Always intrigued by eighteenth-century architecture, Mark Harbold designed a New England saltbox house as a mechanical drafting project when he was a senior in high school. Twenty-two years later he and his wife, Lorraine, built it. It looks like a Connecticut original, down to the weathered brown paint and faded red door and window sashes—except it stands about 400 miles south of its authentic counterparts, in a housing development just west of Baltimore.
The house the Harbolds built is a fortuitous combination of research, planning, timing, and connections. Compromises were made to suit a modern family’s lifestyle, but aesthetically the house remains true to its eighteenth-century inspirations.
Although born and raised in Maryland, Mark has an affinity for New England style, developed early and honed as an architecture major in college and later as owner of a shop specializing in eighteenth-century New England reproductions. To find new craftsmen and vendors, he made frequent trips north. After he and Lorraine married, he closed the shop and moved himself and the remaining inventory into her house. Still the New England trips continued, though less frequently. Lorraine also liked antiques, favoring Victoriana. As she traveled with Mark to antiques shows and traditional crafts shows, she grew to appreciate the earlier styles.
Once they decided to build, they spent three years researching and refining the design and collecting architectural elements. They toured New England house museums and old neighborhoods, filling albums with snapshots. “We’d even be out at night measuring things,” Lorraine remembers, “taking pictures of historic house interiors through windows, figuring proportions. What we found was that they varied very little, even from town to town.” Their house has the typical dimensions and classic facade of a Connecticut saltbox—a gable overhang; a thirty-eight-foot, three-bay front with a center chimney; a transom of bull’s-eye glass over the nine-panel front door; twelve-over-twelve windows. Because it was built new, the Harbolds were able to incorporate all the eighteenth-century architectural details they liked in a single structure.
Inside, the house recreates the evolution of an authentic saltbox. Its rooms flow chronologically from a circa 1700 hall, with exposed hand-hewn beams, simple beaded paneling, and a large cooking fireplace, to the 1760’s lean-to that forms the saltbox profile and encloses the kitchen and keeping room. “This is as accurate a floor plan as could be modernly made,” Mark says. “I don’t think they’ve improved on the eighteenth-century floor plan for traffic flow and ambiance. It’s really very practical and functional. I saw no reason to alter it.”
They did alter it, of course, making it work in the twentieth century. It has bathrooms, a modem kitchen, closets, an ell with a family room, and a screened porch. The initial compromises, Mark says, were not moving to New England to restore an old house and not transporting one to Maryland and rebuilding it (though they considered it). Structurally, they chose a conventional frame over a traditional timber frame because the cost to do it right would have been exorbitant. They also eliminated the traditional center dogleg front staircase; since it would not have met fire codes, a back staircase was mandatory. The staircase’s absence yielded a walk-in closet in their daughter’s bedroom and a half-height linen closet in the upstairs hallway. Mark designed the interior around the antique two-panel doors he and Lorraine found in Connecticut; they enclose closets, bathrooms, the basement, and the attic. Others had to be reproduced to meet fire codes for width and height.
Mark’s position with a company that salvages and remills old lumber for new flooring gave him advantages: he had first choice of room-length antique floor boards, and, as part of a company bid, he removed nearly 400 pounds of glass panes from an 1840’s Quaker house. He sent the glass to a glazier in Massachusetts, who installed it in new sashes, enough for all twenty-three of the home’s windows: twelve-over-twelve, twelve-over-eight, nine-over-nine, six-over-six. The Harbolds had to buy radial-sawn spruce siding even before they applied for their construction loan because the Vermont manufacturer ran it only once a year. Mark stored it—along with the windows and floor boards—in his company’s warehouse.
With each trip to New England, they made new contacts. A Connecticut antiques dealer introduced them to a dairy farmer who stored pieces of old houses in two-hundred-foot chicken bams, where the Harbolds found thumb latches and eight of their twenty antique doors. Answering an ad in the Newtown Bee led them to a state trooper who salvaged and sold architectural elements; he recommended they see “the young guy down the road.” Cabinetmaker Bill Treiss, who had just started his own business, became a primary source. His price for interior paneling, an extra they had planned to add later, was too good to pass up. Treiss also made the paneled doors for the kitchen and bathroom cabinets, installed over inexpensive boxes made by a local carpenter. Reproduction furnishings and accessories left from Mark’s store, along with antiques (mainly chairs) the Harbolds have collected, fill the house.
There were no decisions without financial ramifications, Mark says, but the couple’s advance planning and some lucky connections allowed them to stay very close to their initial budget. “If you can pay $125 a square foot for high-quality custom work you’re doing well,and that’s without windows,” he says. “Ours cost under $100 a square foot. It’s a matter of doing your homework.”
For the Harbolds, doing their homework paid tangible dividends.