July 16, 2012
The Essex cottage sits on a wooded hillside lot with views to Essex Bay and beyond to the Atlantic. The property is currently 6.3 acres, but at one time it was closer to 10 acres, as three lots were sold off for development by a prior owner. We have taken steps to restrict any future land divestiture, but the larger story is the restoration of the current landscape.
Part of what makes old houses special is that great care was taken regarding their location. The range of factors that guided the decision of where to build was, of course, limitless, but homes were generally sited to take advantage of the sun (critical in the pre-AC days and to enhance natural light), and to optimize a scenic view or vista. That was certainly the case in a small town like Essex, Massachusetts, where homebuilders had their pick of open land.
When we purchased the cottage, the land had not been cared for in many years. The majestic hardwoods and white pines on the property were overgrown and in desperate need of pruning. The understory was a maze of weeds and invasive species. Trash and lawn debris had been dumped in the back ends of the property, and the once attractive gardens that draped the property had long been abandoned. The combined effect was a damp and dreary landscape with limited air flow and restricted natural light. The main house (and an adjacent barn/studio) bore the brunt of these effects—the roofs were turning green, mold was forming from the damp conditions, and views were long compromised.
Where to begin? It starts with two things: the grade and the trees. The former gives clues about the original intent on the house siting; the latter presents the upper level backdrop against which the house sits, and the property orients. Most homeowners mow their lawns frequently, and most recognize the need to prune bushes and to tend to plants. But trees are often outside the comfort zone, and lack of attention can be a huge problem for older homes—one that only gets worse as trees continue to grow (and they always do). It’s also worth noting that there are more trees in New England today then there were when the Pilgrims landed. This aggravates the impact from storms and poses a fire threat during dry conditions.
Careful pruning and selective tree removal pay huge dividends. Like plants and shrubs, trees can grow too close together with neither benefitting from the arrangement. Trees that are adjacent to structures and drive/roadways are dangerous to inhabitants, particularly in adverse weather. Tree pruning is, of course, not for everyone and often times, the size and scope require a professional tree service. I’ve been working in the woods for many years, but I, too, leave the big messy stuff to the professionals. Safety is paramount. As the old saying goes: “Don’t try this at home (unless you’ve done it before and take all the right safety precautions).”
We are about half-way through our little woodlands reclamation project. Problem trees have been removed, the ocean view is slowly coming back, and the natural light is amazing. We’ve uncovered and exposed some amazing rock outcroppings, and the house and barn are drier and more comfortable than ever. So far, we’ve taken out 10 truckloads of trash, stumps, and fallen trees. And in the process, the grade has revealed itself, and a landscape plan that aligns with it is in place. The old growth trees in particular are spectacular in shape and size. They have a certain sculptural aspect that is lost when dead and dying branches interrupt the natural beauty.
Lastly, working in the woods is a great way to connect with nature. I’m not much of a gardener, but I do love trees. So bringing them back to their original glory is enormously satisfying. I can’t wait for the end of the year when we get to show off the reclamation project and enjoy the spectacular late fall colors.
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Would you mind telling what you paid for the property and what you expect the total renovations to cost? I live in the Toledo, Ohio area and am curious as to property values in Essex. Thank you.
Kathleen (Kitty) Gibson
Oh it was tragic to see all that lovely Forsythia shaved to the ground. Forsythia gets such a bad rap. I can see Forsythia out of every window in my house and of course I love it - not sure if I can watch more of this renovation... leave a little next time - for the birds at least -Rebecca on Forsythia Hill
In part 2 of the Essex Project you installed an IPE deck. Didn't show you treating the sawed portions as necessary with that wood. Also you needed to pre-drill holes for the screws. Did you not have time to show these necessary details or just forgot? Not complaining just commenting.
"We are about half-way through our little woodlands reclamation project. Problem trees have been removed, the ocean view is slowly coming back, and the natural light is amazing. We’ve uncovered and exposed some amazing rock outcroppings, and the house and barn are drier and more comfortable than ever."
Please ease up on the "A Word."
"Amazing" is the most overused word today, and it's really getting tiring. Get a thesaurus; there are thousands of other adjectives available!
I would love to restore a project like this at Essex., and I always watch your This Ole House, Thank you, donna
Regarding Forsythia .. I have a mature shrub that was planted at the property line in front of mature trees by the previous owner, but I never saw it bloom in the time we've lived here. So, I dug it up one fall and moved it into the sun at another location. It now blooms every year and generates a lot of new growth that has to be cut back to keep the bush a reasonable size. The fortunate thing about Forsythia is that it is very forgiving and fairly tolerant of being moved in my experience. I didn't see the episode where Roger whacked back the Forsythia - That's a shame. If there are any visible canes, it might come back.
