Written In Stone
A dedicated restorer creates a brand-new chapter for a house full of history
Photographs by Philip Jensen-Carter
All today‘s bells and whistles — honed black granite countertops, up-to-the-minute appliances, and directional spot lighting — blend harmoniously with old-time detailing in the kitchen. Hand-planed planks replace flooring destroyed in a fire
Rhinebeck resident Steven Levine has a passion for the past — for old paintings, for antique furniture, and, above all, for neglected historic homes. Over the years, he has rescued 11 old houses in the Hudson Valley, including Dutch colonial, Federal-style, and wood-frame structures. (One was subsequently bought by Robert De Niro.) Levine’s latest venture, a meticulous restoration of the 1690 Van Vechten homestead in Catskill, Greene County, showcases his particular passion for residences made of stone
“Old stone homes are organic, indigenous, built from local materials,” Levine explains. “They fit in — there’s no plastic.” For him, the appeal of historic architecture is not merely aesthetic; it’s emotional. “I’ve always felt connected to old homes,” he remarks. “The present terrifies me, while the past is kind of comforting.”
The Van Vechtens were a prominent Dutch family whose estate encompassed nearly 5,000 acres, says Levine. Family notables included a general, a colonel and five signers of the Coxsackie “declaration of independence,” a local precursor to the declaration signed by the Continental Congress about a year later. The property included a gristmill, a miller’s house, a schoolhouse, and several barns. The main house, situated in a picturesque spot where the Catskill Creek merges with the Kaaterskill, was painted by Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole (twice) as well as by Cole’s pupil, Frederic Church. (Church’s painting, The Van Vechten House, Catskill, hangs on a wall in Olana, his Moorish-inspired home in Hudson.)
When Levine came across the house a few years ago, however, its future was in doubt. “It needed everything — new plumbing, a new heating system, gutters, a cedar-shake roof,” he recalls. Rainwater had poured in through gaping holes in the roof, damaging the plaster walls. Fireplaces had been covered over, chimneys were falling apart, floorboards were buckled or rotting, and retaining walls were crumbling. Just 20 percent of the house had been wired for electricity. Outside, the gristmill had become dangerously unstable. “The house,” recalls Levine, “looked like it was falling down the hill.”
Relishing the challenge, Levine purchased the property in 2005 and set to work. By his side were workmen and craftspeople he’s used for years — people like Sam Phelps III of Walden, Orange County, whom Levine describes as a “Renaissance man” equally adept at stone masonry, carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing. “He’s the type of guy who, when he was seven years old, could take a tractor apart and put it together again,” Levine says with a laugh.
When restoring the house, Levine preserved everything he could. “I never remove anything original,” he insists. He reluctantly tore down the dilapidated gristmill — but used its stones to shore up the home’s retaining walls. Because a fire in the basement had burned up through the kitchen floor, he installed new hand-planed planks.
When it came to windows, Levine kept the old glass whenever possible. “The house has a mixture of original, 19th-century, and new reproduction glass,” he says. The new glass is manufactured by a German company, Blenheim, which has a distributor in New Jersey. “The company sells glass that’s almost clear, with just a few bubbles, up to smoky glass that you can hardly see through,” Levine says. In some cases, he used glass recycled from antique windows with rotted or broken frames.
In one of the bedrooms, located in the oldest part of the house, Levine lifted up the entire floor, replacing rotted boards. He had new ones made in the same thickness — two-and-a-half inches — and hand-colored them to match. In another bedroom, he so admired the look of a wall’s original lathing that he left it free of plaster. “I think it looks like sculpture,” he says of the network of exposed wooden strips.
Indeed, Levine brings an artist’s eye to all his restoration work, which is not surprising:
He studied fine arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art and once pursued a career as a painter. Today, he readily compares his houses to art projects. “I look for something that has views, or water, or something pleasing to look at, with the house framed in the middle,” he says. “And then I just take off with it.” His childhood home, a Victorian overlooking the Hudson River in Newburgh, was perhaps his earliest inspiration. “The house looked down at Cornwall, West Point and Bannerman Island,” he recalls. “Growing up, I had this incredible view right outside my door.”
The Catskill house is filled with antiques and artwork, many of them purchased locally. Art — including portraits by Ammi Phillips and landscapes by Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Doughty and Victor De Grailly — hangs on nearly every wall. “I started collecting art about 30 years ago,” says Levine. “I now have about 150 paintings.” He also has an impressive collection of hand-colored 18th- and 19th-century prints.
Walking through the house is like walking through a museum —although one that has all the comforts of a modern home, including stainless steel kitchen appliances, wireless Internet, cable, and 12-zone hot-water heating — not to mention sleekly designed bathrooms with shiny fixtures and Italian marble tiles. (When he purchased the house, plumbing was confined to one old kitchen and one ’50s-style bathroom.)
Because of his attention to detail, Levine doesn’t always make a profit on his projects.
“It’s my passion,” he says of his restoration work. “But with the passion sometimes comes pain.” In one particularly painful episode, a house he had just finished restoring in Rhinebeck burned to the ground — an emotionally devastating event that nearly led him to give up his penchant for makeovers. Luckily for the Van Vechten house, however, the lure of old homes proved irresistible.
Now that work on the Catskill house is almost complete, Levine is thinking ahead to his next project. He’s put the house on the market (“I think it would really lend itself to an antiques collector or connoisseur,” he says), and is making plans to move to another stone house, this one located on a hilltop overlooking the Berkshires in Milan, Dutchess County. He has already replaced the home’s mechanicals and restored the pergolas and outdoor fireplaces. In the meantime, he and his family are living in Rhinebeck, in a Carpenter Gothic called the Gables.
But on any given day Levine can still be found in Catskill, putting finishing touches on the latest old house he has brought back to life. His efforts have not gone unnoticed by surviving members of the Van Vechten family, some of whom still periodically stop by to visit the family graveyard and check out the ancestral home. “One man, a doctor from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, comes every year,” he marvels. “They all seem to have a connection to the place.” It’s a connection that Levine fully understands. ●