At home in the West – New York native brings saltbox-style house to Nevada County
Have you ever seen a saltbox?
What goes through your mind when you hear that question? If you were an antique hound, you’d know immediately that it is an item that dates back to Colonial times. If you were an Easterner, you’d probably know that it’s a type of house.
Actually, both are right. Saltbox is an architectural style from the Colonial period based on the design of the old saltboxes colonists hung on their walls to dispense salt.
So say the McConnaughays, Peggy and Jim, who are crazy for antiques, so much so that they designed their Grass Valley-area house as a replica of a 1700s’ Farmington saltbox.
“Where I grew up (near Buffalo, N.Y.), saltbox houses were everywhere,” Peggy said. “And I knew I wanted one one day.”
It would take years, a marriage, and a move across the country to make this wish a reality. Upon early retirement for Jim from Quaker Oats in the San Francisco Bay Area, the couple knew the time had come to realize their dream home.
They moved their business, Country Collectibles, to Nevada County and began the lengthy process of meticulous design (10 pages of plans) and building (“We had to interview 10 contractors before we found one who would take it on,” Jim said) that would be completed in 2001.
Situated on six acres of wooded property only minutes from downtown Grass Valley, the McConnaughays’ two-story house of gray-painted cedar shakes looks so New England it seems almost out of place in California.
Symmetrical with four multipaned windows on either side of the central door and a chimney right in the center of the roof, it looks fairly small – that is, until you step inside. It’s long and narrow, like the houses of yore.
“As the family grew,” Peggy said, “they added on linearly.”
It stretches for a good, long way, with the sitting room and dining room up front, all the way to the master bedroom suite in the back.
While the actual saltbox-designed part of the house, with its distinctive roof configuration of a one-way slant, is a modest 1,200 square feet, the entire house with its two additional gables totals a comfortable 3,200 square feet.
Real antiques, as well as convincing reproductions, are everywhere in the house.
“About 75 percent (of the furnishings) are antique,” Peggy said, “which means 100 years old or more.”
Windsor chairs, a perforated metal pie saver, a 300-year-old tea table, canopied beds, portraits of unsmiling children all dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and period floor coverings that include a hand-painted canvas “rug” typical of Thomas Jefferson’s day – the home is so authentically Colonial that it was featured in the Music in the Mountain’s fall 2002 home tour.
After 15 years in the antique retail business, Peggy knows where and how to find the exact item that’s needed, both for their house and the customers who come to their store in Nevada City.
There’s even more as the house tour continues. A hand-painted mural that depicts their house and its environs surrounds a walk-in fireplace – both typical of a bygone era.
Distressed wide-plank flooring is held in place with old-fashioned square nails.
“Oh, the contractors hated that,” Jim said, “because they couldn’t use a nail gun.”
The 640 panes of glass in the house would have been even more had the McConnaughays stuck with the traditional 12-by-12 paned windows (that’s 24 itsy panes in one window), but just the nightmare of having to tape them to hand-paint the casements or, worse yet, clean those tiny panes was enough to make them do 9 by 9 instead.
Even the couple’s dog, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, harkens back in history as a breed that lounged on the laps of kings and courtiers. Today, however, Bailey is a certified therapy dog who accompanies Peggy on visits to nursing homes. Jim, on the other hand, volunteers as a fire lookout, and on the day of the interview for this story, had been watching the Stevens Fire near Colfax.
The McConnaughays tend to like their creature comforts, so they take historical accuracy just so far. After all, who would want to live without a refrigerator or electric lights?
But somehow they incorporated the modern things, such as stainless steel appliances, in ways that work. The huge TV, for instance, is behind old-looking cabinet doors. The walk-in fireplace that would have had kettles hanging in it now has a Vermont wood-burning stove. And the candles – which colonists put in their front windows to beckon travelers – are electrified for fire safety.
These days, the type of travelers the effervescent McConnaughays welcome are mostly relatives who stay in the upstairs bedrooms.
Everyone gathers in the large kitchen/gathering room area (which boasts a modern-day folk artist Warren Kimball painting) to enjoy dinner parties and the warmth of a stove that heats the entire downstairs.
The most wondrous times to see the house in all its glory, the couple says, is either in the spring, when the backyard wildflower garden explodes into color, or around the holidays when they exchange the patriotic red, white and blue bunting for beautiful holiday swags underneath each of the nine front windows, again echoing the hospitality of the 18th century that beckoned to the traveler to come in and rest a while.
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