After restoring two historic Hudson Valley houses, Ben Shecter and George Barimo were up for a different kind of challenge Â¡Âª creating a home out of a 19th-century Columbia County barn
by John Breslin
Photographs by Randall Perry
From a distance, it could be mistaken for any old barn, typical of the simple, utilitarian structures that dot the Columbia County landscape. Inside, however, the building is anything but plain. In one room, a cozy arrangement of Windsor chairs and tavern tables adorned with pewter chargers and tankards recreates the atmosphere of an early Hudson Valley hostelry. In another, a formal setting of upholstered furniture evokes a comfortable 18th-century parlor. A planked staircase leads to the former hayloft, now bedrooms and bathrooms. Above everything are the buildingÂ¡Â¯s original hand-hewn beams.
The 19th-century barnÂ¡Â¯s transformation into a comfortable contemporary home is the work of Ben Shecter and George Barimo. A set designer, Shecter supplied the creative flair, while Barimo, a television producer, added his expertise in budgeting and overall supervision. Over the past 34 years, the pair have marshalled their design experience, artistic talents, and love of antiques to restore three historic Valley structures. And their passion for fine old things was the impetus for the recent opening of their new business, Town Hall Antiques, located in a 19th-century schoolhouse in nearby Ancram.
The pairÂ¡Â¯s knack of collecting superb architectural details is responsible for the barnÂ¡Â¯s special appeal. For example, they installed 18th-century paneling found in another Valley house, while the fireplaces that the men added to the structure are surrounded by early Dutch delft tiles.
The barn, says Shecter, Â¡Â°is an evocation of the past, but not a scholarly restoration of the past. People say itÂ¡Â¯s like stepping back in time. ItÂ¡Â¯s a barn Â¡Âª nobody has ever lived in it. So we try to create a friendly environment.Â¡Â±
That environment is defined by the astonishing assortment of antiques, each chosen with a keen collectorÂ¡Â¯s eye. Â¡Â°WeÂ¡Â¯re living with the things that we love,Â¡Â± says Barimo, who goes on to compare their quest for the right objects to an archaeological mission.
A Brooklyn native, Shecter began collecting at age eight, when his father started taking him to antiques shops around the city. Soon, he was using his allowance to buy small items Â¡Âª toys, paintings, bottles Â¡Âª some of which he still owns. This early love of old things, coupled with an interest in Hudson Valley history, has also influenced the style and content of the childrenÂ¡Â¯s books he has illustrated or written, a sideline of his set-designing career. Besides story-hour favorites like Molly Patch and Her Animal Friends and ConradÂ¡Â¯s Castle, Shecter wrote Great Uncle Alfred Forgets, a story about AlzheimerÂ¡Â¯s disease, which has been optioned for a feature film.
Barimo says it took him a bit longer to cultivate the collecting bug, but heÂ¡Â¯s clearly hooked now. Despite an illustrious background in various aspects of TV production (including stints with award-winning shows like The Adams Chronicles, The Doctors, and Kate and Allie), he feels that lifeÂ¡Â¯s true prize is finding a great antique.
Barimo and ShecterÂ¡Â¯s first house purchase, in 1970, was a 1680 Dutch stone dwelling in the Ulster County hamlet of Kripplebush. Soon realizing that owning an historic home is more than just a financial investment, the pair committed themselves to preserving the past with the help of extensive historical research, time, money, and planning. Â¡Â°It all had to do with preservation,Â¡Â± Shecter explains. Â¡Â°When you buy an antique home, it just dictates to you, Â¡Â®Listen, fix me up, shake me up.Â¡Â¯ You research and you go along in the right direction.Â¡Â± Yet the results of the effort, he says, bring Â¡Â°the unbridled joy of living in this reconstructed world.Â¡Â±
In 1989, they sold their Kripplebush home and soon found a new project: a 14-room, 7,500-square-foot Georgian stone house in nearby Kerhonkson. The first section was built in 1730, the main part in 1780, and a final extension was added in 1870. The structure included a center hall with a grand staircase, a huge ballroom, and seven fireplaces. The property also had a 10-stall horse barn, acres of farmland, and lots of landscaping. The house served as a residence for English children evacuated during World War II.