Re. question regarding price of this renovation that Kitty posted .. Whenever I see TOH projects involving the kind of extensive overhauls that this and the Cambridge house project involved, I imagine the cost was in the several thousands of dollars. Like $250,000-$350,000, or more? In other words the cost of a modest new home. I doubt you will get a confirmation from either owner on this. When I see a good junk of roof system removed or completely replaced and basically the whole structure of a house rejigged and upgraded with new plumbing, heating and electrical systems, I am amazed and think, wow, now that's a costly piece of the renovation, right there, and you are not finished.
My husband and I live in Canada in a modest two-storey log home built in the 70s, which came with a multitude of sins in design and construction. I love watching TOH for the inspiration it provides, and often think how wonderful it would be to have Tommy and the TOH group come and totally revamp this place, or level it and build our dream home.
If you live in Canada, you want Mike Holmes, not Tommy Silva :-)
I find it interesting that both projects - Essex and Cambridge have no covered parking nor access to the house after shopping directly from the parking spaces. Both projects are in areas of the U.S. that have snow in the winters...How does one snowplow or shovel these spaces? Especially when the Essex home is for an elderly couple.
Thanks for the tip Zack. While Mike is a well-known and respected contractor, he is a different breed from the TOH crew, in my view. Lots of skill and experience with 'making it right', but little in the way of heritage experience and know-how.
Re. the lack of a garage at the Essex home, maybe the elderly couple are snow-birds and head south for the winter? If not, I would imagine that they will be having someone else do the shoveling. Still, it would be practical to have at least a carport.
The comment was made about this being a relativel small house with reference to utilizing geothermal heating/cooling. I have looked around and don't see the square footage of the current project house. I'm curious because we have been thinking about switching to this system.
It is all fine and good that the Essex house is being renovated for accessible design for the owner's aging parents, but where is the logic in relocating them into a house that they can move around with ease but is physically located in the woods and at the top of a rise seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. The house is beautiful, the renovation is commendable, the motivation is admirable, the location, though enviable, is not in the least bit logical. Clearly the owners could have afforded, and should have chosen, a better location for this purpose.
What happened to the stone work up the driveway and the stone fish pond on the other side of the house?
Eric, the house is not in the middle of nowhere. It is right off a main road and very close to the daughters and son in laws home
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I don’t understand the contradictory logic of making the house usable for the elderly and yet it is on top of a hill far from any neighbors. In foul weather the elderly couple would be isolated with no one being able to reach them where even four-wheel-drive emergency vehicles would have a hard time climbing up that hill in snow or ice which in Massachusetts can be a common occurrence. They would be in real trouble if the power went out which can easily happen in a rural area. Frankly I think the location is the exact opposite of what they need. In town near other people would be better where neighbors could check in on them or come over in an emergency very easily. When my father had his heart attack two neighbors who were nurses were there in less than two minutes and an ambulance in ten. Guess how long it would have taken someone if his nearest neighbor had to drive up a long hill rather than walk across the street especially in foul weather.
The architect had the existing deck removed to expose the stone foundation in front of the house. I would have kept a deck there as the only people to see the foundation in the front are people in airplanes. No one else is going to wonder around the rocky slopped front yard so they can look at it. That’s not a spot to look at, but from and not just from inside or one side of the house.
I just watched the last installment of this TOH project where the homeowner John and his wife Julie were featured as part of the commentary on the results, and wrap party. I must say that this is one technically advanced home now, which is great in theory and practicality but would not be a reality for many a homeowner on account of what must have been a costly endeavour. When I saw the transformation in the basement which features the water purifying and geothermal heating systems, it was quite an amazing sight but also overwhelming. I thought I was looking at a room in the space station rather than the homeowners basement. Not to begrudge these owners, but this just goes to show you what money can buy.
While the results of this renovation are quite spectacular, especially the beautiful exterior work done in the front by Roger Cook and his crew, I can't help but feel that the home has lost some of its original charm. It's an architectural beauty but looks a bit out of place in such a natural setting. Still, who wouldn't be happy living here. It is a beautiful home!
I agree with Barbara"s post. My wife and I where watching the final episode and both said ,who can afford all the mechanicals you put in this house. I would like to know what your budget was on this project.
I've been watching TOH for a long time but lately, each show seems to try to out-do the last with lavish upgrades. This Essex house project takes the cake. What could the budget on this house possibly be, for goodness sake: custom-designed hand-painted tiles imported from England; electrically controlled kitchen cabinets; a hospital-sized back-up generator; and a basement full of mechanicals that looks like a small industrial plant. And that's just a small sample. I'm afraid TOH has lost their way. The show now has very little relevance to old-house owners living and restoring in the real world.
I also think they have lost touch and would like to know how much they spent on that mechanical room.
Per John Corcoran, the owner, "We live in a really rural area up here, we're kind of on our own." I have to say again, the location seems like the last place I'd want my aging parents in a situation where somebody might not be able to reach them in an emergency due to weather, disaster, zombie apocalypse... To each his own, of course, but a location in or near a town is better for accessibility as well as any services that might be required in the future.