In 1933, a Kentucky antiques dealer who’d come by some elaborate 18th-century interior paneling scored a good mid-Depression deal by selling it to Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Palladian-style paneling, which is still part of a permanent exhibit in the museum’s American Wing, supposedly came out of the Benjamin Hasbrouck house, a 1752 stone house near High Falls, Ulster County. Although the museum’s experts agreed that the paneling originated in the Hudson Valley, whether it came from the Hasbrouck house was in doubt. It wasn’t until 2003 that curators visited the building and found clear evidence that the paneling had once formed half of a 20-foot length surrounding a fireplace. (The other half has yet to surface.)
Edward Katz, an ardent American history enthusiast, was in the process of buying the stone house when the curators returned in 2007 to do more analysis. He was already in love with the place because of its unusual configuration, and learning about the paneling sent him further, he says, into “hog heaven.” Although the house needed considerable restoration work — more than he’d imagined, it turned out — Katz decided he wanted to restore that museum-quality paneling.
Left: Dentil molding, fluted pilasters, and raised panels are among the fine details in the replicated paneling. The view down the hallway offers a glimpse of how the Colonial rooms at the rear of the house give way to more elegant, Federal-style rooms in the front.
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Nobody knows who built the house, although Katz believes the initials “IBV” scribed into one wall (along with the date 1752) might stand for Jacob Bevier; “I” was commonly used in place of “J,” and the Flemish-style paneling suggests it was made for a Huguenot rather than one of the Dutch families settling the area. Why the original owner — whoever he was — added such fine and costly detailing to a relatively simple country dwelling; and how a craftsman capable of such highly skilled work came to be in agrarian Ulster County, are also mysteries.
The first known owner, Benjamin Hasbrouck, acquired the house in 1802, and enlarged it shortly afterwards. Rather than add on laterally, in the usual way, Hasbrouck tore off the front, raised the roof about two feet, and created a more symmetrical Federal-Colonial style dwelling, two rooms deep. It was during that expansion that the paneling to the left of the fireplace had to be removed. What Katz finds particularly interesting is that Hasbrouck, evidently a man of considerable means, kept the Colonial interiors of the original rooms in the rear while adding more elegant, Federal-style rooms in front.
“It was those two different styles representing the two eras that attracted me to the house in the first place,” Katz says. “It’s charming. He left the old, exposed beams and what must have seemed almost quaint paneling — he obviously appreciated it. He spared no expense on the rest of the house, so it was obviously a clear choice on his part.”
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Katz painted the library’s circa-1910 paneling in shades of blue that were popular at the time the house was built
Katz, who has a costume jewelry business in New Jersey, and his wife, Carla Ullman, moved into the Hasbrouck house in early 2008. And the work, Katz remarks, has been “nonstop since day one.” First came what he calls “an epic battle with termites” that had done serious damage to the downstairs floors and the beams in the cellar, abetted by beetles and rot. Finding workers willing to restore the beams proved to be the first obstacle. “I interviewed a couple of contractors who suggested I start over, and use laminates and whatever modern product they could think of,” Katz says. By chance, he found Brian Kennedy, a restoration expert whose company, Historic Housewrights in Accord, NY, specializes in saving “ordinary” historic homes by dismantling and moving them. “He was the first one to say the beams can be saved and should be saved. His enthusiasm was infectious,” adds Katz, who is so enamored of the house himself, you can imagine enthusiasm reaching fever pitch when he and Kennedy got together. “It was a great partnership,” Katz allows.
Kennedy rebuilt the 18th-century timbers by digging out the termite damage and filling in the gaps with epoxy — a nerve-wracking business considering the extent of the damage. “The fireplace support seemed to be standing up by memory alone; it was a miracle it hadn’t come down,” Katz remarks.
The master bedroom in the garret (above) reflects Colonial simplicity, with a turnip-stiled bed from the early 1800s. Wallpaper in the adjacent room (below), which doubles as a dressing and sitting room, features a print from the Federal period. The deer’s head on the chimney breast is carved wood
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The downstairs floors had rotted beyond salvaging, so Katz replaced them with reclaimed heart pine. Except for the kitchen, every room on the first floor was replastered, and the ceilings got a veneer of Venetian plaster to make them look like the originals. “Benjamin used such fine plaster it was almost glass-like,” says Katz. Benjamin? “I feel like I’ve gotten to know him from the choices he made,” Katz says with a laugh. “I can feel his hand in design decisions and in the idiosyncrasies of the house. Like the step down in the library room — he wanted to distinguish that space.”
What Katz calls the library was where the paneling once existed. When the house was modernized in the late 1920s, the remaining asymmetrical pieces were removed and eventually made their way to the Kentucky antiques dealer. New paneling was installed, which Katz kept for its own historic merit. He decided to replicate the original, elaborate paneling around the fireplace in an adjoining room that had been lined with beadboard in the 1970s. “Ripping that out, we found traces of the original chair rails in the dining room, so then we decided we had to redo the dining room,” Katz says. “That’s how the dominoes keep falling. But the more we learned, the more it would have been a crime not to put an equal amount of work back in.” (Carla thinks “it’s nutty,” he adds, “but she’s supportive.”)
Master carpenters Jerry Vis and his son, Ben, whose Rosendale company, Cottage Industries, has tackled many a period restoration, took on the task of creating a replica of the paneling. The Met allowed them to visit on a Monday when the museum is closed so that they could photograph the details and get precise measurements. “They even let us touch it,” says Jerry Vis. The Met experts claim the paneling is made of gumwood, although Vis thinks it’s more likely black walnut, which is what was used for the copy. “I’m in no position to disagree with the Met, but gumwood is a southern wood,” he notes.
The small extension on the end of the house contains the kitchen and garret bedroom. The owner believes it originally may have been a separate summer kitchen that was connected to the main house at some point. Close inspection reveals the different stonework on the house’s exterior: the rubble-fill fieldstone of the original dwelling, and the more dressed stone on the front that was part of the 1806 extension
The paneling involves 31 different molding profiles, fluted pilasters, crown molding with dentils, two cupboards, and considerable decorative detailing. “It was a massive project,” says Vis, particularly as Katz decided to have the Vis team extend the paneling around the room. Both carpenters were excited about the unusual work. “In most cases, raised panels are held in place by a frame,” says Vis. “In this case, the paneling is applied on top and the molding on the frame holds the panel in place. Whoever did it had a great eye, and was an extremely skillful worker, especially since it was all made with hand planes. I think it’s an exceptional design. Very juicy!” It took about three months for the Vis team to complete the work, after which it was antiqued and varnished to match the original finish.
Bathroom and kitchen renovations are still to come, and should be mostly cosmetic. “But who knows, considering the way things have gone,” Katz gaily remarks. “It’s been both a particular joy and a headache, because we’ve been forced to get down to the bones of the house. We’ve seen almost every square inch of the structure. It was a great chance to appreciate the work that went into it, especially when you consider the tools people had back then. It’s awe-inspiring.” He looks around. “This is living history,” he adds.