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A Couple Reimagine Their Decrepit Farmhouse into Their Forever Home

New Yorkers create a space that’s better suited to life in their 60s

spinner image Illustration of a white home surrounded by trees
Illustration by Justin Burks

At age 60, after living in rented apartments and lofts, and then for 20 years in a century-old farmhouse that was falling, inexorably, around our heads, I decided the time had come for my wife and me to stop living like grad students and build a house of our own, one suited to adults and, in all likelihood, the last home we would own.

It would be constructed on the footprint of the original farmhouse, which we bought when we moved back to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York to operate a weekly newspaper once owned by my father.

The appeal of the white-frame, green-shuttered house perched squarely in the middle of fields, orchards and second-growth pines would have been obvious to anyone. “It’s so perfect,” said Lisa. “Why is it even on the market?”

As we would shortly learn, the house’s charm lay almost wholly on the surface. Renovated cheaply and hastily by a boat shop owner who was notorious for restoring wooden boats “only to the waterline,” it was poorly insulated and had a leaking slate roof and a mud basement that flooded every spring. It was also a popular rest stop for squirrels, bats, snakes, mice and at least one white ermine — not to mention a few stray cats, which would cower with me in the living room as the flying squirrels leapt from picture frame to picture frame.

Publishing a struggling newspaper forced us to postpone any plans we may have had to restore the house. When we finally discussed it, a procession of architects and contractors gave us the same advice: Tear it down.

We were devastated. We had always seen ourselves living in an old house, and it was painful to be the people who would destroy one of the few surviving farmhouses in a community of second homes, faux camps and McMansions. But we took their advice — a decision made all the easier by the insurance company, which informed us that it saw no value in insuring our drafty old house.

On an autumn afternoon, my wife sat on a stone wall and wept as the house was demolished. An art school graduate and a New York–based clothing and home furnishings designer, Lisa was and is a committed architectural preservationist. Unable to save this house, she girded herself for a fight to make the new house much like the old one, only better. Easier said than done, of course. And more expensive, it turns out.

Her goal was to evoke the interiors of houses we had known and loved throughout the Adirondacks and her native New England. It influenced every choice, from lighting and hinges to window dimensions. I proposed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves; those were the only things in the house that were mine, the carpenters cracked.

There was much we didn’t anticipate: modern building codes that make replicating 19th-century houses nearly impossible; carpenters whose schedules are ruled by New York’s prescribed hunting seasons; and subcontractors who will have long since disappeared when problems emerge.

But five years after the demolition of the old house and breaking ground, our new house has turned out to be much like the old one, only better. On a cold winter’s night, it is not only warm but secure, with doors that actually lock and with no animals to be seen or heard, other than the last surviving stray cat, which snores peacefully on a velvet pillow.

The original house was a warren of rooms. A loft on the Hudson River, which we rented when first married, suited our lives better, and today our main room, furnished with many of the same books, artwork and records, recaptures the feel of that space. As the contractor explained to some friends of ours, the house was made for us, not for resale.

We are now, perhaps — perhaps — as settled and stable as adults appeared to us in our youth. Here’s how we know: We just bought our first couch. And it pleases us no end when a visitor comes to the front door and says, “I love old houses — they don’t make them like this anymore.”

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