A Transformation of Historic Proportions

A lovingly restored antique home opens its doors for the Norwell House Tour

By Jennifer H. McInerney • Photography by Tom Sheehan

Imagine working on a single project nearly every weekend—for 15 years. Toiling away during summer heat waves when the air’s so thick it’s barely breathable, and hunkering down to the task at hand despite the bluster of a blizzard bearing down.

For some, such a notion might seem inconceivable. But for Mike McKinley, the outdoor elements became secondary to his singular focus on thoughtfully and painstakingly restoring the landmark “Old White Barn” on Main Street in Norwell. With the input, support, and infinite patience of his wife, Kendra, Mike transformed the 4,000-square-foot former horse stable into his family’s home.

“I remember coming in one day to find him cutting the exterior wall in half—while it was snowing outside,” Kendra recalls with a laugh. “You can’t tell Mike that something’s impossible. He’ll find a way to make it happen.”

Indeed, McKinley found many ways to redesign, refurbish, and repurpose elements of the 1820 structure, conscientiously retaining its original character while incorporating modern-day amenities fit for a 21st-century family. The resulting one-of-a-kind residence will open its doors to the public for the first time during the annual Norwell Historic House Tour, which takes place in October and benefits the James Library in Norwell center.

“We’re really looking forward to adding this home to the tour,” says Sarah Jane Baker, chairperson of the Norwell Historic House Tour. “The attention to detail that’s gone into this restoration is absolutely amazing.”

Even the most cursory of glimpses through the home’s front doorway reveal Mike’s unwavering commitment to this longtime labor of love. When he talks about the work he’s done over the years, he’s earnest and enthusiastic: no stone has gone unturned without a story; every artifact has an accompanying anecdote.

Tour-goers who visit no. 384 Main Street will see the original rails and rollers for the old barn door, the refurbished three-inch-thick wide pine floors, the preserved post-and-beam construction and the root cellar. While these historic features were certainly present when the McKinleys purchased the house a decade-and-a-half ago, their full potential would not be realized until Mike exposed their beauty and significance.

When the couple first stepped across the threshold, they found a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home with beams that had been chewed by horses from a previous century. There was no actual “upstairs,” but rather a dusty hay loft and at the roof’s peak, a coop that had once housed carrier pigeons. To their surprise, the McKinleys learned that the pigeon coop, with its pyramid of bird-sized openings, had been something of a symbol of affluence in the early part of the 19th century.

“It’s a funny story,” Mike McKinley recounts. “Apparently, the original owners were a wealthy family from Dorchester and this was their country house—they also had a beach house in Hull. In those days, one of the things the neighbors did for fun was drive their horse-drawn carriages out to New Bedford, release their pigeons, and then race back to see whose family’s birds would fly home first.”

Instead of being overwhelmed by the mess the pigeons and hay bales left behind, McKinley saw an opportunity to create a second floor for additional bedrooms, a full bathroom and a master suite.

“One of the things that appealed to me most about this house was the unfinished potential–the possibility of adding approximately 2,000 square feet of living space upstairs,” he observes.

With the help and encouragement of his uncle and mentor, Billy Mahoney, McKinley built a staircase that blends into the character of the antique home, framed walls, and replicated the vertical trusses that support the old roof’s frame. The former hay loft was upgraded to become the couple’s master bedroom suite; a spacious retreat with French doors, a custom bathroom and deep storage closets.

To achieve an authentic design that flows from the old part of the house to the “new,” the McKinleys reused wooden beams and other materials from the same era. In addition, Mike created bathroom mirrors using old doors and converted a 200-year-old German workbench—intact with its original vise—into a bathroom vanity.

“My uncle Billy has an eye for repurposing objects and adapting them toward new uses,” McKinley says with admiration. “It’s a skill and a passion that he’s passed on to me. Otherwise, I might not have had the confidence to take on a project of this scale.”

