House Proud: A one-man preservation society expands his house to fit all his salvage treasures.
DANVERS, Mass. — “I had a beloved dog named Henry Higgins who died two Easters ago,” John Archer was saying recently in the Danvers room, the latest addition to his ever-expanding, found-it-on-the-street house. “I put him in the car and was going to bury him at the beach house, and on my way down — remember, I had Hank for 16 years — I passed someone’s rubbish and they had thrown out a bed. I drove by thinking, ‘This is not the time, I’m in mourning,’ but then, of course, I turned around. I had to push poor little Hank’s body to the side to put this bed in.”
He is laughing, as he often does, telling stories. “The owner was saying, ‘Let me help you,’ and I’ve got this dead dog in the car, and he’s picking up this old bed,” Archer says. “I’m going, ‘No, no, I don’t need any help.’ “
He gestures toward a wall in which pieces of the demolished bed have been incorporated and painted to match the wall. Astonishingly, it looks terrific.
“It’s a funny story,” he says. “But I will always remember my beloved beagle Hank.”
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When most people find an interesting piece of architectural salvage — an old stained glass window, say, or a few pieces of 18th-century Portuguese tile — they might make an effort to carve a tiny space for it at home. When Archer, 62, finds something intriguing (and it’s usually a very large something), he often builds a new wing around it.
His house, which he bought 30 years ago for $135,000, was once a 3,000-square-foot, two-story box. Now it is somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000 square feet, with wings flying every which way, a pterodactyl of architectural detritus.
Among its components are a spire from a 19th-century mental ward for what Archer claims were the sexually insane and four levels of leaded glass windows from a Gloucester mansion that form a wall in the dining room.
The library extension was built to accommodate a fireplace, more leaded glass and a chandelier, all from a house in Manchester. (The chandelier, for which he paid $2,500, was black with dirt when he acquired it.) The music room, which can accommodate 125 for concerts and frequently does, was built to house Archer’s Mason & Hamlin piano, for which he paid $40,000 to restore — although it should be noted that his memory for what he paid for any given item is dreadful.
When he was on the board of the Danvers Preservation Commission, Archer, who seems to have a finger in every artistic and architectural endeavor in town, fought to save the Danvers State Hospital. A mental institution built in the 1870s, it was not merely a Gothic masterpiece as far as Archer was concerned, but “a testament to the human condition no less formidable than the Hermitage or Buckingham Palace.”
The fight to preserve the building failed and much of it was torn down, but Archer paid $6,000 to remove a turret and have it hauled over to his place, along with bricks, hunks of granite, window frames and other odds and ends. (The rumor that he also managed to salvage a lobotomy machine is false, he says, as lobotomies were done with needles, but yes, he does have some of those.)
The turret lay on his lawn for a few years, until earlier this summer, when he was finally able to transform it, with the help of Robert D. Farley, an architect in Ipswich, Mass., into what he calls the Danvers wing. That was about $225,000, a figure that includes the walkway to the music room.
And what would Archer estimate it cost to incorporate all five or so additions into the house, the reporter asks as she admires the music room, which has a two-story cathedral ceiling and a balcony.
“Maybe it was $200,000,” he says.
Let’s try that again, the reporter says, tilting her head up to look at the ceiling, which requires quite a tilt, as the thing is easily 25 feet high.
“A million,” Archer counters unconvincingly.
And that bit about the turret coming from a ward for the sexually insane, how does he know that’s true?
“Well, maybe I made it up — I make things up,” he says amiably. “But someone told me.”
The hardest thing to believe, though, is that anyone would want to live in a home that is continually under construction. Why does that appeal to him?
A love of beautiful old objects and a desire to save them, he says, as well as an appreciation for history.
“I’ve had people come to my house and say, ‘They don’t build them like they used to,’ “Archer says. “I say, ‘This room is five years old.’ We live in this throwaway society. To me, it’s very logical to save your history.”
But architectural preservation and restoration are not Archer’s only interests. He is also on the board of River House, a shelter for homeless men in nearby Beverly, and was the driving force behind saving an old schoolhouse from the wrecking ball and converting it into the Danvers Art Association, an organization of which he is president. He has been a good friend of Joan Kennedy’s for some 40 years and claims to have been coveted by Leonard Bernstein. And he says he once took cooking classes with Julia Child and knew her well enough to make an emergency call when a clam chowder he was making for a dinner for 30 curdled and looked awful, but tasted all right. (He can do a spot on impression of her advice, in Back Bay falsetto: “Dim The Lights.”)
