History & Being Historic
Set amidst hundreds of acres of farm land and close to the Sassafrass River, Morton Hall (MH) began as a small, wood, two-story, two bedroom, no bathroom house back in the 1670’s. In the early 1800’s, a three story brick addition was erected and attached to the existing house, more than doubling the square footage and dramatically increasing the curb appeal. The final expansion of MH was done around the 1850’s, and trust us, it was worth the wait! This addition is now the front portion of the house and the side that faces the road. It includes soaring ceilings, a two story porch with wrought iron railing, a sweeping staircase, and a cupola.
For many years, MH was used as a rental property. Frequently people will stop by to see the house where they once lived (or visited), commenting on how much it has changed and how much has stayed the same.
People ask all the time, since I try so hard to be true to the original house, is it designated historic? The answer is no. First, I’ve heard horror stories of people who received the historic designation and were then prohibited from making modern improvements to their homes. I do not think that is the case these days, but now that the original structure is pretty much restored, it will soon be time to try to add on to the home and make it more useable for my purposes. Also, there are various stories that I’ve heard over the years….there was a Shagbark Elm standing at the front of the driveway which was to have a plaque placed on it; a week before they came out to present the plaque, a tornado came through and ripped the tree right out of the ground. I guess that would have been in the 1980’s. Then in the 1990’s, there was to be a plaque placed on the 3 story brick hill barn….yep….a tornado came through, picked the roof up, spun it around and dropped it back on it. The owners at the time had the barn collapsed in on itself, due to worries about safety. So….no plaques! The bricks from the barn were later donated to the Chestertown Historic Society and used in the brick pathways behind the Imperial Hotel. MH has a history of being reduce, reuse, recycle.
Current Owners’ (Laurie) Story
I purchased Morton Hall in May 1995 much to the dismay of my boyfriend, friends and family. I thought it would be a great project on my way to retirement; little did I know! After settlement, Noah should have pushed off; it rained for two weeks. The 100+ 5 gallon buckets (one of the few useful items the former tenant and hoarder had left) couldn’t even begin to handle the amount of rain water that leaked through the roofs. After the deluge was done, I hired a crew of Amish men from Delta, PA and hauled them back and forth for 17 days. They repaired the remaining slate roof and removed and replaced the other two roofs and replaced the two ends of the bottom porch that had rotted out. They worked so hard and were so resourceful about foraging for materials. Often, after driving 5 hours to PA and back, I would pass out on a blanket on the hill next to what used to be the barn. I would wake up to see one of the Amish men walking around me as they looked for a support beam or some other piece of wood or stone that they could use in their work! They were amazing workers and quite fair and honest.
1995 – 2012 has been spent knocking down plaster irreparable due to the leaky roof, having electric installed which made further holes in the plaster (every 16” or so to pull a wire through, as back in the day, they put “fire blocks every 16” in the stud walls), having plumbing installed (which made more holes in the plaster), then finally refilling a majority of holes in the plaster. The first somewhat pretty, clean, retreat bedroom finally was done in summer 2002. On a roll and a mission to get a room closer to the bathroom, the master bedroom was ready by the end of fall 2002. After so many years of dust, dirt, etc., “finished” simply meant a room that could be closed off, had an air conditioner or an electric radiator, a hand me down bed and was not filthy with plaster and drywall dust; tub baths were my relaxation before I fell into bed and slept an exhausted sleep.
During the warmer months, several hours of each weekend was wasted with cutting the 4 acres of grass. Sometime around 2006, my friend Kelly (who had started helping me with projects at the house and continues to be a driving, motivating factor in the journey to get this house comfortable) suggested that I hire a lawn service. Really? I had never thought of that? It’s funny how you do something one way and think there is no other way…..it just never occurred to me. It was not nearly as cost prohibitive as I thought; in fact, $80 a cut is (and was) downright reasonable when you figured in drive time, gas consumption, wear and tear on my friend’s lawnmower (which she let me borrow after ours died), repairs to her lawnmower each season, time, frustration and aggravation. $80 was a bargain!!! This freed up a huge amount of time that was then repurposed into projects. Suddenly, there was actual progress! Of course it was still slow, there were vandals breaking in (spraying paint, breaking out windows) and nature working against us (critters chewing stuff, bugs, buzzards in the cupola). It felt like each time we took a couple steps forward, we seemed to take twice as many backwards. Then, things changed.
