“I like to find evidence people who lived here before me,” says Oscar-nominated actress Penelope Milford. We’re standing in the basement of his home in the historic Old South Side neighborhood of Saugerties.
She points to the stairs leading from the basement kitchen to the ground floor. At the center of each wooden step is a smoothly carved depression, worn by the frequent passage of feet. “Can you imagine how many times the servants climbed those stairs to shape them like this? In comparison, the stairs to the bedroom floor were barely worn.
In 2003, Penelope purchased the two-story brick Italianate home, which was built in the 1860s. 19th century sense.
She pulls a checkered dress with a pleated skirt and a white yoke from her closet in the former servants’ quarters, now her bedroom. “I found this dress stuffed into a gap in the wall. I washed and ironed it, and it really suits me. She cherishes that bond with the family of former tenants.
Library and internet searches revealed the story of the house builder, James Irving Crump, who emigrated from England to work alongside his two brothers at the Ulster Iron Works. They had land and two houses on the hillside, a short walk from their work in the factory at the bottom of the hill. Wealthy factory owners lived at the top of the hill, near the Episcopal Church where Thomas Cole’s son was pastor.
A few years after Crump’s arrival, Ulster Iron Works sent him back to England, where his brothers back home also worked in steel mills. With their help, he obtained a formula for making extra-strong iron, for use in cannons and armored ships. When he returned with the recipe, the resulting government contracts won him a promotion and the funds to build a stately brick house on the hillside, nestled between his brothers’ house and the cottage where He lived. James Crump’s wife had 11 children, only four of whom survived to adulthood. James and his son Benjamin became prominent members of the community and helped Saugerties flourish during its industrial period.
“They feel like my family,” says Penelope, who has been in touch via email with James’ descendant Jon Crump.
Alterations made around the 1940s included stair coverings, wooden slats on plaster or concrete to fill depressions. She removed the edits to appreciate the movement of past feet. In the kitchen, she removed the plaster from a wall to reveal the irregular fieldstones of the foundation. Only a handful of the original six-panel doors remained, two of them with teardrop-shaped porcelain keyhole covers that swung on a nail. Scouring salvage stores and resale stores, she came up with a complete set of six-panel doors and 11 porcelain keyhole covers.
Some of the floors were covered in industrial linoleum above Congoleum, a turn-of-the-century American version of linoleum, printed with a pattern of tropical acanthus leaves. When Penelope lifted the two layers, she found tongue-and-groove hemlock underneath. Dining rooms and drawing rooms once had rugs on the floor, and the areas between the rugs and the walls were painted Indian red, as was the custom of the time. The dark red color comes from clay containing iron oxide, produced in India. She sanded and waxed all the floors, so she could enjoy the original hemlock planks.
When Penelope moved in, the windows were painted shut, some panes were broken, and the sash cords were missing. She called a contractor, but he just wanted to install new windows, so she went online for advice. During many meditative evenings, she worked with a single-edged razor blade, scraping off the paint and threading the rope through the belt cord pulleys. “I learned to do a lot of the work from books and Youtube,” she says. “You get a sense of intimacy with your home when you work on it yourself.”
Help also came from knowledgeable friends with similar homes. She worked on their places in exchange and discovered a whole community of people who love old houses.
Furnishing the house was, Penelope says, “like a treasure hunt. I collect things that I love. Thrift stores, garage sales, auctions and his own family donated furniture and works of art that give the house a historic and elegant atmosphere. In the front hallway is an old reception room, where callers waited when they arrived. It had previously been converted into a large bathroom, which Penelope upgraded with a clawfoot tub she found in a plumber’s front yard and bought for $50. Her grandmother’s free-standing towel rack, made of thin wooden dowels and posts, rests under the window.
She installed a pocket door to connect the bathroom to the service, now a guest bedroom. Along one wall, a dark wood cabinet hides a mini butler’s pantry, built by artist friend Stephan Brophy to match a large 1920s bookcase mounted above. Her parents bought the glass-encased church library she attended as a child, and she filled it with vintage glassware, rows of hanging teacups and stacks of china plates. Dark Moorish-patterned drapes cover the bed, and beside it, an etched brass tray serves as a low top.
“Years ago, I owned an art gallery in Venice, California,” says Penelope. “I loved to sit surrounded by works of artists. By providing the appropriate setting for their art, I felt a sense of collaboration with the artist. Choosing and arranging beautiful objects in one’s home brings similar satisfaction.
Even now, with one living room wall still being restored, Penelope doesn’t care to work on her home for so many years. “I feel this house as a living object. He has sheltered and comforted families for so many generations, he deserves the loving care I can give him.