A stone house stands tall in Salisbury

A Georgian-style Colonial home and the land surrounding it provide shelter and recreation for current and future generations.

“You’re a long way from Illinois,” people often say to Diana and Ken Celmer. The Celmers, who do hail from the Land of Lincoln, live in a 6,400-square-foot stone house they recently built atop a hill in rural Salisbury. They might be far from their Midwestern beginnings, but after a five-year, multistate search for the right piece of land for their dream house, the Celmers are definitely “home.”

Their three-hundred-acre historic property is called StoneFence Farm, after its many stone walls. The parcel is adjacent to the birthplace of legendary 1800s statesman Daniel Webster and was, for some time, owned by Webster’s descendants. It has been used for farming since the 1750s, and the first dwelling (a cabin) was constructed on
the property in 1771, followed by a larger house in 1776.

StoneFence Farm encompasses woods; fields; hiking trails; a wetland with an osprey nest; six flower gardens and a vegetable garden; a post-and-beam barn; a cottage; and of course, a house, from which its owners enjoy views in all directions. The house is described by its architect, Jeremy Bonin of Bonin Architects & Associates, PLLC in New London, as “similar to a Georgian or Adams-esque Colonial.” It has two chimneys and an attached sunroom at one end, and a mudroom and attached garage at the other.

The stone construction is somewhat unusual for this neck of the woods. “It’s not uncommon to find a brick Colonial or Cape here, but stone is less common,” Bonin says. The Celmers, longtime fans of Colonial architecture, gained an appreciation for stone while looking at houses on earlier travels through New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The Celmers are also fans of stone walls, and finding an abundance of them on the property was a factor that really sold the couple. Many of the walls in the woods were (and are) in pristine condition. Others, especially those near the home site, needed rebuilding. Luckily, the Celmers made the acquaintance of Chris Norris at Andover Stonewall Restoration. Their relationship with Chris, his son Josh and their partner Peter Southworth has continued for many years and has helped beautify the property in many ways.

The dining area and wine bar (foreground) and kitchen (background) lead into each other, as part of the house’s open-concept design.

Eastward ho!

Diana and Ken grew up in the same small town in central Illinois. Ken earned a degree in forestry, and eventually the couple and their three children moved to Indiana and then to Ohio for Ken’s work. Well before Ken retired in 2010, the Celmers began looking for land on which to build a special home. They had spent time in New England while researching Colonial reproductions houses, and the couple liked the area. They started driving back roads and eventually found the ideal parcel in the middle of the Granite State. “We found the land and fell in love with it,” Diana says.

Even though the Celmers’ plans to build a stone structure in an unfamiliar setting were fairly ambitious, the couple were not going into the project blindly: this was to be the fourth house they built from scratch. “We certainly weren’t rookies,” Diana says.

Clearing the land

When the Celmers started working on their property (they were still living in Ohio, so took time off here and there to come to New Hampshire), “It was just Ken and me and a John Deere tractor,” Diana says. The land had not been occupied for several years. Trees were covered in bittersweet. Old sheds and miscellaneous items littered the property. Ken and Diana used chainsaws and loppers to gradually clear a site where their barn and two-bedroom cottage would eventually be built.

From the beginning, the Celmers cleared with a strategy, due partly to Ken’s extensive background in forestry and also to their early involvement with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. They began attending society meetings when they bought the land in 1998, and they believed in the organization’s goal of “preserving New Hampshire’s quality of life.” Both Celmers want to leave behind land that neighbors, family and wildlife will be able to enjoy, rather than having that land subdivided in the future. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests’ Brian Hotz helped the couple determine which parts of the land to set aside as a conservation easement (a total of 280 acres). That land is now open to the public for hiking, skiing, snowmobiling and hunting. “They’re good stewards of the land,” Bonin says. The Celmers even have a mission statement, which is framed and mounted in their house: “To manage our forest, create wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities for our family, the public and future generations.”

A rock-solid vision

The high-ceilinged sunroom, with its many windows and French doors, affords spectacular views of the outdoors.

