Coat of honor: New paint will grace historic Vassar home

Scraping away the paint on the exterior of one of the oldest homes in the “Cork Pine City,” Chris Dipzinski found some serious wood.

“This wood’s in great shape, and there are a couple different species of wood on here – pine, cedar and some oak,” said Dipzinski, owner of Up to Date Painting and Log Home Restoration, standing on the front porch of a home he’s repainting at 113 Prospect St. in Vassar.

Shirley Smith, 86, owns the house, built in 1851 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Smith calls the home the oldest “stick-built” house in Vassar.

“The wood’s in great shape and the home was made extremely well,” said Dipzinski, 44, examining a porch with a wooden floor and ceiling.

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Shirley Smith

“There’s wood everywhere,” Dipzinski said. “It’s just the way they made ’em back in the day, and it’s made very well. We’re going to bring it back into shape.”

Smith, who with her late husband, Harry L. Smith, once owned the Vassar Theatre, plans to have the home’s exterior repainted in its current colors of white with green trim. Shirley (Trea) Smith has lived in the two-story home since 1954, and the exposed sandy color of its wood siding – prior to repainting – has drawn attention.

“It’s caused quite a stir around town,” Smith said. “People are driving by, stopping and looking in, putting photos on Facebook. I’m beginning to feel like I’m living in a fishbowl.”

Vassar, a lumber town founded in 1849 and named for Matthew Vassar – later the founder of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. – was known for “cork pine,” a variety of white pine that grew in abundance along the Cass River. The wood was light, strong and easy to work with, according to the city of Vassar’s website.

Dipzinski, whose Millington business was founded in 1992, has worked on the repainting project for about three months.

“(Smith) is going to keep it historical looking,” Dipzinski said. “We’re just making sure that nothing will fall off the next time. It’s not just a basic scrape job. It’s getting down to the raw wood so we can oil prime it twice and put two coats of latex (paint) over top of it.

“We’re trying to do it the right way so it will last for years and years. She wants it to last after she’s gone. It’s kind of a pride thing when you drive by and you know that this is going to last. There might be a spot here or there that blisters off, but I told her that I’ll come back and I’ll fix it.”

Repairs must be made to cedar shakes, said Dipzinski, who hopes to remove paint from the front-porch ceiling and bring it alive with a stain.

Beveled glass graces the upper portion of a front window in the Vassar home of Shirley Smith, 86, who has hired a business to repair and repaint the home's exterior. The house was built in 1851 as Vassar's first "stick-built" house.
Beveled glass graces the upper portion of a front window in the Vassar home of Shirley Smith, 86, who has hired a business to repair and repaint the home’s exterior. The house was built in 1851 as Vassar’s first “stick-built” house.

“I’d like to sand that down back to new and stain that part of it, and see if she’ll let me do that,” Dipzinski said. “A lot of the ceilings, back in the day, were stained.”

The first owner of the home was J.D. Smith, though he wasn’t related to Harry Smith’s relatives who later purchased the dwelling, Shirley Smith said. A light yellow, cream-colored paint once graced the exterior of the home built by James Saunders on Prospect Street, which runs along a hill overlooking downtown Vassar.

A window in the home’s second-floor sitting room offers a

remarkable view of the homes and lights below, especially in winter, Smith said.

“In the morning, when the leaves are off the trees and the frost is on the branches, it’s just like a Currier and Ives print,” Smith said.

The home itself attracts attention due to 11 lightning rods rising from its roof. The network of lightning rods connects to a metal cable traveling from the roof to the ground below.

Harry and Shirley Smith sold the Vassar Theatre – still showing movies to this day – in 1979. She has lived in her home on Prospect Street, however, since 1954.

“I came to this house as a bride,” said Smith, who grew up in Vassar and said she endured “many” floods as an owner of the theater in flood-prone Vassar, traversed by the Cass River and Moore Drain.

“I recall one year when it flooded and we didn’t have any power, and I was holding flashlights so the fellows could see down into the water and take the bolts out so we could get the (theater) seats out,” Smith said.

“I remember one time we were sitting in the theater when the water started coming up, and we went to the front of the theater and told (the audience) ‘Move back, move back,’ as the water was coming in.”

At different times, Smith also worked in Vassar as manager of Fall’s Variety Store – owned by the late Orville Fall – and for Streeter’s Pharmacy.

Pharmacy owner Bill Streeter “used to say ‘Don’t talk about anybody, because if Shirley’s not a relative, she knows them,’” Smith said.

Shirley Smith has no children, though her relatives include a nephew, Dennis Vargo, and great-nieces Christine Dragich, Kim Gordines, Gail Damm and Jackie Atkerson.

“This is home,” Smith said of her house about 20 yards from M-15.

“My nieces said ‘You can’t move, because we’ve been coming to that house for as long as we can remember,’” Smith said. “I wanted it painted because it was in bad shape and I just wanted to have it looking nice. When the time comes – if my family keeps it or sells it – it will be a big plus for them.”

The paint job, too, preserves the view of a historic place in Vassar, population 2,639.

“Sometimes in the summertime,” Smith said, “if I’m sitting out on the porch, when people are driving down the (M-15) hill, they always look over this way.”

Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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