The Constant Restorationist
Call it a passion or call it obsession, but whatever keeps Doug Towle focused on finding and restoring buildings of the past is a gift to the present.
In his 18th-century carriage shed with a view of the 1600s Pilgrim House through hand-blown windows, Doug Towle straightens wrought-iron rosehead nails that were salvaged from old buildings. His backdrop is a display of antique wooden pulleys, an old coffee grinder, a schoolhouse clock, hat and shoe molds,and a variety of folk art by Jim Lambert of Hillsborough.
Doug Towle had just finished his 15th restoration — an old store — and was sure it was going to be his last when there was a knock on his door. The owner of a Pilgrim house, built in 1665 and in the family for 12 generations, was looking to sell it.
The historical society of Billerica, Mass., had tried to legally stop them, hoping they could find a way to keep it. Pilgrim period homes — also known as First period or William and Mary period — were built by the earliest settlers, and this house was built 45 years after the Mayflower landed. But they had no funds to support the house, and the family won a court order allowing them to sell it.
They learned of Towle’s reputation as a restorationist who was passionate — some might even say obsessed — about every detail of his projects, and they hoped he would want it. “At first I wasn’t interested,” says Towle, a vice president of marketing for Globe Manufacturing and a lifelong bachelor. “I was in my late 60s and didn’t want to take on the expense. But then I got to thinking. Twelve generations? Jeez, that’s really going back. That would be quite a challenge.”
So began his 16th project, which is now a pristine, bucolic homestead in Gilmanton, NH, where the Pilgrim house sits along with five other restored structures. The project will likely be considered the greatest achievement in Towle’s 40 years of restoring properties. Anyone who sees it seems to be both awestruck and curious. And they can’t help but ask, why does he do it? What drives someone to take on such a costly venture? “Some people are passionate about gardens or art or their families,” says Towle. “My life has been dedicated to this hobby, the restoration of old houses. It’s a legacy thing — along with my day job, it’s just my life’s work.”
This work began in his early 20s, when he had returned to Gilmanton after finishing college and grad school. A middle-aged couple who had befriended him showed him a newly restored Colonial they had just completed. He was an unlikely candidate to catch restoration fever since he didn’t like old houses.
One of 13 children, he grew up on an old farm that had hand-blown glass windows and wooden floors, and lacked modern conveniences like running water. “I envied my friends who had new construction — wall-to-wall carpeting, picture windows, stainless steel sinks. That’s what a nice house meant to me when I was young.”
But as he smelled the old wood and admired the details of his friends’ project, a fire was lit. “Even though I was only 20 years old and most guys that age couldn’t care less about houses, their enthusiasm was so contagious — about the Indian shutters, the floorboards, the stenciling, everything. It hit me that this was part of our heritage. Anyone could have a new home; only we in New England could have a piece of history.”
Not long after, he searched for his first house in the town where he lived. Luckily, Gilmanton has plenty since it has a long history but wasn’t industrialized. He found a center-chimney, two-and-a-half story Colonial. “It was the perfect house to start with,” says Towle. In less than two years, he restored the foundation, siding and windows, and used almost 300 gallons of paint remover to restore the wooden walls to their original condition.
And he still had to furnish it.
“I didn’t know anything about furniture, so then I learned all about that. This was a big ego-building time for me. Everyone stopped and commented, much more than if I had just built a new house. So I realized it touched everyone.”
With each of the next 15 houses he would restore, Towle’s knowledge and passion for every aspect of restoration grew: “It’s the hunt for me. Looking and talking to people for the materials to restore it.” Bringing a property to its original state means searching old properties for hand-cut granite, going to auctions, finding someone through word of mouth who has the handmade glass to finish a room.
“You have to go knocking door to door looking for these pieces, and it’s not always available,” he says. Pulling it all together is like a puzzle for him, and Towle is a purist who spares no expense in the pursuit. “You know when you take on a restoration that you are going to lose money. It’s like restoring old cars — you do it for the love of the process, you rebuild it yourself and you are not going to make your money back.” This may be an understatement; the Pilgrim house compound has cost Towle $2.4 million of his own money, and he just dropped the selling price to $1.5 million.
Towle first admired the spot where he wanted to put the Pilgrim house because of its expansive view of the Ossipee mountain range. He talked the owner into selling it and began the process of clearing the trees, which took over a year, even with a crew working seven days a week. Working with Justin Caldon of Four Corners Construction and Henry Page of Henry Page House Restoration, Page came up with the idea of contouring the land to make the driveway look like a country road with stonewalls on either side. Then they could move the earth to make a hill for the Pilgrim house to sit on, looking out over the mountains from the front, but having its unique saltbox silhouette visible from the side.
The long process of getting the land ready was extremely frustrating for Towle since he was spending way more than he had planned to. And he was getting bored. “I channeled my frustration in another direction and found a schoolhouse that belonged to the man I bought the land from. So it was the first structure that went up,” he says. Though the front had been cut out to make a salt and sand shed, he found a picture from an older resident in the town who used to be a teacher there and was able to restore it.
