Thomas and Zilpah Ludlam House (ca. 1790)

Thomas and Zilpah Ludlam House (ca. 1790)
Thomas + Zilpah Ludlam House, ca. 1790

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Bit of Background: How This Historic House Became Ours

I'm an architectural historian so I work with historic buildings every day.  I'm blessed to absolutely love what I do for a living.  I first saw this house--the one my husband and I now live in-- about 10 years ago, when I was doing a survey of the earliest buildings in Cape May County.  I'm not talking about the Victorians in Cape May City; every one knows about them.  I'm talking about the houses that date to the late 1600s and early 1700s, built when the county was first settled by New Englanders; no one knew about them until I published my book about them (but that's another story). 

The Ludlam House was vacant, and I learned that the man who owned it, George, lived in the much bigger ca. 1806 historic house next door.  I pulled into the driveway, unannounced, and knocked on his door one day.  After explaining my professional interest in his two historic houses, he welcomed me in and we became friends, our shared love for old buildings giving us an instant rapport.  He hired me to put the "little house" on the National Register of Historic Places, my study ended, I published my book (yes, this house is in it) and I moved on to other projects.  But, I couldn't get the little gem, as I came to call it, out of my mind.   

It was built about 1790 and is standing at its third known location. George, an antiques dealer, moved it here in the 1970s, restored the exterior, installed new plumbing and wiring, insulated it, and built a somewhat shorter addition using recycled parts of historic buildings about to be demolished.  Just as he was ready to restore the interior his wife passed away unexpectedly.  A few years went by and he eventually remarried, but his new wife fell in love with the much, much larger historic house next door.  They bought that one and used this one as a warehouse for his antiques.  It was always his dream to someday restore the interior, but days, months, years passed until my husband, Scott, and I approached him in 2007 with an interest to buy it and restore it.   My youngest had just left for college and we were ready to take on a new challenge. George was nearing 90 and was finally accepting that he probably wouldn't ever finish the house's interior, so on a handshake (literally) we struck a deal and the house was ours.

It took us almost two years to restore the building.  Decades of neglect mandated a new cedar roof and a total repainting of the exterior trim.  Shutters George had collected, but never used, were restored, painted, and hung on appropriate hardware.  Windows were reglazed and repainted.  Window sills had large areas of rot which were filled with epoxy and repainted also.

I'm a lucky woman.  My husband, Scott, was a custom house builder (he always liked the look of historic buildings but had never restored one before) who turned to bridge building in the early 1980s when the housing market took a nose dive.  I only knew him as a bridge builder, so his talents as a restorer of old houses were a question mark to me until we bought this house.  Turns out he's a meticulous carpenter with talent galore for fixing anything.  Sure, we butted heads a few times, particularly when he wanted to use new, inappropriate ways to do something (like use spray-on insulation under the crawl space) but once he understood that whatever we did had to be reversible, we proved to be the perfect restoration team.

The interior had not been touched since the 1930s.  Honest.  The house hadn't been lived in since then so we found a well-preserved (but much painted) interior that retained all of its ca. 1790 details--fireplace mantel, handrailings, board and batten doors, wood wainscott, random-width floor boards that had never been varnished, plaster walls in bad shape, and all original trim--just waiting to be restored.  Using soy-based stripper, gallons of paint and varnish, countless hours of elbow grease, a dozen boxes of latex gloves, and several buckets of plaster repair material, we finished restoring the interior just as our other house sold.  What timing!  (And in the worst real estate market in decades). The house was meant to be ours.  We moved in and have been here almost two years now. 

Last year, we received an award from the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office for the high quality of our restoration.  George came to the ceremony, oxygen tank and all, and was honored for his part, too, in having the vision to save it.  He died a few months ago, a dear neighbor and friend whose historic house we cherish.  We love it here, but.......

Next--why an addition?  (Think no storage, two years of going to the laundromat are two years too many, tiny kitchen, etc.)

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