For specific functional and decorative touches, McKinley called on the expertise of local craftsmen who specialize in welding, restoring wrought iron, and refurbishing antique lighting, among others. Other parts of the project were worked on in his own well-equipped basement workshop, which features an array of woodworking machinery as well as a special system that sucks the sawdust from the space. (This area, along with the master suite, Mike points out, will likely not be included in the Norwell Historic House Tour.)

Among the numerous highlights of this historic home, the kitchen is a must-see. Modern accents, such as double-thickness granite countertops and a hand-hammered copper sink from Mexico, coexist alongside a series of exposed beams that date back to the barn’s heyday. These beams offer a peek into the past at what were once the horse’s stables. From the far end of the kitchen, it’s possible to imagine the exact placement of the five horse stalls that originally occupied this portion of the structure. When plotting the restoration, McKinley intentionally designed the kitchen and dining room to preserve these precious relics.

“This kitchen is made up of just about every wood in the forest,” he notes with a smile, rattling off a partial list: “oak and chestnut floors, cherry cabinets and window trim, teak backsplash and chestnut beams.”

The adjacent dining area is quite literally anchored by a 3,000-pound table that Mike designed and constructed out of repurposed stones that were found on the property and hand-hewn wood that’s more than 200 years old. “I had to build it right here, inside the house, because there was no way anyone would be able to move it.”

Today, the home has such contemporary amenities such as an expansive deck and a security system, yet several unique souvenirs from its bygone days remain: the ropes that hauled the hay trolley from the ground to the hayloft; the drinking well pump that served as one of the town’s original water sources; grinding stones for sharpening farmers’ knives…and the all-important “White Barn” sign on the side of the house.

“We had to take the sign down temporarily during restoration, and people kept getting lost,” Kendra McKinley says. “We had no idea that the townspeople relied on the sign as a landmark when giving directions or driving home. Lots of people asked us if we’d be putting the sign back up, so we did.”

Located on the corner of Main Street/Route 123 and Circuit Street, the old barn frequently attracts surprise visitors—an occurrence that continues to amaze and amuse the McKinleys. Something about the house’s inviting exterior prompts passers-by to knock on the door and ask: “How late do you serve breakfast?” “What time does your antiques shop open?” “Can I have my knives sharpened?” If a horseback rider were to hitch up to one of the posts along their granite wall, they probably wouldn’t bat an eye.

After 15 years of respectful restoration, the Old White Barn stands as a testament to tenacity, a tribute to tradition. And the couple hasn’t a single regret.

“I love what he does,” Kendra McKinley says of her husband. “I’m married to an artist.”


Antique Home Ownership 101

Jonathan Detwiler, owner of Buttonwood Renovations in Norwell, specializes in the restoration and renovations of fine antique homes. One of his previous restoration projects, a 5-bedroom farm located at 869 Main St., is featured on this year’s Norwell Historic House Tour. We asked Detwiler to share a few helpful tips for breathing new life into an older home.

Don’t Ditch The Windows  – Unless the windows are in bad working condition or no longer functioning, a single-pane system with a storm window and proper weather stripping on the old sashes can be just as efficient as a newer replacement window. According to Detwiler, most windows built in 1776 are made better than those built in 1986 and it is typically less expensive to repair than replace. Plus, installing new windows forever changes the integrity of the home’s architecture (Think about shaving off your eyebrows.  It just never looks quite right.)

Keep Up Appearances – Antique homes need regular maintenance just like new homes.  Older homes just have more years to accumulate “deferred maintenance.”  Build a good relationship with a contractor who knows your home and make a timeline for scheduled maintenance. Once a home has been insulated, properly weather-stripped, repaired and painted, they cost no more to maintain than newer homes.

Lose the Foundation Plantings – Show off those beautiful granite foundations; they were not made to be hidden by your boxwood hedges and overgrown azaleas.

Reuse and Renew – Old houses are usually built with superior materials (you can’t recreate old growth wood.) When restoring an antique house, try to repurpose pieces and parts whenever you can. Not only is this environmentally friendly, it’s also aesthetically pleasing.

To learn more, contact Buttonwood Renovations: CLICK HERE

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