THE MAN WHO LIVES IN THE 18th CENTURY
East Nassau, N.Y. — The sage who declared that the difference between boys and men is the cost of their toys must have had in mind a grown man like Donald Carpentier. When I first heard the stories of this 28-year-old who was called "the squire" and lived alone in a reconstructed 18th- century village on the edge of his parents' farm in upstate New York, my imagination conjured up a wimpy rich kid in penny loafers and pink Lacoste shirt, who had tired of polo and living in the 20th century, and asked mommy and daddy to put a colonial Tinker Toy set in the backyard. When I finally visited Carpentier's Eastfield Village, it was apparent my imagination had taken a few wrong turns.
My rented car had also taken a few wrong turns en route to the Carpentier farm; I arrived in the dead of night. Eastfield Village, tucked along a dirt track called Mud Pond Road, 11 miles east of Albany, lacks the modern trappings of running water and electricity. My first five minutes there, the squire weas only a voice in the dark, giving directions: "Watch that rock!" "Step up here." We gradually found our way up the dirt road to the village's tavern, which was amply stocked with white candles.
It was tale, but Carpentier was wide awake and eager to tell his story. As we spoke in the flickering candlelight of the tavern's kitchen, may spoiled rich kid scenario went up in smoke. This squire wears Sears, Roebuck construction boots and a pair of jeans cut off above the knees. A handsome man with swept-back hair, he has broad sideburns on the verge of becoming mutton chops. Stubbornly independent, he is an 18th-century libertarian, sworn to the Puritan work ethic. Though he could likely get federal grants to expand his village, Carpentier refuses to take money from "any government which is always looking for new ways to waste money."
The squire drives a red '68 Ford pickup truck equipped with eight-track stereo tapes of Haydn concertos. The dashboard is an open filing system of rusty nails, wooden molding, and maps. With this vehicle, over the last nine years Carpentier has singlehandedly dismantled, transported, and reassembled the 26 buildings now standing in his village. He brings home condemned houses the way some children bring home stray cats. It makes perfect sense to a man who grew up asking Santa Claus for tools, spent his allowance on nails, and put himself through college selling roadside antiques the way some kids sell lemonade.
The day I met Carpentier, he had just finished hauling a slate sidewalk from an Albany construction site where it was about to be plowed under. He would add the sidewalk to his village, which already has a white clapboard meetinghouse with an octagonal bell tower, a weaver's house, blacksmith shop, tinsmith shop, tavern, cobbler's shop, doctor's office, printing office, a workman's dwelling, a 1790 house, a corn-crib, smokehouse, several woodsheds, and half a dozen outhouses. All the structures date from the years 1787 to 1840 and are appropriately furnished.
The village is not open to the public, but for the last four years Carpentier and his associates have taught a series of three-to five-day workshops in such trades as stonecutting, housewrighting, weaving, tinning, basketry, and shoemaking. Students spend their days using 18th-century tools to cut shingles, plane molding, splice beams, and thicken homemade lime mortar with pig's bristles. They prepare meals in blackened kettles over the tavern fireplace, read limericks at night by candlelight, and sleep in the tavern's attic on rope beds and tick mattresses.
With the exception of an architectural hodgepodge Carpentier disparagingly calls his "Colonial A-frame" and which he tore down years ago, the village tavern is the first building he reconstructed in the backwoods of his family's 80-acre farm. The antique materials used in the tavern came from 30 different buildings. Like the other structures in Eastfield Village, there is nothing precious or ye olde nostalgic about this building. It looks lived in, walked on , used.
Near the tavern entrance are several notices, quillpenned in an elegant script which occasionally substitutes f's for s's.
"For Sale, a blue tic Hound, very good Hunting Dog, apply P. Dunning here."
"Male Goat wanted to lure our Gilda from pasture. Apply C. Bates at this tavern."
"Travelers are warned that Mud Pond Jack is again robbing pafsers by on the road betwixt Sliter's Corner and Eaff Nafsau. Travelers should journey in afsembly and armed."
June 6, 1778m
The tavern walls and ceilings are layered with soot. Ashes are piled high in the fireplace, over which a brick mantel displays a clutter of chipped plates. Nearby hangs a charred potholder, a rusty coffee grinder. An old banquet table is surrounded by a motley collection of ladder-back chairs. The room appears to have been visited by a party of travelers who left in a hurry.
"I love the mess. The tavern is just starting to get the right amount of grunge," says the squire, sitting cross-legged on a pre-1840 wooden fold-out bed his friends call "the early American Castro convertible." Carpentier leans forward into the candlelight.
"Museums forget that people lived in these old buildings. They got soot on the walls and dirt on the floor. Most museums pretend that people in the 18th century were clean and always set up their chairs and spinning wheels neatly around the fireplace. If you want to know how a room would have looked in the 18th century, get a bunch of people to live in it for a day and leave it just the way they left it. Museums always want to impose 20th-century Better Homes and Gardens values on the 18th century."
