National News

In the Hudson Valley, a Home With Centuries’ Worth of Stories

Posted July 3, 2018 8:49 p.m. EDT
Updated July 3, 2018 8:54 p.m. EDT

Most of the time, Jeffrey Doornbos and Caroline Diani live in a breezy, low-slung 1950s house in Santa Barbara, California. So when they began looking for a second home on the East Coast, they wanted something entirely different — a creaky stone farmhouse with a weighty sense of history.

Diani, 44, an interior designer and owner of the Santa Barbara stores Diani Shoes and Diani Living, grew up in a stone farmhouse in England and wanted something that offered the charm and seasonal changes she experienced as a child.

Doornbos, 50, an actor and writer who grew up in Michigan before spending his early adulthood in New York, where he was a performer and director with Blue Man Group, was captivated by the idea of owning a home that came with centuries’ worth of stories.

And because they both travel frequently to New York for work, they wanted a house within commuting distance of Manhattan.

But that didn’t stop them from nearly buying one that was all wrong: a former tavern in Cazenovia, New York, built in the early 19th century, which was more than a four-hour drive from the city, with expansive grounds that were impractical for part-time residents.

“We fell in love with it, it was in our price range, but it had 114 acres, needed work and was clearly not commutable to the city,” Diani said. “So we walked away.”

Back in Santa Barbara, heartbroken, Diani redoubled her efforts.

“I was feverishly Googling for old stone farmhouses” within easy reach of New York, she said, when she found a new listing for just such a place, built in 1752 in Germantown, New York.

Doornbos, who had been out with friends, remembered what happened next: “I came home and she said, ‘Look what I just found.’ I said, ‘Well, we should call the Realtor tomorrow.'”

Diani was way ahead of him. She had not just called the listing agent — she had already booked their flights.

“That’s very typically Caroline,” Doornbos said.

When they arrived, they found a 2,700-square-foot stone-and-brick house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms; enormous exposed chestnut beams; floorboards as wide as 16 inches; early doors, wood paneling and windows; and two yawning wood-burning fireplaces. Outside, there were two barns sitting on 6 acres.

“We kept saying, ‘How is this all still here?’ Because over time there’s so much that can go horribly wrong, aesthetically,” Diani said. “It had been in the right hands all the way along.”

It immediately felt right, Doornbos said: “We were standing out in the garden and Caroline asked, ‘Do you love it?’ I said, ‘It feels like we never left.'”

They bought the house for about $475,000 in April 2016. The previous owner had lovingly maintained it, but there were still a few quirks.

They hired a house inspector who told them the fireplaces and chimneys needed to be repointed and the dampers had to be rebuilt. But when it snowed on the couple’s first night in the house, they could not resist lighting a fire — only to fill the house with smoke. (It took a mason a month to complete repairs.)

Then there was the dining room, part of which was built into the side of a hill. “We were getting puddles of water in there every time it snowed or rained,” Diani said.

A friend of the previous owner confirmed that water had been a problem for some time. “He said, ‘Yes, I remember we used to play bridge in there, and you would see rugs floating across the floor,'” Diani said.

The couple hired contractors to break up the concrete floor with jackhammers and install French drains beneath a new floor with a radiant heating system, which banished the indoor stream.

But by tackling smaller jobs themselves, including rebuilding the existing kitchen cabinets and removing later additions, like a wall in the kitchen and a built-in bookcase in one of the bedrooms, they kept costs down to about $50,000.

For furniture, they sourced an eclectic, centuries-spanning range of pieces including a vintage 1970s five-headed brass floor lamp paired with a 19th-century chair upholstered in rugs in the living room, and an old farm table surrounded by new metal bistro chairs in the kitchen. They found items on eBay, at flea markets, at antiques shops in the nearby city of Hudson and on Diani’s buying trips for her stores.

When it comes to furniture, she said, “I’m not afraid of mixing it up” — although they are committed to preserving the home’s original architectural details.

“We feel like we’ve been entrusted with this house,” Doornbos said, “and shepherding it, I hope, through several more decades.”