“I love uncovering evidence of the people who lived here before me,” says Academy Award-nominated actor Penelope Milford. We’re standing in the basement of her home in the Old South Side Historic District of Saugerties.
She points to the staircase leading up from the basement kitchen to the main floor. In the center of each wooden step is a smoothly sculpted depression, worn by the frequent passage of feet. “Can you imagine how many times the servants climbed these stairs to shape them like this? In comparison, the stairs to the bedroom floor were hardly worn down.”
In 2003, Penelope bought the two-story Italianate brick house, which was built in the 1860s. For almost 20 years, she has been undoing renovations from the 1940s and nudging the rooms back in the direction of the 19th century.
She takes a plaid dress with a pleated skirt and white yoke out of her closet in the former servants’ quarters, now her bedroom. “I found this dress stuffed into a space in the wall. I washed and ironed it, and it actually fits me.” She cherishes this link to the family that were previous tenants.
Research at the library and on the Internet revealed the story of the house’s builder, James Irving Crump, who emigrated from England to labor alongside his two brothers at the Ulster Iron Works. They owned land and two houses on a hillside, a short walk to their jobs in the factory at the bottom of the hill. The wealthy factory owners lived at the top of the hill, near the Episcopal church where Thomas Cole’s son was the pastor.
A few years after Crump’s arrival, Ulster Iron Works sent him back to England, where his brothers who stayed behind also worked in iron mills. With their help, he obtained a formula for manufacturing extra-strength iron, to be used in cannon and armored ships. When he returned with the recipe, the resultant government contracts earned him a promotion and the funds to build a stately brick house on the slope of the hill, nestled between the home of his brothers and the cottage where he had been living. James Crump’s wife bore 11 children, only four of whom survived to adulthood. James and his son Benjamin became prominent community members and contributed to the flourishing of Saugerties in its industrial period.
“They feel like my family,” says Penelope, who has been in touch by email with James’s descendant, Jon Crump.
Among the changes made around the 1940s were stair coverings, slats of wood over plaster or concrete to fill in the depressions. She removed the modifications to appreciate the movement of past feet. In the kitchen, she took down the plaster of one wall to reveal the irregular field stones of the foundation. Only a handful of the original six-paneled doors remained, two of them with teardrop-shaped porcelain keyhole covers that swung on a nail. By scouring salvage shops and resale stores, she conjured up a complete set of six-paneled doors and 11 porcelain keyhole covers.
Some of the floors were covered with industrial linoleum on top of Congoleum, a turn-of-the-century American version of linoleum, printed with a pattern of tropical Acanthus leaves. When Penelope pulled up both layers, she found tongue-and-groove hemlock underneath. The dining and living rooms once had rugs on the floors, and the areas between the carpets and walls were painted Indian Red, according to the custom of the time. The dark red color comes from clay containing ferric oxide, produced in India. She sanded and waxed all the floors, so she could enjoy the original hemlock boards.
When Penelope moved in, the windows were painted shut, some panes were broken, and the sash cords were missing. She called in a contractor, but he just wanted to install new windows, so she went online for guidance. During many meditative evenings, she worked with a single-edged razor blade, paring away paint and threading rope through the sash cord pulleys. “I learned how to do a lot of the work from books and from Youtube,” she says. “You get a feeling of intimacy with your house when you work on it yourself.”
Help also came from from knowledgeable friends with similar homes. She worked on their places in exchange and discovered a whole community of people who love old houses.
Furnishing the house was, Penelope says, “like a treasure hunt. I collect things that I love.” Thrift shops, yard sales, auctions, and her own family yielded up furniture and art that give the house an elegantly historical feel. Off the front hallway is a former reception room, where callers waited upon arrival. It had previously been converted into a large bathroom, which Penelope enhanced with a clawfoot tub she found in a plumber’s front yard and bought for $50. Her grandmother’s standing towel rack, made of slender wooden dowels and posts, rests beneath the window.
She installed a pocket door to connect the bathroom with the servery, now a guest room. Along one wall, a dark wood cabinet hides a mini butler’s pantry, constructed by artist friend Stephan Brophy to match a tall 1920’s bookcase mounted above. Her parents bought the glass-fronted bookcase from the church she attended as a child, and she has filled it with vintage glassware, rows of hanging teacups, and stacks of china plates. Dark draperies with a Moorish pattern cover the bed, and next to it, an engraved brass tray serves as a low tabletop.
“Years ago, I owned an art gallery in Venice, California,” Penelope says. “I loved to sit surrounded by an artist’s work. By providing the proper setting for their art, I felt a sense of collaboration with the artist.” Choosing and arranging beautiful objects in her house brings a similar satisfaction.
Even now, with one living room wall still undergoing restoration, Penelope doesn’t mind that she’s been working on her home for so many years. “I feel this house as a living object. It has sheltered and comforted families for so many generations, it deserves the loving care I can give it.”