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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Abbott Lowell Cummings

Students of New England architecture, preservationist and lovers of early Massachusetts houses were saddened recently to learn of the death of Abbott Lowell Cummings, a man who had a great influence on so many people especially in my circle of preservationist friends.

After relocating in Newburyport, MA in 1971 just as urban renewal was getting off the ground, we soon found ourselves in close contact with others, like us, who had been drawn to Newburyport for its collection of decaying 18th and 19th century houses that had been languishing for years, shabby, run down but with mouth watering features and historic integrity just waiting to be rescued.

From time to time I would hear someone say something about " Abbott says....."  Who was Abbott?

I soon found out that Abbott Cummings was the undisputed expert on early houses and also Federal period houses inspired by Asher Benjamin of which Newburyport had many.

In 1979 he published his great book, "Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay", the bible for early houses then and still the best reference book out there.  An amazing book!

As time went on and I knew he would be speaking somewhere I attended.  One memorable talk was one that he gave in the late 1980s at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society in Boston (NEHGS) at one of their "Come Home to New England"  summer programs.  The subject was "The Homes of Our Ancestors".  Tapes of his talk were sold and I played mine over and over in the car soaking up what he had said as I drove around.

Another memorable event was when my son, Bob, and I took a tour with Abbott through the Gedney house in Salem, an early mostly shell of a 17th century house of four rooms.  The tour took hours!  I left the house with my brain on overload, dizzy from what I had absorbed or tried to absorb.  How could there be so much to learn in an empty house?

Gedney House, c 1665

Interior of the Gedney House, Salem, Ma

It was there that I first heard Abbott talk about dendrochronology as he pointed out the tree rings in a girt above a doorway.  That was long before dendro became available in New England.

In 2007 I was to be involved in a rare opening of the 1710 White-Ellery house in Gloucester.  It is open on a regular basis these days but prior to this event had been closed up for many years.  I wrote to Abbott and asked him if he would come and perhaps say a few words about the house.  Much to my joy he accepted the invitation.

White Ellery new claps and cornice.JPG
White-Ellery House, Gloucester, MA  1710

He had previously been in the house in the 1950s with Alfred Mansfield Brooks, president of the Cape Ann Historical Association.  Not only did he come but he had the notes that he had originally taken when viewing the house nearly fifty years before.  He  spoke in front of a large crowd, too many to fit in the house, the rest of us listening through the open windows.

I was fortunate to visit him several times after he retired to Deerfield and discuss features that had left me puzzled.  Those visits were truly memorable events.

Lunch with Abbott Cummings in Deerfield, MA

In 1979 I bought "Framed Houses" and used it until it was shabby and falling apart but thanks to eBay I found another first edition online.  Just as I had done with the first one I asked Abbott to sign it. When he did he commented that I was the first to have worn on my original book and replaced it for him to sign again just as he had with the first one probably 30 years before.

He was 94 years old when he died and left legions of followers who relied on him as the ultimate expert.

The following is an obituary written by he long-time associate, Richard Candee.  It is perhaps the longest obituary I have ever read but there is no way to abbreviate his work and tribute to his life.

Here is the link which is probably more efficient than copying the long obituary but I hope you will read it and appreciate the legacy of this remarkable man to those of us who love old houses.  It was written by his long time associate, Richard Candee.


Abbott Cumming's scholarship and influence will always be remembered by those who knew and respected him...and there are many.


Three old timers.  Abbott Cummings,  Elizabeth Hough, benefactor of the
Sargent House Museum in Gloucester and Harold Bell, then president 
of the Cape Ann Historical Association, now Cape Ann Museum.   All
three made contributions to preservation and all now passed on. 
Pru Fish Photo  1990s


In late 2015 the City of Gloucester was threatened with the loss of several houses.  In the end one was saved, one was demolished and one was gutted to the studs and turned into condos.  

Gloucester is America's oldest seaport; a small city founded in 1623 where preservation should be paramount.  Peabody, a short distance away, is a tired industrial city with less to preserve.  A significant building, one that was familiar to me, in Peabody was also threatened with demolition.

The following story is taken from a piece I wrote at that time and submitted to Enduring Gloucester, a local blog, (enduringgloucester.com) some of which I will repeat here along with a follow-up.  The date was October 13, 2015.


We accept the fact that Gloucester is America's oldest seaport but it is easy to take this distinction for granted.  In addition Gloucester has a rich history in the art world.  The list of painters who came to Gloucester, drawn by the scenery and the special light, is a who's who in art.  Throw in the history of the granite industry, the uniquely ethnic neighborhoods and last but not least, the architecture.

Switching gears, let's talk about the City of Peabody.  Peabody?  Of all the towns and cities on the North Shore what's so historic about Peabody?

