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Historic Home Renovation Features Eudora Semi-Custom Cabinetry Provided by Dean Cabinetry.

The historic Ripley Tainter House celebrates a couple’s love of old and new

Before they met, Tom Avery and Matt Miller both had a history of liking old houses. Avery was in a condo in an 1870 brownstone in Boston’s Back Bay, while Miller was living in a historic 100-year-old house in Baltic, Connecticut. The two got together and lived in Avery’s condo for a few years, but once Avery retired after 30 years as an occupational therapist, their plan was to move out of Boston and find a house with land.

Several years ago, they started house hunting in Western Massachusetts, but when they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they expanded their search to Connecticut near where Miller used to live. “We would come down because we had furniture in a storage unit near Matt’s old house and we would drive by the house that we own now,” says Avery, who liked the picturesque area and its history. “Whenever we would drive by and see it, I would comment to Matt, ‘Oh my gosh, why doesn’t something like that come on the market?’ ”

About a year later, while the two were vacationing in Hawaii, it did. As soon as they returned home, they went to see it, put in an offer almost immediately and bought the home known as the Ripley Tainter House in Windham Center’s Historic District. At 4,556 square feet, the circa-1840 Greek Revival features nine working fireplaces and sits on 32 acres with a pond.

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This sitting room, with one of the Windham home’s nine working fireplaces, is a good example of the owners’ put-together-yet-comfortable design ethos. Karissa Van Tassel

The two older, wood-frame, clapboard-sided sections of the house were built in 1790 by Joshua Ripley, a wool merchant. Later, in 1840, Charles Sumner Tainter, an American scientific instrument maker, engineer and inventor, purchased the house and built the structure’s front Greek Revival section. “From the beginning, we knew that we were going to gut the back two sections of the house, vault the ceiling and put in windows to look back at the barn on the property,” Miller says. “When we walked to the front of the house and saw the 12-foot ceilings and everything looked great, we knew that we didn’t need to change anything on this side.”

Miller knew they needed to tap an expert to help them make better use of the space. After meeting architect David Duncan, founder of Needham Duncan Architecture, and seeing his own renovated historic home in Old Lyme, the couple felt they “spoke the same language” and would collaborate well together.

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The homeowners wanted the kitchen and dining rooms to be “bright and crisp” with whites and neutrals so as to not take away from the natural beauty through the windows. Nicole O’Connor / Sevenpair Studios

“I knew that Tom and Matt wanted to fill the house with family and friends,” says Duncan, who was based in Old Lyme at the time of the project, and has since relocated to Phippsburg, Maine, with continuing projects in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. “But the trick was to figure out how the flow of the house could both encourage entertaining, while still feel comfortable for two people living there day to day.”

Dark and dreary with uneven floors; a brick Colonial kitchen with a tile floor; and a back entrance with a few choppy rooms (a small bathroom and laundry area) with a loft space above — the big space needed to be reimagined. A gut renovation would open it all up. The design included doing away with the loft, the small bathroom and laundry area, which wasn’t needed thanks to another one on the second floor, to make room for a vaulted ceiling and living/kitchen area with walls of glass that framed a view of the barn in the distance.

this old house renovation
The historic home’s biggest transformation was at the back, where the living/kitchen area was reimagined with a vaulted ceiling and walls of glass that frame a view of the scenery and barn in the distance. Karissa Van Tassel

Instead of entering from the back where the two small rooms originally were located, Duncan designed a new entrance at the side of the house, cleaning up the flow. Here, a beautiful white built-in cupboard original to the dining room, and that Duncan hated to waste, was moved and worked into the floor plan.

Next, Duncan needed to connect the dining room to the kitchen. But a butler’s pantry, which one had to walk through to get to the dining room, hindered that. Moving it to the middle of the house between the kitchen and dining room, and creating two hallways on either side, allowed traffic to flow around it. “By moving the butler’s pantry and moving another small bathroom near the dining room, there is a sight line where you can be in the front hallway and look all the way through to the back windows to the barn,” Avery says. “In fact, you can be up in the barn, and if the lighting is right, you can look from the barn through the house and out the front door of the house.”

historic renovation
“The front hallway of the Greek Revival section now connects seamlessly to the transformed back,” the architect says. “The old and new are physically knitted together with a flow that makes it so inviting to walk around and just enjoy.” Karissa Van Tassel

“The front hallway of the Greek Revival section now connects seamlessly to the transformed back,” Duncan says. “The old and new are physically knitted together with a flow that makes it so inviting to walk around and just enjoy.”

After eight months of renovations, the space is now light and bright thanks to a back wall made entirely of windows including a fanlight topper, an important element that the couple wanted to incorporate to aesthetically match one at the top of the barn. New French doors lead from the dining room to a patio that was present when Avery and Miller bought the house. New French doors were also added in the kitchen, connecting to a new patio that the couple built using pavers that had once surrounded a pool, which had been filled in prior to their purchase.

“Bottom line, everything was opened up to the side and back of the house and connected to the outdoors, when it hadn’t been that way at all,” says Duncan, who worked with John Spradlin of Middletown-based Green Village Builders, a firm adept at working with older houses. “We worked entirely within the existing antique structure and that was intentional. It’s so easy to solve design issues by just adding more space, but the discipline of working within that existing space was really important.”

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The homeowners wanted the kitchen and dining rooms to be “bright and crisp” with whites and neutrals so as to not take away from the natural beauty through the windows. Karissa Van Tassel

Seeing the historic, two-story, post-and-beam barn from the house was important to the couple. Built in the 1800s, it was taken apart and moved from Guilford, and rebuilt on the property in 1998 and used as a horse barn. Avery and Miller redesigned it as an event space, and it’s where they got married. “Our ceremony was up on the hill and the reception inside the barn,” Avery says. “We got married in Boston, but we wanted to wait until we were in our home and had a full second wedding here at the house in September 2018.”

Miller created their 11-tiered wedding cake. While cake decorating is something he’s taught himself and is primarily a hobby, he enjoys taking on projects that interest him — all in between his day job as a manager at BJ’s Wholesale Club, where he’s been for 21 years.

Avery’s creativity abounds throughout their home with many of his paintings displayed in the living room, dining room and library. Drawing and painting his whole life, and mostly self-taught, he took several classes and workshops and studied under artists Numael and Shirley Pulido. While he considers painting a hobby, Avery’s work has appeared in a couple of shows and galleries over the years.

Since buying the Greek Revival, a lot of their creative energy has gone into the house and landscaping and gardening. Each brings their talents and exquisite taste to the interior design. They are behind every decor detail, and painted the interior and a good portion of the exterior themselves.

“We wanted the kitchen and dining room to be bright and crisp,” says Miller, noting that they tapped Leah Dean of Dean Cabinetry in Bolton for the cabinetry. “So, we went with everything white, and neutral on the table and chairs. We wanted the focus to be on the outside through the windows. There’s so much nature no matter the season and we wanted that to be where your eye goes.” 

For decor, the couple mixes “a few antiques with thrift store finds and stuff from Ikea,” Avery says. “We like things to look put together, but we also want them to be comfortable. And the comments that we get from friends and family who visit here is that they can be comfortable and they can just relax, which is exactly what we wanted.”

While the couple skipped their holiday open house due to the pandemic in 2020, where they typically host between 70–80 people, the two couldn’t help but decorate as they normally do. Twenty-seven beautifully decorated Christmas trees and 17 wreaths filled their home — a testament to a couple who enjoys rolling up their sleeves and putting on the finishing touches, be it for a big party or just the two of them.

See more kitchen photos and information from this historic renovation!