Restoring the Old Order

Stephen Mack aims to resurrect the 18th century, one house at a time. HISTORIC PRESERVATION

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Stephen Mack gets his hands on an 18th-century house, one of the first things he does is take it apart. In fact, he has 20 of them disassembled in his back yard right now. But Mr. Mack has every intention of resurrecting the houses, now safely under black tarpaulins. As a designer and preservationist, his goal is to save historical houses threatened with demolition and restore them so they'll be enjoyed for another 200 years.

This afternoon, during a teeming rain, he talks with two visitors by candlelight inside his home of 13 years: an 18th-century clapboard he restored himself, adorned with 18th-century furniture and other antiques. The once-abandoned house took a couple of years to restore - ``the slowest and most arduous way I could devise,'' he says.

At first glance, Mack looks like a professor with his round glasses and light mustache. He speaks with confidence and enthusiasm. The glow about the old home is welcoming and warm - even the granite kitchen sink is intriguing. After introducing his dog, named ``Dog,'' and serving tea and cookies, he explains his affinity to 18th-century design.

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``There's a certain elegance that can exist in a home ... an undefinable feeling that has more to do with a natural environment, more to do with sort of life style that existed 200 years ago than today. Craftsman and artisans of 200 years ago were involved with natural materials, and the furniture and houses they designed had a certain straightforward and honest feeling about them.''

Before raising and restoring a disassembled structure, he finds a buyer - someone who most likely shares in his enthusiasm for the 18th century. Mack knows exactly what goes where, as the house has been blueprinted and its pieces marked with white oil, all part of his ``foolproof'' system.

Rebuilding the colonial structures while maintaining their authenticity is a long, painstaking process that Mack loves. He mentions a few buildings he's completed over the past several years - the Monroe Tavern in Seekonk, Mass.; the 18-room Simon Huntington Tavern in Norwich, Conn. He darts out of the room and returns with ``before and after'' photos. Presently, he's in the midst of taking down an 18th-century Dutch barn in Sprakers, N.Y.

``I'm not an architect; I'd rather be concerned with the design and plan and controlling,'' says Mack, whose crew of 10 or so usually includes an architect and architecture students. There's a ``fingerprint'' to a house, he believes, and the best mark of an architect is no mark at all.

``His concern goes into the small details that a lot of people don't even notice,'' says Allen Charles Hill, an architect in Winchester, Mass. who calls Mack ``a pungent colleague.''

``If I do my work very well,'' says Mack, ``no one will tell I've done anything.'' His quests are not for the sake of nostalgia, but rather for seeing a simple style continue. Mack says the surroundings and life style of people in the 18th century were much more natural than today. He says he enjoys traveling in third-world countries where life is ``untampered and intact.''

``What one man might call `naive,' I might call `pure,''' he says.

When Mack learns of a threatened structure, he decides whether or not it's worthy of restoration (he's hard core about saving most of them). ``It's not just a question of `who slept here,''' he says, it has to do with the age, condition, and what still exists of the original fabric.

After securing a structure to save, Mack and his staff take numerous photographs, remove all non-original material (1950s kitchens, for example) and draw up detailed blueprints.

THEN, little by little, the house is carefully brought down - from the doors, windows, floorboards, and chimney stack to the roof, rafters, joists, and girts. Notes are taken at every turn; corresponding marks are made on every section of the structure. Finally, the crew lowers the bents in an action Mack describes as ``the opposite of barn raising.''

After the house is taken down, he collects original ``bits and pieces'' to present to the buyer - pieces of foundation, coins, candlesticks; even seeds and shells. They're ``part of the `fingerprint' of history,'' he says, jumping up to point out an old sheath knife he found in a house in Vermont.

``What I attempt to create might very well ... be built with 20th-century materials,'' he admits, ``but the feeling that exists in a home can't be duplicated.''

In talking with Mack, one gets the feeling that the man has to do it right, or not at all. He admits his passion isn't limited to 18th-century buildings. And he has a love for the sea, owning an old Cape Cod Sharpie oyster boat and 40 sea chests.

Mack comes from a family of artists (he's also a sculptor), and says his work extremely creative: Each building is so different and has its own idiosyncrasies.

The 20 dormant houses on his farm that make up ``Black City'' (they're under black, numbered tarpaulins), bring to mind a graveyard. But make no mistake, they're only awaiting buyers.

``If I can't sell buildings, I can't save them,'' he says, adding that he's often in financial hot water, saving buildings he's not yet sold.

Although Mack leans on the side of authentic design, he often accommodates his clients with 20th-century amenities - kitchens, laundry rooms, walk-in closets, and bathrooms. It's all part of the compromise. Of course, he's always on watch for authentic 18th-century furniture. But first and foremost, Mack holds to his philosophy of ``making a home that one feels perfectly comfortable in and cozy before any furniture is put in.''

Prices of the homes range from $20,000 to $125,000; restoration costs from $50 and $200 per square foot, depending on location, size, intricacy, condition, and house type.

Even though Mack is known for relocating and restoring old homes, he doesn't take houses down that can be kept on their original foundations.

One of Mack's dreams is to someday restore a whole village of 18th-century homes.

As for his own home, he can honorably say ``the only thing that's not used is the food.''

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