What’s Old Is New Again

Appleton Farms - What's Old is New

Learn More

Learn more about the Appleton Farms Old House renovation.

Jane Roy Brown is a writer and member of The Trustees based in western Massachusetts.

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Special Places.

By Jane Roy Brown

The Old House at Appleton Farms boasts a paneled fireplace wall built in the 1680s, a closet dating from 1794, a bay window put in during the 1880s – and a solar hot water heater, a biomass boiler, heat exchangers, and a kitchen with new stainless-steel appliances.

Appleton Farms - Old HouseAfter three years and extensive renovations, the Old House has been transformed as The Trustees’ latest “deep-energy retrofit,” an existing building modified to reduce energy use by 50–75 percent. “The greenest building is one that already exists, but the reality is most people choose new construction over renovations due to the perceived lower cost,” says Wayne Castonguay, The Trustees’ statewide agricultural director. “This building had also been abandoned since the 1980s and was severely deteriorated. But it’s the last surviving building here occupied by a member of the Appleton family, and it holds their story.”

That story began in 1636, when Samuel Appleton settled this land. His brother Isaac built the core of the Old House in 1688. During the next 150 years the family farms prospered. By the late 19th century, descendants were using the property mainly as a country estate, eventually building seven summer houses here. Still, they kept the land in agriculture. Colonel Francis R. Appleton, Jr., and his wife Joan were the last of nine generations of this family to own – and care for – Appleton Farms. After her husband died, in 1974, Mrs. Appleton continued to live in the Old House until the late 1980s.

“The house and its collections tell the story of one family’s change from farmers to gentleman farmers over the course of 371 years,” says Rebecca Campbell, chair of the Appleton Farms Historic Resources Committee and member of the Old House Fundraising Committee, in addition to serving on The Trustees’ statewide Historic Resources Committee and Board of Directors.

Lily Hsia, who served on the Old House Fundraising Committee with Campbell, also feels good about keeping the Appletons’ history in place. “Some things you just can’t let go by. This renovation just had to be done,” she says.

Saving the Old House was about more than preserving the past, though. The project provided the opportunity to once again make this family home the heart of the farm by opening it as a visitor and program center and a research library. And, what better way to begin a new chapter in the Old House story than by revitalizing it as a model of sustainable design?

With Campbell, a crew of seven other passionate volunteers raised most of the $1.5 million needed for the renovation, including an endowment, in about three years. Not everything could be saved – a wing and the third floor were demolished. But the renovation preserved layers of history, from the handhewn timbers, heart-pine floorboards, and Victorian-era windows to decorative moldings and mementos. The newly opened visitor center includes furniture, portraits, photo albums, books, and other objects original to the house on the first floor, giving visitors a glimpse into family life from the 1700s to today. The second floor holds staff offices and meeting space.

Allsopp Design, an experienced green design and construction firm based in Hamilton, teamed with the Appleton Farms staff and volunteers. Through ingenuity, plus the donation of time and equipment by firm principal Jeffrey Allsopp, they toed the budget line while creating a “zero-net-energy” building, one that creates as much renewable energy as it consumes, and aimed for a platinum rating, the highest awarded by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a program of the U.S. Green Building Council), and one rarely achieved in a renovation.

The Old House now makes its own solar electricity and hot water, and the latter system (donated by Solesqua, Allsopp Design’s solar division) uses a photovoltaic-powered back-up tank on cloudy summer days. “The biomass boiler, an ultra-efficient, clean-burning outdoor woodstove, is the winter back-up,” Allsopp explains. On cold days when the boiler isn’t stoked, air-source heat pumps will protect the building from freezing; although with super-insulated walls, floors, and ceilings, the danger is slim. Visitors won’t see many of these innovations just by looking – they’re hidden in the attic, behind finished walls, or under the floorboards. Instead, when they gather here for a workshop or a program, or simply stroll through these rooms on a casual visit to the farm, they’ll take in the expansive view of the pastures from the front porch, peek into that closet from 1794, and savor the afternoon light streaming in from that 1880s-era bay window – just as generations of Appletons did before them.