About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Gloucester, Massachusetts was first settled in 1623.  The Pilgrims even came here from the Plymouth Colony to establish a fishing stage.

By about 1640 a permanent settlement had taken hold.  Life was hard, winters were harsh and the mortality rate was high necessitating a burial ground.
Just off what we now know as Centennial Avenue a burial ground was established.  Centennial Avenue was then known as Burying Ground Lane.  This ancient cemetery, the First Parish Burial Ground dating to 1644, is one of the oldest in the country.  It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Entrance gates to the First Parish Burial Ground
Numerous other cemeteries were scattered about this old community.  They are not as old as the First Parish Cemetery but they are very old.  In West Gloucester there is an old cemetery on the Old Thompson Road. In Lanesville under a canopy of old trees is the Lanes Cove Cemetery, and in Bay View another very old cemetery covers a hillside in full view to people driving along Washington St.

Descendants of these early settlers are spread far and wide across this country and beyond and many make the trek to Gloucester hoping to find out about their ancestors and find where they are buried.. They often run into a snag and this is why.

A good place to start the search for ancestors is the Gloucester Archives Committee in City Hall.  This volunteer group has manned this office for more than twenty five years not only to help visitors but to keep the early records in order and moved into archival folders and boxes.  Gloucester’s records have survived intact but that is nothing short of a miracle.

In the early days there was no town hall or city hall.  The records were kept in the homes of the town clerks.  These town officials took their job seriously and guarded the ancient records carefully. They have survived and are amazingly complete.
Gloucester's first town house,  Now the American Legion with
alterations by architect Ezra Phillips after WWI

In the late 1860s a new town hall was built  replacing the 1840s Town House, now the American Legion.

The new large brick edifice with many vaults in the basement housed the precious records that had previously been precariously kept in private homes.

About three years after it was built the new city hall was destroyed by fire.  What about the records?  The vaults held and miraculously the records all survived.

 A new city hall was built on the old foundation and these same vaults are still in use.
Gloucester City Hall

Now visitors armed with documents and family genealogy are ready to seek out the graves of their ancestors in the old cemeteries.

This is when they often run into a problem, especially at the oldest and largest First Parish Burial Ground.

Here the growth, bushes, vines and poison ivy have rendered this cemetery almost inaccessible at times.

The Thompson Road ground is deep in the woods accessed by a path that is all that is left of the Old Thompson Road.

When the old cemeteries reached their capacity newer burial grounds were opened up.  At this point the City would abandon the old cemeteries and neglect to even cut the grass.  As far back as the nineteenth century, over one hundred years ago, concerned residents and visitors bemoaned the awful conditions in our overgrown burial grounds.

One descendant of an old family, the Dollivers, came to Gloucester in his retirement and inventoried the First Parish Cemetery. Until the late 20th century this was the only inventory in existence.

The newest cemetery in Gloucester is the Dolliver Cemetery on Lincoln Street in West Gloucester. The name honors of Mr. Dolliver who gave his time to inventory the old cemetery even though he wasn't a resident.  Born in Gloucester but living in Boston, Dolliver was a descendant who was offended by the lack of respect for his and other forebears.

Nature wanted to take over, Trees and brush sprouted and shortly the unused cemeteries became the target of vandals and repositories for all kinds of trash.  Stones were broken and all were a mess.

The City says it does not have the manpower or the funds to properly care for these final resting places of our ancestors.  Many have attempted through volunteer efforts to correct the problem but are soon overwhelmed.  The condition of the graves of our ancestors has long been a disgrace and an embarrassment.

Nevertheless, over the years good old “Yankee Ingenuity” has come into play several times with hopes of overcoming this huge problem.

In the early 1970 a group of teenagers were brought together by Al Duca, a local sculptor,  With grants and much publicity these kids tackled the Bay View Cemetery. This plan was to give these teenagers a paid job to keep them occupied during summer vacation; to learn and to transform this old cemetery. They de-sodded the ground, they identified flowers and plants, they were introduced to archealogy, they learned about genealogy, they got state permission to remove and repair stones.  The kids even built a small building to house and display their findings and learned about construction as they worked on the building. 

Hillside cemetery at Bay View

This project seemed to be  successful but after it was completed there was no money for ongoing upkeep and in a very short time it slid back into a neglected state.  The “kids” who worked so hard are now middle aged and beyond. Neighbors have pitched in at various time to lend a hand. (I am pleased to report that this cemetery has recently been cleaned up and is looking great.  I don’t know who is responsible.)

Meanwhile, in Lanesville, a couple who live near the ancient Lane’s Cove Cemetery, took on the responsibility for its upkeep but that cemetery is much smaller than the First Parish Burial Ground and more manageable.  That is not to say that it isn't hard work.

Old cemetery at Lane's Cove
In the nineties my friend, Edie, known around town as the “Cemetery Lady” stepped up to the plate and along with another couple spent years inventorying the abandoned cemeteries, especially First Parish.  Edie is the most elegant, refined lady that I know.  That is why the following incident was unforgettable as she used her Yankee Ingenuity in an effort to clean up the cemetery.

One nice summer day I drove to the First Parish Burial Ground looking for  Edie knowing I would most likely find her there. 

As I approached the cemetery gates I saw a large, drab, sinister looking van parked there.  On the side of the van it said "Massachusetts Correctional Department"  or something similar.  And there in the middle of the cemetery stood Edie wearing a picture hat, the very picture of a genteel lady, surrounded  by an armed guard and a crew of prisoners from the Salem Jail hard at work clearing the cemetery!  What a great idea!  It was a scene I will not soon forget.