The City of Peabody was separated from Danvers and was the scene of leather workers and tanneries.  The tanneries are mostly gone and although that city is proud of its history few would compare it to Gloucester on any level.  It is a city of malls, old factories, busy highways and a central square that is sometimes under water.  Above all it doesn't have a harbor and any comparison to Gloucester, Le Beauport, would seem to be ludicrous.

Although Peabody doesn't have much going for it compared to Gloucester, in one respect it has Gloucester beat hands down.  Here's why.

In the late 1890s J. B. Thomas built a house for his grandson.  He spared nothing to create a beautiful house smack dab in the middle of the city on the corner of Main Street and Washington Street.  It also had fabulous carriage house in the rear not to mention an enormous and beautiful old beech tree in the front.

The Thomas family lived in the house for 15 or 20 years before selling it to the O'Sheas.  It then became known as the O'Shea house until sold around 1970 and converted into a furniture store.  After the furniture store owners retired the house was sold to a social agency.

In recent years the house has fallen on hard times and was foreclosed.  Bank owned, it was available for sale.

In a scenario that is far too familiar, a developer from our own City of Gloucester eyed this high visibility site for redevelopment and negotiated to purchase it.  He made it known that his intent was to demolish the old house.  He was so taken with the site he had not, according to reports, even looked at its wonderful interior.  This is when the story takes a remarkable turn.

Unlike Gloucester, this community, Peabody, has a demolition delay ordinance and has had one since 1986, more than thirty years ago.  It was invoked in an attempt to save the O'Shea house. But when  the City realized that the delay was not long enough to be effective the city council boldly extended the  ordinance from 90 days to one year, 365 days, to buy more time, a lease on life for the old house in question.

The trend is for longer delay periods as towns where demolition delay has been tested understand that in order to be effective, longer delays must be enacted and are addressing this finding. Meanwhile, remember, Gloucester doesn't even have a demolition delay ordinance, still rolling out the red carpet for developers who care little for the historical value of the properties they would demolish.  

(Newburyport, a most beautiful nearby city, has found out the hard way that developers gutting their beautiful Federal period mansions for condo conversion leaving them a pretty shell with all of the original interior fabric, destroyed or scrapped.  They are just now recognizing and assessing their loss.)

Determined not to lose this historic house, the City of Peabody, led by the mayor and supported by the Peabody City  Council, made a second bold move.  They announced they would take the house by eminent domain!  The house will be saved and it will be interesting to see what happens next.  The City can potentially recover their fair market value purchase price and will have the option to sell it with preservation covenants or easements to protect it into the future.  This is what anyone caring about the house hopes will happen.

Perhaps eminent domain is a tool that Gloucester should invoke from time to time when a historic building is in jeopardy.  How is it that  Peabody can take such a decisive seep while Gloucester languishes totally vulnerable with no demolition delay and only a tiny historic district?

Who would think that Peabody would have the foresight and courage to act so decisively?  Why is Gloucester so indifferent?

Is it because Peabody has so much less to save that they are galvanized into making such a bold move?

Regardless of what motivated them, I say, "Kudos to Peabody"  May they lead by example!

June 20, 2017

I wrote the above story on October 13, 2015.  Having heard no more about the O;Shea house I moved on and did not follow up.  This morning's paper and the following article jolted me into the realization that I had taken for granted that the house was safe.

The developer, Michael Corsetti, who happens to come from Gloucester, is suing the City of Peabody saying that his civil rights were violated when the City took the property.

Here is an unbelievably exquisite property now in the hands of a developer who is is determined to win this battle with the City of Peabody although he has no credentials and no background in preservation.  He is typical of the developers such as those that have attacked the City of Newburyport to convert historic properties into money makers for themselves and then move on. When preservation easements are ignored they offer the community a sum of money to compensate the community in lieu of having respected the history, architecture or even the covenants on the property.  This trick has worked in some instances.

It is a sad state of affairs and I hope Peabody keeps fighting this callous developer tooth and nail.

For more details here is a link to the updated newspaper story published today, June 20, 2017.


Also, related to this sad story is the piece I wrote in this blog called "Why Are You Gutting This House" October 13, 2016, exactly one year after the O'Shea house story.  This piece addressed what was happening in Newburyport, a city that has a lot to lose.

Each community has its sob story recounting the loss of special properties.  It is not an easy problem to solve but demolition delay and preservation easements can help.  These historic towns and cities need to employ all the tools available to slow down the destruction of antique and significant properties.

Good luck to Peabody!

Sunday, March 12, 2017



It has been some time since I have posted.  I had several posts prepared and just about ready to go when my attention was diverted to what I perceived as an emergency here in Gloucester.

