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Special Section Spring Home & Garden Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 26, 2012

Rescuing a crumbling landmark, the Selas have built their dream home
By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND —The house that sheltered young Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Guilderland’s most famous son, had fallen on hard times.

Built in the 1700s, not long after the American Revolution, with good bones of hand-hewn timbers, the house began to list as its massive center chimney crumbled. It was sheathed in layers of asphalt shingles and more recent vinyl siding. Its roof had holes and its floors had buckled.

Ben and Dana Sela have rescued the neglected landmark. After months of painstaking labor, they now live in the Willow Street house with their two young children — Gemma, a 21/2-year-old pixie who prances about her historic home with exuberance, and Luca, an eight-month-old cherub with luscious cheeks and wide eyes.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who was born and raised in the Selas’ house, devoted much of his life to recording the rapidly disappearing way of life of American Indian tribes and their languages. Most Americans today are familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, Song of Hiawatha, which, written in 1855, serves as a eulogy for a dying culture. The northeastern Indians by then had mostly been placed on reservations, assimilated, or killed. Longfellow’s tale is set in the vale of Tawasentha, the Iroquois word for burial ground.

In his notes on Song of Hiawatha, Longfellow credits Henry Rowe Schoolcraft as providing the material for his poem, citing Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches, and his History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States.

“Into this old tradition,” wrote Longfellow, “I have woven other curious Indian legends drawn chiefly from the various and valuable writings of Mr. Schoolcraft to whom the literary world is greatly indebted for his indefatigable zeal in rescuing from oblivion so much of the legendary lore of the Indians.”

Because of his experience in rebuilding Schoolcraft’s house, from the inside out, Ben Sela has renamed his construction company Iosco, the Algonquin word for the Vale of Norma, where the house stands and where Schoolcraft grew to manhood.

Schoolcraft, who traveled far and wide to learn about and record the fading Native American way of life, wrote in his poem “Iosco,” about his enduring fondness for the place of his birth:

Hills, grove and streams, that bound my native land,

To court the pleasing homage of my hand

And, like a dream of paradise and light,

Fill all my soul with rapture as I write.

Heights far more lofty, streams immensely long

Deep in the west, invite a nobler song;

But, ah, to me, more sweet the scenes expand

Where Norma’s cliffs, and Helder’s ramparts stand.

Taking the plunge

The Selas didn’t know what they were plunging into when they first set eyes on the rundown home. It was not love at first sight.

They were renting an apartment in Albany; had a new baby, Gemma; and thought it would be nice to have a house with a yard. Their Realtor had listed houses by price and this was the cheapest; they were looking at others that were three times as much or more.

“It was a cold, gray day,” recalled Ben of the couple’s first visit to the house. “We wrote it off.”

“It was a shell,” said Dana. “There were no floors on the first floor; it was just a big dirt pit — totally gutted. You could see through the roof.”

And yet, the Selas returned later for another look.

“You realize you have to lower your expectations,” said Dana. “We wanted outdoor space for kids.”

The house sits on eight-tenths of an acre, where Dana could picture gardens. At the end of the driveway was a badly buckled old barn, which Ben could see as a workshop.

And maybe, since that first drab day, they could envision the sunny yellow color they would paint the old house, making it radiate warmth.

“The Realtor thought we were crazy and tried to talk us out of it,” said Dana. And yet, they persisted.

Both artists, the Selas were reminded of the first house they had shared. The pair had met as students at Purchase College in Westchester County.

Dana had grown up in suburban New Jersey, and Ben was raised in a 100-year-old summer house on Sand Lake, which he and his brother had helped their father to upgrade.

Their sophomore year at Purchase College, Ben and Dana moved to an old farmhouse that served as a retreat center. “We got to live in a house that reminds us of this. The place had a ton of history,” said Dana. “We were like 20 years old, and all by ourselves. He maintained the house and I maintained the gardens.”

They look back on that time together nostalgically, and the old farmhouse they first shared helped inspire the design of their new house.

“We worked on the floor pan together,” said Ben.

“We just wanted the most natural flow,” said Dana.

They succeeded in creating a living space that is at once functional and modern but preserves the character and charm of an old house. A wide-screen television does not look out of place on a fireplace wall built of antique brick.

The massive two-sided fireplace centers the house, with a living room on either side. A bathroom that looks more like an art gallery, complete with an antique claw-footed tub, is tucked into a space that once served as the home’s entrance.

A step down from the central living space is a kitchen and dining area. Ben surmised that the back addition to the original box of a house was probably a porch in the mid-1800s that got enclosed.

