California's Tudor roadshow

They called it Toad Hall, a real 1480s house in a Suffolk village - then moved it to the Napa Valley.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Linda Donley-Reid married her husband Mike, she brought with her an unusual dowry: an outsized oak mantelpiece and several dozen antique windows. Mike had a bright idea: "We should buy a house to put them in."

Linda, a curator and anthropologist turned psychoanalyst who lives in California, had purchased these acquisitions at a stately home auction during a visit to Norfolk, England. She had put in a successful pounds 100 bid for the carved mantel and was walking around the grounds when she saw a shed packed with leaded glass windows, 57 in all.

"They were 150 years old," she says. "I offered them pounds 100, then realised they would have paid someone to carry them away! They must have thought I was another American fool eager to buy everything including their rubbish."

We've all heard the one about the American who bought London Bridge and thought it was Tower Bridge. This is the story of a couple from the States who bought an ancient timber-frame house in Suffolk, dismantled it, and transplanted it to California.

Unlike their compatriot bridge buyer, the Reids took the cultural side of their property-hunting very seriously, boning up on Tudor architecture before they started casting around for their ideal home. They had spent a period living in Suffolk, and were enthralled by the "magnificent structure" of the timber-framed houses common in the area. A plan was hatched to ship a Tudor house, in pieces, through the Panama Canal and back to their native California.

"The whole concept was folly. It was a Toad-ish sort of thing to do, so we decided to call it Toad Hall," says Mike, an allergist with a practice in San Francisco. Toad Hall, when they eventually found it, was a two- storey, 3,009sq ft house built in the 1480s in the Suffolk village of Glemsford for a prosperous wool merchant. Over the centuries it had fallen into disrepair. For the Reids, it was a coup de foudre; they ignored the accepted wisdom and purchased their new home sight unseen.

They had no choice, really; there was no doorstep for them to set foot over. Years previously, the house had been condemned as structurally unsound and had been demolished. When Mike heard about it in 1984, all that remained was a stack of timber in a barn. The house's previous owner, a tinker, had acquired it for just pounds 130 in the 1950s. At first used as a general store, it was later partitioned and rented out to three families. At the time of its demolition it was so derelict it was being used as a chicken coop.

"We found a picture of it standing, but the timbers had been plastered over and all sorts of rooms had been added. You couldn't tell at all what it had looked like," says Linda. "Luckily there was a similar house in the village owned by a retired couple, so they let us spend a night with them for practice. It was a trial run to get a feel of what it would be like to live in one."

Unencumbered by the need for a surveyor's report, Mike pursued Linda's marriage gift unfalteringly. The salvager sold him the timbers for pounds 12,500. The price was more or less equivalent to what freshly cured timber was fetching. But this initial purchase price was just the start of the financial commitment. What may have seemed like a bargain at the time turned into a challenging and costly venture into restoration. Unexpected structural glitches as work progressed, as well as the heavy financial outlay of modernising the interior to make it practical to live in, inflated the cost of realising their dream to over $500,000.

While the timbers were a relative bargain, repairs to the wood cost twice as much again. Many of the beams were pock-marked by the worms that had lived there centuries earlier. They were fumigated to ensure no descendants returned. Other beams were irreparably damaged and had to be replaced.

Finding a suitable location for their medieval home took a lot of looking around and many years of savings. The Reids' bankers refused to extend credit, though they changed their minds once work on the restoration was under way.

Eventually the Reids found a six-acre plot among the vineyards of California's Napa Valley. The surrounding plots are all 40-acre ones and can't be subdivided, so there are no other houses to interrupt the magnificent view from the hillside where they chose to site the house.

"The setting was very important," Linda confirms. "English people might think we're in the middle of the desert, but that's not the case. In fact, the house is set among oaks. For half the year there's quite a lot of rain and fog, so it has quite an English feel to it."

