Marianne Sutton has experienced more stress restoring the historic William Kemble summer home in Cold Spring than she did serving with Doctors Without Borders in Africa.
“This has been more challenging and difficult than saving a dying child in a war zone and getting shot at,” she said, which happened to her in 2012 during a period of unrest in the Ivory Coast.
Her ire is directed at unreliable people who “don’t do what they say they’re going to do,” she said. Doctors and nurses in Africa never disappeared for weeks on end with “no phone call, no email, and no excuse.”
Despite the frustrations, she and her husband, David Watson, also a retired pediatrician, are engaged in a labor of love, as their attention to detail attests.
The couple is bringing back the old house, known as The Cottage, to its former glory after decades of neglect.
“The connection is emotional, not rational,” said Watson. “We fell in love with the history.”
Built circa 1826 as a summer home by William Kemble, co-founder of the West Point Foundry along with his brother, Governeur Kemble, who lived nearby, the house fell into extreme disrepair by the 1950s. Abandoned refrigerators and broken beer bottles littered the grounds: “We even found a dead bird stabbed into the ground with a knife,” said Sutton.
Architecturally lackluster from the outside, the property represents a “grand house on a small scale,” said Watson.
The home represents the “only remaining vestige of the pre-Civil War foundry,” said Watson, the nation’s first large scale industrial site, which supplied pig iron to the fledgling nation and helped win the Civil War by forging cannons and ammunition.
“I really appreciate the ebb and flow of history and how it affects people today,” said Watson. “Right here,” he says, pointing down the slope toward the former foundry grounds, “this country shifted from an agrarian economy to and industrial giant and then the world’s economic powerhouse.”
The house — along with that of Governeur Kemble, which burned down many years ago — hosted a who’s who of 19th century celebrities, including generals Robert E. Lee and Winfield Scott, President Martin Van Buren, writer Washington Irving, and painter Asher B. Durand.
The diary of William Kemble’s daughter, Ellen, records a terse account of the time Abraham Lincoln visited on June 24, 1862, after he took a ferry across the river from West Point: “President Lincoln walked on our piazza, shook hands on his way to Uncle Gouv’s + The Foundry.”
David Watson and Marianne Sutton
The goal of the restoration is to “take it back to early 19th century as much as possible and also be as environmentally friendly as we can,” said Sutton.
That includes burrowing 499 feet into the ground to tap into thermal energy and adding Tesla-made solar tiles onto the roof, which look like asphalt shingles and passed muster with the Historic District Review Board.
The couple also added a wing, separated by the historic home with an airy, two-story structure, where they will live. And, they spruced up the stable and added an in-ground pool. Cedar clapboard will clad the edifice.
Inside, they plan to restore the brick oven and hearth in the basement, along with a large cabinet. The fireplaces and crown molding will also get a spruce-up, but the distinctive federal-style banisters that line the staircases are still solid after all these years.
Careful attention has been paid to the custom-made windows and the pocket doors on the ground level, which resemble the ones that slide into the walls at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home.
“The profile of the windows are vitally important to recreate the character of the house,” said Sutton.
Built with no nails, the house is held together by beams and wooden pegs, some of which are currently exposed. The original architect designed it to sway in the wind so “things wouldn’t crack,” said Sutton.
She took it on herself to restore the rim locks, which fit outside the thin interior doors. “Mr. Google has all the answers,” she said.
The interior furnishings are long gone, but they have photos of what it used to be during the late 1800s. And they visit the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get ideas. Lucky for them the antique market has cratered: They located two federal-style chandeliers for $80.
“It’s wonderful that this property landed in the hands of individuals who care about telling the story of its history and have the means to restore it to a faithful representation of what the house would’ve been like in its heyday,” said Mark Forlow, the historian of Philipstown and Cold Spring.
Despite its age, along with the alterations and neglect it has endured, “a lot of the detail is still there,” said Forlow.
The couple has opened up the interior, which had been chopped into smaller units. The home will serve as a bed and breakfast so the couple can pay the taxes and maintain the grounds, which they estimate will cost $100,000 every year.
A sitting room with a pool table and a dining room will occupy the two rooms on the ground floor. The couple added bathrooms to the two upstairs rooms, where guests will stay.
They have lived in Sydney, Vienna, London, Boston and Africa and plan to keep their Manhattan apartment. He hails form Australia. She is half American and half French and grew up in Vienna.
When they bounded out of their construction trailer wearing the same sweaters — navy blue with white horizontal stripes — they smiled and said, “we’re a team.”
The couple has undertaken light restoration projects before, including an apartment in Sydney and a 1950s home in Concord, Mass., which had to pass scrutiny by the local historic commission.
Nothing, however, like The Cottage: “This is many times more arduous and complicated,” said Sutton. “We knew nothing when we delved into it and it has been unexpected and financially painful.”
They looked for a country home for two years, including in Montauk and upstate, but this one conformed to their requirements: being within walking distance to a downtown and the train along with providing a view.
The southwestern exposure offers a sweeping vista of Foundry Cove, Constitution Island, the Hudson River and West Point. Metro-North trains rumble by at their feet, a stone’s throw from the front porch.
They bought the home and nine acres of land for $850,000 in June 2017 from Scenic Hudson and started work last April.
The deed came with conservation easements — they can’t subdivide the property or cut down any trees — all of which they are happy to uphold.
Renovations should cost around $2 million and the initial schedule called form them to be completed by Christmas, but that scenario is unlikely.
Visitors will have to wait, but the couple plans to open the house to the community. The Putnam Historical Museum will hold its annual lawn party there and they plan to host historic recreations with costumed actors, all to make history come alive as much as possible.
“If you look on Airbnb, people aren’t just looking for a place to stay overnight,” said Sutton. “They’re seeking experiences and we’re going to try and teach about the history in a contemporary way. We want to give people the impression that they’re stepping into the 19th century.”