At first, the Celmers’ family and friends weren’t sure the couple would go through with the move. But, in 2005, the Celmers finished the barn and cottage, and family members began to say, “They are serious about this.”

In 2010, Ken retired, and they moved to Salisbury. House-building began in earnest in 2011. The Celmers were so set on a stone house that they selected a mason, Greg Brown of Brown Masonry in Perkinsville, Vermont, before a builder. The stone Brown used, which he describes as a quarried stone similar to granite, is from Acworth. That stone is laid on top of the house’s framework, forming a substantial six- to seven-inch exterior façade.

A key to the handsome look of the Celmers’ home, explains Brown, is that the stone is “coursed” in lines, not assembled in random patterns as in a traditional New England stone wall.

This coursing ensures an authentic Colonial appearance. To make sure Brown and his crew got this look right, they started work every day by studying a picture of a stone house the Celmers liked from New Jersey. “If the masonry was wrong, the whole thing would be wrong,” Ken says. Back in the day when houses were built in solid stone, with walls two or three feet thick, Brown explains, the coursing would have been essential for structural integrity and appearance.

Coursing also imparts a graceful look. “It was an important part of the design,” Brown says. His crew also salvaged some stone from the stairs of an old farmhouse on the property. That stone was used to surround the fireplace in the sunroom and for a keystone in the arch over the front door.

Knowing what’s important

In addition to a stone exterior, the Celmers envisioned their future home as open concept, with ten-foot-high ceilings throughout (higher in some places); radiant heat; and plentiful windows and French doors to let in the views. It was also very important to the Celmers to have a place where they could comfortably entertain as well as accommodate friends and extended family. Finally, thinking ahead, they wanted an elevator. “We put in an elevator because we learned from my parents that having to use the stairs is what makes most people have to move out of their house,” Diana says.

To realize this vision, the Celmers enlisted Bonin. This was a happy partnership. Diana describes Bonin and his team as “an excellent fit.” She says, “Jeremy worked with us, and we had constant input.” Bonin handled details such as making sure the windows were to scale in the ten-foot-high rooms and ensuring that the four large fireplaces worked well. The biggest challenge, he says, was designing a house to withstand hilltop conditions. “It’s exposed to the elements,” Bonin says. “The wind comes from different directions at different times of the year.”

The Celmers also enlisted builder Jay Tucker of Old Hampshire Designs in New London, who was assisted by project manager Bill Andrews. “What was exciting and unique about this project was that it was a stone house,” Tucker says. He also appreciated the fact that the actual building surface was relatively flat, despite being on top of a hill. The Celmers note that corn and pumpkins had been previously grown at that location.

Construction began in February 2011 and ended in November 2012. Because the Celmers were already living on the property in the cottage, they could keep up with the project as it unfolded. Every morning, they would meet with the crew and discuss plans for the day. Everyone involved with building the house seems to recall it going smoothly, or at least as smoothly as building projects go. “It was a wonderful project,” Tucker says, “great view, great place to work, great clients.”

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Inside design

Furnishing a large, new house can be a daunting project, says Sage Scott of Sage’s Interiors in New London. The Celmers had many antiques—acquired over a period of forty years—on which to base their décor, but Scott helped tie everything together with several upholstered pieces and other items. She worked with her clients to develop a look she describes as “traditional with a little flair.” A neutral palette of beiges, taupes and creams created a sophisticated environment that is welcoming and warm.

In the sunroom, which Scott describes as “fabulous,” there is a lot of natural light, so she was careful to choose fabrics that resist fading. Scott had helped the Celmers decorate the interior of the cottage, so they knew this partnership worked. “She really understands her clients,” Diana says, “and helps you make the final decision.”

Diana is quick to point out her indebtedness to Patti Brothers Lighting and Furniture in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and also to Van Campen’s Museum Quality Furniture & Lighting in Peterborough. “Lighting is instrumental,” Diana says. “It can make or break a home.” Among other special services, Patti Brothers designed large, oil-rubbed bronze sconces for the front hallway that match the scale of the room; they also designed and built the three large lampposts that stand on the property outside the house.

