When photographers Sue Daley and Steve Gross set out to find old farmhouses to feature in their new book, they peered into broken windows and saw "kitchen tables set for breakfast that never took place fifty-odd years ago, the residents seemingly having gone out and never returned," they write.
The rural ideal that helped shape America has been largely abandoned, with empty farmhouses strewn across the country like time capsules to show for it.
Yet in some homes the spirit is alive and flourishing, as people eager to get back to basics embrace the nostalgia of old homesteads and make modern lives for themselves amid thick layers of history.
"It's really a story of adaptation," Gross said. "The houses were all brought back and worked on in the unique ways that reflected the changes and history of each house."
The 20 houses Daley and Gross feature in "Farmhouse Revival" (Abrams) are all on working farms along the Northeast coast, some up to 300 years old, their farmhouse-ness defined more by their location and function than a common design. Most are examples of vernacular architecture built according to tradition, evolving needs and local materials, their styles ranging from Colonial-era Cape Cods to stately brick Georgians to classic Greek Revivals.
They are real, lived-in houses, often inherited by families or rescued by people who recognized the beauty of the architecture, which is what makes it so interesting to take a peek at the décor inside.
"We're really interested in the way people put things together, the objects and vignettes that come together in little collections," Gross said.
Sometimes the vignettes are accidentally beautiful, unintentional tokens of farm life.
At the elegant Hudson Bush homestead outside Hudson, New York, a weathered bench in the home's entry hall holds a parade of well-worn straw hats. In a corner of the kitchen, between an iron daybed and a fireplace, hangs a bouquet of fly swatters alongside the bellows.
Other times themes of old wallpaper, quilts or milk glass take shape, reflecting the owners' personal collecting inclinations.
An 18th century farmhouse in Schoharie County, New York, owned by pop art dealer and gallerist Ivan Karp (he died last year) and his wife, Marilynn, who bought and renovated it in the 1960s, displays myriad collections of common household objects, like old mouse traps, food choppers, corkscrews and other kitchen tools, plus vintage maps and signs reflecting their highly sophisticated appreciation of Americana.
At Sydenham House, a 300-year-old colonial farmhouse nestled amid the urban crush of Newark, N.J. and restored by professional antique dealers, a corner of the bathroom holds a hodge podge of taxidermy mounts and old class and Naval Academy portraits.
"We kind of feel like the interiors themselves are folk art," Gross said. "They decided to have their corner of the bathroom look like that, and only through photography would people see it."
Asked if any of the farmhouses were outfitted with modern conveniences, Gross responded: "What is a modern convenience?" The old-fashioned values of farm life are also progressive ideals, from shopping locally to producing your own food to working with artisans to environmental consciousness. The kitchens don't have garbage disposals because most occupants compost. Many houses are heated with old wood stoves fed, in part, by trees and branches felled by storms.
"There is appreciation for trying to live in a natural way, there's more of an awareness of what you're eating and breathing," Gross said.
Though some of the quirks of old farmhouses are challenging for the modern dweller – the crooked floors, the narrow stairways, the maze of rooms – there also are lessons in the older architectural styles that are being incorporated into present-day constructions, such as big kitchens, open rooms and work areas and porches, Gross said.
A succession of inhabitants over the years left marks from different eras, some of them misguided and later reversed by owners desiring to return to the farmhouse's truer nature (think particle board, bad wall-to-wall carpeting), while others are enduring.
At Stillmeadow Farm in Southbury, Conn., the ancestors of author Gladys Taber have preserved the home that Taber made iconic in the 1930s through a series of books and articles she wrote about living the country life. That includes a kitchen makeover Ladies Home Journal executed there in the 1950s, when blue swirl linoleum was installed over the stove, behind a plate rack that displays Staffordshire dishes. Boxes of seasonings and a vintage thermometer are casually lined underneath.
"You can't make it up," Gross said. "You have to find things like that."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun