If you close your eyes on the Galway corner where Ralph and Nancy Caparulo’s home, Wyndbourne, sits, you’ll hear just what the Scottish settlers who likely built the homestead heard — birdsong and the breeze. And when you open your eyes, the view is probably much as it was back then as well: a fusion of forest and farmland, the Helderbergs and Green Mountains in the distance.
This tranquil setting drew the Caparulos, New Jersey natives, to this spot 12 years ago. Life in the Manhattan suburbs had become stressful, so they migrated to this three-acre farm, which they planned to turn into a bed-and-breakfast.
But dreams like this one often require extensive renovations, and Wyndbourne was no exception. Built in the 1790s, the post-and-beam farmhouse, which was once at the center of a 700-acre dairy farm, had been through multiple owners and a hodgepodge of reconfigurations.
When the Caparulos took possession, the house had been abandoned for two years. The kitchen was a gloomy room with dark cabinetry and appliances, dark ceiling beams, and faux-brick linoleum on the floor. Rats had chewed their way into the cabinets.
The rest of the house wasn’t much more inviting: the floors were badly damaged; the walls were papered with dizzying cabbage roses, eagles and medallions, and bright red barns; the windows were old and drafty — the Caparulos replaced 28 of them right off the bat.
“We essentially gutted the place and redid it,” says Ralph. The floors on the home’s first level, he noted, had all been furred out and leveled by a previous owner. The Caparulos had to do some digging — through five layers of linoleum in one spot — to get to the original floorboards. “It was an awful mess,” Ralph remembers.
The porch, which swept across the entire front of the house, was in such bad shape it had to be completely removed. “We discovered that all of the columns were sitting on the ground, so it had heaved,” remembers Ralph.
Despite the deplorable state of the house, the Caparulos moved right in, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. “It was better to live in it and to kind of divine what you wanted the space to do for you as you were in it,” Nancy comments.
The couple tackled the bulk of the design work and renovations on their own. Before they began, they researched early architecture and tried to keep their renovations true to the home’s era.
The first room they took on was a small bedroom off the upstairs library, where the walls had been covered with dark brown exterior clapboard. Nancy headed that project while Ralph decided what to do with the obsolete chimney, propped up by two-by-fours, which they had discovered behind a closet door in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
As time passed, they developed a system: Ralph would work on de-construction and re-construction in each room then Nancy would come in to do her thing. “I’ve done all the painting and a lot of the wallboard, which is really badly done, because that’s not what I do, but as long as it’s smooth, and it’s clean, I don’t care,” she says with a laugh.
Although the workload was at times overwhelming, the Caparulos found bright spots along the way. “The real joy of all of this for us was that there is a lot of original [craftsmanship] here still. The floors are original and in a lot of cases in the bedrooms upstairs, the plaster is original,” says Nancy.
The Caparulos took cues from Colonial Williamsburg when they chose the colors for their four-bedroom home. Their vibrant palette includes sun-yellow, caramel, burgundy, rustic red and hunter green. “We know that Williamsburg, which is our earliest record of colors, used enormously bright colors, bright purples and bright lavender. So we figured since this house was from the same period, that past residents would have probably have had the same sensibilities about light, having to get up with the sun and go to bed with it,” says Nancy.
Since the floors were so badly damaged, they were also painted, some bright yellow, others blue-gray. “In a lot of Williamsburg homes, the floors are painted,” Nancy notes.
The kitchen was renovated most recently. An addition put on in the late 1960s, at 600 square feet, it dominates the downstairs of their 4,100-square-foot home. That room was one of the reasons they bought the house, says Nancy, who notes with a laugh that a friend accused her of buying a kitchen with a house attached to it.
Polished, new, wide-plank maple floors and custom cherry cabinets now add warmth to the sweeping space. The lower kitchen cabinets have the look of antique dressers. Much of the cherry used throughout the kitchen came from a stash in a neighbor’s garage, notes Ralph.