1764 Saunders Mansion.  Became the SawyerFree Library in 1884,
 a gift from Samuel Sawyer who deeded it to the trustees of the library
The deed stipulated that it would remain a library in sacred trust and 
in perpetuity     1956 Dexter photo courtesy of CAM
Ten years ago the Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester was seeking a grant to enlarge the library.  The library, a very busy library with high traffic, consists of a Georgian house built in 1764 to which was added a stacks section in 1913.  Finally in 1976  a large low key contemporary building was added which has become the main functioning part of this sprawling complex.  This 1976 addition was designed by a local architect, Donald Monell. It was particularly pleasing and appropriate for the setting, the entire complex having high visibility and blending with City Hall and the Cape Ann Museum, the latter designed by the same architect.

The library was awarded the grant but then was unable to get the override from the City that was needed to proceed so the plans were shelved.

Ten years passed  until this year when the library was once again eligible to apply for a 40%  grant. The opportunity only comes around every ten years.  An architectural firm looked over the job and advised the library board and building committee to bypass the 1764 house, physically cutting it off. Then they then advised that it was best to demolish the 1913 addition and to also to demolish the handsome 1976, forty year old main section designed by Donald Monell and start all over again.

On the left is the old Thomas Saunders House, 1764.  A 1913 connecting link is next followed by the 1976 addition
designed by architect, Donald Monell. The hipped roof reflects the hipped roof of the old house.  The arched windows reflect the arched windows in nearby City Hall.        P. Fish photo
A short distance away is the Cape Ann Museum also designed by Donald Monell and also attached to an old house, the Elias Davis house.  The library and the museum perform as bookends flanking Gloucester City Hall.

The Cape Ann Museum attached to the Elias Davis house with a contemporary
addition.  The museum and the library face each other and were designed to
work well together as they flank the centerpiece of the Civic Center, Gloucester
City Hall    CAM Photo

I recoiled at the threat to the library, rolled up my sleeves and jumped in to do what I could to save the library and protect the house.  My first step after a scathing letter to the editor was to write a history of the old house which was published in a local blog called Enduring Gloucester. (enduringgloucester.com) This was followed by a history of the entire block in which the library is located.  


Rather than reconstruct these two stories I am going to give you the links and urge you to read both pieces.  The story of the house called the Saunders house will not disappoint you.  It's history is right up there with the most interesting and most read stories I have previously published.


Then please read the follow-up.


I am happy to report there have been successes.  After many meetings, publishing later discoveries on Facebook and joining a group of like minds there has been a positive outcome.  At this point demolition is off the table.  Architects are working on an alternate design that involves retrofitting the present library with the possibility of adding onto the back for more space.

The old house has been decommissioned for library use because of lead paint and shaky handicapped accessibility.  The idea now is to form a non-profit  for the old house.  The Historical Commssion has pledged to help find preservation or restoration money to appropriately restore the most remarkable rooms in the high styled  Georgian mansion.  The goal is to be able to eventually rejoin the Saunders house when it is free of lead and fully handicapped accessible.

Our fingers and toes are crossed for a favorable outcome.  There is every reason to believe that in the end Gloucester will have a beautiful library with a fabulous antique house combined with a state of the art 21st century library with all the bells and whistles and all within the shell of the 1976 Monell section which is so much loved by the community.

And now I can step back and complete the new stories that were about ready to go when I was so distracted that I could only think of one thing: saving the library!

Thanks for reading and know that with valid arguments and by speaking out, it IS possible to make a difference.   You can fight City Hall! (or the library)

Gloucester City Hall.
 Off to the left is the library and off to the right is
Cape Ann Museum.  Gloucester has a very handsome Civic Center.  Removing
the library and replacing it with s very contemporary building would  interrupt
the rhythn of these lovely compatible buildings and the streetscpe.   Web photo

Saturday, January 7, 2017



In the 1940s an older couple moved into the house next door to ours.  I liked this husband and wife, the Norwoods, and even as a child was impressed by some of their furnishings and decorating.

For example, in their kitchen was a table surrounded by a set of four Mexican hand painted chairs with rush seats.  They were in vivid blue, cheerful and quaint adding a warm friendly touch to the kitchen.  I had never seen anything like those pretty chairs and thought they were wonderful.
Mexican chairs brightly hand painted with rush seats.  The Norwoods,
 our new neighbors, had a set like these in their kitchen.  They were bright blue.

The set of dishes used in this charming kitchen were French Quimper ware.  I adored these colorful peasant looking dishes with the quaint painted chairs.  Most children wouldn't even notice someone's kitchen chairs or the neighbor's kitchen dishes but I did!  And I wished we had some just like them.  (either that or a chrome dinette set)

In the Norwood's dining room was a Chippendale lowboy with ball and claw feet.  It was clearly vintage, but barely, and certainly not antique but I had never seen one before and I knew I wanted a lowboy.

