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Connecticut Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

written by Dan Cooper

Sometimes an old house just gets under your skin and the urge to restore the property is not easily ignored. Such is the case on the Wethersfield Common in Connecticut.On May 14, 2001 the house, a French Second Empire built in 1873 got a second chance when John and Shireen Aforismo purchased the structure and boldly took up the challenge to save it. It’s a truly wonderful Victorian house, to put it modestly, one that causes those traveling through Wethersfield, Connecticut on their rambles to swerve towards the curb and gawk.

No expense must have been spared in the construction of this huge mansard home that was garnished with all of the desirable architectural accoutrements found on late Second Empire structures. Named for its original owner, it was built in 1873 for Silas W. Robbins, an owner of the Johnson, Robbins & Co. seed business, While Wethersfield is noted for its 17th and 18th century homes, the Robbins house is an outstanding example of the 19th century Second Empire style. Many of its architectural details are Italianate rather than the slightly earlier French Rococo influence. The house’s steep mansard roof is covered with hexagonally cut slate and capped with ornate iron roof cresting. The main entry’s focus is the large double-doors glazed with beveled glass, and a porte-cochere welcomes those traveling by automobile or carriage, while the remainder of the dwelling is banked by sprawling porches. The cornice of the house is heavily bracketed and carved, and the windows are one of the more delightful features, built with deeply hooded third floor dormers and ornate keystone lintels and pilasters.

In sadder days when the once regal but now badly burned French Second Empire seemed slated for salvage.

The house stood proudly on the Broad Street Green until December of 1997, when an ashtray was emptied into a wastebasket. The ensuing fire raced up the balloon-framed construction and enveloped the roof, which then collapsed, damaging the upper floors. The house sat dormant and open to the elements for three and a half years. During that time, the remaining plaster, which had absorbed water from the efforts to extinguish the fire, along with any precipitation that found its way inside, began to rot any wood with which it was in contact. It appeared as if the Robbins house was destined to follow the path of so many burn-outs, winding up in a variety of salvage yards and landfills, until May 14, 2001 when John and Shireen Aforismo purchased the structure.

Fortunately, the Robbins house is situated in the Wethersfield Historic District, the largest historic district in the state. The local Historic District Commission and the Connecticut Trust used zoning issues to prevent its demolition. Their efforts were critical, not only in saving the structure, but maintaining the integrity of the green itself. “Without their actions,” says Shireen Aforismo, “there would be four to six new homes jammed in one of the finest locations in Old Wethersfield, directly on the green.”

And just where do you start with a project of this size? For those of us who blanche at the thought of a jacking

The originial staircase newel post coated with crumbiling plaster dust and ash.
up a porch or a simple kitchen remodeling, the concept of a project the size of the Robbins house restoration would be incomprehensible. Only traces of the ornate roof remained, all of the floor joists were rotted and a layer of filthy, crumbling plaster coated everything including charred moldings and three-story walnut staircase. Even more daunting, the Robbins house dwarfs the typical home, exponentially multiplying every potential task.

To make matters worse, the most difficult challenge the Aforismos faced was not the renovation itself, but finding the necessary financing. “We have used our own money, and now, as we look for financing, no one wants to assist us until the project is completed and then they will refinance it.” Shireen notes wistfully. “The only loan that we were able to secure was a construction loan, and that is not serving our needs. This is a rehabilitation project, not new construction, and the bank is totally confused (as far as how to proceed).”

Ironically, Shireen had recently told someone “I would never build a house: there are too many decisions. I never would have imagined (what the restoration of the Robbins house would entail). Thanks to my husband, the dreamer and risk taker, here we are.” She adds “Trying to rebuild it to its original structure has been very challenging, as the second owner changed exterior and interior features. The heartbreak was not being able to save the beautiful moldings, floors, and many stained glass windows, but we have been able to reproduce much of it.”