Unfortunately, other department heads saw this creative source of manpower and the prisoners were diverted to other work sites, 

So you ask yourself how in the world the early colonists maintained these plots of land.  They had no spare time and no power equipment to make the job easier.  But they did have sheep and goats!  These animals can and do eat all sorts of weeds, brush and even poison ivy.

Sheep doing their job in unknown cemetery

Another friend, Helen, recently read a story about goats being used to clean up a park so she made an inquiry to a company who rents out goats!

This week, Monday, October 20th, goats arrived at the old First Parish Burial Ground!  They are enclosed with electric fencing to protect them and are already hard at work.

Goats perched on broken grave stone at First Parish Burying 
Ground, Gloucester, MA taking a break from their work (Gloucester Times photo)
Credit must be given to the many volunteers who over the years have made valiant and creative attempts to tame the growth in the old cemeteries including some new volunteers who are right now serious about helping.

If the history of the past is the forecast of the future, perhaps goats (or sheep) are the answer. 

Time will tell!

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Years ago in the 1980s a friend discovered a little antique house that he coveted and longed to restore.  The lines were great but the house was fire damaged and boarded up.  The property was in the estate of a man who had owned many properties.  Dealing with this house at that time was not a priority in the settling of the estate.

Bob persevered and eventually acquired the house and carefully restored it.  He even won an award from the state for his restoration efforts.

The 18th century gambrel roofed cottage is what we fondly call a "Cape Ann Cottage".  This dwelling style was typical of what the Gloucester fishermen lived in through much of the 18th century. (See my post from last March, "The 18th Century Cottages of the Cape Ann Fishermen and Farmers").

Sadly, Bob passed away. The house was rented for years and then sold. Another family took ownership of the house.

At this time I was a Realtor specializing in antique and historic properties. I was working with perspective buyers, Susan and Eric.  Susan was a writer. Eric was a college professor and boat builder.  They were committed to living in Gloucester, America's oldest seaport.

One day Bob's little house came on the market for sale.  I wasted no time in calling Susan and Eric.  This was not the Victorian house they envisioned but I urged them to take a look; it was a very special house.  They hurried to Gloucester and without hestation purchased the house.

They have now lived there for a number of year.  Perhaps the house is a little small for them but they are perfect for the house!  They have treated it with sensitivity and care. They are a model of responsible custodians. They have become dear friends and a wonderful addition to our community.

Recently I was very touched by a piece written by Susan and published online in Boston's WBUR "Cognoscenti".  With her permission I am sharing her beautiful words with you.

This Old House: Fisherman Brown's Cottage


Susan Pollack  

Susan Pollack: "When you buy a house, do you inherit a responsibility to its history, as well?" Pictured: The author's home in Gloucester, Mass. (E. Schoonover/Courtesy)
The day my husband and I bought our house, the real estate agent gave us a loose-leaf binder with copies of maps and deeds dating back to 1735, when a fisherman named Joseph Brown built the Cape Ann Cottage.
For years we had looked at houses. We’d hoped to find a roomy, if neglected, Victorian that, with our efforts, might one day resemble one of the Gloucester houses celebrated by Edward Hopper. But “an antique?” That’s how our agent described the tiny gambrel-roofed cottage. Seeing its exposed adze-hewn beams, wide pine floorboards and fireplace, we said yes immediately.
I had lived in other people’s homes all of my adult life. Suddenly, I was not only a homeowner, but a steward of Cape Ann history. What does it mean to acquire a building with an historic marker posted on its clapboards? Does one’s responsibility go beyond keeping cedar shingles on the roof and a satellite dish off it? When you buy a house, do you inherit a responsibility to its history, as well?
The documents compiled by the agent, Prudence Fish, an architectural historian and the author of “Antique Houses of Gloucester,” made me curious about the dozen families who had owned the house before us.
Fisherman Brown was likely shorter than my five-foot eight-inch husband, or he, too, would have struck his head on the beams in my attic-like office. He and Mrs. Brown must have been agile, for the stairs are narrow and steep as a ship’s companionway. The house itself is like a ship, snug and tight. Now six rooms (it was originally four) and 1,000  square feet, it may be one of the smallest homes in town, as well as one of the oldest. It is not a good place to spread out, gather or entertain, except in the most intimate circumstances.
As writers, my husband and I tend to accrue books, papers and ephemera, a habit possibly shared by John S. Rogers, a 19th century glue manufacturer. He bought the house in 1858 and moved it several hundred feet in order to build a larger structure, which now looms over us like a cruise ship over a dory. We share our house with the presences of, among other owners, Rogers, Brown, and Zachariah Dalton, “a free black man and native of Gloucester,” and his son, Thomas. Also Israel Trask, a butcher, who may be responsible for the Federal period woodwork, and Bob Molinski, who, in the 1980s, rescued and restored the building following a fire and years of neglect. Molinski received a Massachusetts Historical Commission award for his work.
We’ve done what we can on a more limited budget. Before moving in, we hired a contractor to pour a cellar floor and structurally reinforce the wood-frame building with new Lally columns. Since then, we’ve stripped the floors, replaced rotting sills, re-pointed brickwork, and planted a traditional New England flower garden of lilacs, daylilies and hollyhocks. Soon, we will replace the kitchen’s weakened floorboards. As stewards, we’ve learned quickly: maintaining our historic cottage requires constant vigilance.
We’ve also tried to keep the prior inhabitants alive in our imaginations. Yet, sometimes I feel crowded out by their presences: I imagine Brown’s footfall on the creaky stairs, the aroma of his wife’s codfish stew brewing in a large iron kettle in the fireplace. (I do not know her Christian name, as the deeds don’t mention wives, but I think of her as Patience Brown.) Meanwhile, I picture Butcher Trask driving through the neighborhood, his cart filled with sausages, pigs’ feet and freshly-killed chickens and rabbits.
We chose to live in Gloucester because it is still a city of working people, like those who owned our house. Although the portraits of Brown, Trask, Rogers, the Daltons and Molinski do not hang in City Hall, these residents are as essential to Cape Ann’s history as the mayors in the hall’s portrait gallery.
On warm summer evenings, when we walk to the end of our street and down the 57 steps to the harbor, I think about Fisherman Brown plying these waters in a small boat with a makeshift sail. At the time, wolves still roamed this hill, and water lapped at wharves just below us. Brown lived a generation before the American Revolution and a century prior to the era of the famed Grand Banks schooners, but even then, life in Gloucester was shaped by the sea, and those who work upon it. It is a legacy we now share as the latest inhabitants of Fisherman Brown’s cottage. 