In the living room was a so-called Governor Winthrop secretary bookcase.  These were very popular and common but I hadn't seen one before.  Like so many others those days, my mother had a Governor Winthrop desk purchased at Jordan Marsh Co. in Boston for $100 but it didn't have the glass doors and bookcase on top.  So I added that to my list of favorite things, a must have for a beautiful home.

During these years my best friend was Susan.  (I hope you're reading, Sue)  Her grandparents lived way out in the country at the top of a steep hill called Norcross Hill with sweeping views of the town and with Mt. Monadnock and Mt. Wachusett off in the distance. On summer days Susan and I would walk up there to visit.  It was quite a long walk and toward the end we were climbing the terribly steep hill.  On the side of the road was a stone watering through put there years before in the days of the horse and buggy for the horses to drink as they struggled up the hill with their wagon loads or buggies.  There was also a brook that went under the road.

But back to the Norwood's.  After several years as our neighbors they bought an antique house with fields around it.  It was on the hill near Susan's grandparent's house and we would pass it just before we reached our destination at Susan's grandparent's big antique house in this old rural neighborhood.

One day on the way home we stopped at the Norwood's and Mrs. Norwood gave us a package of fig newtons to eat on our long walk home.  I detested them and I believe Susan did too because my memory tells me that when we got to the brook we threw them in.  I have never tasted another fig newton from that day to today.

Before too many years Mrs. Norwood passed away.  Mr. Norwood was selling their things.  My mother inquired about the Quimper dishes.  My recollection is that they were $75 which my mother thought was too much for those post war days.  So she passed on them and I don't know what happened to them.

While I was away on summer vacation there was an auction.  When I got home a neighbor told me that Mrs. Norwood's things had been sold at the auction.  What happened to the furniture?  The neighbor told me that the nearby antiques shop owner, Dave of Dave's Used Furniture, had been the successful bidder for the lowboy and the secretary.

Here is an almost identical secretary bookcase to the
 one that so impressed me in my youth.
Over we went to this shop and there were the coveted pieces.  My recollection is that the lowboy was $27.00.  How could I ever get enough money to buy it?  I didn't have any money.  But wait.  How about that $25.00 war bond for which I had bought stamps every week at school.  Mother let me cash it in for the lowboy.  Perhaps I had the necessary $2.00 to complete the sale or maybe my mother kicked in the $2.00.  The lowboy was mine! My first piece of furniture in a long life of collecting and buying furniture.

This vintage Chippendale lowboy is very similar
to the prized lowboy I purchased.
The lowboy was ensconsed in my mother's dining room with a tea set on top.  It went with me to CT, then back to Newburyport, MA; always in my dining room.  When my son bought a big house I passed it on to him because I had moved to a smaller house and needed to thin out quite a few pieces. It isn't period but it is still a handsome piece of furniture.

After practically a life time of buying property, selling property of our own along with many years as a Realtor I still can't resist looking at the ads and following new listings through Realtor.com.  From time to time I check the listings in my home town.

A few days ago I did just that and there was a new listing.  I recognized it instantly.  It was the Norwood's old house on that country road.  I looked at the photos and read the description claiming it to possibly be the oldest house in the town.  That is very doubtful but it is still a nice country place, off the beaten path, with fireplaces, old stonewalls and pasture land on five acres.

This is an old picture of the house found on line.  It is more as I remember it than the newer photos.  It has a lovely Greek Revival door and inside the house there are Greek Revival doors and mantels.  The house is dated 1750 but it is probably closer to 1840.  If it was 1750 it would be facing south and the front door would not be in the gable end of the house.The newer picture is easily recognizable but this is more the way I remember it.  It was white not gray but had more detail than it does today.
Seeing the pictures of the house set me off down memory lane reminiscing about our hikes up Norcross Hill, my fond memories of the Norwoods and my introduction to Chippendale furniture. The only thing the Norwoods had that I didn't like was those awful fig newtons!

Old pastures and stonewalls add just the right touch to this country property.

Some things never change.  I still love old houses and Chippendale furniture and I think I would still hate fig newtons, not that I have checked lately.

Thanks for wandering down memory lane with me on a snowy January day.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016



Solomon's Temple in Gloucester, MA.Circa 1883. People on the portico are probably the
descendants of Solomon and Mary Davis. Notice the arched trellis entrance into the garden.
 Photo property of Cape Ann Museum.

Solomon Haskell Davis was born in Gloucester Sept. 3, 1803.  His parents were Elias Davis and Lucy Haskell Davis.  They lived on Pleasant Street in the house that became part of the Cape Ann Museum.  That is where Solomon grew up.  Here is a small family tree.

Dea. Francis HASKELL
Elizabeth WHEELER
Capt. Elias DAVIS
Solomon Haskell DAVIS
Chart found on Ancestry

 Solomon married Mary Babson, daughter of William Rogers Babson, Jr. and Mary Griffin, on February 22, 1830 in Gloucester.

