Fall Home & Design: Frame of 18th-century Connecticut house becomes an antique yet modern home for Potomac family
By Jura Koncius,
On a meandering woodsy lane in Potomac, past a 1950s ranch and a couple of McMansions, sits a barn-red house with a cedar shake roof that looks as if it belongs to an 18th-century New England village.
The main section of the shingled home is actually the frame of a 1790 Colonial Connecticut farmhouse. An adjoining new wing that echoes the Colonial style seamlessly adds more living space, storage and a garage.
Inside, five fireplaces, weathered oak beams, wide-plank wood floors and hand-wrought door hinges create a warm setting for graceful antiques — tavern tables, four-poster beds — some of them family heirlooms. The rolling green property, called Chestnut Hill, is enclosed by stone walls and white fences, and includes a small barn and a guesthouse, both painted the same warm brick-red color.
At Chestnut Hill, Jim and Linda Hobbins have curated an 18th-century backdrop for 21st-century living. Jim, 70, a historian and retired Smithsonian official, and Linda, 67, a flower designer, raised five children here, adding their own family lore to the historic structure that they rescued and repurposed.
Growing up here was a blast. “It was a wonderful house full of character and unique furnishings. Some of my fondest memories have to do with ponies and dogs,” says the youngest Hobbins, Emily, 31, now a Washington lawyer. “It was a little girl’s dream.”
While their playmates may have had wall-to-wall carpeting, Disney comforters and traditional doorknobs, the Hobbins kids, four daughters and a son, were raised with braided rugs and handmade quilts and wrought-iron door latches. They ate dinner on a 200-year-old sawbuck pine table, hung their jackets on a Shaker pegboard. Two antique clocks struck every hour on the hour; Jim calls them “the heartbeat of our home.” Tin sconces gently illuminated the rooms.
Other kids were always amazed that the Hobbinses’ stove and fridge were hidden from the rest of the kitchen, behind a pine batten door. “Friends would ask, ‘Where is your refrigerator?’ ” recalls Susie Hobbins, 40, the oldest sibling and now a psychiatrist in Pittsburgh. She remembers the frame unfolding from a pile of old beams. “The house was always so special to us. It kind of grew with the children, and my parents have moved along with it.”
Today, Jim and Linda share Chestnut Hill with two cats and a Saint Bernard. When the second generation comes over, some with their own spouses and children, they never know where they might find the Portuguese side chairs or the red tartan camelback sofa. “My wife’s idea of cleaning is to rearrange the furniture,” Jim says. “It moves every week.”
Linda says rearranging brings new energy to a room. “It’s also my way of making the old have an air of new.”
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Jim Hobbins always felt the pull of American history. He grew up in a Montclair, N.J., house full of period furniture collected by his mother. “My parents had a Williamsburg Colonial-style home. When you walked in, you could smell history,” Hobbins says. “Clearly, I got my inspiration from what [my mother] was doing.”
Jim received degrees in American history from Cornell and Temple and joined the Smithsonian in 1967 to work on the papers of the institution’s first secretary, Joseph Henry. He then became special assistant and later executive assistant to four Smithsonian secretaries, working on budget, personnel and policy matters, and serving as their liaison to the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. He also became director of the Smithsonian’s first two historic buildings, the Castle and the Arts and Industries Building. He retired in 2007 after a dispute over the proper procedure for handling transcripts of a regents’ meeting. To honor Hobbins’s 40 years of service, the three ottomans in the commons of the Smithsonian Castle were named after him. Since his retirement, Hobbins has spearheaded an effort to select and fund a qualified historian to write the history of the Smithsonian and co-founded the Smithsonian Alumni Program.
History continues to be a passion. Note his current beside reading: “Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe” by Chris DeRose.
Linda, one of eight children, was raised on a farm near Wheelersburg, Ohio, and often rode horses. Her father was interested in flowers and gardens. After graduating from Eastern Kentucky University, she came to Washington to work for the Red Cross and met Jim at a party in 1969. They married in 1970.
“I used to think antiques were stuffy and uninteresting,” Linda recalls. “But when I came to Washington, I went to the Salvation Army and got a wingback chair and a Victorian dry sink.”
Realizing they both were drawn to New England’s traditional style of furniture and architecture, the couple bought a three-bedroom Colonial in Bethesda. And then they began making weekend excursions to the country, places such as New Market; Bucks County, Pa.; and Middleburg and the late lamented Laws Auction in Manassas. “Many dealers taught us all about furniture and china and quilts,” Linda says. “We were on a budget, but we found things we could afford.” Some items needed a bit of work. “I learned by doing,” Jim says. “I came to know how to do things like replace the seats in old chairs.”
Blue-and-white china and Virginia hunt boards started filling their rooms. “We had so many fun times together. What a joy to remember it,” Jim says. “We would go on exploring trips and come back with things strapped on the roof and stuffed in the trunk.”
Within five years, they had two children and a third on the way. With family in tow, they continued collecting. “When the kids said they could not take another antiques shop, we would bribe them with ice cream,” Linda recalls.
They moved to Rockville in 1975. “It was a split level with no architectural merit,” Jim says, “but we needed four bedrooms.”
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The move to Potomac and historic-home ownership started with a pony.
Jim and Linda had borrowed one from a neighbor for a birthday party. The gang was smitten, and Jim and Linda began dreaming of a bigger house with more land where they might keep a horse or two.
They started looking and in 1978 found a five-acre lot with a small barn in Potomac. “We loved the property.” Jim says. “It has a bit of a roll, but it’s not hilly.”
While conceptualizing the home they wanted to build, they spotted a post-and-beam house in progress nearby, being built in the old style, with mortise and tenon joints. They contacted the builder, and he put them in touch with New Hampshire architect David Howard, a specialist in timber-framed homes.
