Garin Baker's art doesn't just hang from the walls of his New Windsor home. It doesn't only cover the easels and floor space in the converted carriage house–studio out back. For Baker, both his house and his studio space are themselves works of art.
But when he bought the 1790 house on Union Avenue 16 years ago, Baker, a New York City native who produces hand-painted murals and commissioned works for corporations, museums, and schools, as well as private residences, knew he had his work cut out for him.
"It wasn't livable when we purchased it," he says. "We did the kitchen, bathrooms - everything. We even made the bread oven workable, and make pizza in it all the time now."
|Once, possibly, a stop on the Underground Railroad, Garin Baker's restored 1790 home |
and carriage house, now his art studio, represent years of pluck,
hard work, and unsolicited help from a friend. Photo by Dion Ogust
No small feat, especially since the kitchen alone - which Baker calls "phase one" of the restoration - took four months to complete. The multi-staged excavation went something like this: A post was removed to make one large kitchen from what was a kitchen and pantry. But when the linoleum was pulled up, a concrete slab was found underneath that had been poured because the floor wasn't level. Another oak floor was under the concrete, so the beams had to be jacked up to level the floor and the whole thing rebuilt. "At one point there was just a hole where you could look down into the basement," Baker says. His then-pregnant wife used a microwave and small dormitory-style refrigerator to make family meals while the kitchen was being repaired.
Once that was done, Baker moved through the rest of the three-story house, restoring the original wide-plank floors and the masterful stenciling he found on them, and repairing the ceiling's plaster molding and original palladium windows. He rebuilt the stairs leading to an older part of the house - the part that became the servants' quarters when the original owners, Baker thinks, came into some money and put on an addition with stately ceilings. As further support for this assumption, Baker found that there are 6,000 acres of land mentioned in the original deed.
Baker also believes the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a safe house where slaves trying to make their way to freedom in the north or in Canada rested and hid. The runaways, who traveled by night and often hid by day in the basements or attics of abolitionists, would keep track of the time by marking the days. "There are markings on some of the walls, like days crossed out. That means this house could have been a stop," Baker says. "But it's an oral history and there weren't really any records of that kept."
During the five years it took to finish the house, Baker squeezed his studio and painting supplies into a room on the lower level and made the dining room his office. The plan was to eventually convert the old carriage house behind his home into his work area, but the huge space—large enough to have held four horse-drawn carriages and complete with a rear barn where six horses could be stalled—was going to take a lot of time, energy, and money to complete.
|The carriage house studio, restored with help from the enigmatic |
Patrick, holds Baker's office and is the site of weekly painting seminars.
Photo by Dion Ogust
Six or seven years ago, with the house finally complete (save for his dining room office and adjacent studio) and with the carriage house still "a wreck," Baker threw a Fourth of July barbecue. An old girlfriend came up with her current boyfriend, Patrick, a native of the south of France who was working in New York City as a restaurant renovator. Patrick, whose passion was renovating old houses, looked at the carriage house and asked Baker when he was going to get started. "I told him I was working to save the money for it and wouldn't be starting for a while. He offered to give me a list of things to get from the hardware store so the work could begin," says Baker. "I told him again that I couldn't do it for a while, or alone. And he turned to me and said, 'I help you.'"
For about eight months, Patrick came up every weekend and helped Baker gut the carriage house and make structural repairs. The two also lifted the house and replaced a header and several support beams. They removed the slate roof to make needed repairs and, like the wood and stone removed from the inside of the house, saved it so it could be replaced after the structural renovations were complete.
Some of the slate broke as it was being removed, and Baker contacted the Evergreen Slate Company in Greenville, N.Y. to find out how to order replacements.
"The woman I spoke to told me that the company had quarried the original slate. They'd been around longer than the house had," Baker says.
For all the help he'd give Baker, Patrick accepted no payment, asking only for meals and rides to and from the train station. He has come back a few times since, but he stopped visiting regularly once he saw that Baker knew how, and could do, the work that was left to be done.
"People's paths cross for a purpose," Baker says. "People come for a reason and they go for a reason. There are truly amazing people like him who have come into my life."
Today, Carriage Art House Studios, a beautiful, airy space that houses Baker's art and gives him plenty of room to work on his larger murals and paintings, now resides where horses once slept and the carriages they pulled were stored.
Bakers office is just upstairs from where he often pains and hosts weekly painting workshops that give other artists a chance to benefit from the wonderful light and warmth that streams through the windows.
The house's bedrooms are all occupied now as well. Baker's children - Harrison, 17, and Amanda, 15, - and the children of his partner, Astrid Frazier - Ayisha, 17, Jovan, 15, and Alasia, 8, - all call it home. Baker's old office will be converted back to a formal dining room and two other still-to-be-restored rooms will be completed this winter. But like many works of art, the creative process can take time.
"We've already got a lot of use out of this house," Baker says.
Originally appeared in Upstate House magazine, October 2005