One of my tasks in both Easton and Redding is to conduct field visits and write reports on any historical home whose owner has applied for a demolition permit to tear it down and replace it with a more modern structure that better fits today’s lifestyle. All too often, these homes have already been so greatly altered from their original state and their structural integrity so weakened by careless contractors who cut through supporting beams to accommodate modern plumbing, electrical, and HVAC requirements that I have little choice but to recommend the demolition permit be issued. Saving many of these structures would simply be too cost prohibitive to be feasible.

66 Hill Road as it appears today.

I’ve often wondered at what point did we as an American society begin to realize the historic value in saving our older structures. Surely, many of the oldest houses in the United States were constructed with nothing more in mind than putting a roof over the heads of the owner and his family. Many were so simple and utilitarian in nature, that although not mass produced, they so closely resembled one another that they could have been built from the same set of blueprints.

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that some houses in interior New England began to take on more a unique appearance as those who were more affluent started to adorn their new homes with more decorative millwork and fancier masonry. Some even adopted the more elegant architectural styles found in Europe.

The one characteristic that most New England homes retained was a relatively small footprint. Size had little to do with cost, but everything to do with heating the structure. New England winters were long and cold, and prior to the end of the first half of the 19th century, central heating was practically non-existent in the United States. Hot air rose and that meant that the heat source couldn’t be too far from those rooms that needed to be heated. It wouldn’t be until the late 1850’s when Russian inventor Franz San Galli designed the first hot water radiator that central heating systems within the home would begin to materialize in numbers.

Some of the larger antique homes we see in New England today began their life as much smaller structures. The typical footprint of those homes when they were first built would have been in the 700 to 900 square foot range. Examination of the basements of many of these homes will bear that out. The earliest sections of the house often have hand-hewn beams supporting the floors above, while many of the later additions have joists with saw marks from either the earlier up and down pitsaws or the later circular blades that sawmills adopted in the middle of the 19th century.

The vast majority of New England’s pre-1850’s homes were built around a massive center chimney that began in the basement, often with an additional Dutch oven for baking. Those chimneys traditionally included three fireplaces on the main level. If the home was large enough to have a second level with designated bedrooms, there was often at least one more fireplace on the second floor that provided an additional source of heat. With three or more fireplaces all burning wood at the same time, most homes could maintain enough heat for the occupants to remain comfortable.

The house at 66 Hill Road in Redding was built by physician Thomas Peck on land he obtained from his first father-in-law, Lemuel Sanford sometime in 1796. Thomas and his wife Mary had two children, Sophia, born in 1797, and Aaron, born a year later in 1798. Mary died due to complications from childbirth that same year. She was only twenty-two years of age.

Thomas then married Susanna Heron, the daughter of Redding’s infamous William Heron, the man who hosted both British and Continental Army officers on the same Saturday in 1777 as the British marched towards Danbury with the Continental Army in pursuit just a few hours behind them. Susanna gave birth to the couple’s only child, Caroline in 1800. Thomas’ son Aaron died in 1809 at the age of only eleven and his father passed only a few months later at the age of thirty-seven.

Doctor Peck accumulated a fair amount of wealth and a great deal of land during his thirty-seven years on this earth. At the time of his death, he owned a total of 115 acres comprised of about a dozen plots within Redding. Also on the inventory list of Peck’s possessions was a slave named “Ceasar” (sic). He would have been among the twelve slaves listed in 1800 census, but since there were no slaves in Redding listed in 1810, it can be assumed that Caesar was given his freedom shortly after the good doctor’s death in November 1809. In Peck’s will dated that October, life use of the house was given to Susanna and his two daughters.

The home Doctor Peck had built for his wife and children was more elaborate than most, being an early example of the Greek Revival style of architecture. While the 1988 Bedford and Lucas survey of Redding’s historic homes suggests that the Greek Revival style may have been the result of an earlier renovation, the 1938 accounting of the renovation by renowned New England architect Frazier Forman Peters indicates otherwise. From Peter’s description, the house had every appearance of being completely original when the restoration work commenced.

Earle Henry Balch in 1915

Earle Henry Balch was born in Lakeville, Minnesota on November 11, 1893. After graduating from the University of Minnesota and then Harvard, he taught for a short while before moving to New York and taking a job working for G.P. Putman and Sons in the publishing business. In 1924, he established his own publishing firm, Minton, Balch, and Company. Then, in 1930, he merged his firm with that of his previous employer and became the executive vice president of Putnam’s from 1932 until his retirement in 1947.

1937, the house as it looked when Earle Balch purchased it.

