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A 200-Year-Old Home Is Revived--Miracle On Queen Street



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[For Home and Garden, 4 pictures]

A 200-Year-Old Home Is Revived––

Miracle On Queen Street

By Dottie Evans

Bob Geckle has lived a miracle in more ways than one.

Not only did he come home to Newtown and buy back the house he grew up in, he and his wife Kathy are near to completing a yearlong renovation of the 200-year-old homestead that has gone far beyond a mere remodeling.

From the first moment they stepped inside the handsome old colonial at 35 Queen Street, accompanied by their architect and building contractor John Madzula, the Geckles knew this would be a bigger project than they had anticipated.

“It was a disaster. The house had been vacant for 13 years. The roof had leaked and moisture had gotten in. There were even dandelions growing in the living room rug,” recalled Mrs Geckle.

They began talking about what they would do after cleaning it up, about doubling the size of the house, rearranging walls, incorporating a modern HVAC system, and adding two new chimneys and two fireplaces.

“We wanted to save the plaster walls, but they were so filled with moisture we had to take them down to the studs. It broke our hearts,” Mrs Geckle added.

To recreate the look of plaster they will use blueboard over wallboard.

The problem of how to mix the old with the new has been a constant challenge.

“Every piece of old wood that was taken out, we’ve saved,” said Mr Geckle, who was determined to buy back his family’s old house when it was offered by town at auction in June 2002.

The town had acquired it when they purchased several homes and lots along Queen Street from the state of Connecticut three years ago for a total of $1.2 million.

The properties had once been part of the 800-acre state-owned Fairfield Hills mental hospital complex, which included the 189-acre hospital campus, housing for staff members, maintenance buildings, barns for livestock, a dairy farm, and extensive agricultural land.

In 1952 when Bob Geckle was 7 years old, his father, the late George Geckle, began serving as the hospital’s business manager and the family had the use of 35 Queen Street while Bob was growing up. He remembers with pleasure riding his bike on the farm roads and playing in the barns with his friends.

 In 1972, his father retired. Another family used the house and, as the state was in the process of shutting the hospital down, 35 Queen Street stood empty from 1989 to 2002.

That was when the interior damage occurred.

A House With A History

Connecticut Historical Commission records show the house dates back to the early 1800s, possibly 1810, and it stands on land that was once part of the one-square-mile original Sherman Farm holding shown on John Boyle’s 1709–1758 map.

Called a Federal colonial, “the house and its circa 1860 barns are highly important as an example of a complex of 19th Century farm buildings,” commission records state.

The view to the east encompasses rolling hills and fields that extend to the horizon. It is a pastoral scene that Mr Geckle claims “has hardly changed since I was a boy, except the trees weren’t as big back then.”

According to an 1854 map, the house was once associated with the Nichols family, and an old piece of oak plank the Geckles found in the wall near the attic stairs bears the carved inscription JN/44. Mr Geckle feels sure this would have been written by a member of the Nichols family and the date was 1844.

An 1867 atlas indicates that an R. Turney was associated with the site, but after a 1984 historic resource survey, town records showed Edward Lovell as onetime owner of the home. While he is not mentioned in Newtown bibliographies, it is thought Mr Lovell purchased the farm as early as 1859 from Roswell Turney. The road opposite the house that connects Queen Street with South Main is called Lovells Lane.

Surprising Structural Issues

A curious fact emerged when contractors were dismantling the exterior north wall for the addition. What looks like one old house might actually have been two houses built side-by-side, very close in time and right next to each other.

“It must always have been their intention to build the second structure, because you can see where they notched the beams on both sides,” said Mr Geckle.

“And you can see where the first set of stairs once came through the second floor in a different location. Also, the original front door was between these two windows,” he added, pointing toward the Queen Street side.

“Dan Cruson [Newtown town historian] looked at this before we took down any walls and he said there might be a door there. He was right,” added Mrs Geckle.

Ceilings on the second floor and attic are low, barely seven feet tall, and behind the plaster, the sturdy walls had been braced by thick oak beams and angle brackets.

“You can tell these were hand cut from large trees. Some have the bark still showing,” said Greg McAvoy, a skilled cabinetmaker who has spent the winter working on the interior.

