This Old House in Andover
An 18th-century farmhouse brings together period charm and carefully collected antiques.
We all have stories, personal histories. The same can hold true for relationships and inanimate objects like antique furnishings, lamps, dining sets and paintings. Even homes. Just ask Dr. Joseph Spychalski.
Spychalski today lives in a spectacular 225-year-old farmhouse in Andover, lovingly restored over seven years with his husband, Dr. Joe Chittkusol. But Spychalski’s road to Andover, and the one-of-a-kind 18th-century Americana antique collection that fills their farmhouse, is a long and intriguing one, a journey filled with numerous twists and
turns. That road reveals a fascinating history.
“I do think that many collectors of Early American furniture, or those living in period homes, enjoy moments of feeling like we are living back in time,” says Spychalski. “When you buy an old home, or an old piece of furniture, it’s difficult to say you own it. Rather, it owns you. You’re but another individual in a long history of that chair’s or home’s existence. We become mere stewards of its existence.”
A native of Cheektowaga, near Buffalo in western New York, Spychalski grew up “in a modern mid-20th-century home. New furniture, flat floors, straight walls, doors that closed and stairs without squeaks.”
“I remember experiencing a sense of intrigue when I entered into the world of an old home, a really old home, an 18th-century home, 225 years plus,” he says. “There was a sense of presence, of people before me having shared the same space.”
After becoming a general physician, Spychalski, now 59, returned to school for cosmetic dermatology. He bought a new home on Nantucket in 1993, and he began dividing his time and practice between Orchard Park and the island. Nantucket’s older homes piqued Spychalski’s interest in antiques. An ad in “Maine Antique Digest” for a Queen Anne highboy led to a fortuitous 1995 meeting with George Spiecker, an antiques dealer based in North Hampton, NH, who specializes in early American furniture, weathervanes and nautical paintings and accessories.
“Dr. Joe was a sponge. The more we talked, the more questions he had,” says Spiecker, adding that the two men and their families have become close friends. “His passion and desire to be part of his collection was contagious.”
A collection takes shape
Bitten by the antiquing bug, Spychalski began filling his Nantucket house with period pieces. He spent countless hours with Spiecker, attending auctions from New York City to small country barns, developing his eye for classic antique traits such as surface, originality and proportion. Eventually, Spychalski decided to recreate a Colonial-era living room in his Nantucket home, providing an older feel to better match his ever-expanding collection of antiques.
“I have this beautiful home on the island. The inside is bright and white and as clean as you can imagine, with that beachy, summery look,” he says. “I was falling in love with (antique) furniture, so I got the idea to make something new look old. Just the opposite of what people usually do.”
A mutual friend introduced Spychalski to Wayne Gauthier, a contractor based in Concord, NH, known for his work with Colonial-era homes, in 2008. Though he originally built new homes, Gauthier quickly gravitated to historic structures.
“I just find them interesting,” he says. “Colonial houses, there’s something new to figure out with everything you do on them. They’re not level and they’re not square, everything is a challenge. I love that.”
Spychalski’s initial plan was to renovate only the Nantucket living room, but he was so enamored with Gauthier’s work that he asked him to do the kitchen and then other rooms, including the bedrooms. Gauthier spent 18 months at the Nantucket home, completely converting the interior “to look like an authentic 18th-century home,” Spychalski says. “I could not have been happier.”
Meanwhile, Spychalski had met the man who would become his husband. The couple bought a condominium in Boston. They would spend weekdays in the city, where Spychalski practiced urgent care, and then escape on weekends to the island where he had a cosmetic dermatology practice. However, Spychalski admits that despite Gauthier’s superb work, the Nantucket home was still the architectural equivalent of a square peg in a round hole, with the home’s exterior clashing with the interior’s Colonial vibe. The same was true for the couple’s relationship with Nantucket.
“As lovely and charming as the place is, it’s changing. It’s becoming much more congested,” says Spychalski. “It just wasn’t our scene the way it used to be. We were talking about someday maybe selling off the island property and moving someplace that was a little quieter.”
That’s when Spychalski’s relationship with Gauthier proved serendipitous. There was a dilapidated old farmhouse in Andover, NH, that Gauthier was hired to demolish. Those “teardowns” are an essential part of Gauthier’s work, providing the raw materials—old wooden planks and stone and bricks—he needs to renovate other homes.
