Their new neihbors in Cambridge thought Robert and Ruth Ann Bruffey were crazy.
"Almost everybody around here wasn't sure we had it together," Mrs. Bruffey admits.
It wasn't necessarily the fact that the Bruffeys were willing to undergo a renovation lasting almost two years, during which they had to live in a trailer behind the house. There are many old buildings in Dorchester County, and the locals undoubtedly respect the effort it takes to turn an old wreck into a renovated showplace.
But the Annapolis pair, who are in the contracting business, had not turned their attention to an old wreck. Not at all.
"The house was a fine-looking house. There was nothing wrong with it," Mrs. Bruffey says, showing visitors a "before" picture that doesn't look at all as "before" pictures are supposed to look. The house in the picture, dubbed Millstone by former owners who had placed an antique millstone at the end of the drive, is large and handsome and nicely landscaped, with new siding and a front porch with a patio-balcony above. It has a solid, established look, friendly but not the least bit shabby.
Soon, though, it was a wreck. The siding was stripped off. Ditto the porch and balco-
ny. The long driveway was rerouted. All the interior walls and ceilings were ripped away, too, taking the house down to studs and rafters. Perhaps most heretical to many homeowners, to whom ample storage space is next to godliness, was the fact that the Bruffeys got rid of all the closets. And they didn't intend to replace them, either.
To the new owners, this was not madness. They are antique collectors who wanted an old house in which to showcase their collections, and they wanted that house to look as close as possible to the way it must have looked 250 years ago.
"We wanted to get out of the Annapolis area, because it was getting so busy, and we thought we'd look for a house that we could restore," Mrs. Bruffey says. "We started looking across the bay, because we figured the homes might be a little bit older. We started in Kent Island, then went to Easton, and one day we came down to Cambridge, and that day we bought the house."
The house, on a small body of water called Mitchell's Cove, had been substantially altered over the years; architectural features (such as the front porch) had been put on, the sizes of rooms had been altered, closets and modern systems had been added and the house's external appearance gradually updated. But it was still an 18th century house, whose heritage showed in small ways: wavy glass, as old as the United States itself, in the windows; original pine floors in the oldest part of the house.
"There was a warmth about the house," Mrs. Bruffey adds. "You could see there was a lot of character to it."
The house, which will be featured on the Waterfront Homes Tour on Saturday (see box), is a "telescope," with a three-story section and two slightly newer two-story additions that look as if they would fold neatly into the older house. It's ample in size, but Mrs. Bruffey feels it was probably a humble, middle-class family farmhouse in its day, not a grand place, despite its long pedigree.
The deed, written in an antique hand that the Bruffeys have not completely deciphered, reveals that the original land grant dates to the 17th century; in the next century it was cut into smaller parcels, one of which, known as "John's Garden," was the property of John Mitchell. It was Mr. Mitchell, the Bruffeys believe, who built the oldest part of their house, probably around 1740. (John Mitchell, and several generations of his family, are buried in a small family graveyard behind the Bruffeys' barn.)
Area residents contributed to the exploration of the house's past, particularly neighbor Oscar Seward, who had lived there as a small child and helped the new owners discover doors and cupboards hidden during later remodeling. Mr. Seward also revealed that the room next to the living room was traditionally known as the "birthing room."
The house itself had tales to tell.
"When you get into the walls, you can see the original studs, and how they were doweled and pinned, no nails," Bob Bruffey says. The ax marks on the beams were also a clue to the house's age.
"Up in the little bedrooms you can really see it," he says. "Downstairs, they just used logs. They didn't even bother to make them square. They just took a tree and cut it in half, like you'd see in a barn."
They could tell that the smallest section of the house, originally a summer kitchen, was some years newer than the original section, he says, because the beams there bore the marks not of an ax, but of a circular saw.
The paneling they found under the walls was the "beaded" type, with a narrow band of wooden molding between uneven planks, and was installed with square pins instead of nails.
The removal of the exterior siding also revealed that the position of some of the windows had been changed. The wavy old glass panes were moved back to their original locations and protected with new storm windows.
The kitchen, naturally, got a complete overhaul, to make it as compatible as possible with the 18th century aesthetic. Mrs. Bruffey wanted to do away with anachronistic built-in cabinets, but decided that some 20th century conveniences just couldn't be dispensed with: "I didn't really want a refrigerator, but you have to have one!" she laughs.
Foundations for the original brick hearth were discovered, and the fireplace was rebuilt. It stands at the far end of the kitchen, looking almost big enough to walk into, and is decorated with period pottery and fireplace tools.
But the house is not totally a period piece -- although it has been designed to look as much like one as possible. To their 250-year-old original, the Bruffeys added a new wing in back, which houses such indispensables as a bathroom, a laundry room and a garage.
Because many of the old materials and original fixtures had been replaced over the years, the couple had to seek out replacements.
"We found a man in Pennsylvania who does nothing but tear down old houses and sell the lumber," Mrs. Bruffey says. "We were lucky -- every time we needed something, he could supply it."
The Pennsylvania dealer, and an antique-dealer friend, supplied beaded paneling for use where the house's original panels had been damaged; weathered-looking, 200-year-old broad-plank flooring for the newer parts of the house; and antique doors, including one with a hidden panel which converts it from a windowed door to solid wood. It was originally devised for protection against Indians.
The conventional doorknobs were also removed, and replaced with 200-year-old iron latches.
Exterior work included installing a new cedar-shake roof festooned with Victorian lightning rods that are both practical and decorative, and covering the worn beaded paneling with look-alike cedar siding.
"It's getting bad-looking, but that's what we want," Mrs. Bruffey jokes. "We want it to change to a really yucky blue-gray. It's working great -- it's looking old. We wanted the house to really blend into this location."
Work on the house included renovating a large outbuilding, perhaps a former blacksmith's shop, into an antique shop, and digging a pond. Future project include fixing up the dilapidated old barn.
"We've put a lot of work into it, as have many, many workers," Mrs. Bruffey says. "Dale Price, our carpenter, and [workman] Dana Allen were here every day for about a year."
The new old home is furnished with 18th century furniture -- Mrs. Bruffey describes their style as "high country," as opposed to the formal Federal look of their Annapolis furnishings -- silk Persian rugs, and the 19th century lamps that Bob Bruffey collects. Prized pieces include an authentic Tiffany student lamp, a Queen Anne highboy and a "grandmother" clock from the late 1700s. Beautifully grained tiger maple furniture fills one of the bedrooms that sits ready for guests, or for a visit by one of the Bruffeys' three daughters, who live in Missouri.
And, just in case anyone thinks that the family lives wholly in the past, there is modern entertainment equipment in the birthing room.
And the closets? They just use a couple of old Pennsylvania Dutch armoires called "kas."
"We don't worry about it. We have two good outfits a season, and the rest is just T-shirts and sweat suits," the lady of the house admits with a smile. "If people don't like it, they can just go on down the road. That's the way we live."