Living in history’s halls

For reduced rent, caretakers have close contact with history

At the Suffolk Resolves House in Milton, caretaker Steve Kluskens picks up branches and twigs on the front lawn of the property.
At the Suffolk Resolves House in Milton, caretaker Steve Kluskens picks up branches and twigs on the front lawn of the property. –DEBEE TLUMACKI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

MILTON — On his way to the kitchen every morning, Steve Kluskens walks past a letter from Thomas Hutchinson, a Colonial governor of Massachusetts. Later, he types on his Macintosh laptop on a 200-year-old table, near an 1823 Springfield musket propped up against a wall.

Kluskens and his wife, Sheila Frazier, eat at a table beside a display of delicate dishes that were ordered from China in 1775. The house where they live also holds a 1641 Bible written in classical Greek, an oak Jacobean chest more than 300 years old, and assorted dour portraits of prominent Milton residents, now deceased.

Kluskens and Frazier, like other caretakers in historic houses, cannot change the house to fit their lives. They don’t remodel or paint or add media rooms. They must adapt themselves to fit in the house.

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“It gives you a unique perspective on how short a life span is,’’ said Kluskens, who is also curator. “We’re just passing through this house.’’

Kluskens and Frazier pay a small monthly rent to live at Milton’s Suffolk Resolves House, famous because the Suffolk Resolves, a forerunner of the Declaration of Independence, were believed to have been signed there in 1774. Paul Revere then carried the document by horseback to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Kluskens and Frazier had previously been caretakers in another historic house in Milton, and moved into Suffolk Resolves almost two years ago.

It is an arrangement played out in historic houses across the state, one that can benefit both caretakers, who pay little or no rent, and groups that own historic houses but have little money to pay for upkeep. Kluskens and Frazier keep the house clean, host tours and other events at the house, and monitor the collection of the Milton Historical Society.

One of their tasks: making sure the detritus of their modern life doesn’t overrun the historic collection. Their bedroom and the room where Kluskens works are usually not part of tours they conduct. But on other days, a few hints of modern life appear. The parlor holds both a pianoforte build in 1826 by Alpheus Babcock and a scratching post for their cat, Calli.

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Historic New England used to arrange for caretakers to live at 24 of the group’s properties, including the Lyman Estate in Waltham and the Otis House in Boston. But in recent years, the group decided to hire people for the upkeep the caretakers had performed, such as mowing the lawn and shovelling snow.

“Quality control was always hard,’’ said Ben Haavik, team leader for property care at Historic New England. “For us, it was easier to separate out the tasks to make sure they were kept up to a standard we wanted.’’

Now the group rents apartments in the historic homes at close to market value, and renters are generally not expected to do much more than watch over the property and respond to overnight alarms.

But in other historic houses, the caretaker tradition prevails. In Brookline, Elln Hagney and her daughter, Thomasa, live in the Widow Harris House, built between 1772 and 1796 in what is now Larz Anderson Park. They are not technically supposed to have pets, but after Hagney and her daughter discovered mice when they moved in six years ago, the town allowed them one “mouse catcher’’ — a cat.

Hagney and her daughter try to keep the house as true to its time as possible. They do not own a microwave or a giant television. The house does have a modern bathroom and a kitchen with a stove, refrigerator, and sink.

“The home looks as it would have looked in 1776,’’ said Hagney, who is executive director of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham. “We tried even with our furnishings to stay true to the character of the home. In the house, you won’t find lounge chairs, for instance.’’

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Even in the garden, they try to pay homage to the era of the house, which sits on town property and is managed by the Brookline Historical Society — no palm trees or yucca plants.

Hagney and her daughter can have friends over, but they have to make sure the house and its belongings are protected.

“There are restrictions,’’ Hagney said. “I couldn’t throw a giant beer bash in my backyard.’’

On July 4, Hagney often invites friends over and gives them a history lesson at the top of the hill near her house.

“What’s really cool is my house was lived in by a Minuteman after the Revolutionary War,’’ she said. “The top of the park was used as a lookout for the Continental Army during the Revolution.’’

The house is not currently open to the public, but Hagney gives tours of the nearby Putterham School, built in 1768, and later moved to the park. She is the school’s curator.

“It’s also nice to know that when we do leave, the house will be there and it will be unchanged,’’ Hagney said. “We’ll never drive by the house and have it torn down and a skyscraper built.’’

The tenants of the Deane Winthrop House in Winthrop never know exactly when tourists may want to see the house, which has been continuously occupied since it was built in 1637.

They prefer at least 24 hours notice, so they can put away personal belongings from the wrong era.

“We don’t have very much in the line of modern stuff, although we do have a television,’’ said Barbara Harrison, who lives in the house with her sister, Patricia, who is the property’s official caretaker. “Our dishes and knickknacks could not be neomodern.’’

Harrison and her sister keep the house clean, conduct tours, and host monthly dinner meetings.
The house’s artifacts require much care, she said.

“There’s a lot of precautions and then just being mindful,’’ she said, “if you have a broom in your hand or a mop, so you don’t swing it and knock something over.’’

When the Harrisons first moved in, about a year ago, Barbara remembers being filled with questions about the house and its previous occupants. She looked at the rotisserie in the fireplace and wondered how long it took to cook a chicken.

She wondered about how Deane Winthrop, son of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, John Winthrop, survived the deaths of four of his nine children.

“I say that I’m on an adventure,’’ Harrison said. “It’s an adventure kind of backwards in time. I get to see something that was part of our history and know why it’s like that.’’

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