Carpentier has worked in museums, and has few kind words for their attempts to capture early American life behind glass.
"Sturbridge [Village] tried hard, but its tavern on the green looks like early American Howard Johnson. Williamsburg is a wonderful 1920s housing project erected by out-of-work Colonial revival architects. Museums think they have to fill up with every cliche in the book, from Boston rockers to spinning wheels."
As Carpentier speaks, an old, painted "wag-on-the-wall" clock, like an inverted metronome, beats out the late hour. Gypsy months dive-bomb the candle flames that occasionally flare and light up the squire's ruddy complexion.
"If you want to know about the past, you've got to live in it. The most important feature about Eastfield Village is that there are no [areas off-limits ]. A woman came out from Vermont for one of the basketry workshops and when she arrived her jaw dropped.
" 'This is all ours to play with?' she asked. For the first couple of days students are reaching for the light switches and saying, 'C'mon, where are you hiding the electricity?'
"It's true, You can use everything in the village. There isn't an antique chair you can't sit in. Sure, they get used and broken. But look at the paintings of early American interiors and you'll see a lot of people used broken furniture. How many museums today would exhibit a busted chair? And why do museums think they have to skin furniture within an inch of its life just to make it look like the antiques people are buying in the shops? Why can't they leave the original paint? Personally I like it when paint starts to get crusty."
Crusty plant is only part of his secret to achieving 18th-century authenticity.
"You can't be a 9-to-5 preservationist. I'm a fanatic. I live and breathe it. When people first heard what I was doing they thought I was independently wealthy. In fact, all I had was my pickup and my own sweat. I had to sell a lot of antiques just to keep my truck running. But that's assured me I won't squander. If I can't survive like any other business then I don't belong."
One of the reasons Carpentier resists opening his village as a museum is that he questions how seriously most Americans take history.
"Some families just drag their kids through museums on Saturday to kill time. They couldn't care less what they are looking at," he complains. "Over the Memorial Day weekend, a friend and I raised the frame of a small Dutch house in the middle of Central Park. We dressed in 18th-century-style clothing. Everybody else was on roller skates with their headsets and radio packs. I really don't think anyone noticed us at all. That's why I think the village is much more valuable as a teaching aid to people who are seriously committed to learning something in the workshops."
Carpentier speaks with conviction, even obsession. Like a mad scientist, he is driven to achieve historical accuracy in his personal 18th-century laboratory. As far as he is concerned, "The village will never be finished. I'm continually trying to undo my mistakes."
He is constantly researching architectural details of the Federal period and having to tear out a doorframe here, a pair of shutters there, because they no longer measure up to his continually revised standards.
"I'm now living with mistakes I wish I hadn't made. My philosophy now is leave as much alone as possible. Let the building speak for itself."
Carpentier's compulsion for accuracy has prompted confessions of his own ignorance: "When I started the village I was much more apt to say, 'This is the way it back then.' Now I find myself saying, 'We don't really know.' "His perfectionism stands to reason. What he admires most about 18th-century architecture is the "clean, crisp lines and attention to detail."
While Carpentier was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he has had a hammer in his hand for as long as he can remember. At age 4 he constructed a crude playhouse from his father's private stock of lumber. When he was 8, his parents gave him 50 chickens, "whicn soon became 500." Young Carpentier filled his days building "bigger and better chicken coops."
The Carpentiers moved from a housing development to the farm near East Nassau , N.Y., when he was 14. Donald took to exploring the new neighborhood. He returned home with old bottles and artifacts scavenged from stone walls and abandoned farmhouses.
He recalls that every day his school bus passed a dilapidated farmhouse with two birdhouses in the front yard. He tracked down the owner, who told the boy he could have anything in the house he could cart away. Carpentier began storing the antique furniture from the farmhouse in a three-story-high chicken coop he built inside the family's 1892 barn. He then sold the antiques to anyone who drove by.
Three years after Carpentier cleaned out that first old farmhouse, the owner notified him that he had called the fire department to come burn it down for practice, and if Carpentier wanted anything else, he'd better hurry. When the hook and ladder unit arrived to torch the house, it was gone. Carpentier had hauled it off by piece by piece on the back of his pickup. It now sits on the Eastfield Village green as his weaver's house.
Word soon got around: If you've got an old house you want to get rid of, call that crazy kid on Mud Pond Road. In 1974, a contractor was about to bulldoze an 1810 tinsmithing shop and gave Carpentier two days to take it down.
Recalls the squire: I didn't have time to take down the 1840 addition next to the shop, but I remembered the design and reconstructed it from memory in the village."
Carpentier has saved countless old buildings from destruction and defamation. The doctor's office was being used as a pigpen and was two feet deep in manure when he came to the rescue. The cobbler's shop, "an excellent example of poor 1840s craftsmanship," was being used as a garage. Carpentier retrieved for his printing office in 1835 Washington hand press on its way to the dump.
