A Grand Country House

A Francestown home, with original finish work more common to that found in city mansions, is lovingly restored and furnished by a couple with a passion for history.

Leonard and Meredeth Allen had the ideal retirement plan: their children were grown, Len’s career in New Jersey was winding down and the couple had long-ago purchased the “perfect old house” in Maine. But when their circumstances changed (in New Jersey, Len’s company asked him to stay a bit longer; in Maine, the neighboring gravel pit became active), Len and Meredeth reconsidered their plan.

“We hoped to find a house as lovely as our Maine Federal but with no menacing gravel pit nearby,” Len says.         

For the next three years, the couple searched New England for the right house—turning a passion into a full-blown quest. They screened hundreds of listings and walked through more than fifty houses that met their criteria: a late-eighteenth-century New England house with many intact original features and enough land to guarantee privacy.

When two early bids failed and the New Jersey house sold, Meredeth was drawn back to a house in Francestown they had seen nine months earlier—the circa 1779 David Gregg House.

“I had stood in the doorway and all I had seen was the beauty,” Meredeth says. “The extensive paneling and moldings, the high ceilings, the five fireplaces and even a pond in the back.  There was so much grace in the house, and the rural setting was beautiful.”

“But all I saw were problems,” Len admits. “The septic hadn’t been cared for. The fireplaces hadn’t been used in twenty years. The roof was sagging, and the small barn was leaning badly. The kitchen was amazingly bad. The cellar had no interior access and no work space, and the porch was falling off the house. I was not interested in fixing up another old house. We’d already done that three times!”

In the end, Meredeth’s vision won him over. Once their bid on the David Gregg House was accepted, the work—and the happy surprises—began.

Uncovering the jewel

The Allens purchased the home without knowing the answers to a lot of Len’s questions. Because the property had been neglected for years, the building inspector couldn’t provide a thorough report. For example, since the fireplace dampers couldn’t be opened, the inspector couldn’t determine if the flues were in working order. Only after the Allens had bought the home and had the chimneys cleaned—removing decades of debris—could they light a fire. One after the other, the fireplaces proved to be in working order.

“Amazing, what luck!” Len remembers thinking. “We have five working fireplaces!”

The Allens moved to New Hampshire in October 1998. Living temporarily in Manchester, Len and Meredeth threw themselves into the renovations.

The couple worked closely with now-retired New Boston restoration carpenter Jerry Kennedy. Kennedy has lived in the New Boston area for seventy-one years and practiced his trade for forty-five years. “I always tried to put things back they way they were when first built,” he says.

Given his knowledge of the home (Kennedy had worked with at least two of the David Gregg House’s earlier owners before the Allens) and craftsmen in the area, Kennedy was able to draw from his contacts and pull together a team to quickly address the structural issues. Within weeks, the roof was replaced, the barn repaired, and cellar access and stairs created.

Meanwhile, Meredeth focused on cleaning and painting the downstairs windows, many of which are original to the house, and Len painted or wallpapered the downstairs rooms. For Christmas, they were able to move in their furniture from the barn.

That winter, construction began. When the Allens took possession of the home, the kitchen was almost unusable. In two months, Kennedy’s team reconstructed the room, while still managing to keep the basic appliances working. In the end, the ceiling was raised, a wood floor put down, the cabinets replaced, a pair of windows added by the sink and new appliances installed.

On the second floor, a small bath became a closet and a small bedroom became the master bath. In the spring, the screen porch was knocked down, replaced by a plant room with sixteen windows on an enlarged foundation.

Surrounded by history

The David Gregg House is a two-story, center chimney, five-bay, Federal-style house. The interior exhibits transitional details: one side shows architecture from the Georgian period (1700–1775), and the other from the later Federal period (1780–1830). The Allens suspect that the Federal side represents the work of a later homeowner, Moses Eaton, a very successful farmer who introduced Merino sheep to the area.

Throughout their home, Meredeth points to features that speak of the original builder’s expertise and the owner’s wealth. “It took vision, money and the exceptional skills of talented carpenters to produce this house,” she explains. “The combination of money and taste is so evident.”