Mary Babson was born on June 13, 1804 in Gloucester and died on June 13, 1881 in Gloucester.   She died of hemiplegia which was probably a stroke causing paralysis.  It appears that she died on her birthday.

Their three children were Sarah Babson Davis; Solomon Haskell Davis, Jr. and Mary Louise Davis.

On May 7, 1839 Solomon Davis, a successful shipmaster, purchased a houselot on Middle Street in Gloucester from Serena Dale, widow of Dr. Ebenezer Dale. This piece of land had been  part of the grounds to the Dale house which was situated to the left side of the houselot.

This circa 1840 house was imposing on the exterior.  The inside was more restrained.  Photos of the fireplaces show mantel that look rather Federal but are slightly plainer and a little heavier which is in keeping with the age of the house.

This is the decade when fireplaces were declining and stoves were replacing the fireplaces.  By 1850 it would be hard to find a fireplace in a new house.

During this decade many houses had traditional mantels as did the Davis house but sometimes there was no fireplace but a thimble for attaching a stove.  It is hard to tell but the Davis house may not have had fireplaces.  The kitchen fireplace was the last to go but without a photo of the kitchen it is impossible to know what Mary Davis cooked on in her new 1840 kitchen.

Here is one of the fireplaces with a thimble for connecting a stove.  It doesn't look as though there is a
hearth in front of the mantel.  The doors are now four panel doors which prevailed from this period until
the end of the 19th century. It is hard to tell if it had thumb latches on the doors.  It probably did but they updated
with door knobs. Photo courtesy of Dawn Dexter and Cape Ann Museum.
This another similar, simple but dignified mantel.  It also is equipped for a wood stove, a feature of the
 Greek Revival period.. Photo courtesy of Dawn Dexter and CAM

The Dale house next door was located on the corner of Hancock Street but  its garden extended along Middle street until it came to the home of William and Mary Babson, parents of Solomon's wife, Mary Babson Davis.  Their house was a modest but lovely Federal period house with elegant woodwork built by Jonathan Ober, housewright. whom I suspect may have also built the Ellery Dale House.

The Dale house had been built around 1790 and before being purchased by the Dales had been the home of John Stevens Ellery and his wife, Esther Sargent  Ellery who had moved to Boston.  Esther was the sister of Judith Sargent Murray whose house was just down the street and is now the Sargent house useum.  These two grand houses belonging to the two sisters were very similar on the inside.  The main difference on the exterior was that Judith's house had a gambrel roof when built and Esther's built about ten years later had a hipped room and was the first house built in Gloucester of the style which became very popular during the Federal period.

This is the Ellery-Dale house.  On the right side just a littleof Solomon Davis's 
house shows.  The very beautiful Ellery-Dale house was cut in half and moved to 
two locations in orderto make way for the first building of the new YMCA as this 
street became more commercial. Photo property of P Fish

Gloucester was not noted for having very many houses of the Greek Revival style and this house was probably the most pretentious of all of them with its stately columns and its wrought iron balcony inside the columns at the second floor level.

After the death of Solomon in 1866 and his wife, Mary, in 1881 the house was inherited by the three children.  Solomon, Jr lived in Sacramento in the latter part of the 19th century and eventually his share transferred to the two daughters, his sisters, Sarah, wife of John Chamberlain and Mary Louise who never married.

It next went to another generation of Chamberlains; John, son of Sarah Davis Chamberlain and her husband, John Chamberlain.  His wife was Elizabeth.

John and Elizabeth sold land to Alex Patillo as the street became more commercialized.  Patillo built a large brick building that became a furniture store very close to Solomon's temple which was now hemmed in between two large brick buildings.

Thse was the William Babson house, in-laws to Solomon Davis.
Photo courtesy of Cape Ann Museum

The Babson's piazza with the columns was a later addition.  The columns were removed from the Universalist church diagonally across street.  They were taken out when the church was remodeled and the box pews were removed. The gallery was suspended differently.  All those columns would have been a nuisance with the new arrangement of pews.  The patches in the plaster where the columns were removed can still be seen.  This house was later moved to a new location without he columns.
The Davis house can be seen on the left.  The beautiful Dale house and the William Babson house became like book ends to Solomon Davis's temple until the bookends were replaced by the large brick bookends.  

Here is the house on the day it was demolished.  It is shabby but in its need of a new paint job it almost looks as though the house is made of granite.  The front facade of the house appears to be smooth boards to resemble marble.  It is December and there is an enclosure in front of the door that would be removed in the warm months.  Photo courtesy of Dawn Dexter and Cape Ann Museum.

Now it was all downhill for this once beautiful block on Middle Street.  It had become commercial and the only residence left was the Solomon Davis house.