A large granite-topped island seats up to six, with room to spare for a prep-sink.
“Everything you see in here my wife and I built with the occasional help of a carpenter from Warrensburg,” notes Ralph, who custom-made the interiors for all the kitchen drawers. Each drawer was designed for what it was intended to hold. There’s one for dishes, with dividers that separate dinner plates from dessert plates; one with cubbies for spices; another especially for silverware and one with slots built in for sharp knives.
Three easy chairs cozy up to the kitchen fireplace, which was once hidden behind an old woodstove. The fireplace’s former variegated-brick façade has been plastered over and imbedded with weathered-looking floral tiles. A huge old farmhouse table offers seating for 10 nearby.
The entire home is furnished with period furniture that the Caparulos have collected over the years. “We had to sell a lot of our furniture that came with us from New Jersey because it just didn’t work here,” Nancy says.
Past comes back
Neighbors and previous inhabitants of the Caparulos’ home have provided tales and photos that have shed some light on the home’s past, but there are still many mysteries.
“An old gentleman who grew up here knocked on our door one day and said that there was an attached three-holer [off the kitchen] and a well house where the picnic table is now,” Nancy says. That former resident also told the Caparulos that an upstairs bathroom, off what is now their library, functioned as a cheese-making room when the home was a dairy.
Other clues about the past have appeared as well. Ralph and Nancy found old Christmas cards in a crawl space, and from them learned that their home was once called Weatherhill Farm.
In the dining room, Ralph discovered a boarded-up recess in one wall, which he believes once held formal shelves. He removed the wall covering the dead space and built new shelving and cabinets there. “There was a mark over there for a corner cabinet,” Nancy notes, pointing to another corner of the room.
“This house was originally a center chimney,” she adds. “You can see the scar in the attic where the original chimney used to go through.” “At some point where the bathroom downstairs is now, there was another stairwell to the second floor, probably the original,” Ralph continues.
The Caparulos also discovered burn marks on the north wall of what is now the laundry room. They believe that room was once a kitchen.
“We were hoping we might have a benevolent ghost or two, but none has showed up in 12 years, so I guess all the past souls are truly at rest,” says Nancy. But nonetheless, voices from the past continue to speak. Nancy found remnants of fancy hand-stenciled wallpaper in the library; Ralph has unearthed old pennies, livestock skulls and clay marbles in the yard.
Outdoors, the Caparulos also uncovered a stone wall near the house, which was reportedly buried in 1906. They’ve cleaned up the old apple orchard and tried to rein in the raspberry patch. They’ve made their own mark on the landscape as well, by adding plantings, walkways and a crushed-stone patio. They’ve also revamped the old barn and built a studio behind it for Ralph, who is an artist.
The Caparulos have also started a community garden on their land. “This year, there will be six families all digging in the dirt,” Nancy says with pride. “I’m interested in sustainable agriculture and locally grown food and I like to be able to give people fresh things out of the garden when they’re here with us.”
More often than not, there are guests eager to sample Nancy’s fresh produce; Wyndbourne has been open for business as a bed- and-breakfast for the past seven years. Guests don’t seem to mind the ongoing restoration work, assures Nancy. “Everyone’s been very nice,” she says.
Work still in progress
From gardening to demolition work, Nancy and Ralph have had lots of help from friends and family, but despite all the extra hands, the renovation project has taken 12 years and counting — much longer than they ever imagined it would.
“At some point, after we had been toiling away at it for two or three years, and not making the progress we had hoped to make, we said, ‘You know, you just can’t put a timetable on this,’ so we sort of decided to live as well,” says Nancy. “You have to have a life too.”
And life is good at Wyndbourne. “I like where I am,” says Nancy. “I like looking out the windows and seeing what I see and I like being able to live a little bit closer to the land. We have better neighbors here who are farther away than we had in a suburban setting where we could throw a stone and hit a house. We’re very happy here.”