Reviving 18 Elm Street
During the year before my wife Georgia and I had our first child, I would drive down every Thursday morning from our home in Fletcher, VT, to my grandparents’ house in Waterbury. Arriving around 8:30, I’d find them both sitting at their kitchen table, having breakfast and reading the newspaper. I would join them for a cup of black tea and my grandfather would retrieve his handwritten list of tasks for me to help him with, which he’d collected over the course of the week. The tasks were very simple, but he insisted on paying me for my time, nonetheless. After a couple hours of work, I’d come back to the kitchen and make lunch, at my grandfather’s very specific instruction.
From my late teens on, I had only ever visited my grandparents on holidays and had cursory conversations with each of them. Now, in my mid-thirties, I was there every week and despite not knowing one another very well, my grandfather told me openly that he hadn’t had much respect for me until I’d purchased my own home.
Sometime after I had begun these visits, my father and his siblings took my wife Georgia and I aside at Thanksgiving and asked if we were interested in taking on the responsibility of being live-in caretakers for my grandparents and their house and property. We didn’t need much time to think about it, we understood that life was about to change for us—kids felt like they were just around the corner and things were about to change for my grandparents, as well.
Later that winter, my grandmother had a stroke. It actually happened on a day that I was there but because Gram was already moving pretty slow by that point, I didn’t recognize the signs. This was the beginning of the end for my sweet grandmother and she went from the hospital to the nursing home and never returned to 18 Elm Street.
So that left my grandfather, living alone in a house that he could no longer manage, dealing with his grief from losing his wife of 69 years. He was still very with it—that summer he dealt with living solo pretty well. My aunt and father and I all made visits weekly but he was having occasional falls and it was becoming clear that he needed a consistent presence with him in the house.
That summer Georgia and I decided to put our house up for sale. We poured a lot of love and sweat into that house. It was located in a reclusive and unique location so we were pleasantly surprised when after just four months, it sold. That fall we were pregnant and we moved into one of the upstairs apartments in the house at 18 Elm Street. My aunt had also sold her house and moved into the other upstairs apartment. Together we helped my grandfather navigate his life, helping him cook, clean and organize. He still kept a list for me, but my role had shifted to include more intimate tasks. I now paid the bills and balanced his checkbook. This was a significant moment in our relationship. Even my father was impressed that my grandfather now trusted me enough to let me see, understand and manage his finances.
Our first baby came and with him a huge life shift into parenthood, and as we learned about the daily tasks of taking care of this beautiful baby, we dovetailed the experience with taking care of an elderly grandfather. There was a nice balance to it all. Baby Fletcher knew his great grandfather well. He was placed in his arms often and the two had a sweet relationship.
During this time, I was transforming the basement of the house into the new home of my pottery business. I moved my equipment and materials in, had power installed for my kilns and began to make pottery full time for the first time since I was a college student. I had always sold my pottery in different venues and pressed on with developing my craft, even though I was limited to work on it during evenings and weekends. This new role of live-in caretaker was the shift I needed to make the jump into running my art business full time. I had taken paternity leave from my public-school teaching job when Fletcher had arrived and made the decision not to return.
As time went on we developed a comfortable routine living in my grandfather’s house. We made lunches and were around during the day. My aunt made dinners and was around for the early evening, which allowed us to retreat into the privacy of our upstairs apartment. Everything felt well balanced. Our baby was getting bigger and my grandfather’s health was stable. Then on the night of August 29, the flood came.
Hurricane Irene brought rain to Vermont all day. It didn’t seem like a big deal to us, just appeared to be another rainy late summer day. That evening, we were watching a movie and the baby was sleeping. At seven o’clock my aunt texted to tell me there was water in the street. We weren’t too concerned but I went outside to check.
Things moved very quickly from this point. I saw the back field was flooded and that there was water in the street. As we were gawking, a fireman came by and told us that the water might get higher and we should move our cars out but he seemed so casual about it I didn’t really take him seriously. Besides, our cars seemed high and dry and I was worried driving through the water-logged street would mess up the engine. This would prove to be a fatal error for our vehicles.
