29 North Avenue: Big Story Behind Small House Rehab

Westport is known for big — okay, gargantuan — homes.

But one of the smallest is also one of our most beloved.

#29 North Avenue — the tiny saltbox just south of Staples High School, which juts almost into the sidewalk — has long been an object of admiration (and curiosity).

29 North Avenue, in 2014.

There’s some dispute about its history. It dates, in some form, to the 1770s.

Jacques Voris — a descendant of the area’s famous Mills family — says it was built by Revolutionary War veteran John Mills (1760-1829) for his daughter Charity and her new husband Hezekiah Mills (a cousin).

Charity Mills — who lived to be over 100 — had 13 children, “all born in that Mills homestead” on what was then called Eleven O’clock Highway.

Jacques’ research shows it was constructed in the right of way — without title to land. In fact, John seemed to have no claim to the spot whatsoever. Nevertheless, he set up a blacksmith shop for his daughter and son-in-law.

In 1950, a local newspaper described it as built before the Revolutionary War. It featured a huge chimney; “Indians” sometimes seated themselves before the fireplace.

Other sources say the house was built in the 1830s, using beams from the original kitchen of a previous dwelling on the site.

At any rate: It’s old. And in recent years it was vacant, mouse-infested and deteriorating.

An investment group bought it, in foreclosure. When they listed it for sale (at the lowest price of any property in town), potential buyers lined up. All wanted to tear it down and build a new home — just like the ones behind it on Greystone Farms Road, which in the 1990s replaced the orchards and fields behind it.

Never mind that #29 North Avenue stood on a small, awkward piece of land that would make rebuilding difficult and costly (and require numerous zoning variances).

The barn at 29 North Avenue. (Photo/Michelle Perillie)

Annette Norton — who’d grown up in Fairfield, always loved Main Street, and after opening the funky, eclectic Savvy + Grace helped revitalize downtown — had other ideas.

She saw promise in the 930-square foot house. Despite dark rooms, a cramped kitchen and ugly 1970s tiles, she loved its charm.

And she knew it had potential.

As the pandemic raged — and her store remained closed — Annette bought the house.

Most contractors were slammed with work, on much bigger projects. She found Javier Pasato, who shared her passion.

“It was disgusting,” Annette says of the condition of the house. Mice feces dropped from the ceiling. There was termite damage throughout. Even the insulation was gone.

Together, they embarked on a year-long, top-to-bottom renovation/ rehabilitation project.

29 North Avenue, today.

They’re not architects or interior designers — but you wouldn’t know it from their work.

They refinished the floors, retiled the kitchen, opened up a skylight to the second floor, combined 2 closets to make a new bathroom, and used lighter paint (and new windows on the door) to brighten the interior.

The 2 bathrooms blend old and new.

They removed sheetrock, exposing original beams. Annette found a historic fireplace mantel in Bozrah. She and her daughter Chloe drove there; Javier then installed it, replacing bricks installed by a previous owner.

Fireplace before (left) and after. Note the narrow staircase, and refinished floors.

They repaired the cedar roof, replaced the siding, fixed the pipes, added central air conditioning, and installed energy-efficient windows.

The kitchen is small. But with restored tiles, a skylight and a serving island, it works well.

Every inch of the small house makes sense. A reading nook hides the air conditioning unit; hooks on the wall work in place of a coat closet.

From hooks to storage under drawers, Annette Norton takes advantage of every available inch. Original beams and white paint give the small, historic space a bright look.

Outside, the stone wall dating back to the original Mills masons was rebuilt. (Annette constructed a new one nearby too — herself — using leftover stones.) There are new entertainment areas outside in back and front, with heat lamps.

Everyone driving by — and that means everyone in Westport — notices all the changes. That’s because the exterior is painted a welcoming white, and Annette removed the imposing, deteriorating fence that half-hid the house.

She moved in in August. “I understand why people like tiny homes,” she says. “My life is so much easier. When I lived in a 3,000-square foot Colonial, I spent every weekend cleaning. Now it’s just an hour.”

The barn is Annette Norton’s next renovation project.

She’s not the only one who loves her house. A constant stream of passersby — drivers, joggers, walkers — thank her.

“Great colors!” one person said. “It looks so bright!”