And so the massive undertaking began. The Aforismos have documented the restoration on the house’s website ( where the reader may follow the removal of the collapsed roof and the painstaking reframing and rebuilding of the new one. Windows and walls are constructed
Faniciful geometric tile floor, one of the many beautiful originial features.
and installed, and floor joists are recreated. Perhaps one of the most time-consuming projects that no one but the owners and builders will ever appreciate was the fabricating of the copper-lined Yankee gutters encompassing the entire cornice.

For those unfamiliar with the term Yankee gutter, these are concealed gutters that are built into the upper edge of a cornice or into the rafter ends. Yankee gutters yield a much “cleaner” look to a roofline, with less visual clutter, and are less likely to tear off under the burden of snow and ice. On the other hand, they are much more expensive to construct, and if not maintained, their failure results in extensive water damage to the exterior walls of a house.

The roof and exterior renovation required an entire cage of scaffolding to be constructed around the structure.
The third floor was rebuilt under the eerie blue light cast by sunlight passing through the tarps protecting the work as the temporary roof was removed and work began. In all, 175 tons of debris were taken away in dumpsters, the central chimney was rebuilt and topped with clay chimney pots imported from England, and the iron roof cresting, left miraculously intact after the fire, was restored and replaced.

Critical original mouldings were lost in the inferno, and because of the large amount of patterns and running feet necessary for replication, Contractor Tim Gothers purchased a machine that created moulding knives that duplicated the lost ornament rather than subcontract out each profile, saving time and money.

Those of us who have restored a house’s exterior know that the “dessert” for all of the tedious hours spent on carpentry occurs when we finally get to apply our carefully chosen paint colors. For the Robbins house, this was the true moment of glory, not only as the turning point in the reversal of the fire’s effects, but also in its emergence from a drab, monochromatic paint job. Shireen recounts that “The house was all white, the s
late roof was gray, and the windows and architectural features seemed to fade into each other. Now that we have changed the colors to the Victorian Age, every little feature calls out to you.” The Aforismos selected an exuberant, yet tasteful (a tricky path to negotiate with all of that ornamentation!) color scheme, employing a delicate green body framed by creamy yellow trim and eggplant accents on the window pilasters and frieze.

When that magical day arrives and the Robbins house is finally “finished”, (or at least as finished as any old house ever is), the Aforismos plan on opening it as a bed and breakfast. “We will have five guests rooms, three with eleven foot ceilings and eight foot tall windows looking out onto the Broad Street Green. It will be filled with period antiques, and guests will be able to sit and relax on the front veranda. There will be gardens and a pool, and guests can take strolls around the green or walk to the center of Old Wethersfield, were they may dine, shop and tour many old homes, churches and our local museum.”

The prominence of the Robbins House means that the Aforismo’s labors have a far greater effect than just restoring an historic structure; it’s a major contribution to the Historic District and the neighborhood in general. “Since we removed the plywood on the windows and cleared the lot of the overgrowth, there has been a steady stream of cars and people walking and stopping to see the progress,” says Shireen, “ Sometimes my husband and I are in the yard simply cleaning up and individuals will stop and talk with us. We conduct impromptu tours. On Friday nights, we’re getting into the habit of leaving the inside lights on until 9 PM. It’s an awesome sight! The Haunted House (which everyone used to call it) is now alive and ghost free.
Now restored the twin stained glass windows feature a Victorian color palette.

Is it worth it? That’s a tough question for the most seasoned house restorer, yet few of us involved in historic preservation ever attempt something on a scale such as the Robbins house. The time, the money and all of the worries contribute to a nagging fear that perhaps we should have listened to the voices of reason. As Shireen notes “Every time we think that we could have been on the Rivera (all of our children are now grown), we pass by the house and wonder if we were really out of our minds. But then we see this diamond in the rough taking shape.” And that’s that hard-won satisfaction that every old house lover seeks.

Dan Cooper has been working on old houses for over 20 years, and also writes for Old House Interiors, Period Homes, Cottages and Bungalows amongst other magazines on the subject of architecure, antiques and design.