From Sawmill to Victorian Showplace

Water is a compelling element — first, when our country was young as the source of power and transportation, and now, after technology has taken a different twist, for its sheer beauty. A sawmill built by a river dam in Windham has weathered that transformation.

The mill is referred to in accounts as early as 1750. Over the next 100 years, it changed hands and produced power for various industries — from worsted yarn to cotton mattresses. A leveling fire, and then another fire, intervened before it was again rebuilt to power a variety of industries. This time — nails, cider and umbrellas.

In 1926, a Mrs. Rankin purchased the property and in 1968 she remodeled the upstairs as a residence and restored the mill to an earlier state. After several more owners, it was purchased by William Korsak. He saw the potential. The flowing water that once powered a mill would make a lovely backdrop for a home.

The property was built up on a grand scale, and with more than a nod to the past. Korsak’s vision included a stone façade, similar to the remaining walls, a bell tower, a grand portico, an adjoining three-car garage and over 10,000 square feet of living space. But time took another turn, and Korsak sold the property after just a few years.

The late 1980s real estate bust brought the new owner down hard, and the property was sold at auction. The next owner also envisioned it as a grand spot for a home. But his wife, a mother with small children, did not want to live by the water. Too risky.

So the home with the grand exterior was converted to office space — complete with commercial carpeting and fluorescent lights. It stayed that way for the next several years.

Finally, the property and its caretaker were properly matched. In 1994, a national building contractor from Massachusetts and his wife were looking for a large-scale property with historical importance. The Millhouse could fulfill their dream.

What to do first! The basic layout and many fine details were in place, including a spiral staircase, but there was much more to do. The new owners wanted the interior of the home to reflect the romance of the past. Dentil moldings and other architectural accents were given Federalist-period detail. Over the next couple years their zeal left no floorboard unturned. From the ceiling fixtures to the wide-pine floors to the historical wallcoverings, they merged their vision with the historical aspects of the house.

The kitchen was transformed into a Victorian dream. A tin ceiling, vintage-style lighting, faux painting and brickwork all added to the feel of authentic detailing. The red enamel Aga gas range, with four ovens and burners that are always at temperature for simmer or boil, added modern conveniences to historic charm. Serving as a backsplash above the range is a custom granite etching of the mill falls in the rear of the property. The warm distressed-pine cabinetry supplies storage space and conceals a Sub-Zero refrigerator, two microwave ovens and a LCD TV. The large, custom-work table adds plenty of space for party preparations. A stainless steel sink was replaced with a farmers-style model, over which a large picture window was framed in. The water view is priceless.

The architectural details of the interior throughout the home are enhanced with the abundance of period furnishings and collectibles. The three-generation family collection is enhanced with purchases from antique shops up and down the East Coast.

Beyond the kitchen on the first floor is a dining area, where the table is set with Spode dinnerware. The floor in this part of the home is the original pine flooring. The owner was careful to keep the boards “cupped” to show their age. A regular sanding job would have destroyed the patina and aging of more than 100 years.

The adjacent living area has a formal parlor, complete with a white Whipple settee and antique square piano. The imported wallpaper adds a rich backdrop to the authentic furnishings, which include “Gone with the Wind” and Tiffany lamps. A table, suitable for a game of cards, sits in front of the fireplace, one of more than seven working fireplaces in the home. Beyond that seating area is a “gentleman’s retreat” styled in deep rich red tones, the perfect spot to mingle with friends, maybe sit back and puff on a cigar or sip brandy.

A grand circular staircase leads to the second floor. Lining the walls is a custom mural created by Pamela Cramer and Cindy Pizzano. It took the artists more than nine weeks to complete the English garden scene that embeds references to the owner’s personality and past.

Upstairs, each of the four bedrooms is uniquely appointed. One is almost a Victorian museum — with the owners’ Victorian-style wedding dress, dolls, furniture, tea sets and a myriad of small collectibles displayed. Another corner of the house hosts a Colonial room, featuring a four-poster canopy bed, a maple high-boy, settees and a few reproductions and more collectibles. “Madeline’s” room is filled with the wonder of childhoods past. The master bedroom looks out over the pond and falls. The master bath has additional light from a stained glass clerestory. The lower level has a family room with a state-of-the-art entertainment system where once the machinery of another era stood. Beyond the main house is an Andirondack-style guest house over the three-car garage. The buildings are adjoined with a bell-tower that is part of the 1980s rebuilding. The small room at the top affords a panoramic view of the property and pond. Within view is the owners’ par three, six-hole golf course, complete with clubhouse. In all, the property now encompasses approximately 23 acres and includes all rights to the mill pond.

Most recently, the water wheel was reconstructed and placed in the proper position near the falls. The wheel is only ornamental now, but a modern turbine in the water chase provides electricity for the home and a bit more to give back to the power company.

So the Millhouse has survived yet another iteration, another story worthy of the telling. Its past and present are bound and reflect the transformation of the age. The gracious interior pays homage to the past in a way that couldn’t have been imagined in 1750. Here, time flows like water over a millwheel, empowering residents to reconsider the grace and beauty of bygone days, and give them new life — this time in the comfort and efficiency of a 21st century home. NH

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