Susan Pollack
Susan Pollack is an award-winning journalist and author of the “Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes.”


Ideas and opinions presented by WBUR, Boston’s NPR® News Station.
cognoscenti /kɒgnəˈʃɛnti/ pl. noun/ people who are especially well informed about a particular subject. Origin: late 18th century: Italian, literally ‘people who know,’ from Latin cognoscent-, ‘getting to know’


Those of you who have been to Gloucester, MA,  America’s oldest seaport, (1623) know that Gloucester has a beautiful harbor.  Champlain named it Le Beau Port as he explored up and down the coast in 1606.  The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620 and soon came to Gloucester for summer fishing.   Along this waterfront land was a narrow isthmus of  connecting Cape Ann to the mainland.  But for his tiny piece of land Gloucester would have been an island.

At an early date a canal was excavated  by Rev. Blynman across this piece of land allowing fishing vessels to pass from the harbor into Ipswich Bay.  A bridge was built and today there is a very active draw bridge facilitating the passage of boats.  Named after this early minister, the formal names are the Blynman Bridge and the Blynman Canal.
Edward Hopper's painting of the Blynman Bridge and the
Blynman Canal with George O. Stacy's house in the background.
The road along the harbor leads to the bridge over the canal has long been called  “the cut”; the only link to the mainland until Route 128 and a large bridge built in the late 1940s provided a major access to this island city.

A few houses were built along the road to the bridge, formerly called Canal Street and later Western Avenue, now called the Boulevard.

On the opposite side of the road, on the water side, was a long rope walk.

Eventually a summer hotel was built and gradually houses replaced the rope walk along the edge of the water.  These houses stood shoulder to shoulder about half way toward the Blynman bridge.

Very fanciful summer hotel, one of the first.  Burned.
George O. Stacy was a hotel man and park commissioner.  He envisioned a beautiful esplanade to be completed for the City’s three hundredth birthday celebration in 1923.  So beginning around 1920 occupants of the houses along the waterside agreed to vacate their houses most of which were moved to surrounding streets and available lots.  With little resistance the owners complied.  All, that is, except for Lucy Low living in the home of her recently deceased parents.

Lucy's mother, whose name was Lucy Clark Low born in 1838  acquired the land from her parents in 1865.  Her husband, William Low, was a carpenter and perhaps he built the house about that time.
Lucy's name on her birth certificate was Lucy but later in life she called herself Lue E. Low on legal documents.  What is more confusing is that there are two birth certificates for her.  The first name is Lucy S. Taylor Low born Oct. 23, 1861.  The second is for Lucy Estella Low born Oct. 24, 1861 one day later.  

Lucy’s Victorian cottage house was not far from where Gloucester’s famous  “Man at the Wheel” statue now stands looking out to sea.  Lucy refused to move but more particularly refused the low price she was offered for her house.  Soon Lucy’s house was the only one that was left standing and remained there all by itself.

Devastation surrounds Lucy's house.  (Cape Ann Museum Photo)

Lucy did agree to move but she wanted to be paid $13,000 dollars.  She had the City over a barrel.  Finally Lucy was paid the exorbitant sum of $8000 and she left.

But that was not the end of the story!  Lucy went to the auction and bought back her house for $800 and moved it to a piece of land a short distance away.  She then took up residence in her old home with a new address.
This may be Lucy's house minus the porch and rear
 addition and a lower foundation..
With the last house gone work proceeded on the new sea wall and sculptor Leonard Craske completed the iconic statue that graces this beautiful piece of land near where Lucy’s house once stood.  It represents a Gloucester fisherman at the wheel looking out over the beautiful harbor with the inscription, “They that go down to the see in ships”

Gloucester's Fisherman's memorial with  old house that remained on the other side of the street.

George O. Stacy’s dream had come to fruition and that stretch of Western Ave. is now called Stacy Boulevard in his honor.
The above photo is from an old postcard.

Lucy Low was a seamstress.  She apparently lived in her little house, the homestead of her parents and the only house she had ever lived in until her death which probably took place after 1940.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014



Col. James Swan by Gilbert Stuart
One of the great stories of old New England, perhaps not so familiar to many, is the story of Col James Swan of Boston.  This story has long captured my interest.  I hope you will find these events as fascinating as I do.