Then things really took a turn for the worse.  The "Y" wished to expand and they wanted the now shabby but elegant Davis house.  It would be replaced by an indoor swimming 
pool.  The "Y" prevailed.  Solomon's Temple was doomed.

The last photo before the start of the demolition.  Notice the French window on thesecond floor left for access to the balcony behind the columns.  See how the sun glints off the old window panes.  Replacement windows can never look like that these
windows with their true divided lites of glass reflecting the light.  Unidentified man near the door.   Photo courtesy of Dawn Dexter and Cape Ann Museum

By this time one of the most significant poets of the 20th century had settled in Gloucester; Charles Olson.  He was an enormous, imposing man and a preservationist. When the news broke that Solomon's Temple would be demolished Olson joined the fight to save it.

On December 3, 1965 Charles Olson wrote a letter to the Gloucester Times in poetry form.  It was called "A Scream to the Editor".  It wasn't enough to save the house but what he wrote has never been forgotten or overlooked. Because of Olson and the impact of his "Scream", the memory of the grand house has been kept alive.

Here are excerpts of Olson's words taken from his "Scream to the Editor of the Gloucester Daily Times.

                                                             Moan the loss, 

                                                            another house
                                                            is gone
                                                            which assumes
                                                            its taste, bemoan the easiness
                                                            of smashing anything.

The demolition begins.  Hagstrom was hired to complete the demolition. Can't help but wonder who operated the equipment and how he felt.  He was just doing his job.  Courtesy of Dawn Dexter and CAM

                                                           Bemoan Solomon Davis'
                                                           house gone 
                                                           for the YMCA to build another
                                                           of its cheap benevolent places
                                                           bankers raise money for

Big bites dig into the top of the house. Courtesy of Dawn Dexter and CAM

In reference to its dignity and stateliness Olson proclaimed.

                                                           as well made the Solomon Davis house itself
                                                           was such George Washington
                                                           could well have been inaugurated 
                                                           from its second floor. (in reference to the balcony)

The demolition continues in tight quarters. Courtesy of Dawn Dexter and CAM.

As the demolition proceeded Olson agonized.  Photo courtesy of Dawn Dexter and CAM.

                                                    Now the capitals of  Solomon Davis' house
                                                    now the second floor behind the black grill work
                                                    now the windows which reached too,

There it goes.  There is no turning back now.  The deed is done as the stately fluted columns crash onto Middle St.  It's almost over.  Solomon's Temple is no more. Photo courtesy of Dawn Dexter and CAM.

Olson concludes with this:

                                                        For $25,000 I do not think anyone
                                                        Should ever have let the YMCA take down Solomon Davis'
                                                        house for any purpose of the YMCA.

There is much more to this poem, but persuasive as Olson was, Solomon Davis' Temple was destroyed right in front of his eyes.

Charles Olson was not the only person watching and bemoaning the desecration.

Another Gloucester resident and preservationist, Harold Dexter, who owned and saved other significant houses was there with his camera.  Now his daughter, Dawn Dexter, has donated his slides of this awful event to the Cape Ann Museum.  With her permission and the permission of the museum we can show you what happened that sad day.

And now, ironically, the YMCA is expanding again.  With no more room for expansion left at this location the "Y" is moving to a new location.  And, yes, another building, the former Fuller School, will be demolished to accommodate the new YMCA.  This leaves the old building on the site of the Ellery-Dale house, and its swimming pool addition on the site of Solomon Davis' house with its future up in the air.

Sadly, the Dale house, the Babson house and Solomon's Temple are history.  What a stately block of lovely houses it was!

It is painful to look at Harold Dexter's photos but so grateful to have them and thankful that he recorded that awful event with his camera.  And we are thankful to Charles Olson who recorded the event both dramatically and eloquently with his words.

And thanks to Dawn Dexter for saving her father's slides and making them available.[

Charles Olson said:

                                                      I hate those who take away
                                                     and do not have as good to 
                                                     offer. I hate the carelessness

And so do I!!

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, December 18, 2016



Plank framed Haskell house in Gloucester.  See details below
Sometimes I think I sound like a broken record as I keep reminding people of regional differences in early house construction.  Sometimes these differences vary from state to state and other times the differences are noticeable from one town to another.

I regularly read what people post in “Colonial Home Owners” a closed Facebook group of people who own old houses.  Several contributors are from southern New England; Connecticut and Rhode Island or upstate New York.  I see things all the time on this site that would mean something different to me here in Gloucester, Cape Ann, Massachusetts. 

  One of these features is overhangs on the gable ends of the houses.  To me that would say that the house is first period (1640-1725) but these houses in other areas seem to have later dates in the second period.

