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Eric Widmer and Merra Viswanathan talk about the original  fireplace in their 17th century home, the Old Perry House, on Matunuck School House Road in South Kingstown.

When buying an old house, you also purchase a slice of history.

That includes connections to a past era, people who once lived there, unique features and special events as well as the care — or lack of it — for the structure itself.

Love for history of both lore and maintenance binds caring owners of old homes to a dedication to preservation and enjoyment today​. They like living in part of a bygone time. It excites and interests them, the owners say, by having one foot in the past and another in the 21st Century.

‘If you don’t appreciate history, you may not appreciate the expense that comes with it…but to those who ‘get it,’ this is a source of pride!” exclaimed Mike Gretz, owner of the historic “Stone Lea” property in Narragansett.

These homes are their castles, as the old saying goes, and have withstood the winds of time and predators of decay, destruction or both.

This idea of the home as a castle has held dear for more than 417 years following Sir Edward Coke’s utterance about it. That was just about 80 or so years before settlers built — and it’s still standing today — what’s known as the “Perry House” on Matunuck School House Road in South Kingstown.

It is among many century-old or older houses throughout the state along country lanes, oceanfront roads, and village streets. The sight of these aging homes — whether well-kept or crumbling from neglect — are also easily found in South County area towns from East Greenwich to Westerly.

They give these coastal communities an old seaside charm as well as a pre-and-post-Victorian-era feel. A quaint — some even call stabilizing — sense of life fills aficionados living in them as they seek refuge from modern life erasing reminders of yesteryear.

Those homes in good shape and well-preserved also come with a price, though.

Old homes grow older each year. They remain functional because owners attend to the needs of these aging structures, which were also built stronger than many houses today.

Built in an era when workmanship focused on long-lasting survival, according to Erica Luke, executive director of the South County History Center, many still stand gracing streets and historic districts because someone cares very much about them.

Attention to Grand and Glorious

For instance, there’s Stone Lea, an oceanfront house at 40 Newton Avenue in Narragansett. It is a large stone and wood-frame shingle-style home that retains much of its 1880s charm and millwork. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is also a McKim, Mead and White-designed home. This same well-known architectural firm also designed the famed Narragansett Towers in the Pier section of town a few years later.

McKim, Mead & White was an American architectural firm that came to define architectural practice, urbanism, and the ideals of the American Renaissance in fin de siècle New York. The firm was an innovator and leader in the development of modern architecture worldwide.

The firm designed the Rhode Island State House, Manhattan’s former Pennsylvania Station, the Brooklyn Museum, the main campus of Columbia University and were the architects for the West and East Wing renovations at the White House,

Stone Lea is one of several houses that sprouted up between 1885 and 1910 in a seaside colony near the Ocean Road bluffs. The house was built in 1883-84 for George V. Cresson of Philadelphia, a manufacturer of rope, wheels, pulleys and drive shafts to transmit power. It cost $28,000 at the time.

“It’s the first I’ve owned on the National Register (and) it’s a certain source of pride for me. It’s something I take very seriously. It is a work of  art and a timepiece,” said owner Gretz.

He bought the 8,800-square-foot house two years ago for $4.5 million. Maintenance with this house started with a full-scale renovation to required historic standards.

Jeff Sweenor, owner of South County’s Sweenor Builders and who is a regular on the “This Old House” television series, handled the restoration.

“It was gutted to the studs. We had to repair water damage, put in new insulation, heating, electrical, air conditioning, replace and repair windows, wainscoting, crown moldings and much more,” he said.

A necessary improvement came to the basement. “There was water running into the house. You could see water running through the wall and you had to stop it and the only way was a full-scale sealing of it,” said Gretz. 

He added, “There also are a lot of things you don’t want to change. The banister with sculpted mahogany millwork. We kept everything that was in good shape and that was original and put it back in.”

Sweenor said, “The challenge to this kind of project was respecting and keeping the detail of the late 1800s while updating it to ensure it’s preserved for the future.”

Gretz is pointed about the way he wanted that house maintained. “When you get involved with something like this you either do it right or not at all,” the owner said, also noting pride in the house’s original placement on the property.

It offers a view straight through the house to see the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. The new kitchen, one of his and his partner, Beth’s favorite rooms, allows three different views of the ocean bordering the property, he said.

Would he buy another old house again following this one - his 12th - that has been at least 50 or 60 years old? 

“I’ve never lived in a new house,” he said with a laugh. He then added, “I’d buy that house and renovate it again the same way every time. What is it worth when I drive up to that property and smile?”

“It’s priceless,” he said.

Each year houses like Stone Lea, along with others on a smaller scale that are part of villages established in the 1700s and 1800s around Rhode Island’s once-dominant agricultural and factory industries, are being preserved.

Others, however, are being changed completely through renovation or being torn down. 

