was down in an hour. I got it loaded in my truck and hauled it away. My grandson found extra shingles in the barn.”
I hung up and immediately called the Maine State Attorney’s Office to file a complaint. Tracy, the helpful clerk who answered the phone, was appalled by my story (in her reserved way) and directed me to the section of consumer law that says contractors cannot ask for more than one third down on a job. Although she could give no legal advice, she told me that, as a homeowner, she wouldn’t let Woodstock near her fireplaces with a ten foot pole.
I then went to the Internet and found a negative Google review. A minute later, I was chatting about Woodstock with a man, let’s call him Larry, who was still bitter about the experience three years later. This guy was determined, I give him that; he called every paper in the state that advertised Woodstock’s company and told them what a fraud he was. Incensed by the combative and disbelieving air of one paper’s editor, he found out that Woodstock said Larry was coming on to him and got mad when Woodstock rebuffed his advances, and that was the reason he was besmirching his name.
Did I mention that Woodstock has the keys to my house?
He still has them. Although he appears to accept that he is fired, has taken away his scaffolding, and sent Brian a string of angry text messages saying that his price is $200 an hour with a four hour minimum, he has refused to surrender the keys. The last I heard from Woodstock, it was to say he could not return the keys tomorrow because “Eileen” has meningitis and “he keeps the sabbath.” He also said he was “sending me an invoice.” I can hardly wait for that. He owes me almost $1,500. I know. I’m an idiot.
Stay tuned to find out the lengths I have to go to get my money back.
I just did what most people would consider an incredibly foolish thing. I took the entire 403b account I was awarded as part of my divorce settlement, refinanced my home in Texas, and used the money to purchase a 27-acre family compound on the Blue Hill Peninsula.
I now own a farmhouse built in 1812, an Adirondack style cabin, a blueberry field, a hillside of mixed forest (spruce, beech, and ash), a boggy pasture, two decrepit spring houses that protect a stash of arsenic-laden water, and a rather nice shingled barn. The raccoon that nests beneath the kitchen floorboards and the ghost of little Otie are not technically mine, but they come with the place as well.
I still can’t believe I did this.
Outside, some day laborers are picking away at the packed clay in my front yard, digging a ditch for the French drain that needs to be installed along the front of the third house I own, the one here in Texas. I felt I could no longer postpone the job after this spring’s heavy rain sent rivers of water down my driveway and into the carport. It’s 100 degrees outside. In the weeks I was off closing on the property in Maine, the sun has done its work. The dirt beneath the two red oaks in my front yard has shrunk back from the rims of the curb and driveway; everything is shrouded by the gloom of heat. Only the men outside are uncomplaining. They sing snatches of songs and joke together, unaffected by the dreadful weather.
In the past two months, I’ve said yes to a number of expensive repairs like this one. I am overseeing no less than nine workmen engaged in four different restoration projects. They are propping foundations, diverting a stream, knocking down a chimney, repairing clapboards and sill damage, roofing the main building, and drilling a well.
I have to admit it was tremendous fun to walk around telling workmen what to do. I wish they would return my phone calls rather than sending ambiguous texts while out lobstering, but that’s another matter.
Meanwhile, I set out to answer a very specific question: How did I come to do this splendid thing?
“Another Bosque Sunrise,” John Fowler
At the end of last winter, I met my ex to have a discussion. I chose the location, a Starbucks in the development closest to my house. Starbucks has the kind of ersatz respectability suitable for meetings of this sort. When I taught early college start classes at a high school 30 miles from Austin, it was the only place in town with wifi; I spent a lot of time writing copy in a comfortable chair beside the utensil stand. There, I witnessed a number of tense meetings between lawyers and clients, estranged spouses, and caffeinated salesmen. One time, a man berated his partner openly on his cell phone while his son tore a cup and a paperboard cosy to shreds at the table next to him.
This particular Starbucks has the flash of a rhinestone tiara; it’s that new. The whole development is new. It used to be the airport. Once they decided how best to profit from the land, the city trucked in giant mounds of topsoil and lay them on the abandoned tarmac. One by one, these earthworks have given way to upscale track housing, featureless retail stores, and second generation fast food restaurants. The whole thing looks like this:
I was nervous, going into the meeting with my ex. He had recently told me he was being considered for a prestigious job in Los Angeles, and I wanted to discuss how we might arrange the visitation schedule if he moved out of state. Despite the fact that we don’t get along, his suggestion was that I move to California. Seated across from me at a tippy cafe table, he tried to convince me that I was being foolish for rejecting this proposal; I’d never liked Austin, so why not move to Los Angeles? And if I wouldn’t move to Los Angeles, surely I would stay in Austin so that he could visit his girlfriend and our daughter at the same time?
He stormed out of the meeting when I pointed out that I had given up enough of my life already to accommodate him and was neither moving to LA nor sticking around in Austin if he moved. Once he left Texas, the geographical restriction on our divorce degree would be null and void, and I was free to go where I pleased.
The whole thing got me thinking.
I had lived for years without asserting myself. In fact, I had lived without having autonomy of any kind. To some extent, I did it to preserve my marriage. But if I’m truly honest with myself, it had been a whole lot easier to kick back, avoid confrontation, and help other people to fulfill their goals.
You know how it is when you have friends you like to go out drinking with? These guys are so much fun. Then one evening you’re getting over the flu, or you’re taking a course of antibiotics, and you can’t drink a thing. You sip at a glass of Pellegrino and watch your companions get louder, uglier, and more stupid by the minute. Why did you ever like these people? What’s wrong with you?
After watching my ex storm out of Starbucks because he could no longer successfully manipulate me, my whole way of looking at the world changed. I was like the only sober person in a crowd of drunkards.
All of a sudden, pursuing my own dreams seemed not only possible — it was unavoidable. And that’s when things started falling into place.
I’d been looking at real estate online for years, a late night hobby I indulged in while eating Blue Bell mint chip ice cream bars (requiescat in pace). I dreamed of moving to Central Portugal or the Limousin province of France, where a ruined quinta or falling down barn could be had for around $50,000. My plan was to purchase now, renovate, rent the property to Europeans on holiday, and move there once I retired. I contacted agencies and joined online communities to discuss zoning laws, construction permits, dog noise, potable water, and the feasibility of living off grid. I even went so far as to journey to Portugal a couple summers ago, where I stood talking real estate with some expats from Holland and Indonesia at the christening party of their Portuguese neighbors.
But how would I get my dog to Portugal each year? What would happen when my parents’ health failed, and I was four thousand miles away?
It wasn’t very practical. But if I bought a place in Maine. . . well, I would be close to my parents, my alma mater, and old family friends. It was a place my daughter could visit during college breaks. I didn’t start with the intention of draining my qualified domestic relations order, mind you. I thought I would save some money to retire on. Then I fell in love with one house in particular, the Parsonage.