James Swan was from Scotland.  He arrived in Boston in the mid 1760s.  In business he succeeded.  He married  Hepzibah Clarke of Boston who came from wealth.  They had four children; a son and three daughters. One daughter, Christiana, called Kitty, will be highlighted later in this post.
Hepzibah Clarke, Gilbert Stuart, 1808
Before long Swan was one of the Sons of Liberty, friend of Paul Revere, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and every important figure from that time.  He was also acquainted with LaFayette.  As a financier he was successful at least for a time.

Swan's portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart and Hebzibah’s portrait was also painted by Gilbert Stuart several years later.  Both are now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (MFA)

In 1787 at a time when his business in Boston was not doing so well he went to France.  His wife and children accompanied him and they were there at the time of the French Revolution and the tragic end of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

Sketch of  the house on Tremont Street
In the 1790s they returned to Boston where they built a house on a hill in Dorchester   The new neoclassical house has been thought to have been designed by Charles Bullfinch but I am not sure this has been authenticated although it seems likely. Sadly, the Swan house is no longer standing.

Swan House
The Swan summer house in Dorchester
Swan returned to France around 1798 without his family and was able to obtain royal furniture to furnish the new house back home.

In 1808 after a dispute over a small sum of money that Swan denied owing he was thrown into jail, a debtor's prison.  He could have paid up but chose not to.  With money a prisoner could live quite comfortably in jail and that is where Swan was content to stay.  And stay he did!  He remained in jail for an incredible 22 years.  Upon his release in 1830 he remained in France briefly but died shortly in 1831 without ever returning to Boston.

James Swan Jr., Thomaston, ca. 1810
James Swan, Jr.
During  these years, in his absence, Hepzibah built a new house at 20 Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill and then built three row houses across the street also on Chestnut Street, numbers 13, 15, and 17 for each of their three daughters.

13,15,and 17 Chesnut St., Beacon Hill, Boston
The Swan’s only son married Caroline Knox, a daughter of Gen. Henry Knox and moved to Thomaston, Maine to live at Montpelier, the Knox estate.
Montpelier Home of General Henry Knox
Montpelier, home of Gen. Henry Knox, Caroline Knox  and James Swan, Jr
Of interest to us here on Cape Ann is Swan’s daughter, beautiful Christiana Keadie Swan, known as Kitty.

Christiana Keadie Swan Sargent

In Gloucester in the 18th and 19th centuries one of the most prominent families was the Sargent family.  Winthrop Sargent was a wealthy merchant.  His son, Winthrop became the first governor of the Mississippi territory and built his estate, Gloucester Place, in Natchez, still standing today.

Another son, Fitz William was the grandfather of of John Singer Sargent and other notable descendants.
Winthrop Sargent's daughter, Judith, married merchant, John Stevens, and they built the elegant Georgian mansion that is now the Sargent House Museum in Gloucester.

Sargent House Museum
Sargent House Museum, Gloucester, MA
After the death of Stevens Judith married Rev. John Murray, who was invited to Gloucester by Judith’s father, Winthrop, where he founded the first Universalist Church in America with the backing of the Sargent family. 

Another Sargent daughter, Esther married John Stevens Ellery and they likewise built a great Georgian house just down the street from Judith’s on the corner now occupied by the YMCA.  (More about that house in a future post).

Toward the end of the 18th century both the Ellerys and the Murrays relocated to Boston where they lived in style on Franklin Place, a crescent designed by Charles Bulfinch.

Franklin Place,
Charles Bulfinch
Another Gloucester Sargent family, Daniel Sargent and his wife, Mary Turner Sargent, also relocated to Boston.  Daniel was a younger brother to Winthrop, Sr. and an uncle to Judith and Esther.  His young wife, Mary, became a close confidante of Judith.  Their house was on what is now Main Street in Gloucester and stood somewhere near Walgreens and the police station.

 Mrs. Daniel Sargent (Mary Turner Sargent) - John Singleton Copley
Mary Turner Sargent by Copley, mother-in-law of Kitty Swan Sargent
In Boston Daniel and Mary’s son, John Turner Sargent, married the lovely Kitty Swan.  One of John Sargent and Kitty Swan Sargent’s sons was Rev. John Turner Sargent, Jr. a Universalist minister and an abolitionist.

Hepzibah Swan died in 1825 and her possessions including the treasures from France were passed down to her heirs.

Meanwhile, back in Gloucester, Judith Sargent Murray’s house became a duplex and eventually fell on hard times.  Major museums tried to buy the beautiful architectural elements from the house such as the elegant staircase.  Fortunately this never happened.  The house was restored and  objects belonging to various Sargents and other occupants of the house, were contributed to form the collection housed in the new museum. The fine assembled collection of heirlooms came from the Sargent, Hough and Gilman families in general whether or not the owner had actually lived in the house.
Among the items at the museum contributed by a descendant of Kitty and John Turner Sargent was an elegant French bergere (an upholstered chair)and a pair of beautiful French andirons for the parlor fireplace.  These two items came with the straightforward provenance direct from the Swans through Kitty and John Turner Sargent to their son, Rev. John Turner Sargent.

John Turner Sargent
Rev. John Turner Sargent, Jr.
and finally to the donor, Franklin Havens Sargent, grandson of Kitty Swan Sargent and John Turner Sargent.  These were royal pieces straight from the court of Marie Antoinette sent to Boston by James Swan.

