Years ago my husband Donald and I drove over Peekamoose Mountain through the winding streamside valley of Sundown, home of the now-famous Blue Hole. I was struck by the beauty of the place. I even asked Donald where someone would work if she lived there. The area was lovely but remote.
At this time we lived in Saugerties, on the Woodstock side of town. My parents bought a large parcel of land in 1987 for us all to build on. We cleared trees to construct a driveway that wound down a hill and through a swamp. Our property was a quarter-mile from the road, and my parents’ another quarter-mile from ours. We were secluded, in the midst of a forest with a stream. To visit my parents we walked a path through the woods. It was an ideal situation.
In 1989, the house that Donald had designed and built was sort of ready for us to inhabit when we moved in. The windows were covered with plastic, not glass. For a front door we used a piece of cardboard. The bathroom door was a sheet, a barrier not sufficient for the comfort of some visitors.
But the living area was open and light, with large windows overlooking the woods and my many bird feeders. Through these windows I watched not only birds but also deer, turkeys, foxes, coyotes, and even a fisher. When I came home after work I felt that I had entered a new space, one separate from the human drama outside our retreat.
The house was originally designed as a three-car garage with an apartment above. The garage was Donald’s workshop, and the upstairs, the space in which we lived, was intended as a showroom to sell custom cabinets. The house itself was to be built near a pond — an old bluestone mine that had filled in with water and was populated by spotted salamanders, newts and frogs.
The house never was built. Our septic system cost $25,000 instead of the $8000 we had budgeted. Perk tests showed mottling in the clay, so the health department required us to install a pump to move the waste to another piece of property that had passed the perk test. This involved digging trenches for the pipes — and a pump and an alarm system for when the pump failed. I learned that one needs patience and the ability to embrace the unexpected when building a home. Even with these setbacks Donald insisted that building new was less of a headache than renovating. I wasn’t convinced.
In time our apartment over the workshop expanded. Donald added a room over the deck for our bedroom, so we no longer climbed a ladder to a loft above the kitchen. Later he built a two-story post-and-beam addition with a master bedroom and bathroom. He completed the house when we were preparing to move — and it sold in two weeks. We had two potential buyers, and one even offered more money than we asked. The house was desirable partly because of its location but primarily because of its unique beauty. It was a work of art.
Okay, back to Sundown. In 2007 I was hired as a professor at SUNY Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake. My commute from Saugerties to Sullivan was 75 minutes one way, when the traffic and weather cooperated. Often, in spite of good audio books, I found myself dozing off during the trip home. We realized we needed a location closer to the college.
We spent two years searching for property. Although Sullivan County is a mere hour away, it is a different world from Saugerties. Whereas Ulster County is thriving, with restaurants, shops and well-kept homes, much of Sullivan sports rundown or abandoned homes and unsightly bungalow colonies. We narrowed our search to the Sundown-Claryville area, the lovely place through which we had driven years before.
Donald wanted a house in need of renovation on a south-facing mountain (for solar power). He preferred a fixer-upper to land because he didn’t want to leave tools and materials unattended, especially as we lived so far away. We found few houses that fit our requirements, most of them in horrible condition and overpriced. We finally purchased two abandoned houses on adjoining lots, one on Sundown Road and the other on a south-facing hill. The plan was to fix the larger house on the road for my parents and the other one on the hill for us, so we could all be together just as we were in Saugerties. However, my parents died in 2010. We moved into the larger house, which appeared to be in the best shape of the two.
Notice the word “appeared.” Donald ended up having to jack up the house to put in footings and a slab. Then he gutted the inside and rebuilt it room by room. He saved most of the original wood to use as trim, and to support the house he installed a pegged post-and-beam frame in order to maintain the old farmhouse look while modernizing it for comfort.
When we moved in in 2013 we had no running water. (Donald disagrees with me on this; we had a garden hose with water and brushed our teeth in an old compound bucket. We filled the toilet using this hose.) We showered and did laundry at a friend’s house.
For several months we lived in one room, with our possessions stored in outbuildings for nesting mice. Visitors now to the house are impressed by its artistic beauty. My plan is to hang before and after pictures on the walls of each room, just as I see in renovated historical buildings.
I am the sort of person who needs to learn through experience. After having moved into a newly built home and into another one in the midst of renovation, I realize that Donald is right. Building new is easier. The positive side of restoration comes from the satisfaction of saving an abandoned house, and in so doing preserving the history of an old farming community.