FARMINGTON – From the street, the Victorian farmhouse at 107 Main St. in Farmington, as it has looked for generations, the home where the Wadsworths — a branch of one of Connecticut’s best-known founding fathers — lived for 350 years.
But coming within two years of the Wadsworths selling the property, there’s no doubt that a $400,000 renovation has pulled the house into the 21st century. There’s an open floor plan and a kitchen with stainless steel appliances that looks so new construction it even smells like a new house.
“It wasn’t the original intent to do what we did,” Tim Brophy, a real estate investor who renovates homes and commercial properties, said during a recent tour of the house. “It was in much worse shape than I expected.”
Few traces of the centuries that passed before the renovation remain in the interior. The makeover highlights the dilemma of what to do with homes with historic pedigrees like the Wadsworth House in a state with homes dating back centuries.
Not all can be museums or even part of historic districts that strike a delicate balance between preservation and making them attractive to new buyers with the conveniences of modern living.
The Wadsworth family made the painful decision to sell as no one in the family wanted to take over the property. They explored other options, such as turning it into an Airbnb or a rental, but nothing worked out.
The house, on the edge of Miss Porter’s School campus, is not part of the area’s local historic district. And even if it was, there would be little, if any, to say about changes inside the house.
Jay Bombara, president of the Farmington Historical Society, said the preservation of the streetscape, including the house’s Victorian facade, was a big plus. And even with such major changes inside, the structure will remain what it always has been: a house.
“We don’t want to preserve if we don’t want to allow people to make modern spaces that fit the needs of contemporary people and the way they want to live,” Bombara said.
Brophy had renovated other old houses — including one built in 1770 in Roxbury — but the Wadsworth House was nearly a century older, some believed to date to 1680.
As Brophy began digging into the renovation, he said he discovered more and more rotten and insect-damaged wood, some of which held the house up.
“Little by little you start ripping things out and you uncover things and you go, ‘Oh my God, look at this,'” Brophy said.
There was so much decay — Brophy said it was amazing the house had been lived in until just a few years ago — that he decided to rip out the entire guts of the house — walls, ceilings and all.
A deciding factor was an old 30-foot white chestnut beam in the basement that sagged so violently that the doors above it would not close.
“To try to get around that, I don’t like to jury-rig things,” Brophy said. “If you’re going to do it, do it right.”
The foundation and supports have been cast up, but where possible some of the original fieldstone has been preserved.
Brophy said he knows there could be criticism from people who would argue, for example, that the original 8-by-10-inch plank floorboards should have gone back into the house.
“To do that, it would have been almost impossible because you don’t want to put all this time and energy into a house — and money — and then have the floors still be crooked,” Brophy said. “When you do a house like this, you have to look at the structural integrity.”
The house now has 5-inch oak floorboards, wider than the standard 2-1/4-inch boards now used to build new homes, Brophy said.
On the second floor, six bedrooms were converted to five, providing more closet space, a washer and dryer, and a master bedroom bathroom.
When Brophy bought the house, he said he wanted to honor the Wadsworth family’s legacy. Two years later, Brophy said he believes he has. He also says that it would have been cheaper to just tear down the house and build a new one.
“I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, so I tried to honor that by keeping the shell the same,” Brophy said. “I didn’t make any additions. I think I enhanced what was there. With the inside, I really had no other choice.”
Brophy’s renovations are dramatic, even astonishing, to those who knew the house before, but they are hardly the first.
The oldest part of the house – a rear el – may have been the site of an earlier, perhaps, thatched house.
In the early 1700s, the house appears to have been fortified with bricks and was designated as one of the six “sanctuary” homes in the city due to fears of raids by indigenous people.
Just as the American Revolution ended, four rooms were added to the front of the house, including a spacious dining room that could have served as a “lay-out” room when someone died.
In the 1860s, the house’s facade was given the Victorian flourish it has today with the addition of a decorative bow window, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a wraparound porch and balustrade.
The house also survived accidents. In 1926, a kitchen fire destroyed almost the entire structure, forcing new construction at the rear of the house.
“All of these houses, and I don’t care which house you pick that is considered historic, have had changes over the years,” said Bombara, the historical society president. “They’re organic. They’re not living things, but they certainly grow and change organically. You have to keep that in mind above all else.”
Although the Wadsworth family no longer has influence over the future of the house, the emotional ties remain strong.
The Wadsworth name runs wide and deep in Connecticut. The son of the original builder of the Farmington house was, as legend has it, responsible for stopping the Connecticut Colony’s charter at Hartford’s Charter Oak in a dispute with the British monarchy.
Brophy opened the house to the family as the two-year renovations unfolded, stretched in part by the pandemic and the supply chain issues that followed.
He has offered the family wood from the old house, perhaps to make a piece of furniture. The old front door went to a Wadsworth cousin who is incorporating it into her house.
“There was a lot of emotion with the ownership,” Brophy said. “I don’t know if they all agree with what I have done, but you have to do it properly. You can’t keep something just ‘because’. It has to look right.”
The Wadsworths praise Brophy for the access to the house and that he has preserved the appearance from the street, improved with new siding and a new porch similar to the old one.
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“But as I wrote to Tim after my last visit, it’s really quite shocking or whatever to go into that house when you have memories of what it was,” said John Wadsworth, 69, who grew up in the house . “And even with its slanted floors, door angles that aren’t square, the physicality, the deferred maintenance, the basement, but it had a lot of character, and that’s what we grew up with.”
Wadsworth, who moved to upstate New York decades ago and is now retired, said, “it’s basically a new house.”
When Wadsworth’s mother, Lois Reeve Wadsworth, the last resident of 107 Main, died in 2020 at age 92, many family members toured the house after the funeral service. He remembers his niece Annie’s reaction.
“Annie walked into the house and she had to turn around and walk out of the house,” Wadsworth said, the memory catching a bit in his throat. “She had to go away. She was crying.”
Brophy said the house could be rented or leased with an option to buy, or he could decide to live in it himself. He also has to figure out what to do with a barn and a shed on the property.
“It was a great place of character for our family for hundreds of years,” Wadsworth said. “It’s a beautiful house, whoever buys it. Whatever you do with it, it takes on a new character. Everything is square and solid. And it still stands.”
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected]