Restoring a Federal-style home in Lyme
As part of their efforts to bring back their stately home, Tim and Lynn Cook have devoted decades to saving its remarkable murals by Rufus Porter.
“I’ve always liked classical architecture,” says homeowner Tim Cook. “The Romans and Greeks had the proportions just right and nothing has changed for the human eye since then.”
In 1980, when Tim Cook showed an 1811 Federal-style home in Lyme to his then-girlfriend, Lynn, the house had been unlocked and abandoned for four years. “I thought it was such a cool house,” Tim says. “But sometimes the door was wide open and people were going in and out.” It was about midnight when Tim brought Lynn up and pushed on the unlocked door.
“We went in with a flashlight,” Lynn says. “There were dead animals in the house, which were in various forms of decay. There were between eight and twelve inches of water in the basement. We had to walk through trash and cobwebs.”
Still, the couple returned to tour the property in the daylight, a visit that unfortunately wasn’t much better: the timbers had settled and needed replacing; the interior plaster was cracked; the bathroom was, in Lynn’s words, “absolutely disgusting”; and the kitchen was badly outdated. But Lynn also saw the excitement in Tim’s face—so, the couple was sold.
With the help of the late Will Cady Perkins, a paint restoration specialist and interior decorator who specialized in the Federal period, Tim and Lynn Cook restored the Rufus Porter murals throughout their Lyme home, including these in the dining room. Now a renowned artist, Porter was a traveling muralist throughout New England from 1825 to 1845—a time when murals were considered a “poor man’s wallpaper.”
Part of what helped the Cooks overcome the property’s challenges was the house’s Rufus Porter murals. Porter was a traveling muralist in New England from 1825 to 1845. At a time when murals were considered a “poor man’s wallpaper,” Porter advertised his services through handbills. (Porter went on to train a group of artists in his theories and techniques; explore his polymath side; and found American Mechanic and Scientific American magazines.)
Considering the rest of the house, the murals were in remarkably good condition. “I believe the house is protected by spirits,” Lynn says. “It’s amazing the murals have survived intact for so long. The house was a rental property for twenty-three years, yet everyone who lived here—including children!—left the murals alone. Wallpaper was never put over the murals. People were breaking in, and the murals could have easily been vandalized. None of that happened.”
A love of history
Tim’s longtime commitment to historic preservation is what attracted him to the property all those years ago.
“I enjoy returning properties to how they were originally built,” Tim says. “It’s fun to imagine what the families were thinking about when they were living here. Since this house was first built, it really hadn’t been changed much on the inside, so it’s been easier to bring it back to its original condition.”
The house was built by Moses Kent, whose family was prominent in the Lyme area in the early 1800s. After Kent’s death in 1838, his wife, Mary, and two of their unmarried daughters lived there until 1900.
Linda Carter Lefko—a noted artist, author of a book on Porter and advisor to the Rufus Porter Museum in Maine—has visited the Cook home. Tim says Lefko dated the murals to around 1830. The murals in the first-floor parlor/dining room; a second-floor bedroom; and both the upstairs and downstairs hallways are considered to have signature Porter elements: a quickly applied tempera wash background, stenciled buildings and distinctive brushwork foliage.
“I love that we can lie in our bedroom and look across the hall to the guest bedroom and see this orchard,” says homeowner Lynn Cook. “On the opposite wall—and in the dining room—is a forest. Porter’s forests are quite beautiful.”
Between 1901 and 1980, the Kent property was sold a number of times, and used as a farm, summer home and rental property. “I think what’s saved the house through the years,” Tim says, “is that, after Moses Kent, no one who owned it had a lot of money for renovations.”
As part of the Cooks’ restoration process, a years-long project to restore and protect Porter’s murals was launched. Water damage and over-painting as well as scrapes and dents had obscured or altered parts of the murals, and their colors were muted by dirt and mold. The Cooks worked closely with the late Will Cady Perkins, a paint restoration specialist and interior decorator who specialized in the Federal period, as well as Lyme residents Barbara and David Roby, who rented the house decades ago and respected the murals.
Tim, Lynn and Perkins cleaned the murals, repaired the plaster, stabilized cracks, removed over-painting and selectively engaged in “in-painting” (with reversible paint) where original material had been lost.
Preservation for the future
To preserve their work on the Kent farm, Tim and Lynn have protected their home and property with a historic preservation easement. In general, an easement is a voluntary, legally enforceable agreement that allows the owner of the property to retain ownership, use and possession of the space, while granting someone else the authority to protect part or all of the property.
According to Jennifer Goodman, executive director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, which holds the preservation easement on the Cooks’ home, “Securing a preservation easement on the Cooks’ property was a preservation milestone. Their farm features one of the most intact set of Porter’s murals in New England. This is a significant property to start with, and the Cooks’ three decades’ of careful and dedicated stewardship has led it through restoration over time. Protecting their work with an easement is icing on the cake.”
“The murals aren’t just our murals,” Lynn says. “They are here for people to enjoy, and it’s important for people to appreciate them.”
The late Will Cady Perkins, a paint restoration specialist and interior decorator who specialized in the Federal period, provided much-valued help to the Cooks as they worked together to restore the murals from their deteriorated state in the early 1980s.
About Historic Preservation Easements
Homeowners who enter in to historic preservation easements give a second party the right to protect and preserve the historic character of the property. The easement is a legally enforceable agreement that allows the owner of the property to retain ownership, use and possession of an historic property, while granting someone else the authority to protect the historic and architectural features of the property. The owner retains all the usual rights to the property, except the right to substantially alter or fail to maintain the historic character of the property.
“Preservation easements are a sister of conservation easements, and are based on the same state and federal laws,” says Jennifer Goodman, executive director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance. “Each easement is customized for individual properties and the owner’s wishes.”
Goodman says preservation easements are less known than conservation easements but offer homeowners a great opportunity to protect their properties for the future. “There are thousands and thousands of acres protected by conservation easements,” she says. “But preservation easements haven’t been used a lot yet.”
To learn more about historic preservation easements, contact the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance at 224-2281 or www.nhpreservation.org