Restoring the Walker House, room-by-room, piece-by-piece
On a quiet back road aptly named for the home’s once wealthy owner, the Walker House can be seen hidden by old bushes and trees. Surrounded by the remains of a wrought iron fence, the five story high mansion, built in 1815 is now going through a rebirth. This house is not a museum (though it could be), but the warm and kid-friendly home of Bill and Marya Doyle and their two sons, Liam (age 11) and Cylas (age 8).
The stately manor was the summer home of Colonel Charles C.B. Walker, a prestigious business man from Corning, NY, and well connected political figure. He once served as the Postmaster of Corning, NY and as a Congressman in the 44th Congress. Walker owned a modern hardware store and was an investor in the early railroads.
According to a relative, it is rumored that President Grant once attended an elaborate dinner party given at the home.
It was thought that Walker family lost their fortune in the Silver Crash in the 1900s. The house was the only asset left to pass on to family. It was later given to Isabel Walker Drake, C.C.B.’s eldest daughter.
While the home lay vacant from the 1940’s until the last 60’s, partiers would often take advantage of its non-occupancy. Little mementos of parties past, such as cigarette burns on wood sills and banisters remain. Bill Doyle feels that partiers must have known how special the home was, because they never really trashed and damaged the home. “I think they were actually respectful of its history,” said Bill.
Mark Vande, a local architect was deeply committed to preserving the history of the home. He brought the house when his wife, Kass, saw it falling into disrepair, and hoped they could buy it and restore it. They did just that in 1969 from a local farmer and the work began. Living out of a somewhat attached trailer home, the family worked nearly two years, before occupying a portion of it. They grew into the home as it was lovingly restored.
Kasha Vande was born in 1969 before the home was bought. Marya was born in 1971 and moved into the Palmyra home as it eventually became more livable, room-by-room,
Growing up in the restored home, Marya and sister Kasha could not leave their house until after dinner, about 6 pm, being expected to help work to clean and update their home. “I was so used to it. It was a part of our everyday lives. We learned a lot about electrical, painting, repairs,” said Marya. “We cleaned baseboards and intricate wood carvings on the wall with toothbrushes. We just grew up with it,” she added.”
Bill and Marya met at the Sodus Yatch Club (he was her boss) in 1995. They married at the Walker House and had their reception on the grounds.
When they eventually moved back to the area after 8 years in Virginia, the Doyles knew they wanted a similar home to their restored Victorian home in Virginia. Eventually they knew it had to be the Walker House. “We looked at many properties, and it kept coming back to this place,” said Marya. The Doyles bought the house from Mark and Kass Vande in 2003 and have remodeled two bathrooms and added antiques to furnish their historic home. “Many items are gifts from family, or very inexpensive pieces that I have reupholstered or refinished,” said the self taught and talented interior designer Marya.
Following Mark Vande’s earlier renovations, the Doyles have spent their time in the home doing cosmetic changes and additions. Mark had done electrical, heating and overall architecture on the home, when he and his wife bought it in 1969 from Mr. Hitchcock, a farmer down the road. The Doyles now have 3-1/2 baths, which are used as well as the 5 bedrooms and 7 working wood-burning fireplaces. They heat with a furnace that runs baseboard water heat and they use the fireplaces in their family rooms and bedrooms.
The home has 5 stories including the walk-out basement, that served once as the kitchen and topped by an large attic space- complete with the pine casket which originally carried the remains of C.C.B. Walker to his burial site in Palmyra from Corning. It was filled with many personal items of the Colonel.
The Doyles currently heat and use two of the floors for their living space and fill the home, including the upper floors with beautiful and authentic antiques and period furniture. Their basement is also home to a tombstone, engraved “Joel Foster, February 2, 1829”. Foster was one of the original founders of Palmyra.
The barn on the property has been rebuilt on the remnants of an older barn, and now houses their 20 chickens (pets). They have begun to sell eggs at a stand in front of their home, calling the stand “Colonel Walker’s Eggs”. There are remains of a guest house and another barn that served the earlier inhabitants.
None of the home’s original furniture were with the house when Mark and Kass purchased it, but Kass was able to later track down two of the original rockers featured in several old photos of the home. Those were restored, re-caned and are now a focal point of the Doyle’s home.
A huge safe in the current sitting room was moved from Corning to the Palmyra home after Mrs. Walker was robbed. It was moved by rail to the home. While it sits in a prominent spot for display in the sitting room, it is cleverly rigged to house the family TV.
In restoring their home in Virginia, both learned a lot about design and authenticity. Marya took the skills she had learned growing up in the Walker House, such as electrical, plumbing, etc, and pampered the older home back to its original charm.
Kitchen cabinets in the Walker House were custom made to match the wood and patina of the original woodwork.
Iron Art Welders help mend sections of the iron rail fence out front, and after being located in the yard a horse mounting block was moved by bulldozer to the front of the home.
The Doyles have stripped and urethaned the continuous stairs which run from floor to floor. All the brickwork in the house is original.
The Walker Home or Walker Farm (as it is still called) was built in 1815 and currently sits on about 6 acres of land. It originally had 2 stories, and floors and rooms were added over the years. Colonel Walker was not the original owner, but purchased the home for his wife Maria, who had spent many childhood summers in the home of her cousins, the Townsend family. (The house was built by Mr. George Brown, whose widow sold it to Edward Seldon Townsend).
Respect and pride for the grand old home also extends these days to Liam, the Doyle’s 12 year old son. Armed with a metal detector, it is amazing what he finds in special “digging sites” he has declared on the property. Original pieces of the Walker silverware, keys, buttons, an animal trap, paper dolls, ink bottles, playing cards and many more treasures have been uncovered inside and out. His little brother Cylas showed off a Civil War era sword they had found. An old clay pipe was found at the site of the original 5-seater outhouse.
One of the more recent features that Marya truly appreciates is the wood delivery system to the master bedroom from the main living floor. “Bill converted the original dumb waiter, using a commercial hoist. I was never so proud of him,” she beamed.
Bill currently works for Dunn and Bradtreet. Together, the Doyles stay involved in the community. They founded a community help organization called “Green Angels”, when, in 2009 they saw that many parents had toys and clothing that their children had outgrown, and decided to find a need for these items. Now offering more than just toys and clothing, the Green Angels aids families in need with donations of beds, furniture, and other household items. The group served 870 people last year (60-70 their first year). They also print the Wayne County Community Services Guide.