“It’s beautiful. Such charm!” another added.

Some people even knock on her door. That’s a bit intrusive.

New front door, with entertainment area.

Annette has given everyone who lives or drives on North Avenue a gift. But it hasn’t been easy. Along the way, she doubted what she was doing.

Annette had similar thoughts when she opened Savvy + Grace. That space too had needed plenty of work.

One day, a sparrow flew into the store. It took a while to shoo it out. Someone who watched it happen told Annette that sparrows — though tiny — have survived a long time, against larger birds of prey.

“When you see one, it reminds you that even if you feel small, you’ll make it,” the woman said.

In the midst of both COVID and renovation, a sparrow flew into #29 North Avenue. That was a sign, Annette thought, that eventually everything would be okay.

Soon, she found a small wooden sparrow. Javier installed it at the top of her bannister. Every day, it reminds Annette that despite whatever else is happening — with both her store and her home — her life will work out fine.

(At “06880,” we keep our eye on every part of town. To help us do it, please consider a contribution. Click here — and thank you.) 

The sparrow, at the top of the stairs. (All photos courtesy of Annette Norton)

 

23 responses to “29 North Avenue: Big Story Behind Small House Rehab

  1. Wonderful Monday morning story and a beautiful renovation job.
    Let’s paint the AC compressor white, or fence it…..soon.

  2. What a beautiful treasure 🐦. A labor of love, thank you for
    this delightful piece.

  3. Inspiring

  4. She is a Rock Star!

  5. It warms my heart every time I see that small sign “All you need is love” The Beatles song plays continously in my head for the rest of the day. Thanks for that! Now where can I get that sign? …@S&G?

  6. Great, impressive job

    Someone should suggest to the Y to do the same thing to the Red Barn

  7. Great story…Beautiful home…Certainly expresses Annette’s keen eye for design in her “labor of love”…Nice to get a peek inside what we could only see from passing outside…Enjoy many years of happiness…

  8. Valerie Ann Leff

    So happy to see this. If I had a gazillion, I would buy up some of the oversized houses here, tear them down, and build charming reproduction farmhouses and Victorians.

  9. What a wonderful story, and of preservation of old Westport! Brought a smile to my face. Delightful read this morning, and a lesson for us all that we might carefully consider our actions in wiping out old Westport history by tearing down instead of restoring more of our older structures.

  10. Wonderful!! Annette, if you are reading this — we would love to welcome you to a neighbor’s coffee over on Greystone Farm Lane! ♥️

  11. I love this piece. What a beautiful job she did. Bigger doesn’t translate to better. Give me warmth, cozy and charm any day. Anne’s renovation knocks it out of the park. And inspires creativity!

  12. Priscilla A Long

    What a great story, Dan. I had the pleasure of being in that house a couple of decades ago when the late Don Dickison and his wife Jo Sheilds owned it. It had a cozy, funky charm back them – but today’s images reveal an even more charming home. How wonderful that Annette had the vision to save this little piece of Westport’s history. Thank you.

  13. Thank you for saving this small gem and thank you Dan for sharing this great story!!!

  14. Robert R Mills IV

    I am so happy to see this restored and enjoyed. My family gets to keep and enjoy a part of our homestead history in Westport.

  15. Thank you Dan for writing about Annette’s wonderful renovation and vision for her lovely home. Too many historical homes in Westport are ripped apart and mammoth structures put in their place. Good for you Annette to keep this piece of Westport history intact.

  16. thanks for this wonderful column

  17. Why are barns red⁉️
    As early as colonial times, farmers used linseed oil as a sealant, which is orange in color and derived from flax seeds. Linseed oil was often mixed with other additives to help improve its preservative properties, such as milk (which would have been plentiful on many farms) and lime. Ferrous oxide, which we know commonly as rust, turned the linseed oil a deep orange-red color. It also helped discourage the growth of moss and fungi.

    • Thanks, Tom, for that post.
      Interesting; and odd that, as a lover of barns, I never looked into it myself.

  18. Carl Addison Swanson, Wrecker, '66.

    Super story on super renovation. Nice to see improvements coming to this town from folks who think outside the box.

  19. Absolutely stunning jobs on one of my favorite houses in Westport!!! Thank you, Annette, t is a treasure!!!!!

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