HOME: Unlikely champions save Amherst landmark
One day in 2001, Caroline Duax noticed two For Sale signs in front of the low-slung stucco house at the corner of Main and Getzville in Amherst. Duax, a sixty-seven-year-old retired social worker, had always been fond of the picturesque English cottage with its quirky archway and lattice windows. Known around the neighborhood as the Gate House, the property had a stone wall and overgrown foliage that for years served as a shelter for Amherst High School students taking a smoke break between periods. When Duax got home, she called the town to find out whether the “Zoning OB” designation on the signs stood for Office Buildings. It did.
“That’s when I started to educate myself,” says Duax. After learning that a new owner could demolish the house and erect a four-story building in its place, she contacted Amherst’s Historic Preservation Commission to find out if anything could be done. They told her she could submit an application for local designation, and, if the Commission deemed it worthy, it would be recommended to the town board. Duax knew nothing about architectural styles or historic preservation, but she really liked this house. She decided to take a shot.
Fast forward to May 30, 2012, the day that Duax and husband Bill, a seventy-three-year-old research scientist, accepted an award from Preservation Buffalo Niagara for their outstanding restoration of the “West House” of the Gate House, now their home. Back in 2001, they had no intention of buying the house, let alone letting it take over their lives for the next decade. “Our first thought was we need to save this property,” Duax recalls.
So she focused on the application, which was accepted, and then on her presentation to the board. Armed with visuals and an 800-signature petition, Duax made an impassioned case for the significance of the Gate House, explaining that it was built in 1904 for the caretaker of the original estate of Arthur Hedstrom, an important local philanthropist; that it is a rare early example of the Tudor Revival style of architecture; that it is the only intact property dating to the beginning of Amherst’s residential development; that it sits on the site of the last operational tollhouse between Buffalo and Albany; and so forth. The board was so impressed, it went beyond the Commission’s recommendation, which didn’t include the grounds or the barn, and designated the entire 1.6-acre property. The seller (a well-known developer) promptly sued the town for its “arbitrary and capricious” decision.
Always thinking green, Bill and Caroline had a Black Walnut tree damaged during the October Storm made into their dining room table and fireplace mantle. Photo by kc kratt.
Undeterred, Duax continued her research, delving deep into the family history of the Hedstroms (she ultimately found and met the grandson of the caretaker). When she discovered that Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons had landscaped the grounds, she flew to Boston to get the blueprints from the Olmsted Conservancy. While there, she learned that Hedstrom’s architect was Fred H. Loverin, who had also designed Buffalo’s Lenox Hotel. Meanwhile, the developer was getting nowhere with his lawsuit. When he contacted the Duaxes in 2005 to see if they were interested in buying the property, they were ready.
As owners, the Duaxes’ first order of business was clearing the grounds, a massive undertaking that took the better part of a year. Next, they set about saving structures almost irreparably damaged from decades of neglect. They re-roofed both buildings, installed new gutters, put in a new drainage system and rebuilt the forty-eight-foot back wall of the barn. They were already well over budget when they discovered toxic mold throughout the house, which meant they’d have to gut the plaster and lathing. “There were a couple of nights I was tearful, as the expenses loomed,” Duax recounts.
But the constant discovery, as facets of the house revealed themselves, kept them motivated. Most exciting was what emerged from beneath the plaster and lathing. “We started to see old structure,” Duax recalls. “Posts, beams, studs for walls that were a foot-and-a-half farther in than the outside wall.” In the section that is now their front entryway, they discovered primitive ceiling joists, “hand-hewn logs with the bark still on them.” From a bedroom, they could see that a dividing wall was actually the outside of an old house.
Eventually, with the help of preservation architect Andrea Rebeck, they were able to date this “house within a house” to circa 1820. When Hedstrom bought the property in 1904, he lowered the roof, added the East House, made the archway for his carriages, converted the barn to a carriage house, and wrapped all the buildings in stucco. “They wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t done that,” Duax contends.
As 2007 turned into 2008, having gone vastly over budget and with the economy tanking, the Duaxes decided to take a break. Caroline spent the next several months making drawings and interviewing architects, eventually choosing John Wingfelder. “The important thing was, can I work with this person? Because I knew I would be very involved,” she says.
The Duaxes' vision was aesthetically motivated, but coincidentally in perfect alignment with what preservation historians prefer: maintaining as much of the original structure as possible, while making everything else clean and modern. In the current incarnation of the house, says Bill, “Every room, with the exception of the downstairs bathroom and one linen closet, has a part of the 1820s house exposed.” You can see it in a wall in the living room, the ceiling joists in the dining room, the chimney in the kitchen, the front door.
Contrasting with the original structure are stark white walls and stainless steel accents. In places of honor on shelves and walls are treasured artifacts unearthed while clearing the grounds. Porcelain doll heads, corn cob pipes, and cobalt blue glass bottles form a stunning display on a high shelf in the dining room; hand-forged nails found in the garden now hold up the back wall; two pieces of a Rochester newspaper from the Civil War years are framed and hanging in the front hallway.
Original beams are set off by sleek stainless steel. Photo by kc kratt.
In addition to restoring, the Duaxes also wanted to make the house green. To that end, they put two composts in the yard, installed a high-efficiency boiler and radiant floor heat, replaced the asphalt roof with biodegradable cedar shake, and, most strikingly, had a large black walnut tree that was damaged in the October Storm recycled into shelves, mantel, benches, and their dining room table.
Almost all of the other furniture came from their former house, while most of the art on the walls is by Caroline’s sister, a painter. One of their two daughters, Julia, also paints, and the house showcases her large portraits of her parents, as well as dozens of framed photos of the Duaxes’ children and grandchildren, and entire walls of shelves lined with family photo albums. Every nook and cranny of this house, as sleek and contemporary as it is, exudes history—both their own and the kind with a capital H. This, the couple says, is what they love most.
Pointing to the rafters above the dining room table, Bill notes: “Those trees were 120 years old when they were cut down; I’ve counted the rings. They were saplings before the American Revolution. I just like that idea, that I can reach back to the American Revolution and feel connected.”
Laura Silverman is a freelance writer and editor based in Buffalo.