For example, the eleven-foot-wide chimneypiece in the keeping room features extensive paneling, five warming cupboards and a long mantel. The twelve-foot hearth was built using an unusual double brick pattern, which was repeated in an upstairs hearth.

In the front hall, the ornate scalloping on the staircase is particularly attractive. Len designed the traditional diamond floor pattern, and Meredeth chose wallpaper appropriate to the period. She remembers Len’s struggles to match the patterns on the walls that weren’t square. “It’s just impossible, but nobody except us will notice,” he finally announced. And up it went.

In the dining room, an earlier owner had added a fine corner cupboard, matching the original woodwork design. It was here that Meredeth decided to display her collection of pink lustre ware. After Len papered the room and painted the trim slate blue, their attention turned to a color for the cupboard’s interior. “In the eighteenth century, the insides of cabinets were always painted bright colors,” Meredeth says. “So we painted it pink to highlight the pink in the china.” She was initially a little hesitant about the color combination, but it works nicely.

The wide crown molding around the room and elaborate door surrounds also indicate the craftsmanship and wealth that went into the building’s construction. The Allens were drawn to this—both inside and out. They photographed the woodwork and sent the pictures to James Garvin, New Hampshire’s state architectural historian with the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources. Garvin wrote that ”the interior joiner’s work in the Gregg house is well preserved, intact and is a work of unusual sophistication.”

This type of work isn’t usually found in country homes—but is generally more common in city mansions, such as those in Portsmouth or Salem, Massachusetts. “The Gregg House retains the framing layout and floor plan of a two-room-deep center-chimney dwelling,” Garvin writes, “a building type that has been identified as having reached a fairly full evolutionary development in the New Hampshire seacoast by the 1720s.”

“This is a rather grand house for Francestown,” Meredeth says.

A home for antiques

The Allens’ passion for history extends from their love of older houses to their furnishings. More than forty years ago, the couple began their antique collection with a 1790 candle stand that a local second-hand furniture dealer strongly encouraged them to purchase.

“We were young and didn’t have much money,” Len remembers.

“All our furniture was for an apartment. But when we saw this simple, yet elegant period piece, everything else paled in comparison. It was like an epiphany.”

After that, Meredeth and Len set out to learn more about antiques and, after a few years, started to acquire period furniture when prices were still reasonable. The first important piece they bought was in 1965, a 1750 Queen Anne Connecticut cherry highboy. “We ate dinner on TV trays for two weeks gazing at that piece,” Meredeth remembers. “We were in awe. We looked at each other and asked, ‘Do we really own that?’’’ In time, they inherited several treasured family pieces.

Creating the gardens

Once the Allens were happy with the inside of their home, they headed outside. “We wanted to add beauty to the house with a setting that was worthy of it,” Meredeth says.

Located on three acres, with an additional twelve in conservation, the house is framed by a one-hundred-foot historic elm and other mature trees. Original stone walls and granite steps were rebuilt in front and on the side, ending in a large bluestone terrace in the rear.  Here, one can see the beautiful, stream-fed quarter-acre pond dug in the 1930s and the several long mixed borders the Allens created. A bit farther is a birch grove now transformed into the woodland garden under-planted with
rhododendrons, mountain laurel and wildflowers. Eventually, the couple built a garden cottage housing a greenhouse, potting shed and storage area. An attached, vine-covered pergola provides a serene spot for pond and woodland viewing.

Looking out from the property to the surrounding fifty acres, there is little changed from the early 1800s, when Moses Eaton’s Merino sheep roamed this hilltop.

Happily at home

“There’s just so much charm and detail in this house,” Meredeth says. “I wake up every morning and imagine all the people who have lived here through the years, who have spent cold winter nights in our fire-lit bedroom, who have come down these stairs. I wish I knew more about them.”

In 2008, the Allens submitted the David Gregg House for inclusion on the New Hampshire Register of Historic Places. Their research paid off when the now officially named Gregg-Montgomery House, 1773–1778 was accepted in April 2009.