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`Hampstead’ restored to its earlier glory


by Tom Chillemi

House fires are devastating, usually.

But, in the case of historic “Hampstead” at Remlik in Middlesex County, a fire burned a wooden addition but spared the original circa 1750 historic section.

Closed shutters conceal an interior wall that covered over a window when the staircase was widened.

The home’s original architecture was truly revealed when fire demolished the two-story Victorian addition that clashed with the Dutch Colonial structure.

With meticulous restoration, Hampstead was returned to its true configuration. “It’s more original than it was before the fire,” said Jerry Bray, one of the owners. 

During renovation following the 1996 fire, the character of the brick home was preserved and actually improved with the removal of vinyl siding, said Bray.

A modest kitchen was built at the back, but the fabric of the interior stayed as it has been for more than 250 years. The interior doors, trim and all but a small section of the floors, which were damaged in the fire, are original.

Hampstead, about three miles west of Urbanna, served as a home until about three years ago. Since then, the three-bedroom historic house has become available for visitor lodging.

Antiques and gas fireplaces in the sitting room and bedrooms add to the old-time feel.

Brick walls 14 inches thick keep out distractions.

Sitting atop a hill, Hampstead’s large windows look out on fields of cattle. 

A patch to the upstairs cypress floors.

Henry Washington, a cousin to George Washington, lived at Hampstead. It’s believed the property may have been a dowry for Anne Thacker, whom Henry Washington married in 1749. Some think the house was a hunting lodge for Washington.

Hampstead has been in the Bray family since 1896. They have owned it longer than any previous owner.

Boat builder John England guided the 15-month revival of Hampstead. “He had to do a lot of improvising,” said Bray.

Although only about one fourth of the original portion of Hampstead’s roof burned, smoke and water damage was extensive. Most of the original lath and pig-hair plaster had to be removed. Behind it was revealed solid hand-hewn oak studs.

Rafters are numbered with Roman numerals. Mortise and tenon joints are held tight with wooden pegs.

A massive girder was added in the basement to support the center. The mortar in the hand-made bricks was re-pointed. Bray explained the locally made bricks are not as hard as English bricks that were fired longer. Paint protects the soft bricks.

The exterior wall that faced the addition was weakened by the fire. The builder had misgivings about leaving it standing. Mother Nature intervened about 30 days after the fire and blew down the wall, so they had to replace it.

One upstairs bedroom became a bath and much needed insulation was added, said Bray, who lived in Hampstead when he was growing up. “You could burn it down and still not heat it,” said Bray of the drafty house.

Rim lock and porcelain knob on the cellar door.

During renovation, Jerry Bray’s brother, Wayne, recalled that a hatchet came up missing when they were replacing the roof decades earlier. Wayne remembered the last place he saw the hatchet, many years earlier, was lying on the top of the brick wall between two windows. And, that’s where one of his sons found it during the 1996 restoration.

Bray explained that when the addition was built in 1902, it became the living space. The original section was not really used. “It needed restoration.”

He said the fire actually made Hampstead more historic. “We would have never torn the addition off,” he said, “And, the restoration made it more livable. Things worked out really well.”

So much could have gone wrong. The fire had smoldered in a blocked chimney for a long time before erupting on the morning of February 5, 1996. Fortunately, someone was home at the time and called the fire department, which saved the best part of an irreplaceable historic home.

posted 03.24.2011

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