According to the latest state records, Rhode Island has double the number of homes compared to the nation overall for housing units built before 1940. The state figure is about 30% of all houses, but state records did not have a breakdown for those older than 100 years.

The national number is about 14% of the roughly 137 million homes in the U.S. built before 1940, according to the U.S. Census American Housing Survey.

In general, an average of about 17% of all South County housing falls into that pre-1940 category.

The most are in Hopkinton (28%) followed by Block Island (27.1%), Westerly (23.5%), North Kingstown (17%), South Kingstown (15.2%), Narragansett (11.2%), Charlestown (11%), Richmond (10.9%) and Exeter (10.1%).

Efforts to Maintain

So, what exactly does it take to maintain both home and history?  Care, concern, cash and commitment, say owners.

Mike Donohue is that kind of owner. He has an 1809 traditional center-chimney colonial home at 141 West Main St., part of North Kingstown’s Wickford Historic District. It was built by a ship captain who also built in 1804-05 two other similar houses on West Main Street. 

Donohue said he became aware of the ship captain’s career sailing out of Wickford and that he was the commander of the U.S.S. Housatonic, which was sunk in 1864 during the Civil War. Part of the charm is that this Civil War captain lived in his family’s home, he said.

Keeping up the house is important, he explained.

“We tend to fix things as they develop. We have the house painted on a regular schedule, but the bones of this house are good.  We’ve had some plumbing work done and when we re-did the kitchen and added a porch a few years ago, we had 200 amp service installed,” he said.

The 212-year old house is not entirely level and or square, but holds a charm for him and his family, he said.

“I hope and think that our grandkids when they grow older will say that when they were young their grandparents lived in a cool old house with good memories,” Donohue said.

Without attention like Donohue and others give to old homes, potentially significant downsides develop as expensive problems become tucked away inside walls or under floors, according to Patrick J. Kiger, author of the report, “Owning an Old House: Charming Love Affair or Expensive Money Pit?”

“What we’re talking about are those time bombs — such as an ancient drainage pipe, crumbling chimney, or obsolete wiring that isn’t up to the demands of today’s uses — that can catch old house owners off guard and sometimes severely stress their household finances with four or even five-figure repair bills,” he wrote.

“While you can’t always avoid these problems, it’s wise to learn as much as you can about the risks — and possibly even budget for renovations and upgrades to head off trouble before it turns into an emergency,” he added.

That same sage advice comes from Sweenor who has seen the problem many times during renovations, including those televised nationally on the “This Old House” TV series where he tackles area homes.

Whether large and grand or small and cozy, owners need to be committed to the basics that protect the house from rot and other deterioration, he said.

Ignoring a basement leak, admiring the same paint job done 10 years earlier without seeing it has faded and occasionally exterminating ants crawling around the woodwork are just a few of the issues of “character” that need a remedy before rot sets in.

How that plan takes shape and who does the work depends on the owner, the finances and skill levels, according to Sweenor and owners of old homes in South County.

Keeping the Very Old Standing

Thoughts about preserving his house are front and center for historian Eric Widmer, who with his wife, Meera Viswanathan, own a nearly 350-year-old home.

Called “Perry Place,” it is located at 645 Matunuck School House Road in South Kingstown. It is also considered “the oldest or one of the oldest homes in South County,” commented South County History Center’s Erica Luke.

Widmer and his wife bought the property in 1992 after a Realtor lost patience with showing them houses. They found it on their own. It was built around 1675 - nearly 100 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Widmer and Viswanathan are both former Brown University history professors. He said that the most-often cited claim of historic grist-mill owner Samuel Perry living there is a fanciful historical folklore.

Perry’s children and grandchildren did live there, “but as far as I can tell, he never set foot in the place,”  said Widmer, who embraces the pride in knowing the home’s history as well as keeping up repairs and maintenance.

The wooden structure still has its original floorboards, ceiling beams and stone chimney. Widmer said that the house required some renovation at first, such as uncovering and restoring one fireplace.

It also needed new shingles for part of the roof and required new windows while preserving the antiquity of the existing 12-pane glass windows. Improvements to bathrooms, put in the two-story house before he bought it and after indoor plumbing became fashionable, also followed. 

In the time that he and his wife have owned it, the 81-year-old said, he has mostly done the lawn work and tended to gardens. He leaves any major work up to hired contractors or caretakers. 

“It’s almost a hallowed sense when you walk in the door. The first thing you see is this massive stone fireplace. It’s been there for at least 350 years and there’s not a brick in the house. The house was clearly built before people were using bricks,” he said.

He then added, “There’s a joy to it. There’s a joy to being in what we consider to be such a sacred place.”

Other Houses in South County

In Narragansett, Kris Connell, a former member of the Narragansett Historic District Commission, owns “Sunnymead,” a large 1890 Victorian in Narragansett Pier.