Howard recalls the conversation with Hobbins. “He said, ‘This is Jim Hobbins. I have a problem I think you are going to solve.’ ” Jim proceeded to describe his growing family and their affection for the historic Connecticut River Valley.
They exchanged ideas. Jim and Linda told Howard they wanted a New England Colonial house, a perfectly proportioned box with a gorgeous front door.
At first, they couldn’t quite come to an agreement on the design. Then, Howard had a brainstorm. He happened to have an 18th-century house from Brooklyn, Conn., in stock. “I had a frame of this old house, all the posts and beams, all labeled. I told them it would be a stable and comfortable home for them.” At the time, Howard believed it was a 1790 house belonging to one of the children of Gen. Israel Putnam, a Revolutionary War aide-de-camp to George Washington. “When we found this place through my connections, it had holes in the roof and trees growing out the windows,” Howard says.
The plan would be to erect the 1790 frame and add a new wing that would maintain the look of the period. The main house would be a classic box, four rooms up and four rooms down, with a central staircase. An attic could accommodate another bedroom and bath. And a modern basement would provide more space and storage. The adjoining wing would have a spacious country kitchen centered on a large fireplace and a master bedroom upstairs. “And there would be a little staircase behind the fireplace, so they could get up there [to the master bedroom] without the kids knowing,” Howard says.
The idea clicked. “We got excited about it, and we decided it would be a great setting for all our old furnishings,” Jim says.
“I loved the idea of the heritage of it and the spirit of it, and that the house would not die — we would resurrect it,” Linda says.
And so the project began. Before the days of FedEx and e-mail, it took about 18 months to design, with lots of snail mail back and forth and phone calls.
The Hobbins family took a trip to New Hampshire to see Howard and the 1790 frame, which was lying in pieces on the ground amid the fall leaves. They stopped at the historic town of Deerfield, Mass., to look for inspiration for designing details such as doors and windows. The Hobbinses’ front door replicates the front door of the Wilson Printing Office in historic Deerfield; the main staircase follows the lines of the 1760s Hart House from Ipswich, Mass., which is on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The frame was delivered on a flatbed truck. On Dec. 1, 1979, a local builder began digging the foundation, pouring the basement walls and buiding a subfloor. Howard brought his own crew to erect the antique frame as well as the new frame for the wing; the builder then enclosed the structure and added the rest of the specifications.
Though the floors look old, they came from the late great Washington hardware emporium, Hechinger. The floor boards were installed by the builder and nailed in by Jim, using traditional rosehead nails.
Jim stopped by every morning and evening to see the progress. Linda and the kids would have picnics on the property, watching as their dream house took shape.
In October 1980, they moved in. But though the house was built, the interior was far from complete. Jim did a lot of the woodwork himself, as well as the painting and staining, for which he primarily used red and hunter green, Linda’s favorite colors. He designed and built the five fireplace mantels, and above the master bedroom fireplace, he carved five pine trees — one for each child.
It took Jim nine years to finish the detailing on the inside of the house. “I knew I was finished when my wife asked me to repaint a room,” he says.
Meanwhile, a few Christmases after they moved in, the Hobbins kids were delighted to welcome two ponies to the family. It was the beginning of the horse years. All five Hobbins children spent hours washing horses, grooming, braiding manes and tails. The dozens of ribbons they won at horse shows are still on display in their childhood bedrooms.
But it turned out the Hobbinses weren’t quite done. In 2003, they built a 1,900-square-foot guesthouse with two floors and a loft. Says Jim: “I did some math. We had five kids. They were grown, but would soon be coming back with boyfriends, spouses and children. Where would they stay?” He and Linda envisioned a little house with a couple of bedrooms, a children’s sleeping loft, a kitchen and a big gathering room with a stone fireplace and lots of windows.
Howard made a return appearance. He recalls telling them, “Let’s give your kids something that attracts them to visit, yet lets them have their independence and their own privacy.”
The new space would also allow Linda to have a studio to work on flower arrangements. After her children had grown, her love of flowers led her to join the Washington National Cathedral’s Altar Guild. She started her own business, Custom Wreaths of Potomac, where she crafts wreaths, hanging baskets, bouquets and centerpieces for all seasons.
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The Hobbinses are enthusiastic stewards of the 18th-century legacy. Says Linda: “You become part of the history of the house. I never feel like I am the owner. I love and treasure it, yet it has a life of its own.”
Susie’s three kids find their grandparents’ home magical. “They can’t wait to arrive here and go up to see how granny has arranged the loft room,” Susie says. “The world is so materialistic. It is wonderful that you can delight a child by creating a new feeling in a room. You don’t have to do it with new stuff. You can do it with old, special things that are telling some new story.”
Over the years, theories about the provenance of the frame have continued to evolve. Recently, Jim bought a book about Israel Putnam and thought, by piecing together facts and photos, that the frame might have been the home of the general himself. Then, a few weeks ago, Jim learned through the National Register of Historic Places that Putnam’s house still stands in Brooklyn, Conn. Furthermore, records show his sons’ houses were elsewhere. Jim is still investigating, but for now, the original owner of the 1790 frame remains a mystery.
In June, Chestnut Hill took a big hit during the derecho. The storm knocked down massive pine trees and a major branch from an old chestnut. Power was out for an entire week.
The discomforts of living without any electricity started getting to Linda. This was not a facet of the 18th century she wanted to re-create. She recalls, “I said to Jim, ‘What are we going to do?’ Jim said, ‘I want a shower.’ ”
They jumped in the car and escaped to a place they knew they’d be very comfortable: Colonial Williamsburg.
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine @washpost.com.