We came to roost in Dodge House after a four-year quest that began when a friend sent us this New York Times story about resident curatorships: “Nothing Down, $0 a Month, Hammer Required.”
We felt a calling when we read that a handful of states offered free, long-term leases on historic properties in exchange for the time and money it took to fix them up. No one we knew had heard of the concept, but our friends agreed it sounded like a lucky break for us.
We’d been trolling around for a fixer-upper to buy within an hour of New York, and we'd already proven a knack for spotting cheap rentals with good old bones, sprucing them up for a song, and living happily with low overhead one stop from Manhattan, in Jersey City. Why not spend a couple years' worth of rent to fix up a house in a gorgeous setting and earn the right to live there for the next quarter century? Even if we’d never own the place, it seemed like an irresistible deal, given that we had the skills to perform the work ourselves.
The nearest programs were in Massachusetts and Maryland, so that fall I blitzkrieged state and regional historic boards and preservation councils throughout New York and New Jersey, to see if either state had plans for a program, close to my job as an editor for Frommer's travel guides, and my husband's as an exhibition specialist for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. We learned—a few months, false leads, and dead ends later—that NY had nothing in the works, and NJ wanted a program but needed to pass the legislation. So we put our names at the top of the Garden State’s waiting list and kept on dreaming.
Rich Harbour: The Bay State
In May 2008, we realized that Massachusetts had the motherlode of abandoned properties in state parks, and one of the nation’s oldest resident curator programs, run by the Department of Conservation & Recreation (www.mass.gov/dcr/stewardship/curator) since 1994. The DCR had scores of historic houses in need of TLC throughout the state.
Through friends who grew up on Cape Ann, we had come to know and love the upper North Shore and decided to investigate four properties in the Northeast Region early that fall. No open houses were scheduled, so we pored over state park maps and set out on a weekend-long treasure hunt, which proved that only one place seemed within our means and geographic bounds: Lamson House, in Bradley Palmer State Park, Topsfield. Later that fall, we attended the public inspection and thought the place was extraordinary, with beehive ovens, a two-story atrium overlooking the Ipswich River, and a wing that dated to 1680. But it was too sprawling for the two of us, my husband didn’t fit under the doors, and the future curators, who were also there that day, looked like the shoo-ins they proved to be.
As we prepared to head home dejected, the DCR Resident Curator Program Manager, Kevin Allen, who had been patiently fielding inquiries from me for six months, told us about a two-bedroom property across the park. It wouldn’t be up for inspection for a while, but it sounded like a better fit for a couple without kids and with much more vision and patience than money. At his suggestion, we crossed the park and were tickled to come upon a modest, white clapboard farmhouse facing south on a grassy knoll between two blind curves on a winding country road. We were smitten.
Getting Into Dodge House
A year and a half went by before we received an email in March 2010 announcing the public inspection of the place, called the Elbridge Francis Dodge House, in the town of Hamilton. We dropped everything to attend. Boarded windows made it tricky to read the unlit interiors, but our flashlight revealed a structure that looked remarkably intact—no doubt due to its hilltop perch, which had kept it high and dry for two centuries. The house itself wasn’t grand like some others in the program, but we knew it would be a jewel box once the boards came off the windows—all 26 of them, with nine of them facing south. We also saw great potential to mix old and new gracefully within the clean, pre-Victorian interiors. The plum location sealed our interest.
We returned home and pulled out all the stops to complete the lengthy application, including a plan for the restoration, due April 30, 2010. That summer, we couldn’t believe our good fortune when the DCR invited us to interview as finalists. Being from out of state, we felt like long shots, but we loved the region, we wanted to restore this beautiful little house more than anything, and we knew we would do it justice.
On August 24, 2010, Kevin Allen called to offer us the place. We said yes on the spot, and we’re still pinching ourselves.
Just as we waited 18 months for the open house, we waited more than a year to work out the details of the lease and to wait out the state’s execution of the lead and asbestos removal and other groundwork that spared us some big-ticket expenses. Our pre-construction timeline chronicles the obstacles we’ve faced since we verbally agreed to take on this project—from tough state inspection requirements and stubborn old lead paint to an elusive septic pit, a case of Lyme Disease, and a septic tank with a giant crack in it, signaling the need for a replacement (Septic Bunker). Those 433 days were a small price to pay for what feels like a new lease on life—for us and for our house, which had sat abandoned for a decade before we commited to fix it up.
More than 30 unique properties in Massachusetts still await the attention of live-in caretakers, including a Victorian schooner that broke wooden maritime records by sailing within 600 miles of the North Pole while on a research exedition for the Smithsonian. We hope to raise awareness about resident curatorships on a national level, so that more state governments across the country will give people the chance to build a home while resuscitating historic properties that would succumb to disrepair without their intervention.