This Home Renovation in Hartford’s Frog Hollow Was a Labor of Love

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A few years ago, Carey Shea took a month off, leaving her brownstone in Harlem to care for her sick mother in Bloomfield. While in Connecticut, she saw an adorable abandoned house in Hartford while helping her friend find a new home. Located in the Frog Hollow neighborhood, the English-style townhouse with its brick and clapboard exterior and charming wooden porch spoke to them both, despite needing restoration. So when her friend finally decided against taking on the rehab project, Carey and her husband, Calvin Parker, did, leaving the Big Apple behind for smaller-scale city living.

“One of the first things I noticed when I came back to Hartford was that people were walking their dogs and living downtown,” Carey recalls. “I grew up in Bloomfield, studied at Albano Ballet and was in and out of Hartford all the time. I used to go to Hartford Stage Company, visit Constitution Plaza to see lighting trees and shopping at the G. Fox department store with my grandmother, who worked there. I thought of downtown as a place of commerce, never a residential place, so it was good to see.

Carey Shea and Calvin Parker poured their hearts and souls into their dilapidated townhouse, including recreating the porch’s original latticework and intricate brooches, what Shea calls the “jewels of the house.”

Bill Morgan

Built in the 1880s, the 2,500-square-foot, three-story home is among those lining both sides of Columbia Street, named after Columbia Bicycles, the manufacturer that originally owned the street and built the modest single-family homes for its management. Shea says the homes, each designed slightly differently by architect George Keller — who also designed the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch and Union Station in Hartford — and which are now part of the George Keller Historic District, continue to be primarily maintained as single-family homes or are owner-occupied with a tenant on the third floor.

While many might balk at such an ambitious rehab project, the couple had done it many times before. A few years after Carey and Calvin got married, while restoring their 5,000 square foot Harlem brownstone, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Having no children to uproot, they decided to participate in its recovery. Carey, who worked at Habitat for Humanity in New York, took a job with the Rockefeller Foundation, overseeing the citywide recovery planning process, while Calvin, who was assistant commissioner for housing policy at New York, went to work for the State of Louisiana, leading a multimillion-dollar program to help owners of small rental properties rehabilitate and reoccupy them.

A drop ceiling on the third floor was removed to create a vaulted space above the bed.

A drop ceiling on the third floor was removed to create a vaulted space above the bed.

Bill Morgan

“I left the Rockefeller Foundation to work for Len Riggio, the founder of Barnes & Noble, and his wife, Louise, who were leading their effort to build 100 homes for people who had lost their homes in the storm,” Carey says. , who says the couple still own the modern two-family home they built for themselves in one of the neighborhoods. “And we ended up building over 200 houses to give to people. It was an awesome experience.”

After seeing the Hartford house for the first time in January 2019, Carey and Calvin closed it 30 days later. The renovation began in April and in March 2020 they moved in, with their Harlem property selling in April. Having lived and worked in Harlem for about 20 years, they were both excited for the next adventure. While living in New Orleans, Carey says they came to appreciate and understand the accessibility, friendliness and charm of small towns, and looked forward to living in Hartford.

Since Carey grew up in Bloomfield, she already knew who to contact in the building trades and immediately got to work putting together a team for the renovation, including Robert Melanson, who led the work and did all the work. interior and exterior carpentry. . Additionally, she enlisted Tim Brannack of Brannack Electric, who grew up across from her in Bloomfield.

She also applied and qualified for a Connecticut state-run program that provides a tax credit of up to $30,000 to people who renovate historic homes. The state sells the tax credit to a partner company and uses the proceeds to provide a grant to the owner. The program, she says, has helped narrow the gap between what they spent on the renovation and the home’s current value.

“I think it’s important not to think like an investor when talking about your primary residence,” she says. “For us, it was about carrying out a quality renovation and loving our living space.

Formerly located on the second floor, a clawfoot tub has been moved to the main bathroom on the third floor.

Formerly located on the second floor, a clawfoot tub has been moved to the main bathroom on the third floor.