Balch remained single for his entire life. In 1937 he came to Redding in search of a summer home. Like so many other older homes in the area during the Great Depression, the old Peck house on Hill Road was for sale and in a state of great disrepair. The eight-room house was the perfect size, but it needed to be brought into the 20th century by adding running water, a decent kitchen, a central heating system, and indoor bathrooms. Balch loved the Greek Revival style and was financially capable of taking on the project.

Frazier Forman Peters was already an established architect who was known for building stone houses in Weston, Wilton, and New Canaan. The restoration and modernization of a late 1700’s house was not his forte, but he agreed to take a look. Impressed by the home’s hidden beauty, Peters noted in his September 1938 House Beautiful magazine feature about the property that he had only seen one or two others in the area that resembled that design.

After consulting with contractor Vernon Gifford of Westport, the two of them agreed to take on the project. It would be a true restoration with only a minimal number of alterations made to accommodate the larger kitchen and two bathrooms on the second level. It was only Balch’s willingness to spend more than he could ever recoup that made such a project feasible.

According to Peters, the locals were surprised to see the building undergoing a complete restoration. The normal course of action would have been to tear the place down and begin anew with a clean slate. Peters recalls one town resident taking such a lingering look at the progressing work that he crashed his automobile into a tree as he passed by.

Peters explained to Balch the limitations that a proper restoration would place on modernizing the house to the level that most people might expect from such an expensive project. The central heat would need to be provided by hot water as there was no room to fit large air ducts into the narrow walls. The bathrooms would need to be rather spartan in their appearance since the thin lath walls weren’t capable of carrying the additional weight that tile would add. Walls within the house would show bulges and appear uneven since many of the old timbers used in the original framing had been hand-hewn and varied in their dimensions.

Exterior photos

The sills had rotted and were replaced. The chimney was in need of serious repairs and the sagging roof needed to be replaced. Some of the interior batten doors were certainly original to the house, but as Peters explained to Mr. Balch, many of those doors would have been designed to be temporary when the original owner built the house, and he might have eventually replaced them with solid raised panel units imported from France or England once more money became available. In the case of Doctor Peck’s home, it appeared that the sudden death of his first wife and the early demise of his young son may have made those upgrades seem less important.

Before & after photos of the main level fireplaces.

One of the largest challenges that faced Peters was attempting to redesign the front entrance to correct a fundamental flaw that had been present since Doctor Peck first built his house nearly 150 years earlier. It appeared to Peters that Peck might have ordered his elaborate front entrance door and side lights to be delivered from Europe, and that they needed to frame the entryway and complete it prior to the arrival of the millwork. The problem was that the wall between the living room and the dining room had been built and that the opening for the new door and side lights had been made too small. Rather than rip apart and move the interior partition, Doctor Peck instead installed the new front door and side lights with the interior wall completely obscuring the eastern side light. That side light was then plastered over on the inside and remained hidden for the next 150 years.  

The covered side lights remain hidden some 84 years after Peters came up with his “fix”

With Balch not wanting to discard the original door and lights, Peters got creative with the millwork and kept the original unit in place by covering up both side lights with decorative inserts and moldings on the exterior and plastering them over on the inside. That solution has stood the test of time, as the front entrance looks the same today as it did in 1938.

According to Peters, the only alteration to the shell of the original house was the addition of a bay window on the rear that overlooked the new patio Peters had designed for outdoor entertaining. Since the interior of the old house had been completely gutted prior to commencing the work – a move that Peters and Gifford had decided necessary before giving Balch a solid quote on the project – Balch was then free to design most of the new floorplan. The only limitations came from the need to work around that massive chimney and those three main level fireplaces.

Balch’s choice of floorplans for his restored home that included two bathrooms on the second level.

Completed in the spring of 1938, the restored house was a true representation of what the original structure would have looked like when it was first built. A detached garage was built just to the east of the house to hold Mr. Balch’s automobile.

Dr. Ludwig Goldhorn color photograph of Balch’s recently completed restoration in 1938.

Earle Balch eventually made this house his permanent residence. By 1951, he presided as the chairman of Redding’s Board of Education and was the president of the Mark Twain Library Association.

Balch became the chief cultural affairs officer at the United States Embassy in Iran in 1952, a position he held in the Eisenhower administration until 1955. He then served as the cultural attaché to the Netherlands from 1955 until 1960, and then served under President Kennedy in the same position in Turkey between 1960 and 1962. Balch died in his home state of Minnesota on July 1, 1977.

1947, Earle Henry Balch

The photos that Peters supplied for his 1938 magazine article are shown here and represent an extremely rare glimpse into what was a really early restoration of an original New England house. This building still stands today, although like most houses from that era it has been expanded to better suit the needs and wants of a modern family. The 1938 garage has been connected to the house via an enclosed breezeway and it now houses a large modern kitchen and dining room.

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books