Couple unearths long-lost treasures in old barn

10/26/2010 12:11 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO Barbara and Victor DePaola plan to return their old barn to its original appearance.

Sometimes a lack of money leads to the most creative results.

When Victor and Barbara DiPaola bought their now 105-year-old house on Main Road in Mattituck in 2000, it came with a barn that was already leaning. Nor’easters increased the tilt so much they feared it would fall.

They faced three choices: do nothing and let it rot, knock it down and replace it or restore it, Mr. DiPaola said. “I felt that it was getting dangerous,” Ms. DiPaola said.

They never considered the do-nothing option. Replacing the barn was beyond their budget, her husband said. As vice president of Mattituck-Laurel Historical Society, he was predisposed to preserving the building.

Ultimately, the restoration became a project the DiPaolas thought was doable, both financially and aesthetically. Mr. DiPaola won’t talk about the cost, but he’s delighting in the process, which has unearthed a number of treasures once tucked beneath the old barn.

Perhaps the prize is a pocket watch Mr. DiPaola’s research reveals was made by the American Waltham Clock Company in 1878 or 1879.

He also found a small purse made of nickle, an old doorknob and an array of bottles, including one from Fred Barth’s pharmacy in Greenport, likely from the early 1900s, and another that once contained Clovers Imperial Mange Medicine. Then there’s My Wife’s Salad Dressing from Chicago and an Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company bottle.

Today we recycle; back then, they apparently tossed their bottles under the barn, Mr. DiPaola said.

The work has been under way for several weeks and foul weather hasn’t deterred the contractors. Despite some rainy and windy weather, they are on schedule to get the walls up so the barn can be closed up within a month. They estimate about three months of work to finish the restoration.

A former New York City police officer, who spent 10 years as the department’s press spokesman, Mr. DiPaola, 77, later had a career in executive placement before retiring. When he did, went to C.W. Post and took a 120-hour course at on antiques and appraisals. Now he restores furniture for their home, which is filled with antiques.

Ms. DiPaola worked for a business forms company, dealing with such firms as Dean Witter and Morgan Stanley.

Theirs is a second marriage. The couple came to Long Island because Ms. DiPaola wanted to be near her grandchildren, Mr. DiPaola said.

Although realtors showed them many properties, they actually found the house they purchased on their own by just riding around the North Fork.

Once they decided to restore the barn, Mattituck architect Don Feiler developed the plans. Then John Kirmish Jr., a Mattituck contractor who has done other work for the DiPaolas and was involved in the restoration of Brecknock Hall in Greenport, agreed to tackle the project.

Even before any work began, it took about six months for the restoration plans to pass muster with the Southold Town building department, requiring some compromises, such as lowering the building’s height, Mr. DiPaola said.

The old barn had to be stripped of its outer boards, but much that was removed will be replaced in the course of the restoration.

“We want to try to reuse what we can,” said Brent Kirmish, the contractor’s 26-year-old son. “We like to try to salvage what’s here.” He admitted it would be easier to simply replace the old barn, but said it would lack the character that the restored original will have.

“We started ripping up just one floor board” to get a sense of what was underneath, said younger brother Chris Kirmish, 20.

Most of the building’s beams were intact and the roof was structurally intact, Mr. DiPaola said. Some end beams will have to be replaced, he said.

Once the skeleton of the building was revealed, he watched as John Kirmish, using a large crane, gently lifted the structure a few inches so his sons could straighten and reinforce it.

That the barn once held horses is apparent from one beam where the animals chewed the wood, leaving a large indentation.

Once it’s finished, the restored barn will provide a workshop where Mr. DiPaola will pursue his furniture restoration work. Ms. DiPaola wants just a corner to use for storage, she said.

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