Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it. For homeowners David and Susan Duncan, that’s exactly what happened in 2007 when looking to move from Madison to a home closer to their sons’ private school in New London. From the moment they walked inside a circa-1680 home on the market in Old Lyme, they could feel the home’s history and appreciate its beauty.
“Antique houses are not for everybody, but this one is very special,” says David Duncan, also an architect and owner of Needham Duncan Architecture. “Because I’m an architect, we easily could have built new or bought something rundown and transformed it into something beautiful. We had a lot of flexibility. But we walked into this house and it just had so much soul and substance. It’s one of those things that you can’t really describe.”
The couple both grew up in antique houses, but they were not seeking one for their next home. “Certainly not a 1680 house,” says Susan Duncan, who is a management consultant to national and global law firms. “Our oldest son, who was 14 years old at the time we were looking and already an American history buff, walked around and asked, ‘Can you imagine the people who have touched these walls and lived here?’ ”
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Located in Old Lyme’s Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the home served many purposes over the centuries. Originally a small dwelling built in 1680, it was bought by Captain John Peck in 1769. Substantially enlarged and altered by the Peck family, the house was home to a public tavern from the late 1700s through the early 1800s, drawing some distinguished guests.
“George Washington is said to have danced in the tavern’s upstairs ballroom that’s now our bedroom,” says David, who also has the original tavern sign showing the Peck family’s coat of arms — a crest with a lion, three anchors, and the motto “Hope and Courage.”
The Peck Tavern was also believed to be a site where clothes and supplies were distributed to non-commissioned officers and soldiers during the Revolutionary War. From the middle of the 18th century into the 19th, it was also used as an inn. Sitting at the juncture of two large thoroughfares connecting Boston and New York, it served those traveling on stagecoach along the Long Island shore.
Through five generations the house remained in the possession of the Pecks until the Beardsley family bought it in 1904. It was then used for some years during the Great Depression as the headquarters for the Old Lyme Guild, an organization of artists that gathered to create art and make local crafts. Cabinetmakers, bookbinders, metal workers, potters and weavers set up shop in the barn.
At the forefront of the community’s rich art history as well as a public house in early American life, this historic gem features beamed ceilings and original, hand-hewn corner posts, along with wide-board floors. A circa-1900 addition looks modern compared to the 340-year-old home, David says.
The dining room showcases an original corner cupboard and a large stone cooking fireplace with beehive oven. Another of the home’s six original fireplaces (five circa 1680, one circa 1900)sits in the living room flanked by rare, curved tombstone paneling with carved rosettes and pinwheels. Also notable is a partition wall with a door that can swing down from the ceiling to divide what used to be the second-floor ballroom.
“Because it was a tavern, the wall made the space versatile,” David says. “They could hinge it up for dancing or put it down to allow for extra rooms for people to stay the night. Notice the door. Pretty clever, actually.”
Susan points out that all of the home’s doors are original. “When I walked in, all the clicky handles and little cupboards were really familiar to me. Old houses were something that my parents really seemed to appreciate. And David loves American history. His mom taught it for 40 years.”
While the couple appreciated the home’s history, they did want to make some changes. With David’s architectural prowess, they embarked on a series of projects through the years that artfully blended old and new. They adopted a “light touch” with any renovations, especially in the oldest parts of the house.
“It would have been a shame to overwhelm the delicate early Colonial-era scale and features of the original house that have survived so unscathed for these 340 years,” David says.
Before moving in, the kitchen renovation was completed with granite counters, cabinets installed by Old Saybrook-based Hanford Cabinet & Woodworking, and updated appliances. In addition, David reconfigured the space to include a mudroom and half-bath. Also, a new family room was added.
“I knew that I could do something to the kitchen right away. There was a wonderful stone fireplace and a lot of potential,” says David, who has always enjoyed problem solving in his residential work. “I just needed to rethink the flow of the space, to bring in the morning and afternoon light and to create vistas within the house leading from one room to the next.”
Susan adds: “While older houses tend to be darker, our home is surprisingly bright with higher ceilings than was the norm. Yet I did want a room with more light, and the new kitchen and family room achieve that in spades.”
The new family room features three walls of windows. It not only offers ample light, but also a connection to the landscape, which the couple also put a lot of time and energy into. Tackling a space that was previously overgrown, they took down some trees, planted fruit trees and redid the front driveway with 32 tons of clam shells. David confirms, “That’s the number. I put them down myself.”
Within the next three months, they fully renovated the home’s three full bathrooms. And in time, they added other modern amenities, including a new roof and energy-saving, renewable geothermal climate control system.
Cleverly combining old and new, from the circa-1680 original heart of the house to the circa-1900 addition and sun-filled 2007 renovation, the home is cohesive. There’s also a sense of calm, which is ironic, considering all the excitement that’s taken place within its walls.
“We often sit at our dining room table during holiday meals and marvel at the conversations that must have taken place,” Susan says. “From the earliest European settlers through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, the Great Depression — all of the politics and challenges of the day likely were debated.”