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Home: The Evolution of Bachelor Hall

Home: The Evolution of Bachelor Hall
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What’s unique about an old house is its history: who owned it, how they lived, the spirit they left behind. By the time Jilly and Alex Walsh came to live in the northeast corner of Connecticut, this Federal-style house, built in 1780, had already sheltered many lives. There was once a law office here, and then successive generations of clergy, followed by a “lone bachelor,” from whom came the house’s epithet, “Bachelor Hall.” The house then passed to a family who raised dairy cows during the 1940s and who farmed with a team of mules before tractors were common.

In 1980, while living in New York City, Jilly and Alex saw an ad in the back of Antiques magazine for this venerable piece of West Woodstock history. “It sat on our desk for six months before we finally went out to see the house,” Jilly recalls. At the time, Alex was managing an art gallery in Midtown and Jilly was raising their two children. Both artists, they’d met in 1965 during their first year at Rhode Island School of Design and married three years later. For more than six years, they’d lived in England, where they both had roots and family, before returning to the States, eventually settling again in New York. But they missed the countryside.

When they walked through the old plaster-walled rooms of this two-story, four-bedroom home, they admired the high ceilings and wide-board pine floors; the original raised-panel doors with black iron thumb latches; the arched doorway that provided an intriguing passageway between kitchen and dining room; the dining room’s intricately trimmed cupboard; and the pine newel posts at the foot of the main staircase. (They seem simple at first, but lean closer and the subtle hammered decoration becomes clear, something like pierced tin, with images of kites, drifting.) They especially loved the nine fireplaces–every mantel distinct from the others–and the beehive oven.

Outside, they took note of the property’s spacious, iconic barns, the leaning silo, the open fields surrounding the house. What artist would not love this canvas? They immediately put $20 down and returned to New York to put their four-and-a-half-room apartment on the market; it sold for more than what they would pay for the house. “The idea of being able to swap what we had for the six acres, barns, and eleven rooms with nine fireplaces … well, that amazed us,” Alex says. “We missed our home in England, and we thought this would be just like it, which of course it never was.” Within six weeks, they’d moved in. “We moved to the back of beyond without any research,” Jilly reflects. “It’s a miracle we landed on our feet.”

Alex started an antique art gallery (“Dead artists,” he says) here, and Jilly soon founded her successful business, now known as “Jilly’s Jubilee.” They converted the old carriage shed into her studio. Jilly’s business grew; Alex joined her as an artist. In the meantime, their children, Nick and Lisa, joined 4-H, and in the many rooms of one of those big old barns, they raised chickens, turkeys, sheep, a goat, a horse, and a pig named Snorker.

All the while, Jilly and Alex were redoing the house, leaving it just as it was and yet gloriously transformed. Two artists and all those walls! Alex painted panels and murals, and all the rooms assumed unending hues, changing color with the owners’ moods. It was nothing for either of them to paint a room, decorate a chest, make an old table into a festive objet d’art. Eclectic and imaginative treasures filled the shelves and decorated the mantels. In the attic they discovered enough interior shutters for all the front rooms; a neighbor and craftsman helped restore and install them. “I love them,” Jilly points out, “because they let in the light. At night, we close them for privacy, but during the day, they’re open. I really have never liked curtains; they block the light.”

And, of course, there were gardens, vegetables, flowers, climbing roses, and climbing hydrangea. The gardens grew and the children grew up and left home, their rooms kept just as they were for their return visits, with the special small bedroom near the bathroom set aside now for the grandchildren: 30 years of a life well and happily lived, in a house filled with the accumulations of that life and of their art. A visit reveals abundant antiques, books filling shelves and toppling from stacks on tables and chairs; bright walls decorated with Alex’s paintings and Jilly’s colorful and playful ceramic platters; floors painted the color of the blue sea and of pumpkin pie; and moss-green shutters. Color dominates their lives.

Of the “lone bachelor,” a brochure devoted to the history of the houses of West Woodstock notes: “He belongs to the old school of aristocracy. Educated, eccentric, and effervescent … exceedingly entertaining.” The house, it says, is filled with antiques and treasures and “his living room is actually littered with books and pamphlets, old and new … For recreation, he has decorated the beautifully paneled doors, wainscoting, and shutters with paints of various hue.”

When the history of West Woodstock is updated a few generations hence, similar words may be used to describe the years when the Walshes occupied this big, beautiful house of color and memory.

Read about two of Jilly Walsh’s favorite recipes.

Updated Monday, June 20th, 2011
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