The History and Evolution of
Connor Mill-Built Homes
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 Mill-Built 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 50,000 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 Mill-Built 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.
I have spent nearly my entire working life in residential construction,and for that effort have earned a reputation for being a maverick entrepreneur who has challenged many of the accepted and staid principles of the industry while creating an iconic vision for a successful design and home manufacturing company. That vision centered on incorporating historic architectural details into the design of current architectural residential plans and the creation of those details in a manufacturing setting.
I grew up in rural Rhode Island where I was surrounded by some of the best examples of historic New England architecture to be found anywhere. Later, upon graduating from Providence College, rather than pursuing a career in my undergraduate field of study, psychology, I was drawn to follow my boyhood fascination with American Historic Architecture.
I became a builder in my early twenties, and have been a builder ever since. Since the first home I built, I was intrigued by the idea that technology could and should be applied to historic architectural detailing. Long-since abandoned by mainstream designers and builders as too difficult and labor intensive to be replicated in today’s construction world, our company of craftsmen and technologists developed methods and procedures for reproducing sophisticated architectural details from another century and began turning out exquisite examples of architectural gems that were often mistaken for venerable antiques.
Those early successes led to the creation of a unique home
manufacturing business that sent complete architectural packages to locations throughout the Northeast and beyond.
The success of these homes and their remarkable presentation on the landscape caught the attention of the “New-Old House” movement, and our small company became the subject of dozens of articles in the historic architecture media. I was also asked to address a number of industry conventions and historic home show gatherings to talk about the achievements our company had made and the importance and impact of those achievements on the residential building industry.
As the company’s reputation grew, it moved into larger quarters where even more innovative methods, materials and processes were honed so that today’s version of a home with exquisite historic detailing is married to a modern day layout, comfortably accommodating a modern family’s busy lifestyle. The company’s efforts also caught the attention of one of America’s most prestigious architectural museums, Winterthur, in Winterthur, Delaware, who became the nation’s first and only major museum to enter a licensing agreement to co-market a line of homes designed by our company exclusively for Winterthur Museum.
The company’s efforts also won it the opportunity to appear in a ten episode program for the nationally renowned TV show “This Old House”, and was the only newly constructed “old” home to ever be selected to appear on the program.
During the growth years of the company when I was managing it as a general contracting firm, I bought and developed two real estate developments in which the company’s reproduction homes were showcased in a themed architectural environment.
That valuable experience has led me to pursue another valuable growth potential for the company, that of consultant, with design, marketing, manufacturing and site-building experience that can be applied to developments throughout our marketing region for developers who desperately need that expertise. This initiative fulfills two goals for me as not only do I get to enjoy the satisfaction of proliferating good historic architectural design, but I also get to see the company enjoy that exposure and the increased business it promotes.
The company has no true competitor, as it has steadily improved its design portfolio and its' innovative manufacturing processes and is poised for the kind of growth and success that typically follows a steady and committed focus on a long-held goal and mission. While slowed by the recent past Great Recession, I am prepared now to take the new company to what I believe is its destiny in fulfilling its promise as the company that challenged conventional thinking and wisdom and is now ready to market the results.