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Knotty by Nature

The rebirth of a historic Bristol home

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Having sailed through Bristol Harbor for more than 10 years, mooring for an evening or two here and there, Will and Peggy Hicks slowly began a love affair with America’s Most Patriotic Town – even if they didn’t know it just yet. It wasn’t uncommon for the couple to drop anchor off this picturesque East Bay community, uncovering new gems little by little. Soon, the couple was finding it more and more difficult to return to their home just 30 minutes outside Boston.

While they lived comfortably in their spacious 5,000 sq. foot Massachusetts manse, Bristol’s call was palpable. When the real estate market softened about five years ago, the Hickses decided it was the perfect opportunity to take advantage of reduced home costs. The couple quickly fell for the Captain Nathaniel Gladding House, circa 1799, in the heart of downtown Bristol. They had first looked at it during the height of the market, but at a more reasonable asking price, the two-and-a-half story, five-bay, Federal style building with a center chimney was even more attractive – and attainable.

Like many of Bristol’s historic homes, this charming captain’s quarters offers period characteristics that only a centuries-old home can proffer, including oversized pine floor boards. However, it also needed major work. “We knew we would have to completely gut it while keeping the best qualities intact,” says Will. The couple worked tirelessly on weekends and days off to turn the house into a comfortable, albeit humbler, home for them and their two Labrador Retrievers, Tyler and Sydney. The demolition was done by the couple not only because they weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, but because Will – who has designed and built houses as a side business for years – was eager to discover small treasures that would help tell the story of the home and reveal insights about the people who lived there through the years. He looked for clues tucked into nooks and crannies as they dismantled the walls, ceilings and floors – everything back to the studs. His biggest find? Two pennies. “You would think after two hundred years you would find something more compelling,” he jests.

The couple was especially careful when it came to the home’s original woodwork. During demolition, they uncovered original wood support beams that had been enclosed behind layers of plaster, and handcarved rope molding throughout that had aged considerably. Such pieces were extracted, restored, and remounted to make a striking addition to the home’s natural-meets-nautical aesthetic. He also took on the challenge of building a doorway from scratch to complement the home’s historic appearance.

The Hickses transformed the top floor, once an attic, into a loft-style bedroom/office to capitalize on the water views from that height. Part of the flooring there was repurposed into furnishings made by Will. Though Will has thrived throughout his engineering career, “his real passion is making furniture,” Peggy reveals. Will has practiced woodworking for more than 25 years, crafting tables, benches, hutches and more.

What they did uncover, though, through new friends, neighbors, research and Bristol’s local history buffs (of which there is no shortage), was that the home was originally built by Mr. William Lindsey and then sold to Captain Nathaniel Gladding, an “owner and captain to several coastal traders,” in 1801. A true seaman who led trade ventures when Bristol was an active New England seaport, Gladding lost his life onboard his ship en route to Bristol from New Orleans in 1838. Later, the house was owned by Richmond Manufacturing from 1866-1904 and in more recent history, it was the Bristol Home for Aged Women, from about 1920 to 1951.

While the Hickses were painstakingly restoring the interior, they were also discovering the best of Bristol’s exterior: its best known landmarks including Mount Hope Farm, Coggeshall Farm, the East Bay Bike Path, Blithewold and Linden Place. Though it’s hard to choose a favorite, they hold an affinity for breathtaking Colt State Park. “We kept uncovering all of these places,” Peggy says with sincere delight. “It was a mystery unfolding in front of our eyes.”

From beginning to end, the renovation took nearly three years. They downsized considerably (“We’re a little short on closet space,” Will concedes), and are grateful for a simpler way of life. The two also appreciated the eco-friendly approach to living with less.

Along their restoration journey, the Hickses began a conversation about showcasing their creative passions. For Will, it was time to turn his furniture making business from a side venture to center stage, while Peggy sought an opportunity to sell her handmade soap. They talked to the Downtown Bristol Merchants Association, and with the local businesses encouragement, turned their ground floor into a retail shop, The Knotty Dog, a name they talked about in “one day” terms many years ago. Opening the doors in May 2010, the product line has grown to include candles, jewelry and accessories, glassware and pottery, fun finds for kids, house wares and more. Of all the eye-catching goods, the Hickses say that customers are always first to complement the restored wide-plank floor, but they don’t mind. Will’s carpentry business is thriving with a back-order of commissioned wood furnishings. Since making Bristol their full-time address, they are more in love with the town than ever, admitting they already have more friends here than in the place they spent the past decades.