Bill Morgan

They saved everything historic in the four-bedroom, 2½-bathroom home, with one bedroom used as an office and the other as a sewing room. The bathrooms were all gutted and a clawfoot tub on the second floor was moved to the main bathroom on the third floor. All existing moldings and trim were removed, stripped, and reinstalled, with Carey stripping them herself in her mother’s basement. New crown moldings have been added in the kitchen/dining room and on the second floor.

Carey spends a lot of time in the third floor sewing room.  The decor here is a good example of his philosophy of sourcing items from a variety of places, including Ikea, Goodwill, and tag sales.

Carey spends a lot of time in the third floor sewing room. The decor here is a good example of his philosophy of sourcing items from a variety of places, including Ikea, Goodwill, and tag sales.

Bill Morgan

Solid brass fixtures and solid wood doors have been restored. In several of the rooms the plaster walls have been dismantled to form rails and posts and all new electrical and plumbing fixtures have been installed. An HVAC system with central air conditioning has been added. And a neighbor, Victor Guzmán, reglazed and repainted the old windows.

Outside, the porch was in poor condition and was rebuilt from the top of the rail down, with the original spindles and trellis recreated.

“I believe the porches of these 1800s houses in Frog Hollow are kind of the jewels of the house,” says Carey, commissioner of the Hartford Historic Preservation Commission. “Porches are what make our homes so beautiful, and I think saving them is really important. Officially they are all protected as they are all in the historic district, but too many people fail to understand that they cannot remove or renovate their porches without going through the Historic Preservation Commission. We work hard to educate people on their porches. Often on the surrounding blocks, homeowners will send out a crew and rip out a front porch and replace it with back decking material. In a historic district, this is an infraction.

At the back of the house the fire escape was taken down as fire laws no longer apply now that they were returning the house to single family living. Fire escape doors were turned into windows, and a cloakroom and pantry, which were at one point added to the back of the building, were removed, allowing light to fill the house .

At the rear, the removal of an emergency exit has made it possible to rejuvenate the patio space into a comfortable green oasis.

At the rear, the removal of an emergency exit has made it possible to rejuvenate the patio space into a comfortable green oasis.

Bill Morgan

“With these historic buildings, you have to take away what’s been added since they were originally built, and then they reveal themselves to you,” Carey explains. “And this building was no different.”

The kitchen and dining rooms are now light and bright. An opening between the two has been enlarged and the locations of the parts have been reversed for better circulation. The back door now opens into the dining room instead of the kitchen, which is fully equipped by Lowe’s, including appliances and cabinetry. “It’s economical, beautiful and suitable for the home. Even the hood is from Lowe’s. It was my madness,” Carey says.

Shea didn't splurge in the kitchen — most of the pieces are from Lowe's and Ikea — but she still managed an upscale look that also matches the historic character of the house.

Shea didn’t splurge in the kitchen — most of the pieces are from Lowe’s and Ikea — but she still managed an upscale look that also matches the historic character of the house.

Bill Morgan

The dining room features plates as wall art (some from Europe, some from Goodwill), a fireplace from a Harlem house that was being gutted, and a tablecloth that Shea made in from African fabric.

The dining room features plates as wall art (some from Europe, some from Goodwill), a fireplace from a Harlem house that was being gutted, and a tablecloth that Shea made in from African fabric.

Bill Morgan

Instead of a tile backsplash, a rebate with high gloss paint in the exact color of the cabinets was used. Carey made the curtains from an old shower curtain and an African fabric tablecloth from MC Varieties in East Hartford. Wood floors have been redone here and throughout the house, kitchen lighting is from Ikea, and island stools Carey found in New York.

“When we moved here, it was great to find that I could walk to downtown Hartford in 15 minutes and the bakeries and restaurants of Park Street in five minutes,” says Carey, whose best friend of hers first years, and whom she had not seen in 40 years, had just found an apartment on the same block. “And it’s a nice walk down Capitol Avenue with the great state library, then the capitol building, then a walk through Bushnell Park, which is just beautiful. I go to Bushnell more than Broadway because it’s more accessible. Although a small town, Hartford offers a very urban and walkable lifestyle.


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