He used bricks he had dug up from the properties of 18th-century houses, and found $5,000 worth of handmade rosehead nails. He would pound out 100 per night himself. He filled the schoolhouse with period-appropriate school desks he bought after driving through the night to get to an auction in Washington, DC. Benches, hooks, handmade nails, antique maps, individual chalkboards and the teacher’s desk are all specific to this period and show the level of detail Towle delights in. The sense of stepping back in time would be complete if it weren’t for the electrical lighting and heat he had installed to make it more comfortable to visitors.
As they finished the schoolhouse, he was approached by someone who was looking for a home for a barn. It dated from the late 1700s and had been part of a Montessori school in Epsom. “I thought, gee, I love barns,” Towle recalls, “but I wanted to see it to make sure it was what I was looking for, in terms of size. I also wanted something hand-hewn. There is nothing wrong with sawed-off timber, but I think the hand-hewn offers something above and beyond the standard barn.”
The barn more than met his standards. They transferred it beam by beam, setting it on a reinforced foundation strong enough to handle several heavy vehicles. Now one of the most charming parts of the landscape, it was recently used as the location for a Pottery Barn catalog photo shoot.
When Towle decided he wanted to see the Vermont mountain range from the back of the property, a 40-foot-tall water tower from the early 1800s was also added. Originally used for irrigation, it has a handmade copper roof and had to be transferred in three pieces. Setting it on a reinforced foundation of hand-carved granite with lush shrubs and plants around the base, Towle admits he may have “gilded the lily.” And when a 1700s corn crib, a rare structure that colonists used for storing corn for planting, became available, it was added too.
On many of his previous home restorations, Towle liked to find a carriage house to put next to it since it functions as a garage. When he found one in Pittsfield that was “the most wonderful carriage shed I’ve ever seen in my life,” he begged the owner to sell it to him. Though it was leaking and listing when he found it, she didn’t want to sell it because of the birds that came there every spring.
But he persisted, and when she finally sold it to him, he moved it through the early morning with police cruisers on either end of the load. He put it on a concrete floor and reinforced the massive timbers and sheathing used in the roof as well as the beams held together with wooden pegs. Instead of birds, the roof is now home to a large collection of apple baskets, and ceramics from New Hampshire artists are on display before you enter the house.
In order to attach the carriage house to the Pilgrim house, an ell, or connecting structure from a 1790s house, was added. The ell became the kitchen and dining room for the main house, allowing Towle to add in modern conveniences like floorboard heating, a Sub-Zero freezer and a professional gas range. The beams in both the ell and the Pilgrim house were pit-sawn, meaning they dug a hole in the ground and laid the white pine log across it. One sawyer climbed into the pit and pulled down on the saw while another above, often standing on the log, pulled up. A double-thick door to barricade against Indians connects the ell to the Pilgrim house, complete with blacksmith-made strap hinges and bulls-eye glass windows along the top.
When the Pilgrim house finally went up, the last to be added even though it was the reason he had started this project, Towle could finally focus on the oldest restoration project he had ever attempted. Assembling a homestead that represented the period the house was built stoked his love of the hunt. Scouring estate sales, auctions and furniture lines that carried pieces that were period reproductions, he fully furnished the home. Pieces that are more than 300 years old — such as hand-carved cabinets, a Bible box ornately carved from dark oak and an antique Pilgrim refectory table — can be found around every turn. The focal point of the main room of the house, an enormous fireplace that would have been the heart and soul of the original homestead, has a fireback, or brick background, that dates from 1517. It is cluttered with artifacts that the pilgrims would have used in everyday life, including a pilgrim broom that is made from one stick, the circular bottom splayed out so firmly that it can stand on its own.
How could Towle accumulate so many rare artifacts? His answer is simple: You can’t take it with you. “I spend my time when I’m not restoring going to auctions,” he says. “When collectors of the Pilgrim or William and Mary period pieces die, there’s an auction. And I’m there.”
Seeing Towle give a tour of this compound, the realization of a vision he worked on for almost 10 years, gives a sense of why he does it. He’s a born teacher, and the joy of telling stories about history and the pieces he has found is something innate in him. When Globe Manufacturing clients come for tours of their facility, he always includes “half a day just to go out and learn about New England, to tour our history and see the beauty of this area.”
Often this includes Towle’s own restoration projects. “So many people tell me this was their favorite part of their trip,” he says, admitting that he enjoys the ego boost. But seeing the generosity in his work, his sincere desire to preserve history and then share it with others, suggests he is more paternal than egotistical.
But his interest in history does not suggest he likes to dwell with his restorations. “Once I have something done, it’s proven that I totally lose interest in it,” he says. “Good thing I never got married.”
So is the Gilmanton homestead really his last? He acknowledges that it would make sense to stop with this as a crowning achievement, since “the cost of redoing them today is much greater than it used to be and the materials aren’t there.” Even so, at 71, he just started working on a Federal Colonial in town. “I thought I would be done by now,” he says, “but like any obsession it is something that I can’t give up.”
And though a project may be finished to perfection, a life’s work is never truly done.