A view of history
Gilmanton, N.H. — Had you traveled the country roads surrounding this picturesque New England town some 200 years ago, you might have seen men with names like Jacob and Isaac and Zachary joining forces to help one another build their barns and houses. Traveling these roads in more recent times, however, you may have seen one man with the energy of three dismantling these buildings and meticulously marking each board to reassemble them on his own site.
This would have been Doug Towle, an open and friendly marketing executive who is fascinated with what life was like here during Colonial times.
A decade ago he spent three years completely restoring a dilapidated old farmhouse to its original stately manner. When finished, with his enthusiasm for such projects still intact and an ever-growing curiosity, he wanted to reconstruct an original New England center-chimney Cape and barn on Frisky Hill, one of the choicest spots in this beautiful little town of 2,000 people.
Now, after another three years of almost single-handedly tearing down two huge barns and three complete houses, he has combined all the best elements of these structures to resurrect a splendid early New England farm with an established look and setting.
''The real challenge of taking down an old structure and reassembling it isn't 'Can you do it?''' Mr. Towle says. ''It's 'Can you do it and make it look five years later like it might have always been there?' So while my house is the newest one on this road, I wanted it to look like it was the first.''
And indeed it does. Upon catching this glimpse of history, people traveling Old Province Road for the first time invariably slow down to be carried back two centuries for just a bit longer.
''The actual building process started with the barn,'' Mr. Towle comments as we make our way up a dustless gravel driveway. ''It's made up of all hand-hewn timbers on the inside. As you can see, it's a big barn, measuring 65 feet long by 43 feet wide. But I felt if I went through the trouble of taking down a really big barn, more people would believe it was actually an original structure. After all, who would put up a brand-new barn this size?'' Mr. Towle says with a laugh as he slides back the huge doors, and we are swallowed up in its immense interior.
The barn sits on an updated foundation of 4-inch concrete floors, 12-inch walls, and deep footings. For the visible outer appearance along the front and side, old cut granite from many other buildings was brought in and laid for full exposure.
''Old buildings like this are usually abandoned and have fallen into disrepair,'' Mr. Towle says. ''No doubt the roof has leaked and rotted some of the timbers, so you usually don't find one you can just take down and put right back up again. I had to take down two barns this size and use the sound parts from each in rebuilding this one.''
As we head for the house, Mr. Towle continues, ''This is the advantage of rebuilding rather than restoring. Every board and beam can be inspected and replaced if need be, ensuring a sound structure that should last another 200 years.''
Taking an old 6-inch brass skeleton key from his pocket and inserting it into a vintage lockbox, he mentions that it took him five years to collect all of the authentic blacksmith hardware used throughout the house. He even reused some 9, 000 blacksmith-forged nails he pulled from boards in the dismantling process.
The double-thick Indian barricade door squeaks open on its strap hinges, and we enter a world of 18th-century life. There is such a feeling of authenticity here that no one would ever guess the house has modern insulation or central heating supplied by an efficient combination wood-and-oil furnace. Nor would one ever suspect that two full modern baths are unobtrusively tucked away.
As in the assembling of the barn, three early Cape Cod center-chimney houses (circa 1790) were disassembled and the best elements of each incorporated into this house. Here, too, tons of hand-cut early granite were placed on top of the concrete wall foundation to make it look from the outside as if the house were supported only by its original foundation. So instead of the dirt-floored cellar of yore, Mr. Towle has a full concrete basement, which he keeps as neat as the rest of the property. He stores his firewood here in an orderly stack, and there is a ping-pong table, although one can't help wondering when he ever finds time to use it. Also down here is the mammoth brick foundation supporting the center chimney around which the house is built. It is a massive structure that hints at the complex engineering feat required to reassemble this house - something you tend to take for granted amid the simple charm of the rooms upstairs.
Showing us the large hearth in the keeping room, Mr. Towle tells of spending an entire summer digging around foundations where Colonial houses used to stand to come up with some 10,000 old bricks he needed to build four fireplaces. ''It's tricky, because the bricks are handmade and not even, so it was a real chore to lay them,'' he says.
Modestly accepting awestruck compliments and praise from admiring visitors, he finally reveals a little about what inspired him to take on the time-consuming task of so meticulously rebuilding this homestead.
''There is something about walking into a place with the aura of the Colonial period,'' he says simply. ''There's a character, a warmth, a personality, that we just can't duplicate in the new. There is the old wood smell; there is just something about old houses that makes them very special to me.''
There are indeed many things special about this one: beautiful stenciling over hand-troweled plaster, hand-planed feather-edged paneling, single-board wainscoting, a formal parlor, an inviting keeping room, and a traditional birthing room. Not to mention all of the period antiques that have been selected in the proper scale to complement each room.
The windows have Indian shutters, wide Colonial mutton sashes, and panes of distorted glass salvaged from older homes in the area. There is also original bull's-eye glass over the front door, which opens to an unusual, yet correct to period, ''good morning staircase,'' allowing users of the two upstairs bedrooms to meet on a common landing.
''Generally these Capes wouldn't have had finished rooms up here,'' Mr. Towle explains as he starts up the stairs, ''but I wanted the house to have more bedrooms than just the one downstairs.''
Besides the two sizable bedrooms finished off with gracefully vaulted plaster ceilings and ''poor man's'' wainscoting, there is a full modern bath. A separate section of the upstairs has been left to show how the typical open attic would have actually looked in one of these houses. Pointing out a few remnants of wallpaper stuck to the bare boards, Mr. Towle explains that sometimes this was done ''to spruce it up a bit for overnight guests.''
Descending the back staircase, we are finally led into the adjoining ell, which he says is usually everyone's favorite room. Through a large window, the only one in the house without distorted glass, north light floods onto a large Queen Anne table, around which comfortable old bow-back Windsors invite guests to sit and take in the distant view of the White Mountains and the serene setting of Loon Pond directly below.
A door off this room offers access to the cobblestone patio surrounded by a split-rail fence, softened with plantings of hostas and junipers. At the far end of this rustic room is a magnificent arched fireplace with its own chimney and unique design that in the wintertime throws heat out into the huge 44-by-17-foot room. A collection of Algonquin Indian baskets hangs from hand-hewn beams with the beautiful patina of several centuries.
Dried herbs also hang here, for this room serves as the kitchen. Yet its modern appliances are all ingeniously hidden away behind wooden-pegged paneled doors and cupboards. An old dry sink has also been converted to hide its modern stainless steel counterpart.
In one corner stands an impressive stack of graduated early pantry boxes. Next to them an old grandfather clock built in this town of Gilmanton in the late 1700s continues to tick off the seconds of history as Doug Towle sits down to reveal his future plans.
''I'm ready now to put this house on the market and move on to a new challenge,'' he admits. ''The next time, though, I'd like to go back yet another hundred years.''
The problem he faces in finding such an early house to disassemble and rebuild is that most structures of this period are protected under certain preservation laws in this country. Thus Mr. Towle is investigating the possibility of moving from England a house similar in style to those the very earliest settlers built in America.
No doubt before long those traveling the roads of the English countryside will catch a glimpse of this young man with a broad smile and pilgrim spirit, working toward fulfilling his next dream.