August 14, 2019Last year, the ell section of the Benjamin Rowe House went from falling apart to a beautiful space thanks to the efforts of the Gilford Rotary and many other volunteers. The Rotarian who started this effort shared its history and process with guests of the Thompson-Ames Historical Society along with photos.
On Monday night Rotarian Sandy McGonagle talked during a Historical Society meeting about the efforts to restore a section of the historic house and some stories on why she offered to take on this project.
The ell section was closed off for a long time because it was in significant disrepair. The Thompson-Ames Historical Society has been working to renovate the house in phases, the first being to redo the roof. The next focus was the ell, which at the time was storing furniture and artifacts they had no place to display.
In 1830, Benjamin Rowe bought land and built his family's home and the family owned it for over a century. In the 1940's, the home was sold to Ernest Sawyer, who had a dairy farm on the property until 1947. It changed hands to Alvah and Ruth (Sawyer) Wilson in the 1960's and became known as the Wilson House. The town purchased the Wilsons' property in 1969, building the three schools while keeping the old home standing.
"For me, this building holds a special place in my heart," McGonagle said.
It stood outside her classroom when she taught at Gilford Elementary School and provided a learning opportunity. She frequently brought kids to the Rowe House and the town's other historic buildings in town.
When she served on the board of selectmen from 1978 to 1987, the house was a town building housing the selectmen, town administrator, and town appraiser's office. Selectmen's meetings took place in the kitchen. She said she initially bristled at the proposal to change the name of the building from the Wilson House to the Rowe House, but reversed that view when considering that Benjamin Rowe was the one who built the house.
McGonagle said she also connects the house with her old friend Arthur Tilton, who passed away in 2003. Tilton encouraged her to run for selectmen when she would have been the first woman to ever hold that office. When Tilton died his collection of historic furniture went to the Thompson-Ames Society, who put it in the Rowe House as part of the farm museum.
McGonagle said she heard of the Thompson-Ames' plan to renovate the ell and turn it into a hands-on educational space. She talked with the Rotary about the project.
"I think the Rotary knew...it was going to be a great project for us," McGonagle said.
She then approached the Historical Society offering the Rotary's services in restoring the ell.
McGonagle explained how the the ell was in a significant state of disrepair with a presentation of photos. Wooden laths on the ceiling and walls were broken or missing. The windows and window frames were falling apart and the window frames were covered in lead paint. The walls and flooring were in overall bad shape and had holes in them. The electrical system needed to be completely replaced as did the horsehair insulation. There was also a door with a huge hole in it that the police department was concerned was too easily accessible.
Over a three month period, Rotarians, contractors, and other volunteers worked to repair the ell. They received a lot of help from local contractors and volunteers. Carpenter and Rotarian Spencer Martin had a huge hand in the woodwork. Lt. Rick Andrews and members of the Gilford Fire Department helped with the laths and insulation. Chris Sherkanowski of Sherkanowski Drywall installed the sheetrock, which he donated.
McGonagle said there were discussions whether certain elements such as some doors and flooring should be replaced or repaired, receiving the answer from Historical Society President Karin Landry that these needed to be preserved. These elements were saved and redone to much better condition.
The ell section was opened to the public for the 2018 Candlelight Stroll, displaying the furniture that Tilton's family donated to the society.
"You should have seen it, in the beginning it really was just a mess and now it looks so beautiful," said Kathy Lacroix of the Thompson-Ames Historical Society.
Landry and Lacroix said they are aiming for a Phase 3 of the project to renovate the attic, which is in bad condition. In the meantime they will gt together cost estimates to tighten up the windows and repainting the exterior and bring them to the Budget Committee for consideration in the 2020 town budget.