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A house with a history: Researching and rehabbing a 19th-century Carpenter Gothic cottage

  • Nicolas and Janet Gross have done extensive research on the history of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Nicolas and Janet Gross have done extensive research on the history of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The bathroom upstairs in Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The bathroom upstairs in Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The angles of the steep pitched roof creates a dormer-like spaces in all the upstairs rooms. This is one of the three upstairs bedrooms.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The angles of the steep pitched roof creates a dormer-like spaces in all the upstairs rooms. This is one of the three upstairs bedrooms.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • One of three bedrooms upstairs in the Carpenter Gothic house of Nicolas and Janet Gross. The angles of the steep pitched roof creates dormer-like spaces in all the upstairs rooms.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    One of three bedrooms upstairs in the Carpenter Gothic house of Nicolas and Janet Gross. The angles of the steep pitched roof creates dormer-like spaces in all the upstairs rooms.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nicolas and Janet Gross transformed the front parlor of their Carpenter Gothic house into a study.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Nicolas and Janet Gross transformed the front parlor of their Carpenter Gothic house into a study.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The original kitchen has been updated. The Grosses kept the wooden cabinets, probably installed in the 1950s, but painted them creamy white. They added granite countertops from Vermont and new appliances. One problem, they said, was finding a stove to fit the 40-inch space.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The original kitchen has been updated. The Grosses kept the wooden cabinets, probably installed in the 1950s, but painted them creamy white. They added granite countertops from Vermont and new appliances. One problem, they said, was finding a stove to fit the 40-inch space.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Janet Gross, in the living room, an addition to the Carpenter Gothic house, first saw the house years ago, in a book about Carpenter Gothic architecture of the 19th century.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Janet Gross, in the living room, an addition to the Carpenter Gothic house, first saw the house years ago, in a book about Carpenter Gothic architecture of the 19th century.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Janet and Nicolas Gross in the dining room of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Janet and Nicolas Gross in the dining room of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Front door of Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Front door of Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nicolas and Janet Gross found this photo of Cornelia Moody during extensive research on the history of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.

    Nicolas and Janet Gross found this photo of Cornelia Moody during extensive research on the history of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nicolas and Janet Gross have done extensive research on the history of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The bathroom upstairs in Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The angles of the steep pitched roof creates a dormer-like spaces in all the upstairs rooms. This is one of the three upstairs bedrooms.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • One of three bedrooms upstairs in the Carpenter Gothic house of Nicolas and Janet Gross. The angles of the steep pitched roof creates dormer-like spaces in all the upstairs rooms.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Nicolas and Janet Gross transformed the front parlor of their Carpenter Gothic house into a study.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The original kitchen has been updated. The Grosses kept the wooden cabinets, probably installed in the 1950s, but painted them creamy white. They added granite countertops from Vermont and new appliances. One problem, they said, was finding a stove to fit the 40-inch space.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Janet Gross, in the living room, an addition to the Carpenter Gothic house, first saw the house years ago, in a book about Carpenter Gothic architecture of the 19th century.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Janet and Nicolas Gross in the dining room of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Front door of Nicolas and Janet Gross's Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Nicolas and Janet Gross found this photo of Cornelia Moody during extensive research on the history of their Carpenter Gothic house on Round Hill Road in Northampton.

Years ago Janet Gross saw a charming Northampton house in a book on Carpenter Gothic architecture of the 19th century. When a real estate agent showed her the same house in 2007, she said, “I felt it was an omen.”

Gross and her husband, Nicolas, who retired to Northampton after decades living in Delaware, bought it and did a thorough rehab. The house was built around 1860 and was probably designed by William Fenno Pratt, a prolific architect who also designed Northampton City Hall and the Evergreens in Amherst, home of Emily Dickinson’s brother.

When the Grosses bought the house on Round Hill Road it was riddled with knob-and-tube wiring, the pine floors were covered with linoleum, the bathrooms were “hideous” and every room had bold floral wallpaper that detracted from the clean, simple lines of the house, Janet Gross recalls. It was also painted white.

Carpenter Gothic was a popular style in the mid-19th century and featured vertical board-and-batten siding and gingerbread trim. Andrew Jackson Downing, a prominent architect and writer of the era, was especially fond of the style. He had decided opinions about houses and landscapes.

“He hated white,” Janet Gross said of Downing. For exteriors he favored the color of Portland cement, a shade akin to putty. Downing had two objections to stark white. “It is too glaring and conspicuous,” he wrote in “The Architecture of Country Houses.” His second objection: “it does not harmonize with the country and thereby mars the effect of rural landscapes. ... It stands harshly apart from the soft shades of the scene.”

Gross says she and her husband realized that the white exterior made their house appear like it was floating in the landscape instead of being related to it. So they followed Downing’s strictures about paint — it is now putty-colored — and said they hope they have matched his ideal. They also removed rotting shutters and decided not to replace them, since Downing’s sketches were without shutters.

There is modest gingerbread trim on the front portico, which also has latticework along the sides. A round window in the attic had been boarded up, but the Grosses replaced the glass.

As newcomers to the area, finding a contractor was a challenge. The first one they considered wanted to tear out the narrow stairs and widen doorways and halls, which didn’t appeal to them. The upstairs doorways are quite narrow, just 22 inches wide.

They finally hired Nancy Cole of Cummington.

“She lives in a 1790 house and so she understands old houses,” Gross said.