Archer often plays piano with his band, Just in Time, at local benefits, and no arm-twisting is required to convince him to give an impromptu performance. Sure, his rendition of “It Had To Be You” has so many flourishes that if it were an outfit you might say, “Honey, lose the last three bracelets,” but it is irresistible nonetheless.
Somehow, it does not come as a surprise to see that the ceiling over Archer’s bed is mirrored, although the neon lighting that surrounds the mirror is, for the reporter, an architectural first.
That certainly would heighten the pressure to perform, Archer is told.
“I like that,” he says.
As is obvious long before he takes you to lunch at the Salem Country Club in his white Porsche, Archer may enjoy saving treasures he finds in the trash, but he does not do so for financial reasons. In the kitchen pantry, he pulls out a gold-rimmed tumbler.
“These are from Venice,” he says. “I think I’d had, like, five glasses of wine when I went in to see them. They were $300 apiece. But they’re the best, I want them. So I’m thinking I could max out the card. I got a dozen.”
It appears to the reporter, who is peering into the cabinet, that he bought more than just a dozen.
“Three dozen,” he says. “Three sizes per setting. They go perfectly with my gold dishes.”
That’s $10,800. Does Archer’s family own a chunk of downtown Boston?
“No, but I am single,” he says. “I don’t have any children. I entertain a lot and I love it, but I am frugal about a lot of other things. I’m a trash picker, for God’s sake. But if I go crazy for something, I buy it.”
In fact, Archer’s family has been in this part of Massachusetts since the 17th century. His father owned an insurance company, and although Archer had a degree in literature, when he was 30 and his father died, he did what was expected of him and took over the business.
“I did not exactly have wet dreams in the middle of the night about the insurance business,” he says. “But I knew you go to work.”
Still, he had loved and collected antiques since childhood and, for a short time, he had worked as a real estate broker. So when this house, which was built in the late 19th century, became available, Archer bought it with a friend, whom he later bought out.
He wanted the house, in part, because he needed space for his piano, which he says once belonged to Harold Bauer, a pianist who toured Russia with it in the 19th century. (Archer offers a photograph as proof, though you would need to be a forensic pianist to confirm his assertion.)
Because the house had no architectural features of note, he felt no remorse about adding on wherever he wanted. And with two acres, there was plenty of room to expand. Some of the treasures he acquired, like the stained glass wall between his bedroom and bathroom, came from architectural salvage dealers; others came from grand old mansions in the area that, from his work with the Danvers Preservation Commission, Archer knew were coming down.
Didn’t that give him an unfair advantage?
“Oh, yeah, I hope so,” he says. “There got to be some bennies.”
And everything has a story — like the antique leaded glass dining room windows, which he found 20 years ago.
“My architect called me from a mansion in Gloucester and said they were redoing this house, and anything interesting, this revolting woman is saying, ‘Take it out, I don’t want it,’ ” Archer says, standing in the dining room, where the sun is playing off the windows in such a way that the notion of their destruction does seem felonious.
“He said, ‘If you have a builder with a chain saw, we can get them out before they are hit with a boom and destroyed.’ I stored them for three years in my garage,” Archer says. “The Gloucester project went belly up, and after the windows were installed I got a call from the new owner of the house saying, ‘I hear you have my windows and I would like to have them back.’ I said no, they were my windows. I did have to pay something like $1,500 for them. A few hours later she called back and apologized and said, ‘I’m actually a very nice lady.’ “
So what did the dining room addition end up costing? About $35,000, Archer says.
It turns out that the bed he spotted in the trash on the way to bury his dog is not the only piece of furniture he has dismantled and built into the house. The keyboard from an old organ and the columns of a dining table form part of a skylight; the front of a drawer from a bureau that belonged to his father is part of a wall, its metal pulls still intact. And the front doors of the Danvers State Hospital, which was featured in a number of movies, are now the back doors of the Danvers wing. Jean Simmons walked through those doors in the 1958 movie “Home Before Dark,” Archer says proudly.
And if you are thinking that this is a house that will never, ever be finished, you are correct.
Archer has all these great chairs in the attic or the barn or the garage. He can see them on a sun porch, repainted.
No room for another addition? Of course, there is room for an addition. He could expand behind the library.
“I don’t think anything is ever done,” he says. “How boring.”