But Gauthier had other ideas for the Andover house. He knew of Spychalski’s childhood dreams of owning an old home, with plenty of acreage and maybe a barn. Gauthier called Spychalski in the fall of 2010.
“I had developed this desire to bring an 18th-century home back to life,” says Spychalski. “All of a sudden, there’s this rundown property in New Hampshire where I just saw all these bucket list-like dreams in this one package deal.”
Eye-opening first impressions
Spychalski vividly remembers the moment he stepped foot on the driveway of the property. The house was in serious disrepair. The previous owners—the Andrus family—were dairy farmers. Florence Andrus, a widow, had moved to an assisted living facility, and her home was left uninhabited for roughly a decade. Mother Nature began exerting her inexorable influence. The vegetation was overgrown, and local critters overstayed their welcome, making the home and barn their own.
“Most passersby probably saw a teardown, a home and barn abandoned, glory days long past,” he says. “My heart started to pound and my mind began to race. I easily saw through the tall scrub brush, the home’s warped clapboards, remnants of paint, broken windows, unhinged door, sunken granite stairs, cracking chimney and several chipmunks peeking out of holes chewed through the trim boards along the roofline. I marveled at the gambrel form of the barn’s roofline. How long could that barn continue to stand?
“At the time, it didn’t matter,” says Spychalski.
“Visions of what this farm could be were piling up one on top of another, probably clouding any sense of good judgment I had.”
The interior was filled with cobwebs, dust, mildew and the remnants of the last occupants. For Spychalski, the scene erased the decades, bringing him back to his formative years.
“I grew up in the suburbs, but for some reason I had a fascination with barns, tractors, silos and wide-open fields,” he says. “And I thought that perhaps someday I could find myself a few acres, a barn and buy myself a tractor.”
Spychalski’s vision, however, wasn’t the same as his husband’s. Joe Chittkusol “spent his whole life growing up in the city,” says Spychalski. It was a scenario reminiscent of the 1960s sitcom “Green Acres,” with Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert, about a Manhattan lawyer buying a farm and coercing his city-loving wife to join him.
“When I first brought him here, he was not impressed at all,” says Spychalski. “But you have to understand Joe. He grew up in Bangkok, a big, bustling city, and then he spent his young adult life in Boston. He also comes from a very prominent Thai family, so he grew up with tremendous comfort and convenience. Now, all of a sudden, he’s out in the New Hampshire countryside with a rundown house that’s kind of eerie and creepy inside.”
Despite his reservations, Chittkusol supported his husband’s dream and that was all the encouragement Spychalski needed. “So I went for it,” he says. “And he did enjoy the last years of the renovation, when a layman’s eyes could see what was transpiring. He actually warmed up to it.”
It would take years for that moment of enlightenment to occur. Spychalski, understanding the investment required, realized the work would need to be done piecemeal. Gauthier was agreeable to that arrangement. The 71-year-old knew the project would likely take years, but he was willing to be flexible in order to create something special.
“I was able to put everything I learned my whole life into that house. All aspects of it,” says Gauthier. “Joe gave me carte blanche. We would sit down and discuss it, but basically, he just followed my lead with a lot of it and just let me go.”
For Spychalski, the seven years spent working together with Gauthier was a reflection of a relationship “built on trust and a mutual respect for each other’s skills, ideas and passions.”
“We started in July 2011, by getting these big steel dumpsters and pulling out all the windows,” he says. “Wayne brought in some guys and just cleaned out the whole house.
“There was no estimate, no building contract,” says Spychalski. “Every meeting ended with a shake of hands. It all seemed like an old-world Yankee way of doing things. It all seemed to fit into the period this home was built, a time when doing things was a little simpler.”
There were no architectural blueprints, no laptops detailing intricate plans of the final product. Concepts were sketched on a wooden plank, a scrap of paper, or Gauthier’s old, black-and-white composition pads. In retrospect, Spychalski says, the arrangement was “quite comical.”