Franklin Havens Sargent, heir to the French chair and
andirons, given to the 'Sargent House.
The gilded French begere was somewhat controversial as some doubted its authenticity or simply found  the chair especially out of place with the fine pieces of American furniture with which the house was furnished.  The chair was marked Sene, the name of a well documented cabinet maker known to have made royal furniture. ( Jean-Baptiste-Claude-Sene, French, 1787)

Restored Sene bergere at MFA, mate to the one
belonging to the Sargent House Museum in
Gloucester, MA
Clearly the elegant chair was different from the other American pieces furnishing the rooms of this beautiful house but I see the situation this way.

There have been times when all things French were admired and it was a sign of refinement, culture and good taste to have French items in one’s home.  Following the French Revolution Thomas Jefferson was in France and sent quantities of French furniture and accessories back home to adorn the rooms of Monticello.

"Susan Stein, in The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, writes about Jefferson "Shopping for a Lifetime" in France. He bought furniture, kitchen utensils, candlesticks, teapots, tablecloths, fabric and many other items. When he arrived back in America he would eventually have 86 packing crates shipped to him from Paris."

Closer to home, John Adams obtained a suite of royal furniture which he too sent back home.

Judith Sargent Murray whose first cousin had married Kitty Swan was a very cultured lady and a social climber.  During her marriage to John Murray and while living in Boston she and Murray visited with John and Abigail  Adams.  Judith must have seen and admired this evidence of taste, refinement and wealth as expressed by the French furniture in the Adams’ possession.  Do you think for one minute that Judith would not have coveted  the same for her house?  My personal opinion is that I think Judith would have been green with envy!
Long Room of the Old House, west view
French furniture in the parlor of John Adams
To settle any questions about the provenance of the disputed chair an authority on the subject from the MFA was summoned to Gloucester to authenticate the chair.  The result; not only was the chair authentic but was a part of a larger suite owned by the MFA.  In fact, the chair at the Sargent House had at one time even been on loan to the MFA and displayed  with the other pieces of the suite.  At that time it had been reupholstered by Atwill Furniture, a company in Lynn, MA noted for restorations and reproductions.


Although the chair was authenticated, the choice of fabric used to upholster the chair was deemed less than appropriate and although it looked very presentable, the chair did need conservation, authentic reupholstering and re-gilding after two hundred years. In 1975 Antiques Magazine featured the story of Col. James Swan written and researched by Eleanor DeLorme who acknowledged the Gloucester chair.

The chair remains at the Sargent House Museum.  What a history!  What a provenance!  How fascinating that right here on Cape Ann we have these physical spoils of the French Revolution and  tangible evidence of this wild scene from the world stage right here on a local and personal level.

The entire story with all the available details is way too much for a blog post but worth researching.  What is presented here is just the barest of facts, enough I hope to wet your appetite.

M y acquaintance with the chair and the story dates to about 1990.  In doing some research for this post I discovered that the ten pieces at the MFA have since been restored after being flown to California for regilding and then flown to France for reupholstering.  If chairs could talk....! Here is the fascinating sequel to the story. It is long but worth reading.


January 12, 2003 - The Boston Globe

PARIS - Ten newly restored pieces of the Swan collection of 18th-century French royal furniture were recently unveiled in the Evans wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, making the MFA one of the most important hubs for furniture of this kind in the United States.

Created for the French musketeer Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray in the late 1700s, the set of furniture later crossed the Atlantic, bound for Dorchester on the boat of a swashbuckling opportunist named James Swan.

The restoration - a four-year process that saw the furniture leave Boston on cargo planes bound for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for regilding, then to France to be worked on by three expert firms - has been marked by important discoveries about 18th-century French furniture as a whole.

Tracey Albainy, MFA project coordinator and curator in the museum’s Art of Europe department, says, “This will be one of the premier collections of 18th-century French furniture in the country. This project ... sets a new standard for upholstery conservation.”

The story begins in 1787, when the pieces (a bed, two armchairs, four side chairs, a bergere armchair, a kneeling chair, and a fire screen) were commissioned by Thierry de Ville d’Avray, a musketeer who became the general administrator of the crown furniture for Louis XVI. The Parisian apartment of such an official had to be decorated with the finest furnishings of the day.

Unfortunately for Thierry de Ville d’Avray, he took office just before the French Revolution, and once the monarchy was abolished, he, Louis XVI, and many other members of the French royal court were jailed, put to trial, and sentenced to death.

The cash-strapped new French government then used independent firms to sell or barter royal treasures for food and war supplies from countries such as the United States.

Enter Swan.

Scottish-born and raised in the United States, Swan had his fingers in many pies in America and France. In Massachusetts, he was a Son of Liberty at the Boston Tea Party, a captain who fought at Bunker Hill, and later a member of the Massachusetts Legislature.

After a series of real estate deals gone sour, however, Swan set sail for France and finagled his way into a partnership in the firm of Dallarde, Swan et Compagnie, one of the firms specializing in furnishing supplies to the new French government.

Through his dealings, Swan became a very rich man, and he built a French-style pavilion for his family in Dorchester that became the new home for the furniture set.

When a French business partner filed a small suit against him in 1808, Swan, ever the eccentric, chose to go to a high-class debtor’s prison instead of settling the claim. He stayed there for 22 years and died in 1831,  just one year after his release.

Swan’s furniture was passed down to his descendants, and between 1921 and 1953, the entire set - in various states of repair - came into the possession of the MFA. Pieces were reupholstered with different fabrics and occasionally displayed at the MFA or lent out to other museums.