Here is a remarkable photo of a house long gone.  It is from a stereo view that came up for sale on eBay and downloaded.  The Cape Ann Museum obtained the original.  Not only does it show the typical vertical planking and overhang but is one of a very few with a double overhang.  The house was in a lonely spot along the waterside.  Picknickers would go there by boat to enjoy the setting.  I would date the house to the first decade of the 18th century..
On the local level here in Essex County, Massachusetts a mere twenty or so miles is enough for a major change in building construction.

In Beverly, Salem or Danvers, Massachusetts the early settlers tended to be from the West in England and brought their building style to America.  This system of construction was already out of date in East Anglia where so many other settlers had their roots.

The defining trait of the housewrights in this area settled by Englishmen from the west of England is a transverse summer beam.  In this neighborhood the summer beam goes from front to back on both the first and second floor of the house.

Housewrights from East Anglia alternated with the first floor summer beam extending from the gable end of the house to the chimney girt above the fireplace.  Once in a while one of these transverse summer beams going the opposite way will show up in Gloucester on Cape Ann making one question who the builder was, where he came from or where the house frame came from. 

The distance between these two neighborhoods is only a twenty minute drive from Cape Ann but there are two distinctly different schools of house construction.

On Cape Ann the summer beams and the frame are more typical but wait a minute!  Something else that is very different occurred underneath those clapboards.

Typically the house frame would be sheathed with horizontal boards.  The walls would be studded on the interior with lath applied to the studs and then plastered.  Sometimes the interior wall space was filled with some material for insulation.  This could be wattle and daub, hay or often bricks laid up somewhat haphazardly because they were not meant to be seen.  This brick infill in the walls is called nogging.  The old Haskell house in Gloucester has nogging only in the north wall, obviously to give the cold side of the house a little more protection from the north wind.

This is a peek at brick nogging in the original north wall of the Haskell house.  It is seen in the attic of the lean-to added
to the house at a later date.

Abbott Lowell Cummings talks about plank framed houses in his book, “Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay”.  He even offers a map showing a decided concentration of plank framed houses in the Cape Ann area with others scattered around Essex County to a much lesser degree.

My first experience with plank framing came when a friend who was working on an old house called me to come over to look at a situation that had her workmen puzzled.  Rewiring the house required breaking some holes in the plaster of this very shabby old house.   Her attention was called by an electrician who saw something strange.  When a flashlight was shined into the hole in the wall they were peering at another very old plastered wall behind.  On this wall was early 19th century wallpaper.  Further study, exploration and research told the story.

This is a 19th century photo of this plank framed house that looks pretty bad but it did survive.  Twenty years
ago it was looking bad again but has been remodelled and sadly, all of the features which survived through
 the hard times are now gone...into the dumpster.  CAM photo

This was a plank framed house dating to about 1718 and what happened later becomes a typical scenario as we go from house to house that are dated to the first period.

When constructing a plank framed house there are no horizontal sheathing boards as one would expect.  Instead huge, two inch thick wide planks sheath the frame vertically, not horizontally.  The girt and the plate have a rabbet, a groove, that is prepared to receive the planks at the top of the house. The planks are then  pinned to the frame above the first floor and again at the sills with wooden pegs or spikes

The recent restoration of the Old Haskell House, a Gloucester landmark, offered the opportunity to photograph a plank framed house clearly demonstrating the vertical planks covering the frame.

Vertical planking on exterior of the Haskell House.
Gloucester, MA

Gable end of the house where the planks are
inserted into a groove creating a small overhang

These planks are then pinned to the beams at the second floor level and at the bottom are pinned to the sills of the house. The sill remains visible inside the completed house running around the edges of the first floor.

Another view of the stripped house.
There is ample evidence in the patches to prove
 that the house originally had leaded casement windows,

Over time, perhaps to make the house warmer and to cover up the large exposed beams and sills the walls were built out.  Studs were added to the old walls then followed by new laths and plaster until the room appeared much more modern and the original walls now entombed behind the new walls.

This alteration could go unnoticed for decades until someone, like my friend, discovered the double walls in her house.

 Laths were attached with rose head nails inside the house.  Riven lath, short strips of oak, are nailed directly to the planks on the inside of the house and attached with rose head nails.

Next comes the plaster applied to the lath to finish the interior. The walls are a thin sandwich of sheathing with clapboards on the exterior, and lath and plaster on the interior. That is all there is.

A better known example is Gloucester’s White- Ellery House, a study house open by appointment or on the first Saturday of each month from June to October.  This 1710 house had also been built out covering the raised interior sill and some of the framing and molding around the ceiling.  Its interior appearance with wallpaper became quite Victorian.  It is owned by the Cape Ann Museum.

This is the White-Ellery house with new clapboards,  The windows
are now replaced with leaded casements.
Around 1947 this venerable house was in the path of highway construction and was moved to a safer spot across the street.  At this time the newer walls were removed and the original walls with  paint and plaster were revealed after being sealed away for who knows how many years.  Old photographs show papered rooms that looked Victorian.

