This weekend is the 15th Annual Ambler Farm Day (Sunday, Oct. 4, 12-4 p.m.). In addition to taking part in the fun activities and being treated to all that comes with this beloved community celebration, there is something else we can be reminded of, thanks to Wilton’s favorite fall festival: our good fortune to be able to enjoy the farm’s open space and support the farm as a living testimonial to Wilton’s agrarian past.
When you visit Ambler Farm this weekend (257 Hurlbutt St.), you’ll notice that there’s been significant progress made on the renovation and repair of the Raymond-Ambler House, often referred to as the “White House.” Built between 1799 and the 1820s, the house is the centerpoint to the final phase of the town’s master plan for Ambler Farm drawn up in 1999, when Wilton purchased the property. Completing that is key to accomplishing the mission set out by the deed of sale – to dedicate the entire property (land and buildings) to the “preservation of the agricultural heritage of the Town of Wilton.”
The farmhouse served as the home for the Raymond and Ambler families for nearly 200 years, and Betty Ambler was the last family member to live in the house, until she passed away in 1998. The deed calls for the house to be restored in a way that preserves its architectural character and makes it safe for use by the community. Since many of the activities and events at Ambler Farm (including Ambler Farm Day) support the renovation effort, we asked for a tour of the house to help show why it’s important and what is taking place in the project.
Neil Gluckin, the former president of the Friends of Ambler Farm, and Robin Clune, Ambler Farm’s executive director, showed us around the property, so that we can bring readers a glimpse of what it’s like and what is happening with the project. While the house will not be open to the public on Ambler Farm Day, visitors will be able to get closer than they have before in recent years, even to peek in the windows.
The overall project is a $1.9 million project. In June 2014, the town approved a $250,000 bond to cover renovation and restoration of the house, which incorporates a matching requirement. “We’ve been raising funds on our own and through trusts and grants from different foundations, the money to match that. We feel we now have enough to get started to restore the first floor, to hopefully begin. But there are additional funds that we need to raise in order to finish the second floor,” Clune explains.
Once that’s done, however, they’ll need to raise even more, for furnishings and programming support. “It’s a lot to actually make it a living space,” Gluckin adds. “The money we have and expect to have to close out the funding portion from the town will pay for construction. But it doesn’t pay for one thing more than that. Every year costs go up as well. To get from where we are now, to where we have programs happening in the house, we’re probably talking another $250,000. We’ll raise that in the same slow and steady way.
The proceeds from Ambler Farm Day go toward supporting all the educational programs at Ambler Farm as well as the restoration of the Raymond Ambler House. We hope this look inside helps to add some dimension to what’s behind the amazing fun of Sunday’s Ambler Farm Day.
Why Restoring the House is So Important
GMW: When can people expect to get inside the House?
Neil Gluckin: We had hoped this year, but getting the first floor open is probably realistic for spring/summer 2016.
Robin Clune: A lot of it depends on the paperwork. Even though we have plans done, we have to go back to the code consultant, the code may have changed a little. Some of the back end work, it’s a good time to start that. And there’s a lot of site work that has to be done. Drainage, a new septic system, pathing and lighting has to be ADA compliant. So there’s significant work that has to be done to open it to the public. And inside, there’s a lot to do.
GMW: And then you’ll have to keep going back for approvals?
NG: We’ll have to continue to get code-compliant certification. This is a regular, grown-up construction project and it will be time-consuming for sure, but it’s worthwhile.
The deed is clear that the house be restored in a manner that’s consistent with its architectural heritage. It would have been negotiated between the Ambler Trust and the town, [in 1999]. The Wilton Historical Society played an important role in spelling out what should happen.
GMW: That took a lot of forethought, and understanding every side of it–the potential it stood to have.
NG: It was, especially now looking back, a very forward thinking idea. Bob Russell, who was first selectman at the time, gets a lot of credit. It was his idea and he really pushed it through.
GMW: This stands as a really good example, both as the potential that this has as a way to reflect the history of the town, and also to bring people from outside to Wilton. Look how Ambler Farm Day has become an incredible beacon to bring people here.
NG: You have just made a very astute comment. What is this really about? For one thing, it’s not really about a house. It’s really about the community and about adding to the ways we can provide a service to the community.
But the house does have a symbolic significance. In one way, it’s about our past and our origins as a community. But it’s also symbolic of the commitment a community can make to preserve and sustain. Which is so consistent with what Ambler Farm is all about. It’s not to worship the past or get stuck in it, but to renew it, so that it’s a living resource. It’s not going to be under glass or behind a velvet rope. It’s a place that will get used. Which is at the heart of sustainability.
GMW: It doesn’t have to be an argument between “Don’t change a thing,” and “Let’s tear everything down and build all new and modern!” This is the perfect example of how it can work.
RC: It’s a perfect example of how the community can work and continue to work together. We couldn’t do this without the countless volunteers–not just at Ambler Farm Day, but the board members, at the different programs and events we run. It’s a great example of how wonderful Wilton is.
GMW: This is classic public-private partnership.
