CROGHAN — He was told not to do it, that it would be a lot of work, but Travis Proulx could not resist buying the Basselin House to bring back its luster and turn it into a home. Now his efforts are being rewarded.
Mr. Proulx was among those honored with an Adirondack Architectural Heritage Award this year for “helping to preserve and enhance the unique heritage and built environment of the Adirondacks,” according to the organization’s webpage.
The architectural group first learned of Basselin House when they visited as part of a tour of Croghan in May 2020, as Mr. Proulx with the help of his mother and stepfather, Kay and Kenneth Gerow, began the first of many “fixes” with the front porch.
The group was taken on a tour of the house at 9757 State Route 812 by Mr. Proulx’s uncle, Kenneth Proulx, who was the author of a 1980 biography of lumber magnate Theodore B. Basselin, “The Life and Enterprise of Theodore B. Basselin: An episode in the early history of Lewis County.”
As they saw the house transform via Mr. Proulx’s Facebook updates on the Basselin House Project page, the organization contacted him to say he had been nominated and then took another tour of the house in August.
Mr. Proulx said he was especially honored by being chosen because the organization often focuses on efforts on the eastern side of the mountains: he was the only one “truly on the western side of the Adirondacks.”
There was also serendipity in the selection: Theodore Basselin was instrumental in drawing the “Blue Line” that is the Adirondack Park’s boundaries.
While he appreciates the award, Mr. Proulx said it’s the transformation of the house that means the most to him.
“I view when you buy a house like this, whether I own it five years or I own it 50 years, I’m really just a chapter in the history of this house. My time’s going to come and go,” Mr. Proulx said. “I think approaching this, I just wanted to restore it back to how it originally looked because I think homes tend to look and function best when you take away all of the add-ons and extras and you just go back to basics.”
He said he now believes the house is becoming what it has “always needed to be” and is primed to have future owners well beyond him.
Mr. Proulx admits that it couldn’t have been done without the Gerows, who have experience flipping houses. Mr. Gerow is a professional carpenter who said that while Mr. Proulx is “getting better” at his carpentry skills, that, too is a project in the works.
The couple, especially his mother, have kept the project on track.
“I get my name put on things but Mom does all the work,” said Mr. Proulx. “While I like to focus on the pretty things, my mom’s very good at keeping focused on the important things. Prioritizing roof, prioritizing foundation fixes, prioritizing all of those pieces that essentially keep the house protected and in good shape and functional.”
That meant a new roof after stripping four layers of asphalt shingles and the original cedar shake shingles and ensuring the foundation was solid.
“Those types of fixes ensure that the structure retains its integrity for decades to come. That type of stuff is important. It’s not the glamorous stuff. It stinks to put a lot of money into stuff people don’t see, but at the end of the day, my design will come and go but the house will remain in tact because we made sure all the pieces were intact,” said Mr. Proulx.
Before they laid a hand on the big house, around Valentine’s Day 2020 after closing was complete, the crew of three gave the small building behind the big house the attention it needed.
“The first thing we did was we went through the tenant house. That was in rough shape. It’s not the big house. It’s not the house everyone focuses on, but boy that was a lot of work,” Mr. Proulx said.
Income from renting out the tenant house has helped to fund the renovations and restoration on the big house.
“The three of us doing a lot of work saved us enormously on the cost. I don’t know if it would not have been financially feasible if we had to hire it all out.”
The small house was finished by the end of April 2020, after which Mr. Gerow started working on the house’s iconic but sagging and unsafe front porch with its rounded corners.
“We were determined that the porch would be saved,” said Mr. Proulx. “We’re very fortunate here in Croghan to have the Croghan Island Mill which does the old-time planing and cutting, so they were able to match a lot of the pieces — the floor boards, the ceiling boards.”
A section of the porch that was originally enclosed with two large windows had been missing one of the windows for many years, but the entire broken window was brought to Croghan Island Mill for repair so that now, the protected area of the porch has now been restored and is now “a usable, nice place you could sit with friends and relax,”
Part of the restoration effort has been about fitting pieces that exist somewhere on the property back where they belong.
Mr. Proulx said that there are “piles” of the house’s history in its various removed doors and windows, mostly from when the house went through its first renovation, a large expansion, in 1875 after being built in 1859, and more from a complete renovation again in 1900.
The changes over the years, however, mean that some of those parts can never again call Basselin House home.
“We have, for instance, doors and windows that don’t have a place now in the house because they would have come out of one of the previous versions of the layout. Where we could, we brought back as much as we could,” he said. “I like the idea of putting back original where you can and where it’s usable.”
Some things have held up remarkably well over the years, Mr. Proulx said, from the plaster on the walls and the intricate plaster-work in one of the main front rooms where the fireplace is the focal point — and whimsical peonies now float in the walls’ shadow boxes to create a “heavenly feel” — to the doors that not only still work, but have, at times, appeared to have minds of their own in an almost other worldly fashion.
“The first night I moved into the house, I was a little scared and I was like, ‘Nope, I can’t do this,’ so I went up to stay at my camp in the woods instead,” Mr. Proulx said. “I came back the second night … in every room, you have three ways in, so I made sure every door was shut tight. I’d go to bed and I’d shut all the doors and night after night, in the middle of the night, the doors would just start reopening and I was like ‘Nope!’ So I moved to the front bedroom and moved things in front of the doors so they couldn’t open.”
The house attracts people who connect to it and want to help Mr. Proulx piece its history back together by dropping off things like a bag of buttons that are believed to have come from Mr. Basselin’s coat and a ledger book from his timber business.
Even the baby grand piano Mr. Proulx found for the large front room that used to be the original store front belonged to a couple in Antwerp that were excited to hear where it would go because they had just driven to Croghan to see Basselin House for themselves.
“These fortuitous things happen where people want to help and it dovetails with the vision,” Mr. Proulx said.
The hard working trio are now in the process of replacing the original 45 windows with same-size energy efficient windows as well as “five rooms and 40 gallons (of paint) to go” even after 100 gallons have been applied.
Next year they will focus more on the outside, including getting water to the new fountain Mr. Proulx has installed. And then, the barn will get some much needed attention, too.
“This to me is a home. I consider it my home. I like that my family can all be there, can all fit there. I really like that about it and it’s going to stay a home as long as I own it,” Mr. Proulx said. “And to me, it’s an important investment. I mean, you never know what the future holds, but it’s something I anticipate I’ll have for most of the rest of my life.”
Mr. Proulx says he also hopes that people in the area will see that just because an old structure needs a lot of work and it may seem “cheaper” to tear it down to build something new, these are structures that have withstood a century-plus have much more time in them at their foundations and are worth the effort.
“I hate, hate, hate seeing old buildings come down when they don’t really need to,” he said. “If it can be saved it probably is worth saving, you just need to think about it in a slightly different way to get the work done.”