In 2007, I met Denny Rada, contractor extraordinaire. He is an old school contractor with expertise in multiple areas of construction. Sure, we have had our miscommunications about some silly little things over the years (and Kelly loves to yank his chain), but he has done amazing work at Morton Hall. His love and respect for the old girl comes through time and time again in the incredible improvements he makes. After one of the last big break-ins, I started realizing the floor under the original (and oldest) section was not doing well….ok….maybe it was falling into the basement. I researched and determined that judicious use of some bottle jacks, big posts, etc. should stabilize it until I (hopefully) was able to save the money and have the repair done professionally. My friend down the road had recently been using (and praising) Denny. She suggested that she send him over to “just see.” I remember his shock as he looked down under the cellar (with myself, Jason and Catherine) and we happily explained what we were planning to do with the bottle jacks and house jacks that I had purchased. Hmmmm….maybe shocked isn’t the word I’m looking for. Actual fear would be more like it! I vaguely remember him trying to school us about safety, being cautious, etc. saying he could take care of the problem. Yet we were not swayed and continued to smile and tell him our plans to take care of it. I think he was begging me by the end of the conversation to let him do the job….he really seemed terrified of what we were planning! Eventually (and honestly I don’t know what or who knocked sense into me), I did hire him to “shore up the back end.” By the time he finished that job (all of which he did by himself, in 2’ increments without the use of any jacks), he said, “Laurie, you could bounce an engine block on that floor, darling!”
From 2008 – 2009, Denny took on the monumental task of turning the “back end” into a rental unit. He never hired a helper and did all the work himself. If you can’t tell – we LOVE Denny! He allowed Jason, Catherine, Kelly and I to do as much of the work we could ourselves and picking up building materials to use which saved both time and money. On the weekends, we did all the demolition and clean-up work for whatever section he was working on at the time and during the week, he would come in and do the carpentry, rough ins etc. Then, we would come back the following weekend and work like crazy to keep him on schedule. The project still took about 8 months and $40,000. Along the way, we saved whatever we could. The hand hewn beams across the kitchen celing? Kept them. Cleaned them up, oiled them and they are gorgeous. The brick wall on one end that was exposed when Denny had to knock the plaster off? I had Denny point it up and we left it exposed. The weird pocket staircase and it’s weird cubby underneath were kept. The cubby now houses a European style washer dryer unit.
The other invaluable contractor that works at MH is Tom Laird, the amazing plumber. He has done beautiful plumbing work and has carefully labeled and laminated the various lines so that I can turn things off if there are leaks, change filters etc. He has also come out in the middle of the night when I call and say the pipes have burst!
2009 – 2012, Kelly and I have been working on the house room by room, which is slow when there is so much plaster work for me to do! In 2011, Kelly said she wanted to have her own bedroom. Once the plaster work was done, we actually painted the room and then moved and set up the furniture all in the same day….finished at 2 in the morning or something ridiculous like that. Thus began the mission to finish rooms and make them useful and pretty. In the fall of 2011, all of our family and friends were curious about MH so we hosted our first indoor Open House. Even with scaffolding covered in white lights, the event was a huge success.
After Kelly’s bedroom, I decided that the “game room” should be next. We hit the ground running in spring 2012 and we finished that room in record time (of course, Kelly had photographic proof that I’d been up on scaffolding in that room back in 2006….so the original work took a lot of time), it was done before the beginning of summer 2012. Then I set my sights on the temporary kitchen. By the end of fall 2012, we finished and had a kitchen with actual appliances! A stove, a real refrigerator, OMG! We had our final party of the year in December 2012 and it was awesome to be able to not have 20 coolers all over the place.
Why we opened an Etsy store
Kelly and I firmly believe in reduce, reuse and recycle. We find all kinds of weird and interesting things on freecycle, craigslist, thrift stores and special trash days that we then repaint, embellish or upholster and make into amazing things! Last year, I grabbed two (unused) coffee tables from Gary, gave them to Kelly, which she painted, tufted and upholstered. One is sitting beautifully in the living room and the other is at the foot of my bed for sitting on or to get my shoes on. They both look amazing and professional. People have actually asked how much we paid and where we bought them. The one in the living room looks like it cost several hundred dollars!
So now that we have time to do fun, pretty things, we have opened up this Etsy store to share some of our finds with you. Most things will be one of a kind; some things will be items that we have made and loved at Morton Hall, but have then decided to pass on. Others are things that we purchased at auction and turned into designer items, such as these two sided designer pillows and cloth purses. Other items will be things we wanted to try and found good buys on materials. All proceeds go directly towards repairs needed for Morton Hall. In 2013, I hope to have the foundation repaired, porches rebuilt, iron work reattached and four windows in the brick section replaced. After that, funds will be used for roof repairs/replacement, chimney liners, insulation and someday – central heating/air conditioning.
Laurie & Kelly