I rushed to close up the basement windows of my subterranean pottery studio and take stuff off the floor. As I was doing this, water started to come in through the stonewall foundation. Very quickly I was standing in ankle-deep water. This is the moment that I began to panic. I spent a half hour trying to save all my artwork, bringing it up to the first floor. It never occurred to me to try and save my tools. The water was rising fast in the basement and before long I was wading around in waist-deep water. I was totally panicking. Georgia was helping me until we realized that the water was only a foot below the electrical panel and rising and that we had to get out of there. I shut off the main power and we waded up to the stairs and returned to the first floor. My grandfather and aunt were calmly sitting in the living room with our two dogs. My grandfather was convinced we shouldn’t leave and that everything was going to be fine. At one point Georgia offered to take his files out of his file cabinet but he told her to stop. This was another fatal error.
At this point the basement was full of water and outside the water was coming up the porch steps one by one. Our neighbors came to check on us and we were all pleading with my grandfather to leave. Finally we convinced him. We woke up the baby, put the dogs and laptops on the second-floor apartment and headed out.
Georgia had 9-month-old Fletcher in a life vest, on her shoulders, my aunt Betsy had our phones and car keys in Ziploc bags on her head and my neighbor and I had my 94-year-old grandfather by the elbows. Together, we waded down the steps into chest-deep water. I don’t remember a current or if it smelled or any objects bumping into us; we only had to walk about 200 yards or so until the yard began to pitch up. By the time we got to the restaurant on the corner we were back out of the water.
Our neighbor gave us a ride to the local elementary school where we chose a classroom and attempted to bed down on gym mats for the night. I had left the house in shorts and a T-shirt and I was now freezing cold. Georgia and I had a laugh because the only clothing in the classroom was kids’ dress-up clothing, which I layered up in.
I spent a restless night not really sleeping, my mind racing through every scenario of the state of the house and if the dogs were OK, on and on and on until first light. Georgia and Fletcher and I walked down into the village to see the house. The floodwater had receded mostly but there was still a large puddle in front of our house that required us to walk all the way around the edge of the property to get to the front door.
The door had swelled shut and I had to kick the door open to gain access to the house. Though the floodwaters had receded, they had peaked about thigh high on the first floor and left behind two to eight inches of silt and mud all over the house. The dogs were fine on the second floor, very happy to see us, business as usual.
After we let the dogs out, we began to survey the damage. Each room was muddy and wet and the furniture was sitting askew or piled up from where it set down as the water receded. My family and Georgia and I quickly sketched out some plans about where she and the baby could go, as well as where my grandfather would go. And I got to work. By seven that next morning I had begun to muck out the house and over the next few days our family convened on the scene and we began to take everything out of the house. Around our neighborhood, other families were doing the same: piling possessions, treasures and trash in their yards. It was heartbreaking. Furniture, antiques, carpets, pots and pans, books, files, pottery, toys, clothing and all the rest. Everything came out of the house.
Soon volunteers appeared. They came solo, in pairs and by the dozen, hundreds of them from all over were streaming into our neighborhood, asking how they could help. It was a beautiful thing. Over those first three days I transitioned from cleaning out the house to walking around with a clipboard in my hands, directing and managing volunteers. Someone needed to be in charge and I stepped into the role.
The town supplied huge dumpsters, which we filled with all of the junk from our homes. We filled them and they emptied them over and over for nearly a month after the flood. For weeks, we worked all day, usually about 10 hours, then I would drive to my sister’s house, where we were staying. Georgia was there during the day, managing the baby and trying to organize our clothing and things we’d managed to save after the flood. I would spend an hour or two responding to emails, voicemails and Facebook messages from family, friends and old acquaintances offering support and help. I would then crash dead asleep and wake up and do it all over again.
The second two weeks after the flood we still had volunteers but the flow was starting to slow. After a month it was pretty much just me every day there demoing the first floor, with help from family and friends on the weekends. Because I had lost my whole business in the flood and I only taught part time as an adjunct for Saint Michael’s College, I was free to work on the house.
It was around this time a contractor friend named Alan Crawford made himself available to lead the carpentry and help me organize the renovation schedule. For the next 3 months, through the winter, Alan and I worked on the house daily. While he was lead carpenter, I was the “general contractor,” trying to line up electricians, insulators and plumbers. He taught me a lot about how to order the necessary tasks as well as how to be a good cut man. We reframed floors, built cabinets and basically put the whole first floor back together again. Our goal was to get the place back in shape well enough by Thanksgiving so that we could hold our annual family gathering.