The idea of regilding, reupholstering, and reuniting all of the pieces started percolating in the early 1970s with the support of Ellen Jaffe. A member of the museum’s board of overseers, Jaffe provided much of the financial support for the restoration.

For the gilding work, the MFA chose Cynthia Moyer, a Los Angeles specialist who had worked on gilding French objects for the 1997 opening of the Getty. Moyer took on the 11/2-year project as a private conservator.

The pieces were also worked on by three French firms with 465 years of experience between them: fabric maker Tassinari & Chatel, founded in 1680; trimming specialists Declercq Passementiers, founded in 1818; and upholsterers Jacques Brazet, founded in 1943. The reputation for quality at each firm brings them together again and again on such restoration projects. Their combined client list reads like a who’s who in the worlds of museums, chateaus, and monarchs.

Using original fabric samples sent to Paris by the MFA, experts Xavier Bonnet and Remy Brazet, an upholsterer with the firm of Jacques Brazet, made important finds about 18th-century French furniture.

“What we’ve found changes our understanding of 18th-century techniques,” says Brazet.

Looking at original fabric pieces and examining the stitching allowed Brazet and Bonnet to recreate the padding more accurately, rendering, for example, non-traditional rounded corners instead of a sharper corner on the chairs. “You can actually be comfortable in these,” jokes Brazet.

Brazet and Bonnet also discovered that the fabric on the chair seats (not just the backs) depicted human figures, something that experts had previously thought was taboo in that day.

Tassinari & Chatel took on the re-creation of a complex woven fabric called lampas for the project. The company is perhaps best known in the United States because of John F. Kennedy’s order of fabrics for the Blue Room and the Yellow Room in the White House.

Originally designed in 1785 for Napoleon’s gaming room at Fontainebleau, a pale turquoise, cream, and taupe “Cyclops Forger” lampas was re-created by Tassinari & Chatel using more than 27,000 new loom cards - akin to early computer punch cards - to create the patterns for its motifs: forgers, river gods, sea horses, and dogs. The lampas has a density not normally associated with fabric and a textured smoothness like sculpted marble. The daily output when creating this lampas was measured in centimeters, and the entire weaving took about nine months.

Such work-in-centimeters style is also familiar to the firm of Declercq Passementiers, which needed almost a year to create the furniture trim. The company is run by Claude Declercq, his son Jerome, and his daughter Elisa. Their factory is filled with scores of ancient looms whirring away, pulling at racks of loom cards or guided by experts enveloped by the machines.

To find a color match to make rope for the bed fringe, Elisa demonstrates Jerome’s maxim: “We buy only thread, then we create.” As if blending colors on a palette, she grabs an armful of spools with similar colored threads and tries different combinations to match the lampas color.

By spinning several lengths around her hand, she creates one consistent color. “There’s an osmosis between the fibers that creates the colors and makes them come out more supple and stronger,” she says.

Most impressive at the factory are the hand looms used to make trim for the chairs. Operators climb into the looms and sit on a saddle seat that leaves them tipped so far forward that their upper bodies are suspended by wide leather straps. Spiderlike, they pass shuttles back and forth between their hands and operate pedals with their feet, constantly changing configurations and adding twists, turns, or different colors to incredibly complex patterns.

They aren’t reading from a notebook, however, and there are no loom cards hanging over the machine. When asked where their pattern is, Jerome grins and points to his head.

“To learn the trade,” says Elisa, “it takes one year to train, then three to four to really become a good worker, but a lifetime to know it all.”

She continues, speaking of the craftspeople involved: “We are the only people left in the world who know how to do this type of work.”

The newly restored Swan collection is on display in the MFA’s Evans Wing. The furniture is accompanied by a pair of Sevres vases, eight 1770 gilded boiseries panels designed by C. N. Ledoux, and portraits of Swan and his wife, Hepzibah, painted by Gilbert Stuart.

Sunday, April 13, 2014



In my previous post, “At the Auction”, I talked about becoming a doll collector inspired by finding a French Jumeau doll in a dilapidated back-yard antiques shop.  As the word got around that I was interested in antique dolls, several people gave me their childhood dolls.  Some of the dolls that came my way were 
particularly nice.
French Jumeau, Cosette, found in a back
yard junk shop for $1.50.
Ada Carleton (left) and Amy Fiske (right)  Ada is a fine doll sometimes
called a "china Greiner" dating to the 1850s.  Amy dates to 1870 and
with her extensive wardrobe just appeared in Doll News magazine.  Both
dolls were gifts from neighbors and friends,
Over the course of many years the dolls would take a back seat only to re-emerge because of collector friends who would inspire me at least temporarily.

In the fall of 2013 my life changed in a single day.  Here is what happened.

A lady whom I had never met came to Cape Ann from Texas for a three week vacation.  My friend,  
Peggy, found her a place to stay although they had never met either. 

However, we knew a bit about this lady; her reputation as a doll collector, dealer in antiques and hooked rug designer, just for starters, had preceded this talented lady. I was persuaded to unpack some of my dolls for Edyth to see.

Peggy and Edyth arrived for a tea party and an afternoon of playing with dolls.  Dolls were scattered all over my living room.  It was an afternoon that changed my life.
Peggy (left) and Edyth (right) surrounded  by dolls and snacks in my cluttered living room
taken over by dolls.
As we got better acquainted it became clear to Edyth that for Peggy doll making and collecting was a primary interest and that my area of expertise was old houses.  Edyth declared that Peggy and I must have blogs, just as she has.  This was the last thing on my mind.  I hadn’t paid attention to blogs or followed any blogs. 