The master bathroom, with tub at left and shower at right, incorporates the neutral palette used throughout the house.

The sunroom—with its twenty-foot ceiling, massive stone fireplace, floor-to-ceiling windows and wood-paneled ceiling—is one of the most striking rooms in the house. It has been furnished in simple whites and creams, as the scenery outdoors provides all the color that is needed. The sunroom is attached to a cozy family room, which leads to an open dining area with wine bar next to the kitchen.

Diana loves to cook, so a big, comfortable kitchen was a must. Vermont Custom Cabinetry in Westminster helped design the kitchen, which features a large, cherry island that includes seating, granite countertops and white built-in cabinets. A mudroom off the kitchen is a handy buffer zone between the garage and the main house, and includes lockers for a variety of storage options.

Downstairs, there is an office paneled in rich cherry, as well as a music room and foyer that have a bit more of the traditional Colonial look with their painted, raised-panel woodwork. In the music room is a piano that has been in Diana’s family for a long time: her father played it and she took lessons on it. She refinished the piano in the 1980s and hopes to hand it down to members of her family someday. The foyer features an antique standing clock that Diana says “is a favorite item” as well as a large and graceful chandelier.

A gracious stairway curves from the foyer up to the master sitting room on a landing. It was important to the Celmers to have a big master bedroom, with inside shutters to keep out the hilltop light. There is also a guest room, a granddaughters’ room on the top floor and a “bunk room” over the garage for the grandsons. The bunk room even has its own entrance and personalized lockers.

In the basement, there is a TV/recreation room, an exercise room, numerous storage areas and a small wine cellar that doubles as a root cellar. The TV room was designed for watching sports and to showcase a wall with memorabilia that is testament to the Celmers’ fierce affection for the Cleveland Indians. (Diana notes that they still fly their Indians flag in proud defiance of the surrounding Red Sox Nation.)

More outdoors

In the back of the house, Pellettieri Associates, Inc. of Warner, created a stone patio that incorporates a graceful water feature designed by Nature Scapes of Grafton. The stone walls rebuilt by Andover Stonewall Restoration form an integral part of the landscape. The Celmers do their own landscaping and tend the gardens on the property themselves. (The exception is a local farmer who hays about twelve acres of field in front of the house each year: “It’s been a hay field for two hundred years,” says Ken. “It’s beautiful hay.”)

The Celmers have also built and now maintain all the trails that go through the property. There are currently eight connecting trails. All are named for children, grandchildren or specific physical features (such as the Osprey Trail). The Celmers estimate that they have created and mapped about ten miles of trails so far. The couple do have some help: All six of their grandchildren (ranging in age from nine to nineteen) visit at various times for two weeks or so in the summer and work the trails and gardens with their grandparents. The oldest grandson, a sophomore in college, spent the last two summers helping and earning money for school. “We are trying to teach them gardening, trail work, landscaping, and the art of clearing brush and bittersweet,” Diana says, “because hopefully they will be stewards of the land someday.”

Preserving for the future

The Celmers look back on the entire project with fondness. “It was a great experience,” Diana says. One of the keys to the smooth operation was that they lived on the property, eliminating the need to manage the project remotely. The Celmers’ experience building houses didn’t hurt, either.

The couple also credit Bonin, Tucker and their crews. “They were all very professional and a joy to work with,” Diana says. They also praise their project manager Bill Andrews. “He was on the job every day with the patience of a saint,” Diana says. Ken adds, “He helped us make some very important decisions that kept us in our budget.”

The end result is a house that harmonizes with its surroundings, including the local history. “Perched up on top of a knoll like that, and visible from all sides, the stone gives the house a sense of permanence that wood would not,” Bonin says. Certainly permanence is the intention of the Celmers—not just for the house but for the land, which should provide joy and refuge to wildlife, family members and neighbors for years to come. 

Categories: Architecture and Interiors