Renovation of Sandwich's Deacon Eldred House will star in HGTV's 'Houses with History'

·9 min read

SANDWICH — When Jennifer Macdonald was a young girl, she would finish her day at the Henry T. Wing School and run to the Deacon Eldred House, where the Thornton Burgess Museum was located at the time.

Both her mother and grandmother worked at the museum — her "nan" a staple of the building for roughly 25 years.

"We spent a lot of time in that house — it’s actually one of the reasons why I work on old houses," said Macdonald, co-founder of Full Circle Homes, a construction and design  firm specializing in antique restoration and design.

"That house is my childhood."

Renovations to the Deacon Eldred House in Sandwich are being documented by HGTV's "Houses With History" series.
Renovations to the Deacon Eldred House in Sandwich are being documented by HGTV's "Houses With History" series.

Macdonald now owns the home, along with her partner and fellow preservationist Michael Lemieux.

Owners have childhood ties to Sandwich

The duo, who met in junior high school, purchased the Deacon Eldred House in February for $100,000 from the town of Sandwich, and began restoring the property in July. The renovations are currently being documented by HGTV through Macdonald and Lemieux's television series, "Houses With History."

Master carpenter and preservationist Rich Soares will also be featured working on the home during the show's second season.

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Bill Sewall looks around the now vacant first floor at the Deacon Eldred House in Sandwich, built in 1756, in this 2013 file photo.
Bill Sewall looks around the now vacant first floor at the Deacon Eldred House in Sandwich, built in 1756, in this 2013 file photo.

Full Circle Homes is eminently qualified and dedicated to the preservation of historic homes, according to Heather Harper, Sandwich assistant town manager.

Harper said the television coverage is an incredible opportunity for the community and the HGTV audience to become more familiar with the history of the home and the town of Sandwich.

"The program will also serve as an important historic record of the renovation," she said in an email.

While the town awarded the project to Full Circle Homes Feb. 22, the sale closed July 22. The Full Circle Homes crew will film for roughly 10 to 12 hours per day, and will continue as the restoration unfolds,  Harper said.

Renovations to the Deacon Eldred House in Sandwich are being documented by HGTV's "Houses With History" series.
Renovations to the Deacon Eldred House in Sandwich are being documented by HGTV's "Houses With History" series.

A sentimental purchase

The Deacon Eldred House is near and dear to Lemieux, who also grew up in Sandwich. Like Macdonald, he attended Henry T. Wing School and the Deacon Eldred House also remains in the forefront of his childhood memories.

Every Sunday after church at Corpus Christi Parish, Lemieux said his parents, William and Mary Lemieux, took him and his siblings to fill water jugs at the Dexter Grist Mill spring. Lemieux could often be found traversing the fish ladder and wandering up to Shawme Pond, where he watched the fish for hours and fed the ducks. Eventually, he would find his way to the Deacon Eldred House, which was known as the Thornton Burgess Museum at the time.

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"Jen and I were talking about it at one point and we were saying that she was probably there either with her mom or nan when I was out playing in the yard," he said. "We both kind of grew up in and around the house."

Macdonald's grandmother, Lorraine Lee, was part of the Sandwich Women's Club at the time and not only helped rebuild aspects of the building, but also ran the museum gift shop.

"Even after the museum closed and they moved it to Green Briar, she continued shipping cups, plates, Burgess books and all their merchandise all over the world," Macdonald said. "She was up in her little shipping room sending boxes out every day."

Once a museum honoring children's author

The Deacon Eldred House is a two-story, three-quarter colonial home, built in 1756, and was a residential home until 1976, according to Ralph Vitacco, Sandwich director of planning and economic development. Situated in Town Hall Square, it's largely intact, according to Full Circle Home public bid information, and original from the time of its build.

"This house, prior to the town taking it over in 1973, was at the end of its residential life and it was almost like an old age home," he said.

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Erected over a previous structure built in 1643, by the Tobey family, the house was occupied by the Thornton Burgess Museum from 1974 to 2013. The museum was devoted to the life and work of Thornton Burgess. Born in Sandwich, Burgess was an conservationist and author of children's stories. His grandfather, Thomas Burgess, was one of the first settlers of Sandwich in 1637, according to the town of Sandwich website.

Before being purchased by Full Circle Homes, the town removed recent additions and conducted limited restoration work to the building, but ultimately decided to sell the house in 2015.

"We came to a realization that we were not giving it the love and attention that it needed," Vitacco said.