My grandfather had moved into an assisted-living facility across the village of Waterbury and spent the fall there doing okay He wasn’t feeling as well and seemed more confused about things, but was continuing on. Late in the fall Grandpops had a stroke and had to be taken to the nursing home in Barre, the same facility where his wife had passed away two years before. My grandfather lost his will to live. He chose to stop eating and stop taking his medications. He wanted very badly to make it back to the house for Thanksgiving but by the time it arrived he was too close to the end to summon the strength to make out of his bed. The family gathered to visit him there and he passed that next Saturday.
By the time spring came around, the first floor was 75% done and we were ready for my family to move back in. Georgia was now pregnant with our second child and our older son was nearly a year and a half old. Once I got my family settled, I began the work of reviving my pottery studio. I had no other place to put it other than back in the basement. Knowing the risk, I went ahead with it, rewiring, renovating and installing new equipment and materials to get my pottery business restarted. By the time spring had arrived, I was fully set up again and making new pottery in the basement.
I spent the next couple years rebuilding my business, taking on wholesale accounts and finding my new direction in my work. While we adjusted to our new life and prepared for the arrival of a new baby, the family was making plans to renovate one of the barns on the property.
While my grandparents had been alive, the barns on the property had sat quietly. Full of things stored from past decades, both the barns were museums of family history, items that had been stored, set down and never picked back up. Hung on the wall, sitting under sheets; furniture, paintings, tools, diaries, toy collections, you name it, it was up there.
The family decided that renovating the carriage barn—where Orlo, my great-great grandfather, had made carriages and sleighs—would be key to supporting the property. For the past year we had been renting one of the upstairs apartments on Airbnb and had a successful year hosting guests from all over the country and the world. The plan was to renovate the carriage barn into two upstairs apartments. One would be for short-term guests and one would be for a long-term tenant. On the first floor the plan was to create a space for my pottery studio and a small retail store. All this was possible because the building was zoned commercial from the days when Orlo ran his businesses out of it.
Renovating the barn was a two-year process. After much planning and a couple false starts, we began working with a fantastic local builder who GC’ed the job as well as did all the carpentry work. The lion’s share of the build happened over the warm season of 2015.
We embraced the wealth of raw materials—thousands of feet of tongue-and-groove barn board—we had in the barn and used them wherever we could. We had materials that had sat in the barn for 50+ years—original interior doors from the house, never-been-used tin ceiling tiles, pantry doors, knobs and hinges all found a home in the new apartments. We added some contemporary touches to the kitchen and bathroom and all together the two apartments have a style that meets at the crossroads of rustic and modern. We wanted to honor the history of the building and create spaces that looked both back and forward.
My studio space got the same treatment but in a simpler style—after years of working in a basement studio I was ready for a bright, open, light-filled space. We used the same barn board as the apartments for the bottom half of the walls but kept the rest of the space white and clean.
Our businesses are all now unified. We are the Ayers Guest House, which is rented almost every weekend, and some weekdays too during the busy season. Jeremy Ayers Pottery Studio is where I make retail and wholesale pottery lines—available in both our onsite and online stores.
Georgia runs the guest house and helps manage my retail presence. She also has begun to curate events for the property. We have several in the works for this year and next, including dinners, pop-up coffee-and-food-truck events and our first annual artist event this July.
Our artist event is called Artist as Designer and for it we have invited 10 Vermont artists who design and create handmade art pieces that all live in the sphere of functional art. All of these artists embrace slow design and create objects that are well made and timeless
Each artist will be demonstrating in their medium—showing a specific part of their process throughout the event.
Jeremy Ayers—Wheel-thrown pottery
Tabbatha Henry—Porcelain lighting sculpture
State 14—Digital publishing and photography
Queen City Dry Goods—Leather and denim
Riven—Modern furniture design
Megan Clarke—Floral design and watercolor painting
Jane Frank—Fine gold jewelry
Marta Sulocka—Fine screen-printed linen
Intelligentsia coffee and espresso and summer beverages by Petit Noir
Fresh Juice and raw treats by Tom Girl Juice
Come to our home/studio at:
18 Elm Street, Waterbury (directly behind the Prohibition Pig)
Saturday July 15
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.