When I first laid eyes on Sparrow House, I had no idea what kind of house it was, I just knew it was exactly what I’d been looking for. It was Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and after losing yet another beautiful Victorian to another buyer, I was beginning to think this whole house thing wasn’t going to work out. But all of a sudden, there it was. Michael walked into the kitchen in our little one bedroom and said: “I found your house.” And he was right. It was a fairy-tale cottage straight out of a storybook with some serious Gothic, Beetlejuice vibes. It was the haunted dollhouse of my dreams. A place teeming with stories. A beautiful mystery. Peering through each dusty window left me with a deeply uncanny feeling which is my most favorite feeling of all. Maybe it was growing up in Maine, with its ghost stories and Stephen King folklore, but its the feeling I'm most at home with. The house held decades upon decades of secrets, and I wanted to unravel them all one by one.
In retrospect, that uncanny feeling is really probably due to its construction - the funny thing about Sparrow House is it may look symmetrical, but if you're really looking at it, it isn't at all. The left side is longer than the right, the windows are all askew, the trim mismatched, the siding all wonky. The floorplan looks like a perfect square, and yet its not. Not quite. There’s something folksy and charming and altogether haunted about the place and I couldn't get it out of my mind. The whole thing felt very Alice in Wonderland, my decision to buy it most of all.
What I don't know about architecture, I make up for in scrappy curiosity and practical do-it-yer-selfing. My father built most of our house growing up, and because I was the oldest of 5 kids, I was the one large enough to help. So I have a general understanding of how things should be put together. I know enough to see when things are done badly or if I’m being taken for a ride. There is also that thing called Youtube which makes it possible to learn how to do anything through trial and error. My favorite thing! So I decided to go on this house adventure doing as much of it myself with the help of my family, my friends and the community. And the stuff we don’t have the expertise or the time for, I'll find someone with the skills to do it right.
So let’s get down to basics: I already had my offer accepted and a contract signed when I realized I knew zilch about the house’s history. I had no idea what kind of Victorian it was; I hadn't even taken a drive through the town. I'd seen it listed somewhere as a “Gingerbread Victorian” which didn’t sound quite right, and the place didn't look like your standard Queen Anne so I decided to do some Googling. Very quickly, I learned Sparrow House is what you call a Carpenter Gothic Victorian. In the 1840s and 50s, when the skill saw became a thing, people started adding elaborate, wooden trim and steep, peaked gables to basic farmhouses and cottages. It was a way to get the Gothic Revival look on a budget, so really, the whole style was born out of your everyday carpenter finding a way to make some quick money. Which sounds just about my speed. The guy who pioneered the concept in the Hudson River Valley was an architect named Andrew Jackson Downing, and lo and behold, both his books on the subject are still for sale today! I Amazon-ed Victorian Cottage Residences and The Architecture of Country Houses immediately since they each contained about 30 floorplans which had to be good for something.
According to Downing, 5 things characterize Carpenter Gothics:
#1. Steep, Gothic Peaks. Check.
#2. Bargeboard. (This is the wooden edging on the eaves that protects the steep gables and also covers up the edge of the roof.) Check.
#3. Gingerbread trim. Check.
#4. Board and Batten siding. Hmm...not so much.
#5. Elaborate front porches. Also mysteriously absent.
Other than that, these homes are just your run-of-the-mill farmhouses. But after poring through each and every floorplan in these books, Sparrow House only became stranger and stranger.
First, it has three stories plus an attic instead of two which doesn't appear to be common at all. Second, as previously noted, its asymmetrical. (Also not common). Third, its missing a front porch which seems odd. I am also curious to know more about the brick back wall of the house with the second fireplace. The brick wall extends past the house where a garage or barn once stood. Why only one exposed brick wall? What was this house's function? Who had it built? Who owned it? Who lived there?
After speaking with the sellers, I learned the house actually did have a porch originally, but it was torn down when they bought it in the 70s. I also learned that the back room was the original kitchen where the family’s hired help prepared meals over a coal or woodstove.
So this is what we know about Sparrow House now. But I’ve only just fallen down the rabbit hole.