NG: The Bd. of Selectmen have been very involved and supportive. When they have concerns it’s been very constructive. And we’ve had to make decisions and trade-offs, every step of the way. The one thing we can’t sacrifice, of course, is safety. And we have the deed that’s very clear on the idea of integrity. Beyond that, it’s very exciting.
Our intention is to create a resource the community can help shape, just as it does with the rest of Ambler Farm. We’re not saying, ‘Only this and nothing else.’ We’re saying, ‘What more would you like?’
GMW: I have to say, as we’re about to walk across the threshold, is there’s some romance and mythology around this house. We’re about to walk back into history. As much as this house will become a teaching resource and possibly offices, this was Betty Ambler’s home, and the family’s home for 200 years!
NG: And their life was not really so romantic. You’ll see, this was not a palace. I ran into Taber Gregory, the owner of Gregory’s Saw Mill, and he remembered coming here with his dad, to buy hay from Betty. I asked him what kind of person Betty was, and he said, ‘Pretty crusty.’ [laughs] There were no treaties signed here, there were no founding fathers who slept here.
RC: It was real life.
NG: In the Library archives is a complete set of the diaries of Hannah Ambler. I can’t tell you they make fascinating reading, but she was a compulsive diarist, and wrote about life on the farm–in terse installments. ‘The stove breaks down. It’s really cold. This is the coldest winter ever. No, this is the coldest winter ever.’ [laughs] It talks about her brother, Charles, and how they liked to drive around in their car, and one day Charles took the train into town to see the auto show at Madison Square Garden. There are all these tidbits–a terrible train accident at Saugatuck; the farmer brings pigs to the farm in October and they set up a pen to fatten the pigs. You get these little story lines that help bring the farm to life.
Stepping Across the Threshold, Back in Time
We enter the front part of the house, closest to Hurlbutt St., through a back door. It’s the oldest part of the house. The wallpaper is original. Clune explains that what’s been done to the house up until now essentially has been work to save the structure and preserve as much original material as possible.
“The entire back portion of the house, which is the newer portion, was actually sinking into the ground. They lifted the back portion and poured a whole new foundation. We added fire steps, for code, for a public building like this. A lot of the beams were shored up, especially in the older part of the house. All of the windows were restored, taken out and put back in–these are original windows, except for some in the newer, back portion of the house,” she says.
The shutters, siding and finished carpentry has all been stored. Blue tape numbered markers designate where inside trim was removed to be restored and returned to the exact original spots. “Talk about the cataloging and forethought that required,” Clune adds.
We move through the rooms on the first floor–a front parlor, the kitchen, a pantry. The ceilings are low, the walls stripped down to the beams to reveal the solid, original construction methods beneath, or showing the old fashioned wallpaper, and even old light fixtures.
The work has been overseen by the project’s supervising architect, Wilton-based Faesy-Smith Architects, who won the project after a bidding project. All the demolition and restoration work was bid out as well. “The emphasis had to be on firms that had experience working with historic properties,” Gluckin says. “You run into different issues–environmental, code, and more.”
One example they mention is that the home had little to no electrical wiring, no insulation, and very old plumbing that needed major upgrading. What’s more is that between the purchase in 1999 and when restoration started in 2008, nothing happened, “except decay. It was sitting here sinking, moldering, and growing more expensive by the day to restore,” Gluckin says. “We’ve succeeded largely in stabilizing the property and the next work is to begin bringing it back on line as a useful property.”
Moving through the house, we see the stairs that rise from the first floor, near the kitchen to the upstairs. One wall of the stairwell is exterior siding of the original, older front part of the house. “You can see where they just added on,” Neil points out. The stairs–narrow, and obviously leaning as the house shifted–were actually the location of where Betty Ambler died, when she fell down the steps in 1998.
Right now there is not much active construction or renovation work going on. Part of that is because the Friends of Ambler Farm don’t move forward with work until they have raised the money to finance each phase of renovation.
“Although there’s a good deal that needs to be done beyond the immediate next steps, the last thing we ever want to do is get beyond our funding. We’ve been super conservative about it. I know there are people who feel that, ‘Hey, I gave money and I don’t see anything happening.’ But the town has trusted us, and the Bd. of Selectmen have trusted us, and keeping that trust is essential, even if it means going slower than people would think is ideal,” Gluckin says. “They’ve given us their endorsement and we need to deserve it every day.”
But it’s certainly not all ‘work.’ There’s a lot of joy for the people who are entrusted with shepherding the project.
“It’s wonderful. I absolutely love coming here,” Clune says of being in the house, “even though it’s an active construction site. If the walls could talk. You come in here with the wallpaper and get a feel for what it was like as a home. I came in here on one of the early days when the house was open and before work started. It was like a living museum, with cans on the kitchen shelves. It’s fun to imagine the possibilities for what we can do now and make available to the community.”
The house will eventually be many things, foremost an extension of the Ambler Farm educational programming. Some of the back area of the newer part of the house will likely be office and administrative spaces as well as storage.
“It’s going to allow us to tell a lot of stories about our community. Because ‘nothing special’ happened here, it was like everybody’s house. So we can talk about what it was like in Wilton when telephones first arrived. What it was like when the railroad was built. What it was like when the community transitioned from agriculture to commerce. There are ways to bring that to life in an exciting, engaging way,” Gluckin says.