Feature > A New Look for an Old Mill

As a child growing up in Peterborough, Jason Hackler had no idea that his history would one day merge with that of the old Goyette Museum on the Nubanusit River in the middle of town. Although he always had liked the look of the huge former mill building, and was fascinated by its history and location, Jason couldn’t have imagined he would have a hand in preserving it and would live there with his family of three.

“The Mill”—as Jason and his wife, Rebecca Connolly Hackler, now refer to their home— started as a cabinet and chair factory in 1795. It later became a spinning mill, and endured a series of fires and rebuildings before becoming the site of a basket manufacturing business in the early 1900s. (That business, which eventually became the Peterboro Basket Company, still operates elsewhere in town.)

In the 1930s, the structure underwent yet another incarnation as the Goyette Museum of Americana, owned and run by Peterborough residents Hazel and A. Erland Goyette. This was an eclectic establishment featuring antique autos and carriages, a buckle collection, crafts exhibits and more. After the museum closed some forty years later, the mill housed a series of offices, including, during the 1980s, the national headquarters for Earth Day.

But by the second millennium, the mill wasn’t being used for much other than storage and had fallen on hard times. While it had too much charm to be deemed an eyesore, it was desperately in need of some care and attention.

Such attention eventually arrived in the form of Jason Hackler, who had been looking for an industrial-type building to convert to a residence. He remembers walking into the mill for the first time about seven years ago. “It was in disrepair,” he says. The rooms were crammed with building materials and all manner of odds and ends. But the space was promising, and its views over the Nubanusit River in historic downtown Peterborough were stunning. The twelve-thousand-square-foot structure looked like the ideal candidate for the kind of daunting project Jason had in mind. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “It was a challenge. It held so many opportunities—and dreams.”

A life among antiques

Jason certainly had a good background for taking on an ambitious preservation project. He grew up with parents in the antique business, and from a very young age, he had been involved with antiques. “I started collecting when I was seven years old,” he says, “and by the time I was eleven, I was buying and selling at country auctions.”

Although he’d planned to become a lawyer, after college, he returned to his earlier love of history and antiques, working in the curatorial departments at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth and The Historic Deerfield Museum in Massachusetts. Last but not least, having grown up in Peterborough, he had a real appreciation for the town and a vested interest in seeing the Goyette property preserved.

As it turned out, Jason’s parents—Sam and Eileen Hackler, owners of the New Hampshire Antique Co-op in Milford—were the ones who first began the redesign project. Rebecca had an antique business in Boston at the time, and the couple found it necessary to live closer to the city than Peterborough. Not too long afterward, however, Rebecca joined the family antique business in Milford, and she and Jason turned their focus to Peterborough, taking on the Goyette building renovations themselves.

Developing living space

Of course, they needed help in dealing with twelve thousand square feet of raw space, so they enlisted architect Maximilian Ferro of The Preservation Partnership and a veteran in the field of preserving historic structures.

“What’s unique about using a mill as a home is that it’s a lot of space,” explains Ferro. “And it’s undefined space.” The first thing to consider, he says, is, “How does this building work in terms of volumes?”

A basic problem of the Peterborough property, he continues, was that the middle of the room was too far from the windows. “This is common for a mill,” he says. “And if you are sitting in a room with the windows thirty feet away from you, you’re going to feel pretty strange.”

Ferro’s solution for making the space more livable was to create an interior courtyard, removing three stories worth of flooring from the center of the building and topping the opened space with a 320-square-foot skylight. Walls punctuated by Italian Romanesque-style arches surround the atrium on all levels. The skylight forty feet overhead lets in plenty of natural light, even on gloomy days. “When you look up, you have a sense of antiquity,” Jason says. It’s a look that Rebecca describes as “Tuscany meets industrial New England.”

The custom-tinted plaster walls and arches help convey that hint of the Mediterranean. “I was excited about the challenge of using tinted plaster,” Jason says. “A painted wall is flat. But plaster has depth and tonality.” Jamie Manning Plastering of Milford handled the plastering, and artist and designer Jeanne Duval—who also owns Towne House Interiors in Jaffrey—helped with the exacting work of selecting color schemes for the house. For the central courtyard space, Duval developed the soft pumpkin hue, which the rest of the colors in the house harmonize with.