By the following day Edyth had contacted her friend, Dixie, in Maine who set up two new blogs.  Suddenly Peggy and I both had blogs!  It seemed to me that things were moving faster than I could digest but, what the heck, I jumped in anyway.  My first blog was posted in October and less than six months later I have thirty seven posts under my belt and still writing, writing, writing.

My interest in dolls has also been revived and I actually added a new doll to my collection for the first time in years.  (See “At the Auction”).

Penelope, a papier mache doll, patented by
Ludwig Greiner in 1858.  Notice that her style
matches Ada ( above)  Same style, different
material. Same age.
But Edyth was not through yet!  

One of my dolls mentioned in “At the Auction” was a doll named Amy Fiske.  Amy was so named by her original owner who received the doll for her birthday in 1870.  Amy is remarkable because of her extensive wardrobe of beautiful handmade garments.

Amy Fiske, 1870
Upon returning to Texas Edyth alerted her contacts at Doll News magazine about my special doll, Amy.   Before I knew it Amy was going to be featured in the January (2014) issue of the quarterly magazine.  At 144 years of age Amy made the big time in a multi-page spread in this most beautiful magazine of special dolls.  I couldn’t be more proud and appreciative of Edyth’s intervention.

Nor could I possibly have imagined the speed with which my blog traveled to the farthest corners of the planet with the nicest comments contributed by readers.

Recently one of the comments came from a childhood friend, Susan, with whom I shared a playhouse. After an Internet search I found her number and called her.  We had a heartwarming conversation. (See “Childhood Impressions Can Last a Lifetime”.)

I urge you to check out Edyth’s blog called “My Red Cape”. (edythoneill.blogspot.com) and Peggy’s blog, “Dolls in the Neatest Manner". (peggyflavin.blogspot.com)  Just as I deviate from houses to talk about dolls, Peggy likewise, delves into old houses.  Edyth’s blog talks about dolls, houses, gardening and all the the things that we enjoy and you probably enjoy similarly.
Edyth's blog logo, "My Red Cape"
You will also realize that Peggy’s house is the Oliver Griffin cottage that appeared in my post on gambrel roofed cottages houses of Cape Ann.  You will be able to get a peek of the inside of this charming house if you take a look at Peggy's blog.
Two of Peggy's meticulous made-by-hand
dolls, Eliza and Jane, in the style of Izannah Walker
If you enjoy my blog you surely will want to add these two blogs to your favorites.  You won’t be disappointed.

As always, I appreciate your responses.  The number of "hits" and the far off places from which they originate boggles the mind.  It has been an exciting trip and it all began with a tiny but mighty lady from Texas who took charge and led us down this  road.

Thank you, Edyth.

Thursday, April 3, 2014



The obvious way to date a house is to do the deed research, discover the chain of title to ascertain when a house appeared on the previously vacant land.  Right?

Only partially right!  Here is why this doesn't always work.

Deeds follow the land not the buildings.  Simply relying on the the chain of title we look for the words "dwelling" , "buildings" or "house".  We are elated as we go back through the deeds and the reference to a house on the lot is still there.  Often this leads us to an early date.  Everyone wants their house to be OLD and better yet, even OLDER.  So what is wrong with that?

When a deed refers to a house on the site you have no idea what the house looked like or if it is even the same house that is there now.  Chances are it isn't the same house.  Houses were replaced with better houses doing away with an early settler's cottage or even a substantial house.  Houses burned.  Chimney fires set the wood roofs on fire destroying a house. In other cases the lot was subdivided with a newer house built on the new smaller lot.

One day a lady told me she was researching her house. I knew her house, it was similar to my own house and I commented that I thought it was built around 1860.  I will never forget her retort.  She said, "I'm here to tell you that I am back before 1840 and still going."  I knew what had happened because I just happened to have researched the older house right next door.  I knew that the lot had been subdivided about the time her house was built and her house, the newer house, was built on the newly created lot.

The lesson here, although this process may seem oversimplified, is to take a hard look at the house and estimate how old you think it is.  The house in this instance was a pre Civil War Gothic revival.  The house next door with a center entrance was full of fireplaces.  Hers had none.  The house next door was obviously older. This is a common mistake.. Her research had taken her back to the time when there was one bigger lot with one older house before the lot was subdivided and her house was built.  She was now researching the wrong house, the house next door!

Tracing a lot back to the late 17th or early 18th century and still finding a house on the lot does not mean that the house is necessarily a first period house.  A first period house (built before approximately 1725) would have a decorated frame with chamfers on the beams that were meant to be exposed.  If the frame is undecorated there is no way that it is a first period house no matter how much the owner wants it to be and no way that it was built in the 17th or early 18th century.

Therefore it is not sufficient to rely on the deeds alone. There has to be a correlation between the deeds and the physical evidence.  Both need to be considered.  Often if you can estimate a date based on the physical evidence and then look at the chain of title you can sometimes discover possible clues to substantiate the evolution of the house.  The deeds can reveal dates such as when it was sold to a new family who may have replaced the earlier house.  The concept of "tear downs" is not necessarily new. Or perhaps there was a marriage or a death signaling change in the ownership that often coincides with a major change in the house.  New owners, just as today, will remodel or rebuild. So look for milestones in the ownership of the house to see if they correspond to changes in the house or perhaps a house that is entirely new.