The kitchen, with frankly modern appliances, in white, features a beaded-board peninsula and cabinetry. It has a simple country feel that blends with the rustic character of the house. “We’re not into fancy,” said Dana.

Dana got the window she wanted over the kitchen sink; the sink itself is a salvaged double-bowled porcelain over cast iron.

French doors from the kitchen lead to a large framed-in deck, which Dana hopes will be completed in time for Mother’s Day. Grand old trees ring the as-yet-to-be cultivated backyard.

Inside, the house is quiet; Ben credits the many bats of fiberglass insulation and the double-glazed windows.

In the living room, Dana reaches up a hand that can’t touch the ceiling beams to show how tall it is. “When we bought it, we thought the ceilings were low,” she marvels. “There were just layers and layers that had been added on.”

Upstairs is a master bedroom, a bedroom for each child — each charmingly decorated — and a half bath. “With potty training, I wanted a bathroom on the same floor as the bedrooms,” said Dana.

A spiral wooden staircase leads to a third floor that had been an attic, and now is a cozy guestroom with a bed nestled under the slanting ceiling.

Dana calculates the time the restoration took by considering the ages of her children. “Gemma was a baby when we started looking,” she said, “and when we moved in Luca was five weeks old, so it took a-year-and-half from when we bought it till we moved in.”

“Pride in preservation”

Before taking on the Schoolcraft project, Ben had had a restoration business for four years and worked mostly on Victorian brownstones. The motto for his business is “Pride in preservation.”

He put that motto to work in all aspects of rescuing the Henry Rowe Schoolcraft House.

“He salvaged any material he could,” said Dana. “We wanted to bring it back to life as close as we could to the original.”

Ben started with restoring the 1850s’ barn, so he’d have a place to work on the house. The barn had to be raised three feet off the ground and have new footings installed. The town’s building inspector worried it wasn’t salvageable, so an architect had to sign off on the project.

Once the barn was stabilized and structurally sound, Ben salvaged old siding and barn doors from a barn that was being dismantled and rebuilt in Voorheesville.

“It was all for a couple of hundred bucks,” he said of the salvaged materials.

The barn project took three months.

“That was torture for me,” conceded Dana with a smile.

The first project Ben tackled on the house was restoring the massive chimney at its center. “The house was leaning because the chimney wasn’t built on adequate footings, and it was pulling the house over with it,” he said.

The chimney was built in the 1700s with hand-formed bricks but then, perhaps 20 years ago, someone had built a new brick layer over the old one.

Ben painstakingly dismantled the chimney. “He hand-separated the historical bricks from the Home Depot ones,” said Dana.

Then, on solid footing, Ben re-built the chimney — with a double hearth and a fireplace opening on two facing sides — using the antique bricks.

With similar care, Ben rebuilt every part of the house. He stripped off the layers of old siding to reveal the sturdy old, but not original, boards beneath. He restored a porch on the side of the house built in the Greek Revival style, probably in the early 1900s, to its former glory.

Inside, he installed new electrical and plumbing systems. One unique feature is radiant heating pipes beneath the ceramic tile floor in the kitchen that are warmed by the heat of the fire.

The windows in the house were a mish-mash of styles, installed at various times over the centuries. Ben replaced them with new energy-efficient models but saved the three oldest windows, with beautiful rippling glass.

While the wide-plank floors look as if they’ve been there for centuries, they were actually scavenged from the attic and barn.

Ditto many of the hand-hewn beams. Ben said that the oldest piece of wood in the house — easily 300 years old, he estimates — was found embedded in the crumbling center fireplace structure. He used the piece, which is hand-hewn with beaded edges, as a newel post for the stairway he constructed.

The original stair to the second floor had been rather like a ladder. Ben constructed a stairway with simple upright rails and built in baby gates at the top and bottom. Being a perfectionist, Ben thinks he may replace it one day.

Upstairs, in the attic guest room, Ben plastered over the fireplace wall because he had run out of antique bricks and he doesn’t like the look of bricks made from wire cut molds.

“It doesn’t have the same appearance as hand-formed,” he said.

All those tiny details add up to a feeling of genuine authenticity in the Selas’ house.

“It’s been a gradual process,” said Ben.

“It fits us,” said Dana. “We’re spoiled in a lot of ways. It’s what we wanted it to be.”

Dana concludes, “My husband is one of the last Renaissance men out there. He reads and reads and is able to learn how to do anything.”

That sounds not unlike the home’s 18th-Century inhabitant — Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

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