The White Ellery house in the 19th century with overhang.
Photo property of Cape Ann Museum
The City of Gloucester has approximately ten houses that are first period.  The only one that has been dated using dendrochronology is the White-Ellery house in which case the date that was first determined by deed research was confirmed to be 1710.

I was present when someone who had obtained salvage rights to an ancient house opened up the walls.  This house dated to about 1718-1720 and there were the planks.  This house was partially torn down saving much good material including a lot of unpainted feather edged sheathing before being abandoned, then bulldozed.

I was there when this house was opened up and a much earlier first period
plank framed house was revealed at the core of this seemingly second period house.
Photo property of Cape Ann Museum

On and on it goes.  House after house has been confirmed to have the vertical planks of a planked framed house.

There is another giveaway.  When the planks meet the end girt at the top of a first period house and are inserted into the rabbet it forms a very shallow overhang.  Each plank framed house has displayed this slight overhang.

Of the ten or so houses dating to the first period eight have evidence of the overhang.  Two of them do not show an overhang.  These are the two houses that appear to be the oldest of the ten.  They have not been tested by dendrochronology but have such steep roofs they could only be 17th century.  An early date of around 1660 has been ascribed to one of the two.  One knows instantly that it is from the 1700s.  There is no sign of the overhang.  Plank framing, at least in Gloucester appears to begin closer to 1700.

This is one of Gloucester's two earliest houses dating to the 17th century.  There is no
sign of a gable overhang but the extreme steep pitch of the roof is a clue to it'svery early date.
It has been suggested by some that plank framed houses were built in areas close to a saw mill.  Here there were several saw mills and that may have encouraged the building of these houses. Perhaps they were also quicker or cheaper to build.

Recently I received a call from a homeowner in West Gloucester.  Her house was recognized in the past with an incredibly early date of 1651.  Yet in 1985 when Boston University conducted a survey of first period houses all of which were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 this house was not included.

The former Redcoat Antiques in West Gloucester
The overhang on the gable end of the house
can be seen through the shadows.
I had been in this house about 35 years ago but didn’t remember the details and have to admit that way back then I probably didn’t know very much about first period construction.  I had been living in Newburyport, MA, famous for its beautiful Federal period houses and some wonderful Georgian houses.  I had been immersed in studying these periods and had not had much exposure to first period houses.

The owner told me that her beams were chamfered with a flat chamfer.  That alone would indicate first period.  I was able to find a couple of pictures of the house online and when I looked closely there was the gable overhang.  It must be a planked framed house and accordingly must be first period.  It seems to have fallen through the cracks.

To me this could indicate a house built during a small span of time.  Planked houses were not built much before 1700 and the latest ones I have found are around 1720.

Furthermore, the later examples have another distinguishing feature.  This is the very end of first period and the houses are much less post medieval.  The huge framing of the 17th century has disappeared as have the wide flat chamfers.  The usual chamfer of the first period has been replaced by quirk beads on the summer beams and elsewhere.  These are small and almost look as though they are the bead on a boxed frame of the second period but they aren’t.  They are actually the small dressings on the edge of the actual beam.  There are no lamb’s tongues or chamfer stops.  This is the transition period from post medieval to second period Georgian. 

Post Script!

I have since visited this West Gloucester  house and am still  pondering what I saw.   I hit a brick wall in searching the chain of title but will get back to that and hope I get past the stumbling block.

In the middle years of the 20th century this house was a well known antiques shop called the "Redcoat".  Old issues of Antiques Magazine regularly displayed ads for the Redcoat in West Gloucester.  The restored house and shop were owned by the Buswells whose very impressive mansion was nearby if not on the same grounds.

The house has overhangs on both gable ends of the house.  On the second floor there are dramatic gunstock corner post and large braces as one would expect. 

The summer beams have small flat chamfers that were not terribly wide and ended with tapered stops.  After seeing them I would date them as belonging in the period from 1715 to 1725.

What was most surprising was the small size of the rooms when we have been accustomed to seeing large rooms in first period houses.

The chimney is large and square.  The back to back fireplaces on the first and second floor left a wide cavity between them.  This is what is very surprising, the likes of which I have never seen.

This house does not have the typical three run "captain's" staircase to the second floor.  The staircase goes straight up passing right through the middle of the chimney in the space between the back to back fireplaces. Surely this represents a change and rebuilding of the chimney and fireplaces but lots of strange things happen to houses over several centuries.  I should know better than to be surprised!

Also, this house doesn't fit the usual formula but with gable overhangs, plank framed construction and a decorated frame it meets the criterea for a first period house in my opinion!

The information on this house and the research will be continued. There are lots of unanswered questions regarding this house and the last chapter in its history is  yet to be written .

Many of the photographs of the Haskell house are courtesy of Jeff Crawford.

Thanks for reading!