It has a big porch, stained glass windows, and unique features like a butler’s pantry. For eight years, her family used the house as often as possible, while still living and working in New York City, and in 2016, moved there full-time. 

“It gives me the great pleasure that 130 years after being built, Sunnymead continues to be a gathering place for family and friends,” said Connell, who has come to know two families who lived in the house for many years -- the family who built it and another who lived here for three decades.

“They have been generous in sharing old photos from as far back as the early 1900s, invitations to weddings and parties held at the house over the decades, and of course, lots of stories,” she recalled.

Its maintenance, like any other home, needs diligent attention, she noted.

“I don’t think you have to worry about it becoming a scene from the Tom Hanks classic, ‘The Money Pit,’ but in the words of Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Rosanna Danna, ‘It’s always something,’” she said,

“I think you have to be prepared to address home maintenance as a regular habit, particularly if the house is near the water in New England, as well as be responsive to unwanted surprises,” she said.

“In a world where it increasingly feels like you could be anywhere, historic properties give Narragansett, and South County at large, a strong sense of place. Along with our award-winning beach, historic properties are character-defining for our town,” she said.

Across the nearby border in Wakefield, Kate and John Smith live in their 1920 American Four Square home at 174 Kenyon Avenue. They moved there in 2016 and have been fixed it up ever since, they said.

“We like the the character of an old house and the feeling of being able to maintain or upgrade the home as the people who owned the home before did over the years,” John Smith said.

“We think it is interesting to imagine the families who lived in the house before and the memories they made while they lived in the home and how we are adding our memories to theirs for the people that will own the house after us,” he added.

They, too, joined the many saying it’s most important to fix any issues, but having the comprehensive plan for them is a bit of a stretch.

“We don’t have a really detailed plan, but we do maintain a general renovation plan so we have our projects prioritized. We generally renovate at least one room or area during the winter and then move to outdoor projects in the spring,” Smith said.

Smith said he enjoys doing carpentry projects, such as trim work and constructing built-ins consistent with original work, and his wife enjoys painting. “The least favorite chore for both of us is trying repairing or replacing horsehair plaster,” he added.

“The skills to maintain an old home can be learned, but if there is no interest, it will just be stressful and frustrating instead of satisfying and fulfilling,” he noted.

Also in Wakefield and not far away, at 629 Main St., live Jim and Lisa Herbert in The Joseph C. Gardner House, built in 1818.

Jim Herbert explained, “We found written history on the house on the back of a framed photo from 1907. Said House was originally a 1.5-story house, but then they lifted it up and built a new first floor below it in the 1850s. They also connected the ‘food storage shed’ to the house, making it a kitchen.”

He said there is always a project going on.

“Somewhere in the house will always be a bucket of tools…fix plaster, replace sink, refinish floor, replace rotten wood, bang down nails coming up through floor, tile the bathroom, strip old painted wood,” he said about his list of the ever-present work.

“Never let the big stuff go,” he continued, “that is the key, for instance, leaking roofs or rotting wood that attracts insects. Then keep up with the cosmetic things as you can.”

He added, “Honestly, if you want to live in a house like this, you either have to be very handy or really rich. I’m handy. We could easily spend $20,000 per year on things I do (at a much lower cost).”

At 1789 Kingstown Road, South Kingstown, Kevin and Nicole Loontjens are four months into rehabbing an 1855 granite Italianate home on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We loved the idea of buying a roomy house with history and character and land that we could enjoy and preserve for future generations,” Nicole Lootjens said.

Isaac Peace Rodman - a relative to the family for whom South Kingstown’s Peace Dale village is named - built the granite house in 1855, she explained. In 1861, Rodman went off to fight with the 2nd RI Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Bull Run, she added.

He was promoted to brigadier general, died from wounds suffered at the Battle of Antietam and was the first person to lie in state at the State House in Providence, she and her husband, Kevin, pointed out about the history they uncovered about their home.

Loontjens said the renovation is “definitely a lot of work. Saying my dad is very handy is an understatement -- I don’t think we would have had the guts to take on this project if he and my mother didn’t live 20 minutes away.“

She said the worklist includes a few practical projects, such as moving the laundry room from the basement to the second floor, adding closets and a small bathroom on the first floor.

“The home inspection report is quite lengthy and reads like Tolstoy! We’ve essentially looked at the repair list and have prioritized fixes that could cause greater issues down the line,” said Kevin, son of the late Narragansett Town Manager Maury Loontjens.

His wife said that they need to make a plan by going room by room  to assess the work to do, a time schedule and make a cost estimate so it can be matched to their budget.

Looming maintenance projects include pointing the granite façade, scraping and painting the windows, and getting the fireplaces working, she said. Whether to buy another old house again is an open question.

“Ask me again in five years!  We are still in the honeymoon phase,” she said, with a hesitating laugh.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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