Room by room

The renovation took more than six months, and Nicolas Gross said he was glad they were still living in Delaware during the process. He was about to retire from the classics department at the University of Delaware. Janet Gross had been an administrator at several nearby Pennsylvania universities.

The house is relatively small, with three bedrooms and a bath upstairs. In one bedroom, a previous owner had installed sliding closet doors. Cole replaced them with traditional doors and even found antique brown ceramic doorknobs.

Downstairs, the original parlor has become a study. The adjacent dining room has charming built-in cupboards with glass doors, probably added when the house changed hands in 1919. The room’s sole window has the wavy sheen of century-old panes.

“I like this window,” Gross said. “You can see it’s old glass.”

The original kitchen has been updated. The Grosses kept the wooden cabinets, probably installed in the 1950s, but painted them creamy white. They added granite countertops from Vermont and new appliances. One problem, they said, was finding a stove that was wide enough to fit the 40-inch space. There aren’t many models available in that size these days.

A large living room with a fireplace was added sometime in the 1950s.

The Grosses used the website craigslist.org extensively to find materials and furnishings for the Carpenter Gothic cottage. The small hexagonal floor tiles in the bathrooms came from a Washington, D.C., supplier who posted them on craigslist because she was trying to unload a shipment returned by a client. The Grosses ended up ordering subway tiles from her as well and were delighted that the tiles were manufactured in Sri Lanka, the native land of their son-in-law.

Family history

The Grosses have become fascinated with the history of the house and its previous owners. It reportedly was built for the gardener of the large house across the street and is officially known as the William Hale House. Over the mantel in the living room are several paintings, including one by Cornelia “Nellie” Moodey, sister of Florence Moodey Porter Lyman, who bought the house in 1919. The painting is of Lincoln Park in Portland, Maine. At the Forbes Library the Grosses found a photograph of Nellie participating in a DAR festival in 1911.

“I’ve been in contact with Nellie’s granddaughter, who said she has been in this house,” Janet Gross said.

Nellie died in 1952 and her sister, Florence, in 1960. The Moodeys were related to many prominent Northampton families and their uncle was L. Clark Seelye, the first president of Smith College, who also lived on the street when he retired. Florence Lyman was first married to Charles Porter, an Amherst College graduate, who was so severely injured in a train accident in 1894 that he allegedly committed suicide in 1899 at their summer house in North Perry, Maine.

“For a while I was very sorry for poor Florence,” Janet Gross said.

Then she learned that in 1903 or 1904 Florence married Frank Lyman, whose grandfather, Joseph, was a Northampton judge. Lyman’s father, Edward, lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he worked at A.A. Low & Brother, a major importer of tea and silks from the Orient. Edward donated the Academy of Music to the city of Northampton.

Frank and Florence lived for many years at Fort Hill, now the site of the Smith College child care center. After Frank’s death, Florence gave the property to Smith.

Their son, Joseph, was interested in airplanes and owned an air strip on Mount Tom, Janet Gross said. At one point he donated $1,000 to bring an air show to Northampton.

Gross said she has done a lot of research at Forbes Library, where Elise Bernier-Feeley, who works in special collections, has provided assistance. She also has spent hours on the Internet.

“You find things on the Web. There are no secrets,” she said.

One tidbit she discovered was a column by Molly Ivins, the late newspaperwoman from Texas, who recalled that during her undergraduate years at Smith, she interviewed Cara Walker, a member of the Round Hill Club and a Smith graduate. The club was founded in 1898 by a handful of Smith College alumnae, who wanted to keep their intellect alive, Gross said. So they created a discussion group that met regularly in their homes to hear research papers and have a social time.

In her column, Ivins recalled reading to Walker, who only wanted to hear the National Geographic and the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.

No Picassos

Another member of the Round Hill Club was Henrietta Seelye Gray, daughter of the Smith president, who married a professor of archaeology. They gave generously to the Archaeological Institute of America, which Nicolas Gross happens to belong to because of his research in the classics.

Paintings by family members are hung throughout the house. “My mother and Janet’s father,” Nicolas Gross said. “No Picassos.”

In an upstairs bedroom there is an unusual work by his mother, portraying a Dutchman’s pipe vine. She actually placed the leaves and flowers on the paper and painted over them.

The Grosses also have a collection of pottery by Ben Owen, a North Carolina artisan known for simple vernacular bowls and other designs influenced by Japanese pottery. They started collecting Owen’s work when Nicolas was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In one of the bedrooms is a “Jenny Lind” bed, a spool bed so named because Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish singer, supposedly slept in that kind of bed during her triumphant American tour in 1850. Lind spent her honeymoon at the Round Hill Hotel, just up the street from the Grosses’ home.

Janet and Nicolas Gross decided to retire to the Northampton area because they enjoyed it so much when their children were students at Hampshire College in the mid-1990s. Their alternative was moving to Nicolas’ hometown, Mystic, Conn., “but we aren’t sea people,” Janet said.

Nicolas Gross says he appreciates the quiet of the neighborhood. For 30 years he lived 500 yards from Interstate 95 in Newark, Del., listening at night to trucks gearing down for the exit.

The couple say they thoroughly enjoy living in Northampton, close to Smith College. They attend lectures and concerts on all the Five College campuses, and they enjoy dining at downtown restaurants.

“It’s nice to live in a town this small with the amenities of a city,” Nicolas Gross said.

Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.

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