Gothic-style village rescued from neglect in N.Y. Gentleman's farm on Hudson River gets imaginative restoration

July 12, 1998|By William Hamilton | William Hamilton,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BALMVILLE, N.Y. - Heidi Benson's house is also her hometown.

The 19th-century carriage house near Newburgh, where Ms. Benson, a senior editor at Family Life magazine, lives with her husband, Matthew Benson, a photographer, is part of a one-acre village of carpenter Gothic outbuildings. They were built as a gentleman's farm for an Italianate Hudson River mansion next door. In addition to the carriage house, there is a farm manager's house, a barn, a milking parlor, a stable and an icehouse, with a village green between.

For four years, the Bensons have been renovating - and reinventing - with an imaginative approach toward restoration that only amateurs would attempt. Inspired by their materials, ingenuity, not precedent, has been their historical guide.

Ms. Benson grew up in the farm manager's house. A librarian lived in the carriage house, at other end of the green where Ms. Benson played as a child. The complex was obscured by the mysteries of neglect: squalls of lilac and a yew tree that grew undisturbed, like the beard on a giant, that no one in the village was brave enough to trim. No longer parts of a working farm, many of the buildings were abandoned.

In 1994, the librarian moved. She sold her house to Ms. Benson, who was again living with her parents after her brother's death in a climbing accident. Two years later, Ms. Benson's mother died of cancer. In 1997, when her father remarried and moved, she bought the family house.

With the farm property reunited, Ms. Benson became mistress of the village she grew up in.

'Too emotional to let go'

"To have this sense of place became a comfort," Ms. Benson said. "For my father, it was too emotional to stay on. For me, it was too emotional to let go."

She met her husband, Matthew in 1994, shortly before buying the librarian's house.

"He answered the ad," Ms. Benson said, "for gentleman gardener."

They were married in October 1997. Renovation has been a kind of courtship. They did the work themselves, with the help of Benson's brothers and sisters.

With six buildings and a green, the Bensons realized that what was called for was town planning, not single acts of restoration.

"Because of the village configuration, we wanted to get the village in place first, which meant fencing and trees," Benson said. "You want to plant your landscape right away, because it takes several years to develop and mature. Then you can move on to the inside."

The great surprise of the project is that the Bensons have never done this before - not even the gardening. There is good reason to take heart. For two beginners, success has been a series of firsts.

"I had gardened intellectually," Benson said. "I read garden books, catalogs. I loved plants and taxonomy and horticulture. I had never gardened with my hands." In gardening, the couple learned quickly to move on quickly from mistakes. "It's trial and error," Benson explained. "Some things you plant, and you realize, it looks nothing like it was described."

Gardening, in turn, taught them to adopt flexibly to renovation, when they began to build.

'No secrets out there'

"What you discover is that if you have basic skills, it's all about application and learning," Benson said. "There are no secrets out there. Also, being willing to fail, and try again. Some things aren't going to work the first time."

The Bensons cleared the green, cutting down younger trees, pruning the yew back to an ornamental shape and thinning and relocating the ilacs. They fenced in the enclave, added gates and laid new flower beds inside the fence, which enclosed the yard, left it open but made it private, and strengthened the community between the buildings. They trellised the milking parlor and trained climbing roses to it. They planted a pair of crabapple trees and put a bench between them. And they created a kitchen garden within the stone foundation of a barn that had fallen and been disassembled in the 1960s.

Benson, who had apprenticed as a teen-ager to a carpenter, built the fences and bent the wood for the gate, soaking it in the cistern on the site. They had a fence-painting party. It took 15 people three hours to paint the fencing they had put up.

The small scale and various pieces of the property encouraged the idea that anything could be accomplished, with personal leverage, more than one old big house and a garden might have. When they turned their attention to the buildings, what the Bensons discovered they had was a kit for a village - six "boxed sets" of 19th-century windows, shutters, doors, posts, finials, ironwork, hardware and stonework that could be creatively exchanged as they renovated.

And the 10 acres of woods on two sides of the farm revealed themselves to be a salvage yard of sorts: generations of local landowners had used the undeveloped land as a dump for antiquated farm equipment and abandoned architectural elements.

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