VIDEO: Ambler farmhouse begins its comeback

When the Friends of Ambler Farm first opened the doors to the Raymond-Ambler family’s 18th Century farmhouse, they found rotting oriental carpets, bricked up fireplaces, and what appeared to be centuries of clutter. At the time Betty Ambler died in 1998, her living space had been restricted to no more than five of the home’s expansive and varied rooms due to water damage, rotted wood, and the sheer amount of “stuff” filling the rooms.

Very simply, the house was too structurally degraded to be considered safe for any kind of public use. Now, Ann Bell says, the structural repair to the building is completed.

Ms. Bell, a former president of the Friends of Ambler Farm, led The Bulletin on a tour of the house last week to showcase the progress of the farmhouse’s renovation from those first adventures in 1999. Now that the integrity of the building has been reinforced, Ms. Bell and her society can begin working on regaining the original look of the interior spaces.

“When we first got to the farmhouse,” Ms. Bell said, “there was oriental carpeting buried underneath wall-to-wall furniture” and other family heirlooms. Antique items filled the most remote corners of the house, and anything of value was auctioned off soon after Ms. Ambler’s death. A collection of rifles, Ms. Bell said, garnered a large response from collectors who knew they could trace their ownership to a single-family line.

Structural challenges

One of the toughest challenges in stabilizing the home, she said, was the condition of an early 20th Century addition to the house. It was built “wood to earth,” with only a handful of large stones acting as a foundation. When wood framing for a house is built without a proper foundation, it quickly rots and makes the building structurally unstable.

“Our first job was to secure the old building by reinforcing the old boards and floors throughout the house,” Ms. Bell said. “The turn-of-the-century addition had no foundation. The baseboards were rotted, and the floor was warped. But the bones were more secure.”

Because the “bones” were secure, the construction team was able to lift the entire unfounded addition off the ground with metal posts, digging out a proper basement and pouring a modern concrete foundation. Where they could, contractors skilled in the renovation of historical buildings used wood from other areas of the house to reinforce the structure.

Ms. Bell said utilizing this style of “renovation by recycle and reuse” was important because it was the same that would have been used in the farmhouse’s original additions.

“When Betty Ambler passed away, her trust set certain restrictions on the use of the Ambler Farm,” she said. “All significant buildings had to remain on the property, and be certified as safe for public use. The renovations had to architecturally keep the same flavor and feel of the original construction.”

Though non-historical additions like proper fire escapes, and handicap accessibility have been added to the building, the Friends group has tried to remain as true to the original building methods as possible. When workers began demolishing certain parts of the house, they found some of the house’s additions used materials that had been taken out of the original structure, and reused.

A dynamic experience

Rather than giving the building a “look but don’t touch” renovation, Ms. Bell and the Friends of Ambler Farm will make it a dynamic experience.

“This is not going to be a roped-off museum,” she said. “It’s going to be an interactive education space which shows the evolution of how people lived in the home.”

Different areas in the house will represent different time periods of its use, Ms. Bell said, and will allow visitors to visually understand the evolution of building techniques and living spaces. When the friends of Ambler Farm took over the house, the kitchen still had an antique cast iron stove right next to more modern appliances.

When the renovations are complete, the kitchen will show the changes in how people cooked in the house over time, Ms. Bell said. Visitors will be able to inspect the beehive ovens found in the living room’s large (and previously bricked-over) fireplace, and then continue in time into a modern kitchen.

The upstairs bathroom was the first to be built in the house at some point in the 1940s. It comes complete with lime green tiling, and rocket-influenced mirror fixtures. It will be restored to its original condition to show the time period when those living in the house would have finally abandoned their outhouses.

Interesting discoveries

Ms. Bell said that during the renovation the team made some interesting discoveries related to old folklore. Under the upstairs floorboards the Friends found shoes hidden; some made for children, and others made for adults. They also found very old coins planted in the original foundation.

After finding the shoes, the team learned these were hidden in line with old British superstitions. The Ambler and Raymond families can trace their lineage back to English ancestors.

According to the National Museum of Wales, caches of shoes have been found in many 19th Century homes. They were “hidden under floorboards, around doorways and below staircases,” an article written by museum staff says. “Some considered these places to be the weakest part of a building, where evil spirits and witches would enter. Shoes were placed in these areas in order to trap or corner potential evil.”

One area that has confused the Friends is a second-floor, oak-paneled foyer that connects two staircases, and two bedrooms. The doors and walls are lined with thick oak wood, and a large, square mirror overlooks a winding staircase.

It is the only area in the house that has oak-lined walls, a very expensive feature. This runs contrary to Victorian building styles, which would generally have put this kind of material on the ground floor, where guests would be able to enjoy it.

Within a few years, Ms. Bell and her group hope the farmhouse will “celebrate everything a farm was, and the part it played in an agricultural community” like Wilton, she said.

Request for donations

After Betty Ambler died, many of her belongings of value were auctioned off. Many contain sincere historical value, and may have ended up in the hands of Wilton residents, Ms. Bell said.

With the completion of the farmhouse approaching, Ms. Bell and the Friends of Ambler Farm hope to put out a request to area residents to donate their Ambler Farm purchases back to the house.

“If you’ve ever bought anything from the farm,” Ms. Bell said, “and would like to donate it back, it would be a great addition to our collection. We would really like to make the farm as ‘Ambler’ as possible.”

Click the link below to watch a free video tour of the Ambler Farmhouse featuring Rich Vail, project architect, and Ambler Farm executive board member, Terry Scarborough.