Â¡Â°The bones of the building were there,Â¡Â± Barimo remembers. Â¡Â°And it just called out to be restored. The people who owned it could not decide what to do with it. It needed work.Â¡Â±
Â¡Â°Basically, it was in a state of abandonment,Â¡Â± Shecter interjects.
Combining ShecterÂ¡Â¯s design genius and BarimoÂ¡Â¯s financial wizardry, they began a two-year restoration. The impressive results were featured on the cover of Colonial Homes magazine in 1997, which eventually led to yet another sale. Â¡Â°Someone saw the magazine,Â¡Â± Shecter remembers. Â¡Â°They contacted us. They said they were looking for this house all their lives.Â¡Â± And so Barimo and Shecter parted with it.
After 12 years of living in Kerhonkson with their treasures, Barimo and Shecter packed them into a dozen scattered storage bins. For over a year, the pair looked at more than 100 properties in Ulster, Dutchess, Greene, and Columbia counties. Emerging from a diner in Chatham one morning, they spotted a real estate snapshot of their next restoration challenge Â¡Âª the circa-1870 barn Â¡Âª on a bulletin board.
Â¡Â°The agent for the barn said it had just come back on the market after being tied up for six months,Â¡Â± recalls Barimo. Â¡Â°So she took us to see it, and we fell in love with it immediately.Â¡Â±
After two historic houses, why a barn? Â¡Â°It was challenging,Â¡Â± says Shecter. Â¡Â°We wanted to give it warmth and feeling, and make it a place to live in.Â¡Â± He adds that the building also appealed to them because it presented Â¡Â°an unorthodox sense of living: you donÂ¡Â¯t have the conformity of a regular house.Â¡Â±
First, however, it had to be made habitable. Â¡Â°Someone had made an attempt at doing something with it, but they had no understanding of antiquity,Â¡Â± says Shecter. Unsightly, industrial-looking beams that ran across windows and through rooms were removed. A cheap stab at plumbing also needed to be replaced. Â¡Â°There were really no signs of life,Â¡Â± adds Shecter. Â¡Â°It was a shell waiting to happen. This really turned it into magic.Â¡Â± Today, the interior looks like it has been inhabited for 200 years or more.
Eventually, Barimo and Shecter found that their passion for collecting was causing a space problem. On top of that, their expert taste led to buying for friends. Â¡Â°People would come to the house, see what we lived with, and say, Â¡Â®Gee, would you find something like this for us?Â¡Â¯ Â¡Â± Shecter remembers.
In the summer of 2003, they found another historic building begging for restoration Â¡Âª the former Ancram Town Hall. Built in 1862 as a two-room schoolhouse, the structure became the town hall in 1975 and was used for that purpose until last year. Â¡Â°This was a gem of a building, but in need of TLC,Â¡Â± says Barimo. Â¡Â°When we found it, the condition was strictly utilitarian. It was a great challenge to bring it back to its prime.Â¡Â±
The building sits on a grassy rise above a horse farm next to historic Union Cemetery. Shecter and Barimo agreed the classic Victorian Â¡Âª with its beautiful symmetry and rustic location Â¡Âª offered the perfect showcase for fine old furniture and period furnishings. With the opening of Town Hall Antiques, what started as a passion and then an Â¡Â°addictionÂ¡Â± has now become a part-time business. Eventually, they hope the shop will become a destination for those seeking authentic antiques with character. Â¡Â°The shopÂ¡Â¯s ambiance has a very individualistic flavor,Â¡Â± Shecter says. Â¡Â°ItÂ¡Â¯s a collage of furniture, objects that we like. So naturally, it has a very distinctive personality.Â¡Â±
And each client leaves with a personal guarantee, adds Barimo. Â¡Â°WeÂ¡Â¯ve never bought something that we didnÂ¡Â¯t love.Â¡Â± Â¡Ã¶