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 The Problems Are Unique: On Living in a 200 Year Old House
by Sheila Moldover

In most suburban homes, when a mother sends her children off to play in the family or playroom, it's down the hall or down the stairs for them. But in the Eagleson house on Underhill Avenue in Yorktown it doesn't work quite that way. There, the five young children play in a third floor one-and-a-half story high playroom under a 250-year-old roof. The Eagleson brothers John and David, their wives and their children live in a rambling 10 bedroom home that recently was listed as a Town of Yorktown landmark and is perhaps one of the oldest houses in town. It is known as "Lane's Tavern" on the maps belonging to the Landmarks Preservation Committee and there is evidence which indicates that it was built in the early 1700's.

We asked how and why the Eaglesons had come to Yorktown and to such an old house. Says David's wife Cathy, "We weren't afraid of an old house but we mainly came to this house because we were looking for a house that was big enough for all of us. John works in Ossining and David works in New York so this was a good area to look in. We came to this house not so much because it was old but because it was big. It was the only house that was big enough that we could afford. It was described as a "handyman's dream" in the advertising."

It has at times seemed more like a nightmare. The work has involved relatively minor jobs like paint, wallpaper and scrubbing, less minor jobs like restoring molding along a ceiling and caulking and sealing wood floors and major jobs like making all the stairways safe, putting in a brick floor in the kitchen and fixing the roof - it leaked.

Cathy continued, "We had all lived in old-ish houses at some point in our lives. Mary (John's wife) grew up in the French Quarter of New Orleans and I had lived in an old section of Philadelphia as a child." David and Cathy had previously lived in Pennsylvania in a house dating from 1840. "We weren't worried about having to climb all the stairs to get upstairs to the children because we'd already done it - though sometimes it does get to be a pain! (The master bedrooms are on the second floor and the children's rooms are above that. There is an attic above the third floor rooms in part of the house, the remainder is open to the roof beams as in the playroom. Also on the third floor is the washer and dryer, another change from typical suburban living.) Just how old is old?

The house dictates an interest in history

John Eagleson elaborated on how they have learned approximately when their house was built. Much of the information he shared with us he has learned simply because living in an old house somehow demanded that he learn it. "The maps of the colonial period show a house standing on the site that this house is on, but that is just a house, not necessarily this one. The architecture is the most convincing aspect. You see all the original building materials - nails, hinges, screws, door handles, especially the upper stories where there was no "modernization" as there often is in downstairs 'public' rooms."

The wrought iron "strap" hinges on the third floor rooms date the house pretty convincingly as pre-Revolutionary. The reason behind this is simple. Cast iron "butt hinges" were invented in England and patented in 1775. Architectural texts indicate that after the war, after 1784, such hinges were universally adopted for interior use because they were cheaper and better. Thus, when wrought iron "HL" or strap hinges are found on interior doors, they date the house as Colonial or pre-Revolutionary.

There are other building materials details that have fascinated John Eagleson. He showed me several screws with blunt points and explained that when they first found them - and there are dozens - they thought all the screws were broken. That was not the case. It seems that screws with points were not invented until 1842 and prior to that all screws had blunt ends. The invention of pointed screws made working with blunt ones obsolete - no wood-worker in his right mind would continue to work with a screw that made the job harder to do. It can thus be safely assumed that if a blunt screw is in the wood, the object was either built or repaired prior to 1842.

"A lot of evidence in the house is reverse evidence," says John Eagleson. A good example is the clear vertical saw marks on the wood beams on the third floor. Because they are vertical and straight, it is clear evidence that they were cut with a cross cut saw. Curved marks would mean that the wood had been cut with a circular saw - and the circular saw was not invented until the 1850's. "You can guess that the wood was cut before then but all that the saw marks tell you for sure is that they didn't use a circular saw, not that they couldn't."

Preserving quality

David Eagleson talked about other beams in the house. The beams in the kitchen are hand-hewn with an axe and are exposed to view. "No self respecting colonial householder would have left the beams exposed in his kitchen, but we chose to leave them open because we like the look."

There are other choices to make about what to restore and what to discard. David recalled that one section of the house was built later then the other. They do not know if that section is original to the site or was built to replace an earlier structure. In any case, the quality of the materials and workmanship in the newer section is much inferior to the older part. "Bad construction and poor materials is bad construction and poor materials whether it's from 100 years ago or last year. We chose to preserve the well-made sturdy plank wood floors in the older part of the house but what do you do with what was never good to start with? Just because it's old doesn't necessarily make it good. The floor was very rickety - you bounced on it when you walked - so we covered it with flakeboard and wall-to-wall carpeting. It's solid now, though it's not 'authentic' looking."

Other floors presented other problems. An upstairs bathroom, "modernized" with the latest fixtures in the 1920's is a case in point. With active children who like splashing in the bathtub what do you do with cracks between the plants? John recalled the discussions. "We talked about covering the floor but finally decided to leave the wood exposed because we like the way it looked." To preserve the look meant filling in the cracks with high quality marine caulking and sealing the floor with a number of coats of marine varnish. Says John, "My bathroom floor is as waterproof as a swimming pool, and when my kids are taking baths it often is as wet!"

Changes in style of living

What else has living in a 200-year-old house meant to the Eaglesons? Cathy: "When we first moved into the house, Job our eight-year-old, was a toddler. And he was used to going from room to room, being able to reach doorknobs to get to where he wanted to go. But in this house the doorknobs are two-thirds of the way up the door. It's no problem for adults but it was extremely frustrating for Job." (It has not been a problem for the other children as they never had that freedom to lose.)

Mary: "We've done a lot of research on old houses. We wanted to keep the atmosphere of an old Colonial home. So there were decisions about the color of the house for example. We looked in books to see how the window curtains were. We got a copy of Colonial wallpaper and put that up in the living room. We spent a lot of time at the John Jay house and at Van Cortlandt Manor. We wanted to keep it how it ought to be. We always looked at how it ought to be and then if we had to depart from that - after all we're not living in Colonial times - at least we had an accurate staring point."

John: "I started learning more about old houses and dating houses. (John has done much of the repair work and restoration himself.) And of course, meeting people here in town who are also interested in old houses who I would otherwise not have met."

What restrictions, if any, does living in a registered landmark put on the owners? David answers. "It's hard to say. The Yorktown Landmarks Commission is currently wrestling with this problem. You're not supposed to make changes to the outside of the house but what does that include? Can you put up fences? Cut down trees?" This same limit does not apply to the interior of the house. Owners are free to remodel and update. Says David Eagleson, "It's a hard choice but a line has to be drawn somewhere, that's fair, about what can be modified if you want people to continue to choose to live in old houses and work to preserve them."

Source: The Yorktowner, November 2, 1977

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