This 2013 file photo shows antique hardware on a closet door at the Deacon Eldred House in Sandwich, built in 1756.
This 2013 file photo shows antique hardware on a closet door at the Deacon Eldred House in Sandwich, built in 1756.

Surprisingly, there was no interest in the home when they tried to sell it in 2015, and no bid applications were submitted, he said.

Historical restrictions to be followed

The reason, Vitacco said, was because the Deacon Eldred House came with construction restrictions. In 1997, The Thornton Burgess Museum was looking to restore the building and applied for grant funding from the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund, resulting in a restrictions that pertain to both the exterior and interior of the home. From that point on, any renovation or restoration would be overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

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Navigating Massachusetts Historical Commission standards isn't easy, Vitacco said.

"To meet that (historical renovation) threshold, is extremely expensive," he said. "The restoration standards actually became a barrier to selling the building for quite a long time."

In the latest attempt to sell the house, the town of Sandwich launched a marketing campaign, and the sale attracted roughly 100 restoration experts from all over the country, said Vitacco.

Ultimately, though, three bids were submitted and because of its experience with antique homes, and its ability to navigate Massachusetts Historical Commission standards, the home was sold to Full Circle Homes. The construction and design firm has completed roughly 25 historic property renovations, sales and repositions in the last five years, according to its website, including an antique home in West Barnstable.

"To their credit, Full Circle did receive approval from the MHC, and in a nutshell, they said OK, good, you are approved for what you want to do with the house," Vitacco said.

Partners have own HGTV show

While Macdonald and Lemieux can't speak about specific restoration projects at the house until after the Deacon Eldred House episode airs on HGTV, the town of Sandwich conducted a full historical and structural assessment of the entire property — both the building and grounds — in 2015. The budget, for a proper restoration, was estimated at roughly $880,000, according to bid documents.

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While the house was sold for $100,000 — a relatively low price in today's real estate market — the price was fair, when the town took restoration costs into account, Vitacco said.

"Our prime consideration was that the winning applicants had to rehab the home and have the capital to put a team together to do it," he said. "We recognized the fact that they would have to sink serious dough into the home."

While the work can be overwhelming at times, the crew has been executing restoration efforts for roughly seven years, when Macdonald and Lemieux moved to Plympton. When they arrived, there were a bundle of antique homes in the area that were distressed. Still working day jobs, the couple began working on the homes as a hobby.

Over time, they built a reliable and knowledgeable team, and business flourished from there, Macdonald said.

"We just kept going. We did a dozen houses in town. And we do a lot for clients now as well," she said.

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HGTVs "Houses With History" opportunity came about through a connection with Jonathan Knight — a member of the 1990s boy band New Kids on the Block. Knight, who has his own HGTV show "Farmhouse Fixer", came to see one of their home restorations and recommended the couple to HGTV producers for a series.

"He came to see one of our houses and he was amazed by it," she said. "We started with a sizzle reel, and it took a few years for it all to come to fruition. We didn’t think it would actually happen but here we are."

Macdonald, who drafts the plans for each home they restore, also gives credit to her team.

"Rich is amazing at carpentry. We have another guy that's amazing at stairs, a few guys that are amazing tilers, plasterers — everyone is awesome," she said. "We have highly skilled staff."

Reusing, saving building materials

Throughout the years, her team has also become masters of saving and reusing materials.

"We restore every window, every door, as much as we can on the house so it has an impact," she said. "We love everything antique."

In addition to the multiple restorations the team is currently working on, Full Circle Homes also has a store called the Mayflower Mercantile in Plympton, where Macdonald and Lemieux sell antiques and locally made goods. The store was originally a twin chimney colonial, originally built for a bride-to-be in 1827, according to their website.

"We have a lot of vendors that live in a 10-mile radius – and we sell everything from hot sauce to baskets to candles," she said.

In the fall, the couple will also host a fair in the home's adjacent hayfield where roughly 100 antique vendors, local craftsman, and food trucks will gather.

"That's in October and we will celebrate the year with that," she said.

Happy to work on such a special home

While they are keeping the Deacon Eldred House restoration projects under their hat — for now — in their bid application, Macdonald and Lemieux's combined statement said they intend to transform the property back to a residential home.

"Honoring the past, present, and future, for both short- and long-term rental potential," the statement said. "We intend to find opportunities to share this historic property with the town residents and help showcase the amazing history and rich story that is the town of Sandwich."

"Ultimately we have a passion for old houses," said Macdonald. "And it's surreal to be able to work on this house. It's a super special spot for us."

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Historic Sandwich home the focus of HGTV series