We’re often influenced by things that we are not aware of when the influence is taking place, but later, we look back and realize that time and place and circumstance shape us to become who we are and how we think. I’ve spent a lifetime building homes that relate to a period in time that was not my era, but that of my forbears in early America. It wasn’t so much history that drew me in, but the architecture of history that marked the passage of time with monuments made of wood and stone and brick, each with a special message about a period of time that was important enough to make its own architectural mark.
The history side of the story taught me about the trials and tribulations and the resounding successes of lives carved from the American wilderness. The struggle to create a new nation with new cities, towns and farms, each taken from the shrinking frontier, with heroic efforts and resounding successes, always had a human side with quiet sacrifices, individual triumphs, and family fortunes won or lost in high celebration or low desolation. The history is told in stories and tales, but the architectural legacy gives us something to touch and hold, and to contemplate lives from an earlier age that perhaps were not so different from our own. To admire and appreciate architectural excellence just as it was admired and appreciated by the people who created it in the past is the basis for a special bond with them.
I was born and grew up in rural New England, surrounded by the architecture of colonial America. The Rhode Island landscape that I took in each day was filled with examples of architectural landmarks and I often heard my parents and extended family and friends speak reverently and fondly of certain well-known landmarks like the “Appleby farmhouse” and the “Windsor Homestead”, always with a respect for the beauty and elegance of each house, but also with a nod of understanding for the lives of the people who built them and lived in them. It was that early association of architecture and the lives that were connected to it that drew me in and caused me to make it my life’s work.
One would think that an early fascination for historic architecture would have guided me differently in my educational choices, but I ended up a psychology major. Nonetheless, my fascination for early American architecture continued as I explored the many wonderful old homes that were nearby. Walking down Benefit Street in Providence was a walk through another period in time, and standing in front of and contemplating the workmanship of the renowned Hunter house in Newport with its exquisite Georgian detailing spurred me on to learn more. I wanted to be a part of preserving and understanding the architectural legacy of colonial America.
Unlike my early introduction to historic architecture, my wife Linda, who would become an integral part of the history of Connor Homes, grew up in Southern California. She witnessed the explosion of growth in that state, noting the clusters of look-alike homes built on hills flattened to create more and more building lots, and while never having visited New England as a child, grew up with an appreciation for New England architecture which she saw as the antithesis of the housing sprawl she experienced in California. Her own interest in historic architecture included visits to historic California homes with her family, and she recalls that at the age of ten, she would be riding in the back seat, drawing floorplans of homes just visited. Again, one would have thought that she too would have perhaps pursued an education in architecture, but her talents as an artist led her to choose fine arts instead.
The first house I ever built was for Linda. She had pursued her dream to leave California and move to Vermont. By then I was starting a contracting business, and Linda hired my fledgling company to build her first home in Vermont. She wanted it to look like the old Vermont she knew from books and pictures, and so she designed a small (900 SF) cape-style home with simple but authentically accurate detailing. To this day I can honestly say that she was the best client I ever built for, as she would show up at the end of each day and excitedly exclaim her approval of what we had built. That first house was one of many to come as Linda continued to design homes with authentic historic detailing for the company.
The frame of Linda’s house was built as a panelized home by a company in upstate New York. I was drawn to the idea that doing as much as possible in a manufactured setting for the construction of a new home just made so much sense. But now, Linda and I were both focused on building homes that looked like they were built in another era, and so we began an earnest pursuit to learn as much as we could about historic architecture.
We made visits to many of the historic homes that were so abundant throughout our region. We learned Connecticut River Valley architecture at Historic Deerfield, Georgian period architecture at Strawberry Banke in New Hampshire, myriad period details from a host of other museum homes and what emerged from those visits was an appreciation of the one common thread that defined them all, scale and proportion. While distinctive architectural detailing was important, without appropriate scale and proportion, replication efforts fell short. And the beauty of understanding scale and proportion is that it adds tremendous value while costing nothing. You just have to know what it is.
I remember our first Greek Revival home and how we knew we needed to get the scale and proportions right. We decided to find an old one that we liked so we could replicate details and especially reproduce it in proper scale and proportion. We found the perfect old Greek Revival sitting beside a dirt road in rural Vermont, and we knocked on the door and explained our mission to the bewildered owners, who luckily agreed to let us set up our ladders and measure their house. I was high up on an aluminum ladder hollering down measurements to Linda on the ground below me when a fierce thunderstorm suddenly came upon us. Linda and I continued our job in the pouring rain, wind and lightning, ignorantly blissful of the danger we were in, but consumed with joy at the treasure trove of Greek Revival architectural knowledge we were amassing. I recall seeing the owners looking out at me from a second story window and I wasn’t sure if they were trying to warn me to get down, or if they were curious to see just what happens to a crazy person soaked in rain standing on an aluminum ladder in a thunderstorm.
We survived and carried away the research we needed to create our own Greek Revival Farmhouse, the Josephine Baldwin.
Our company continued to use panelization in a factory setting for all our frames, but we added a new twist that was unique to the industry. Knowing that many of the architectural details that we were now designing into our homes were labor intensive, we began to incorporate factory efficiencies to create architectural elements at a much-reduced labor cost. Over the years we have created a number of factory processes to diminish the labor cost of producing sophisticated architectural details at a price point that made them affordable again. We took great satisfaction from applying twenty-first-century technology to create eighteenth-century architectural details.
Throughout the first thirty-five years of the company’s existence, we continued a robust general contracting business while instituting more and more factory techniques to the building process, until finally in 2005, we stopped all local general contracting so that we could focus entirely on our burgeoning home manufacturing business, now located in our present 118,000 square foot facility in Middlebury, Vermont. We credit our early and extensive general contracting experience as the laboratory where we were allowed to experiment with various manufacturing processes and methods until we perfected them. And to this day, our hands-on contracting experience allows us to converse with our customers and builders about every aspect of a new home.
Connor Homes today has broadened its design portfolio and introduced a host of manufacturing technologies to our process, but always with the philosophy that we build beautiful homes as defined by those who came before us. Our knowledge in how to create and build sophisticated historic architecture has allowed us to build many beautiful homes that often are mistaken for antiques.
The history of our company continues on as we explore more and different ways to recreate sophisticated architecture that most have abandoned as too expensive to repeat in this era of modern design that too often results in a severed bond between art and architecture. My hope is that perhaps a home that we built will someday inspire someone to wonder about the people who lived there and what ties they had with those from earlier centuries who chose similar architectural detailing as the art form that would define the place they called home.