The work was challenging on a couple of levels, says Duval. “A main difference was the scale, that humungous space.” And, because the arches open onto different layers of rooms, she had to take into account all the colors that would be visible at the same time. “They had to be compatible,” she says.

A floor plan for a former factory

The central atrium area created a focus for the house, but it has many other rooms and open spaces on four levels. The ground, or river, level leads to two garden terraces that face the river. It has a room the Hacklers are considering for a home gym, as well as a spacious basement area with ten-foot ceilings and a wall of full-size windows looking onto the river. The floor has a trap door and ladder, which leads to the river, and from which the mill’s old turbine can be seen.

The street level is currently the Hacklers’ main living area, and includes the bedrooms, a family room and a kitchen, as well as access to a heated garage that Rebecca is pretty sure has the best views of any garage anywhere.

The next floor up is an open, loft-like space that contains a 1,200-square-foot great room—the very size, Jason notes, of the couple’s former home in Amherst. The great room used to house the museum’s furniture collection, and includes dentil molding, a long, wooden window seat and builtin bookcases installed by the Goyettes.

The Hacklers added a propane fireplace and plumbed the floor for a state-of-the-art kitchen, to be installed at a later date. The great room is decorated with the Hacklers’ collection of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century American and English furniture and fine art. It’s also a fine space for entertaining. Jason and Rebecca wined and dined fifty guests for Thanksgiving there last fall.

The top-level floor used to serve as the sleeping quarters and offices for the mill. It currently has three rooms and an open loft space with exposed, oxidized barn boards that Jason is particularly fond of. He tried to save or use as many original materials as possible, salvaging what was on hand and preserving what could be. Some of the lime-washed pillars on the upper floors, for example, still bear pencil calculations and other mysterious notations from the old mill days.

The entire house serves as an exhibition area for the Hacklers’ art and furniture collection, which ranges from traditional to contemporary. They like to mix it up a bit, and the house’s design allows them to do so. Jason, for example, has a collection of artists’ easels, and is currently displaying a contemporary work by a local artist on an easel that used to belong to John Singer Sargent. Says Ferro, “When people collect antiques, the best thing you can do for them is create an environment that is a blend of styles. So there’s a place for everything.”

Labor and rest

The physical ramifications of converting all that factory space into living space were significant. The Hacklers estimate that, during renovations, there might have been twenty people working on the site at one time. The couple ended up moving to a neighboring apartment so they could view progress and be on hand to answer questions.

Jason participated in a lot of the work, and remembers in particular the skylight panes that weighed 150 pounds apiece and had to be carried upstairs on a hot summer day. To install ceiling fans at the top of the atrium, Jason and a friend used climbing equipment. “It was really fun,” he says, “but what should have taken an hour or two ended up taking nine hours.”

The Hacklers enjoy a challenge, though.Now that Jason, Rebecca and their one-year old daughter, Eliza Bella, are ensconced in the house, they are thinking ahead to their next renovation project after they sell the mill. They have their eye on a couple of properties,but won’t say more than, “We’d like to stay local.”

In the meantime, they are enjoying living in their unique, new space. Rebecca says what she enjoys most about the mill is “the light and the connection to nature—having that right here in Peterborough.” The bedrooms overlook the Nubanusit, so that the family sleeps to the pleasant white noise of rushing water, she notes.

At the same time, they can walk into town for shopping or entertainment. A path runs along the river from their house to a downtown park.

Jason’s favorite part of the house seems to be what it represents—the realization of dreams, the chance to conduct a renovation on a huge scale and the preservation of apiece of history. “Rebecca and I look at this as a massive art project,” he says.

In the meantime, Eliza Bella, for whom talking and walking are still novelties, is clearly thrilled to have a huge expanse of indoor space in which to walk, fall down and get back up again.