Here in Gloucester we do a fair amount of research before approving a plaque for a house.  It is not that we are imposing restrictions on the style or the age of an acceptable house  but rather we are committed to getting the correct date on the signs. As I travel around New England I observe signs proudly displayed on houses that are blatantly incorrect.

In one instance, as a Realtor, I sold a house with a 17th century date that was at least thirty or more years earlier than it really was.  The conscientious owner, upon realizing that the date was incorrect,  removed the plaque from the front of the house and put it in the cellar. The house was sold and the new owner immediately put the incorrect sign back on the house and there it is to this day nearly twenty years later.

So what can an owner do to "get it right"? There is one accurate way to date a house although pricey. It is called dendrochronology or "dendro" for short.  It is a study of tree rings.

Tree rings to the waney edge

For each year a tree grows a ring.  If it is a drought year the ring is small.  If it is a wet year the ring is wider. This pattern of the rings can be correlated to coincide with the weather pattern over the years for a particular geographic area.

The house frame  in a timber framed house is raised very shortly after the trees for the frame are felled. So being able to determine quite precisely when the trees were felled it follows that the construction of the house won't be far behind.

In order to have some degree of accuracy the beams tested must be intact out to the bark layer, the waney edge. The bark need not be present. Samples are taken from the timbers and there will be considerable consistency throughout so that a consensus can be arrived at, pinpointing the construction date with amazing accuracy. Dendro can also reveal additions, repairs or changes that are not part of the original frame. (This is a great oversimplification of the process but you get the idea.)

There is another factor causing some houses to be mis-dated.

In the colonial period nothing was squandered so that pieces of an earlier house were often recycled into the new house.  The presence of an occasional chamfered beam in a house does not mean that the house is first period but simply that the remains of an earlier house on the site or from elsewhere were utilized in the new construction.  No house should  not be dated based on a stray beam here and there. Sad to say, this happens all the time.

On day I viewed an old farmhouse with a 1686 construction date.  As I went through the house I didn't get any sense of first period or even second period.  The size of the rooms, the height of the ceilings, the appearance of the fireplaces and woodwork said circa 1800 to me.

Finally, we reached the cellar and there holding up the circa 1800 house was a magnificent summer beam with quarter round chamfers...a piece of the 1686 house for sure.  After returning to the main floor I happened to look into the cooking fireplace.  I was surprises to see that the lintel of the fireplace was a reused beam with mortise pockets in it.  A quick look around and I saw that the lintels in other fireplaces were reused beams with mortise pockets left over from their previous life. The spacing of the mortise pockets was consistent with 17th century joist spacing.  I can think of several other similar scenarios that I have seen and each house displaying the date of the early beams that were reused.  Incorporating a first period beam into the underpinning of a much later house does not make it a first period house!

In another documented case a significant beam is part of a garage.

Simon Bradstreet, a Massachusetts colonial governor, and his wife, Anne Dudley Bradstreet, the first American poetess, lived in North Andover, MA after moving from Ipswich. They owned more than one house over time.  One of their houses burned and is the subject of one of Ann Bradstreet's famous poems.
T o read her sorrowful poem on the loss of her home follow on this link.


In the mid 18th century a commodious house was built  by the Phillips family. (Phillips Andover Academy) It has been strongly suggested that one of  Simon Bradstreet's houses was located on this Phillips property. There is an ell attached to the rear of this Phillips house now converted into a garage.  Spanning the ceiling of this garage is the most beautiful decorated summer beam.  The size of the chamfer and the mortise pocket spacing denotes a 17th century house.  As you stare at the magnificent and ancient beam in this modern setting it is hard to picture Ann or Simon Bradstreet sitting under this great beam in front of their fireplace in a house that is no more!  But this stray beam is just a fragment.  It doesn't mean that this Phillips house is 17th century.  It is simply a reused beam.

These are some of the pitfalls of trying to date a house.  Don't jump to impetuous conclusions.  And please understand that being older does not always mean better in this apparent competition to own the oldest house.  Each house should be judged on its architectural merits: who lived in it and what happened  to it rather than getting hung up on a "my house is older than  your house" syndrome.

Other helpful sources can assist you along the way.

Old maps often show the footprint of the house and even may produce a name on the house. These maps (often from the period 1850 to 1900) can reveal to you whether or not  the footprint matches the house and is the name on the lot the same as the name in your chain of title for that time frame.  Is there a match?

Assessors' records for your community can be helpful if available.  They may indicate if there is a building on the lot. A sudden increase in the assessment suggests changes.  These records can also indicate hints such as "new house" or "unfinished house".

It is also helpful to know that more and more information is coming online all the time.  Here in Essex County, MA deeds from 1640 to the present are now online.  Probate records including wills and inventories are also online up to 1842 with more to come.  A researcher hardly needs to leave home to get at the official information. This is huge!  In addition, old maps and atlases are also on line.  One of the best sources is the Leventhal Map Collection at the Boston Public Library with maps for all areas.  Copies of early maps can be purchased from Historic Mapworks. (historicmapworks.com)

These are some of the tools available to you that are often accessible from the comfort of your home.  All should be utilized and checked until you are confident that you have an appropriate construction date.

Strive for accuracy.  Don't be like the people I know that suspect that their house is mis-dated but like it the way it is and don't want to rock the boat to get to the truth. Trying to pass a house off as older than it is will always be recognized by those who know the difference.

Enjoy your old house and accept it for what it is.  If you are planning to place a plaque on your house or replace be sure to get it right!

Thanks for reading.