He is constantly on the prowl for what he calls "esoteric old junk. I want the oddball stuff, you know, that little piece of history that fits into the whole picture. I'm not looking for the run-of-the-mill antiques. I've had it with the prosaic chairs and tables. I'm looking for perishable goods of the past, things people would have thrown out back then, paper wrapping, cardboard boxes, labels. I once found a package of hand-carved maple toothpicks. And later a box of 1870s roofing samples with the original labels on them. Now that's an architectural record."
Most of any flea market, tag sale, or auction is enough to lure Carpentier out snooping.En route to an auction, he saw an elderly woman hauling her late husband's blacksmithing tools out of the barn. Carpentier bought them all, lock , stock, and anvil, for $30. He once attended a lawn sale, and seeing nothing he liked in the driveway, bought the shutters right off the owner's house.
The stories went on and on as the candles burned lower and lower in the tavern's kitchen. Finally I suggested to the indefatigable Carpentier that we continue in the morning. The squire adjounred to his own quarters, after handing me a candleholder and motioning me to the tavern's second floor.Like the nightcapped little boy "retiring" in the old Firestone ads, I stumbled upstairs with the candle at arm's length. Some dozen rope beds lined the walls of the second floor, which wraps itself around the large brick fireplace. In my exhaustion, I quickly settled for a bed near the window.
The next morning, Carpentier told me I chose the worst bed. I had happened upon the 1790 press bed, which folds vertically against the wall. It had a wooden hinge that uncomfortably ran along my shoulders. I had been too tired to notice that there was a board in my back or that my legs hung out a foot and a half over the end of the bed.
The squire, in contrast, sleeps in an 1820s canopy bed inside a workman's 1787 saltbox dwelling, surrounded by a white picket fence and just a cobblestone's throw from the tavern. He keeps his clothes in an 1820 Chippendale chest of drawers "with the original red wash stain." He beats with wood, and last winter replaced his 1810 wood stove with a more modern, airtight model, made in 1852.
The only sign of the 20th century sits in his living room beneath the eight-day school clock. There, the squire stores two car batteries which power a modest eight-track stereo system. Late in the evening, strains of James Taylor, the Beatles, and Maria Muldaur waft through Eastfield Village. Fortunately, he has neither 18th-nor 20th-century neighbors to complain about the volume or his musical tastes.
That morning, the squire took his time in rising, and arrived at the tavern kitchen looking suspiciously clean. During the night, what he calls the "wonderful grunge" of the tavern had grown attached to me and I felt like asking the squire, "C'mon, where are you hiding the showers and clean towels?" No such luck.
Carpentier has no desire to live in the 18th century, and his going without electricity and running water has nothing to do with the nostalgic pretense that those were the good old days. The reason is basically the expense. It would cost too much to hook up water and electricity. Second, "It makes me take responsibility. When I want water I have to haul it myself. When I want to get warm I have to chop wood."
One chore Carpentier I didn't want to take responsibility for that mornign was breakfast.
"We could cook breakfast over the fireplace here," he said, "but it sure will take a lot of time, and we've got better things to do." So we drove five miles to a roadside cafe which had tacky yellow awnings and served frozen orange juice in paper soft drink cups. Although Carpentier has an 1890 gas plate in his house, he finds himself eating many of his meals at roadside establishments of this sort.
Financially, his workshops barely break even, and so Carpentier hires himself out as a "historic-preservation consultant." At the moment, he is employed as an architectural consultant to Albany's South End Urban Renewal Project. This section of the city is heavily sprinkled with early 19th-century brick row houses on the National Register of Historic Places. Every brick, molding, and bit of mortar for a nine-city-block area must meet the squire's approval.
His consultant business is booming. Not long ago, a wealthy New Yorker asked him to restore a 19th-century town house in Manhattan. And Carpentier was hired as a design consultant for building the circa-1850 sets for the film adaptation of Henry James's "The Europeans." The movie was nominated in England for an Academy Award in set design; the squire flew to London for the ceremony.
Carpentier recalls: "I spent weeks hunting up artifacts for the movie. Even dragged in some of my own stuff. Lee Remick served tea with one of my pink luster tea sets on one of my tables."
Carpentier now spends more time travelling than at Eastfield Village, but his heart is still on Mud Pond Road. Shortly before leaving the village, I was invited by the squire to bathe in the pond adjoining it. As Carpentier perched on a rock near the center of the pond, I asked him if he had ever considered putting Eastfield Village on the market and selling it to the highest bidder.
"Five years ago someone offered to buy the entire village," said the squire, as he slowly surveyed his community of clapboard houses. "I told him 'No.' What would I do with the money? Start again?"
More information on Eastfield Village and the workshops is available from Donald Carpentier, Eastfield Village, Box 145 R.D., East Nassau, NY 12062.m