 “Notice the hand-cut iron nails,” Mr McAvoy said, and he pointed out mortise and tenon joints held together with wooden plugs and angled for strength in the corners.

The Geckles hope when all the interior work is completed, Mr McAvoy will be able to use some of the salvaged wood to make a farm-style kitchen table. He will be making built-in dining room cupboards using the old glass cabinet doors, and he has incorporated original beams to frame the raised fireplace in the kitchen wing.

Chimney Mysteries

The chimney stack has provided another source of speculation because when Bob Geckle was growing up in house, he does not remember there being a fireplace. In fact, there was a bookcase over the space where the fireplace should have been. Yet there is a large stone chimney foundation in the basement and small stack to take care of furnace fumes. For some reason, the upper part of original chimney was taken down early in the last century.

When the Geckles wanted to build a new chimney over the basement foundations so they could have a fireplace in the living room, the building inspector said that would be impossible. The old chimney foundation was unsafe. Amazingly, the original builder had incorporated wooden beams into the stone structure.

“We’ve heard there might have been a rule long ago that in order to collect insurance when your house caught on fire, your chimney stack had to have burned all the way down to the basement. So they used wood beams as part of in the chimney foundations. Seems incredible, but it might be true,” Mr Geckle speculated.

How Fixtures Became Features

While Mr Geckle has handled decisions concerning the exterior and structural details, Mrs Geckle has been considering interior design options.

For her kitchen plans, she has been working with designer Linda Hamidge of Kitchen Traditions in Danbury.

“We’re trying for an authentic, old-fashioned feel,” Ms Hamidge said during a recent phone interview, “using solid white beadboard, Shaker doors, and inset cabinets.”

Mrs Geckle had also decided she did not want recessed lighting.

“One thing I’ve found out is when you put a new addition on an old house, it’s better not to try to make it look old. It is more important that it looks like it fits.”

The Geckles are glad to have saved six original 12-over-12 windows in the old part of the house. All the other windows had been replaced over the years with simpler versions, 6-over-6, 2-over-2, and even 1-over-1. In their restoration of these newer windows, the Geckles will use 12-over-12 or 8-over-8 replacements, putting in “True Divided Light” single pane windows by Marvin Windows.

They are asking Mr McAvoy to build a Federal-style front door complete with pediment and fan light similar to that of the colonial Rohmer home at 27 Main Street.

“They were nice enough to let us copy it,” Mr Geckle said.

Mr McAvoy is also recreating a raised diamond pattern frieze under the eaves along the front of the house, a decorative detail that had been obscured by the recent application of vinyl siding.

Uncovering Artifacts

On the south side of the house, there are two original extensions, a one-story bay window off the living room and an attached woodshed with stone foundations and a crawlspace beneath. The Geckles have added windows on three sides of this structure and may turn it into an office.

The former woodshed has been the source of several archaeological discoveries by one of the workmen, Alex Irving, while digging around the foundations. The artifacts include an old tin coffeepot, a rusted padlock, 19th Century glass bottles, an ancient egg beater, and various tools –– even an old leather shoe.

Bob Geckle is keeping all these items as well as the oak beams and original wide floorboards, the doors with vintage depression glass knobs and glass cabinet door panels to be reused at some later time. His plans for the garage doors are in keeping with the history of the place.

“They’ll have the look of barn doors,” he said.

The new kitchen garage wing features a vaulted ceiling and raised Dutch-oven fireplace incorporating some of the oldest beams from the old house, built by cabinetmaker Greg McAvoy. Its most interesting feature is the stone lintel at the base –– a magnificent rough-cut 1,000-pound rectangular slab that once stood under the old kitchen door.

“I think it was the hearthstone at one time,” Mrs Geckle said.

Apparently, when the Geckles told builder John Madzula they wanted the stone brought into the house he was skeptical, saying, “Are you sure you want to do that?”

They were, because mixing the old with the new has been the their goal all along.

As chairman of the Fairfield Hills Master Plan Ad Hoc Committee, Bob Geckle has always had a sense of the history behind the house and its surroundings –– a history that includes more than just his own childhood memories.

“The house is worth it,” he once told a fellow committee member who asked why he wanted to put so much time and money into the project.

“And I want to give something back to the town.”

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