Saving the Farm
For one couple, making over an old-time Ulster County house meant keeping it much the same
The same old: The restored facade on the Federalist-style farmhouse looks much as it has since that part of the dwelling was added in the 1800s. The porch on the right ties the original house to a new wing in the rear
Photographs by Philip Jensen-Carter
When a professional environmentalist sells her farm to another professional environmentalist (who also happens to be an old friend), it’s not so surprising that they’d devise a plan to keep the land from being developed. That’s what happened when Bob Anderberg and his wife, Elaine Laflamme, bought their 31-acre Ulster County farm in 2003. Anderberg, who has been smitten with the Shawangunk region since he clapped eyes on it as a 15-year-old, is vice president and general counsel for the Open Space Institute, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to protect natural, scenic areas. The farm’s previous owner, Barbara L., works for a similar organization in New Jersey.
The kitchen, which occupies the oldest part of the house, has counters made of terra cotta New York slate, says Laflamme, who had the cabinets painted white on one side and eggplant on the other
Replacement flooring is salvaged vintage chestnut. The dividing wall, just visible at left, helps define the space
“Barbara and I shared visions of what the property should look like for the next 100 years,” Anderberg says — which is to say, much as it had looked for the previous hundred. Anderberg explains the conservation easement they agreed upon: “Elaine and I own the property, and it’s private. But we’ve transferred the development rights to Mohonk Preserve, so we can’t do any real-estate subdivision, or build houses in the fields, or use the property commercially. We were allowed a modest expansion on the farmhouse, but the easement told us the location and the size.”
Over the centuries, the house, the oldest part of which dates to the 1700s, belonged to a succession of families whose names are familiar in Ulster County, Schoonmakers and Depuys among them. The most recent occupant had been Barbara’s uncle Wally, a bachelor dairy farmer (and by all accounts a beloved local character) who lived there his whole life, and kept it up as best he could, if only by bachelor dairy-farmer standards.
Open and airy: Still in its original spot, the staircase visually separates the dining room and the hanging-out area in the downstairs open plan
When Wally died in 2001, Barbara, who owned the house but didn’t want it for herself, waited for buyers who would fit into the tight-knit little community on the hill. “Everyone’s related or they’ve known each other for a gazillion years,” notes Anderberg. “Also, Barbara’s mother owns a house adjacent to the farm that Barbara will inherit someday, and she wanted to make sure she had a neighbor she liked.”
Anderberg and Laflamme had raised their son in an eyebrow colonial not far from the farm, but it was set on steep, wooded land, and they wanted to move somewhere more open. “Word got out that we were looking, and Barbara said, ‘What about Wally’s place?’ ” Laflamme recalls. “We just loved it.”
Today, she looks at old pictures of the property and marvels that she was blind to its flaws. “Obviously I saw something beautiful there that nobody else could see. I’d bring people over and they’d look at me...” Not wanting to offend, Laflamme searches for the right words to describe the condition. “Let’s just say maintenance had been deferred,” she says.
A side view of the house shows how the stone-walled kitchen was built into the hill, which allows the second floor living room above it to have a porch that’s still on the ground
One crucial aspect of deferred maintenance was the foundation, which Anderberg tactfully describes as “inadequate.” In fact, the house was situated more or less directly on the ground, and rising moisture over the years had rotted posts, beams, and flooring. Siding and many of the windows also had to be replaced. “Essentially, it needed to be rebuilt,” Anderberg concedes. And it needed to be rebuilt with those self-imposed restrictions in mind.
The house was jacked up and supported on steel columns while a crawl space was dug and a true foundation added. And that was the start of an overhaul that took four years to complete.
The couple had renovated a brownstone in Brooklyn, as well as the colonial house, so Laflamme — who is also a lawyer — felt confident she could handle the design decisions. “It sounded so easy when I was sitting at my desk,” she says, laughing at herself. “But it was a much bigger task than I’d imagined. Before, we’d worked with contractors who’d say, ‘Choose A, B, or C.’ This time, we were much more involved, going out to find materials. There are so many pieces in a house — who knew? I also tried to use old things we found lying around, and that was hard, too.” (One of those old things, a long stainless-steel sink once used to wash milk bottles, looks wonderful and very current in one of the bathrooms.)
Original accents: In the new wing, the summer master bedroom (above) has French doors leading to a small terrace carved into the hill. In the winter master bath (below), Laflamme used an old door she found in the barn, with cobwebs and spiders still attached when it was installed, she says
Today, the white clapboard house is a little taller than before because of the new foundation, and there’s a new wing, but it’s otherwise much the same. Inside, the original staircase still rises through the center of the house to the second floor, although the walls that once carved the downstairs into several rooms are gone, leaving a flowing open plan that’s tailored for the parties the couple loves to throw. “You could put the food upstairs and people would just bring it to the kitchen,” says Laflamme of the incurable habits of guests. “So I’ve given up and made the kitchen a place where I don’t have to worry about anyone being underfoot.”
The staircase and one divider wall visually separate sitting, dining, and kitchen areas without blocking light. The divider has back-to-back cupboards, although when Laflamme throws open one set of doors you see there’s no space inside at all. “This backs onto the refrigerator, and it was supposed to be narrow shelves for spices, but I bought a bigger fridge,” she cheerfully announces.
Despite such minor glitches, the place is a well-built, well-thought-out, comfortable home. Anderberg has high praise for the craftsmen who did the work. “We hired two local builders — David Schoonmaker and Bob Smith — who are nothing less than brilliant,” he declares. “They quickly divined what Elaine wanted, and they executed it flawlessly. These guys know how to build things.”
(Coincidentally, Smith’s great aunt once lived in the house. Doug Countryman, who redid all the stone work, was another craftsman whose mason ancestors had connections to the property.)
The new wing represents the biggest change. The summer master bedroom (there’s a cozy winter one upstairs) and a new bathroom occupy the first level. Part of the hill was excavated to make way for the wing, and now French doors lead to a small terrace that’s enclosed by a hefty retaining wall studded with metal farm implements used to hang plants. Upstairs in the new wing, there’s a guest bedroom and bath. In the old part, the second floor configuration is as it was, with three small bedrooms, now decorated for guests.
A place to relax: The hanging-out area near the kitchen is made cozy in winter by the woodstove, and airy in summer, thanks to the heavy, industrial French doors the couple (left) installed
For the four bathrooms, Laflamme used the same New York slate in different combinations of the colors it comes in: terra cotta, black, a purplish tone, and green-grey. “I’d made so many decisions at that point, I just couldn’t make another one,” she says.
Furnishings are an eclectic blend of traditional, Arts and Crafts, rustic, and some vintage pieces from Anderberg’s mother, whose collection of primitive paintings adds a dash of country charm to the mix.
It’s evident that the cost of the renovation must have exceeded the value of the house. “It’s not cheap to do a reconstruction,” Anderberg allows. “It was totally a labor of love. But clearly, we’ll stay here forever... I’d always loved this farm and the beautiful little valley it’s in.”
Getting into the farming spirit, Anderberg remarks that it might be nice to grow crops one day. Laflamme has pastoral dreams of her own.“We may make the big barn into a party space,” she says. “There’s nothing like a good barn dance.”