The timbers had been numbered and colour-coded by room, so it was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. It took five men and a crane 10 days to assemble the house. By this time the bills were mounting up, so Linda resolved to act as the general contractor. She hired sub-contractors to do the foundations, electrical wiring, plumbing and roofing. The Reids did the rest themselves, working three days a week with friends, relatives and college students whom they hired. They experienced no problems with the British authorities in exporting the house, but they nearly ran foul of the Californian ones. Napa Valley, which is near San Francisco, is subject to earthquakes. The authorities there objected that the house might fall down like a pack of cards in an earth tremor, until the Reids agreed to do some structural reinforcing.

Fitting the walls in the uneven spaces between the timbers proved an exceptionally finicky job. In the wool merchant's day the walls would have been made of clay and straw, an authentic detail the Napa County planners would have vetoed. So instead the Reids chose plywood. Each panel had to be individually traced and cut by hand to ensure a snug fit that followed the curves and knots of the timbers. They made a "sandwich" of interior and exterior walls and then plastered them over.

Linda encountered more problems when trying to reproduce a period floor. Research revealed that, in the Middle Ages, dirt and lime floors were most common (too messy), followed by oak plank flooring (too expensive). She decided to make a reproduction of tiles she had seen in Canynge House on Redcliff Street in Bristol, as it was built during the same period as Toad Hall. This involved cutting and glazing thousands of tiles with a friend's help. They were made from recycled kiln shelves and glazed with volcanic ash to achieve an aged effect. Linda even painted mediaeval designs on to 860 of the tiles. "Royalty and a few very rich people had tiles," she points out. "Wool merchants were the first wealthy middle class, so I think it is acceptable for our house to have a tile floor too."

Her museum background helped a lot. "I wanted to keep that museum feeling of authenticity, but I also wanted warmth, that lived-in feeling." Using this as her guideline, she hid the functional and was extravagant with what she calls the "playful and romantic". Radiant floor heating was sunk under the tiles, and gabled wings were added on to the rear to accommodate bathrooms and a laundry room. The dishwasher, microwave and fridge are hidden behind plank doors.

There are secret passages and spiral staircases leading to the bathrooms, and the door to one of them is concealed behind a framed brass rubbing. One of the upstairs rooms has a trompe l'oeil bookcase which conceals a pull-down bed. What looks like a library ladder next to it is actually a ladder to a sleeping loft with a medieval-style cobalt blue ceiling with gold stars.

The architectural and spiritual heart of Tudor timbered houses was the large entrance hall where the occupants cooked, ate and danced. Everyone slept there, too - except for the master and his wife. The Reids' hall is particularly magnificent with its 27ft ceiling and central crownpost. Two chunky iron chandeliers add to the atmosphere. They are period reproductions designed by Linda and fashioned by the local blacksmith. The bulk of interior detail finishes were scoured from Bay Area salvage yards.

Opposite the front door is a vast fireplace large enough to accommodate a boar roasting on a spit. Instead, it provides a home for Linda's Georgian mantelpiece. Originally, the window spaces would have been covered by animal skins; today they hold Linda's stained glass. At last, the dowry has found its setting - even if it was 10 years before Toad Hall was standing among the Californian vineyards, and the interior design took another two.

So was it madness to transplant history on to another continent? "There are absolutely no regrets," Mike beams. "We're even happier with it than we thought we would be." !

THE COST OF A TUDOR TRANSPLANT

Timbers of house frame $20,000

Repairs to frame 40,000

Shipping 8,500

Architect's plan and building permit 18,000

Earth moving to level land 40,000

Erection of house 15,000

Foundation, floor joists, sub floor 30,000

Additions at rear of house 23,000

Plumbing, electrical and appliances 33,500

Roof 10,000

Materials (plywood, plaster etc) 25,000

Student labour 25,000

Moat and three bridges 4,000

Linda's mantelpiece 130

Linda's stained-glass windows 130

57 oak window frames, 20 doors, 2 antique sinks 30,000

3 spiral staircases 3,000

Tiles 9,000

4 fireplaces 12,000

Radiant floor heating 11,200

TOTAL $512,460

Comments