Assembling a top-notch crew
Gauthier brought in several skilled craftsmen, including carpenter Jim Heslop, mason Knut Indemundsen and painter Kathleen Hill. The crew, like Gauthier, worked on Spychalski’s schedule, which meant they’d contribute to the Andover house as his budget allowed, and pursue other projects during interruptions.
“Renovating an old home is never easy,” Spychalski says. “Everything is imperfect. For me, the charm of an old home falls within its imperfections.
“To renovate and make a room look too straight, too perfect, ruins the character that lends itself to creating that special ambience,” he says. “Wayne and Jim were masters. They understood they needed to make a home safe and functional, but maintain just the right degree of imperfection.”
Gauthier’s crew renovated the home from the ground up. “The key to what I do is, when you walk away, you should never know that I was even there,” says Gauthier. “We stripped Joe’s house right down to the frame, and rebuilt the frame. Everything in it looks like it was always there. But we created everything.”
The renovation, completed in 2018, reflects Gauthier’s belief that there is more at play than simply craftsmanship in a Colonial home. “This is not carpentry. It’s art,” he says. “To work with these materials and to make them fit. When you walk in the home, it’s got to feel warm, and it’s got to feel like it was always there. It’s taken me 50 years to learn how to do that.
“To me, it’s more of a piece of art than a house,” Gauthier says. “Each one of these houses has its own character. And it tells me a story as I’m building it.”
For Spychalski, the renovation “has been one of my greatest life adventures. Even today, I never miss the opportunity to appreciate the privilege I’ve been given to live in such a special space.”
Every room in the house, he says, “holds endless memorable stories,” whether the tale is inspired by a particular antique, or a “moment working with the artisans who brought a rebirth to this lovely home.”
“It was my intention to guide a renovation that can add another 225 years to this home’s history,” he says. “It’s impossible to know the stories this home has witnessed over the past two centuries. There’s an emotion that an old home creates that I have never experienced in a modern home. A ‘presence’ that’s hard to describe or define.”
It does, however, reveal Spychalski’s conviction that homes, especially homes with history, have more than just stories to tell; they have a soul. Spychalski’s antiquing mentor agrees.
“Joe bought a house that would fit his collection,” says Spiecker. “You literally have to find a place. Did the Nantucket house fit (the collection)? Nope. What Joe’s collection was really crying for was an old 18th-century center Colonial with the big chimneys. Just what he has now.”
The house, while true to its Colonial roots, is also an extension of Spychalski’s playful nature. While many antique collections can make a house feel like a museum, the Andover house, with its mix of traditional 18th-century pieces, contemporary paintings (including several Ralph Cahoon paintings of mermaids), weathervanes and several well-placed whimsical items, is anything but stodgy.
“What he’s created there is an awfully comfortable place to live,” says Spiecker. “It’s the building, it’s a garden. It’s all the things he’s poured into it, that’s the beauty of it. He brought it all to life.”
Spychalski was a stickler for authenticity. He insisted that Gauthier use rosehead nails whenever possible. Original wooden beams and planks and granite slabs were preserved. Recovered handmade bricks from the fireplaces, some featuring footprints of raccoons and turkeys, were repurposed in the home’s stunning kitchen.
“There is no modern functioning kitchen that can be of true 18th-century design. I felt confident, however, that we could create an environment that would blend the features of Colonial living with a modern-day lifestyle,” says Spychalski. “I wanted a kitchen that blended seamlessly into the footprint of the original period structure, but flowed into the landscape, showcasing the pastures and gardens.”
The finished product provided the perfect setting for Spychalski’s eclectic antique collection. He acknowledges a keen sense of accomplishment “when a finely restored period home, restored in a manner to preserve its original integrity, is complemented by furnishings that would have been true to its original character.”
Much to Spychalski’s relief, his husband also feels at home in Andover, successfully making the transition from “lifelong city boy to a country boy.”
“Joe fell in love with the countryside. I was always a gardener, and he started dabbling in gardening,” says Spychalski. “Now Joe loves to walk to the pasture with the dogs (a pair of Jack Russell terriers). He always calls it a sort of Zen experience, working the garden, smelling the dirt, hearing the birds.”
Most importantly, the two men continue to write their own history—a history now shared with an amazing collection of antiques and a warm, inviting old home in Andover.