Hoarding the Past

The owner of Kevin’s Auto Body displays a surprising period passion.

Standing in his home, surrounded by history, Kevin Willoughby explains his initial motivation for turning his family’s living space into an area dedicated to the nineteenth century: “I’ve been a single father for ten years, raising my two children myself. I didn’t have a lot of time for any other life,” he says. “The only way I could do something and be home for my kids was to do it here.”

And so he transformed the open space of the second floor – where the family gathers to relax, eat, and socialize – into an area filled with vintage furnishings. “I just love antiques,” he says. “You can feel the country warmth of all this stuff; it’s gorgeous.”

The owner of Kevin’s Auto Body in Tisbury, Kevin started with an unassuming 1980s house on Pilgrim Road in Edgartown. Before he launched this project in 2003, the living area was, in his words, “pretty plain.” That summer, while his two kids were visiting their mother in North Carolina, he and his friend Mario Carvalho completed the bulk of the work, which included installing wide pine floors, covering the vaulted ceiling with rough-cut pine, hand-making kitchen cabinets, replacing sliding doors with French doors. Kevin also found both a restored 1901 Crawford wood stove and a modern reproduction of a late-nineteenth-century range.

In this rustic-looking space, Kevin displays his many antiques; “many” being the operative word. Shaker-style furniture is festooned with vintage bric-a-brac; stacks of firkins (small wooden tubs) and other objets cover the floor in drifts; his antique farm implements hang from the ceiling like swords of Damocles (only much more secure, Kevin assures visitors). “It shouldn’t be this busy,” Kevin admits, “but I have so much stuff.”

The fact that the space is chock full doesn’t mean the placement of objects is artless. Throughout the space, Kevin has assembled displays of pieces that reflect a theme: a patriotic arrangement atop his jelly cupboard includes dried flowers and a stuffed cardinal – and matches the flag-themed curtains he made himself. These kinds of details you may not expect from a plain-spoken proprietor of an auto-body shop.

As Kevin talks, he takes objects in hand and explains the provenance of everything from a Civil War–era prairie bonnet and sixteenth-century slave shackles to his extensive collection of Watt pottery and cast-iron Griswold cookware. Asked to pinpoint a favorite piece, his attention veers toward whatever is closest: a locksmith’s sign in the shape of a key that he acquired on eBay in a fierce bidding war, or a cast-iron herb chopper dating from the early 1800s that he found while rooting around in an antiques shop off-Island, and for which he paid “stupid money.” He says, “As small and simple as that is, I look at that as a gorgeous piece.”

While he doesn’t specialize in a particular period or style, he prefers simple American items dating from 1800 to the 1880s, “before everything started becoming industrialized and mass-produced,” he says. And he frequently talks with reverence for how difficult the lives of people in the nineteenth century were: “A man went to work in the 1800s, he worked. He worked his ass off, man. And she stayed home, and she kept the house warm, and she kept the pies cookin’. That’s a different way of life. I kind of sometimes wish that I had lived back then, but not for the manual labor – for the experience.”

Despite the antiques-shop feel, this is where Kevin and his fifteen-year-old daughter Amelia and eleven-year-old son Cody live – with modern conven-iences that are largely hidden from sight. The kitchen cabinets that Kevin built himself, using old-style hardware from Home Depot, hide his dishwasher, microwave, and coffee maker. “My main goal when I set this all up was to have a cabinet for everything,” he says. “I don’t want my blender out, I don’t want my toaster out – but it’s still a livable home.”

The reproduction range reflects the compromises necessary in such a project: While a rebuilt late-nineteenth-century original of the same style was available, it would have taken four months to arrive, and Kevin felt his family didn’t need that kind of disruption, so he opted for the reproduction that could be installed immediately. Other choices reflect the same tension: a bouquet of copper cookware hanging from an antique rack comprises both vintage and new pieces, and a value-pack of ramen noodles peeks out from his prized 1840s Pennsylvania Dutch cabinet with original glass and hardware. “I was so excited when I saw this piece,” he says, quickly closing the door.

Despite his love of history, economic reality prevents Kevin from owning one of the Vineyard’s historic homes. “With prices on the Island, I don’t have that money. And I knew by doing this here, I could hustle a little bit at work and spend a little bit there and fix a little bit here,” he says. “I see it as an old house. . . . I see it as what I want my house to look like.”

That said, Kevin’s project is a perpetual work-in-progress. Walking through the room, he details many possible upgrades. But he pauses at the television – neither he nor his children are interested in living without a television. It sits on a rustic-looking table Kevin made from antique barn board, but it’s still out of place. Kevin’s plan? A remote-controlled hydraulic system that will raise and lower it into an antique steamer trunk.