Reprinted by permission from the April-May 2005 issue of
Hudson Home and Garden Magazine
By Carolyn Alexander
When you first meet Peter and Nancy Billman, the question most often asked is "Why would you move from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, to Newburgh?" They answer in unison, "We wanted to return to The House (where Nancy grew up), and to the beauty of the Hudson Valley."
"The House", named Goldsmith Denniston House after the man for whom it was built, is situated on one of the most beautiful boulevard-style streets on the banks of the Hudson River in the Historic District of Newburgh. The gracious Federal style house sits on an acre of property among huge ash and maples alongside historic mansions surrounded with intricate wrought iron gates and flagstone sidewalks.
This was "the house" Nancy had grown up in and which held fond childhood memories for her. As she searched through property deeds and talked to the local historians, she was able to trace previous owners as far back as 1836, 4 owners to be exact. When a doorframe in the attic was removed to re-use elsewhere, the Billmans discovered the hand written signature of Goldsmith Denniston on one side of the brick opening. He had been an attorney in Orange County who came to this house with his wife and family before moving to Albany to be part of the Legislature. With this final piece to the puzzle in place, it was determined that the house was built around 1820.
Fate led Nancy and Peter separately and individually to Hilton Head where they soon met, married and worked together in Peter's architectural woodworking business. Using his knowledge of architectural styles and the collection of beautiful wood and plaster elements that he had reproduced, Peter satisfied his clients' needs to make their "new" homes look "old".
Peter and Nancy were reassessing their South Carolina lifestyle about the same time Nancy's mother was considering selling her house. Peter's desire to pursue his fine art and Nancy's wish to turn a passion for cooking into a catering career, fit nicely with the potential of Nancy's childhood home to serve both needs, as well as become a unique B&B in Newburgh. The decision to return "home" was made.
Architect Peter Smith, a longtime neighbor, drew up the renovation/restoration plans. "We wanted to keep the house as original as possible," Nancy insisted. The Federal style house was built on a symmetrical plan of rooms of equal size around a central hall. The structure is brick with stucco applied and scored to resemble stone blocks. All of the exterior windows are shuttered. The house was recently painted antique white, the shutters the original dark green. High ceilings, medallions, intricate molding, finials and wide plank wood floors have been restored or replaced. Gold in the living room and red in the dining room reflect the Federal style colors.
Like many other Newburgh houses, this one had seen Victorian "upgrades" and improvements in the 1880's including a Downing-style bay window and marble mantles replacing some of the wooden ones.
A dumbwaiter was installed, and now runs through subsequent closets to the top floor. Having done extensive research on New England Federal style houses, the Billmans decided to "bump" the roof up a bit between the chimneys and put windows all around creating a fully usable family floor above the period furnished guest rooms.
In keeping with the original design, Peter and Nancy returned the "modern" kitchen from the main floor to its characteristic place on the ground floor. Peter devised a system of flooring which lowered the restored kitchen by 8 inches, increasing the height of the room and giving an interesting step down from the hall. Ceiling joists above were exposed, adding to the headroom. "This was quite a grand house, yet the kitchen would no doubt have been very simple, and we want to replicate the original", Peter added. The "cabinetry" was made from the old roof boards, with curtains instead of cabinet doors, along with recycled white marble and pine for counter tops.
Across the entry hall from the kitchen, also a step down, is a stone-floored brick room with cast iron hooks embedded into the ceiling joists. This was the room of choice to become the catering kitchen. With functionality a top priority, the beautiful flagstone floor was sealed to make an impervious surface for easy maintenance. Commercial quality appliances were added.
The parlor - double size, opposite the library and dining room, is a unique room and quietly elegant. A Decker Bros. square grand piano in the corner is original to the Mailler family's ownership of the house. The Billmans opted to use traditional style furniture, complementing the antique chairs and tables they had acquired, to create a more "timeless" atmosphere, rather than the museum feeling of a strictly period room. As a result, it's relaxing and welcoming to bed and breakfast guests.
The four guest rooms have been decorated and furnished in different styles, reminiscent of the different eras of the four early owners.
A future project will be to uncover the original pine floors under the oak flooring on the main floor. The Billmans know there will always be on-going projects. The plan is to finish the replacement of the rear porch. They have completed the outside patio and garden area. Of course, there's the foundation of a carriage house to consider, but that's another story.