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 19, 2016



As the leaves begin to fall our thoughts turn to Thanksgiving.  The menu, the guest list and other thoughts aren't too far from our minds and frequently come to the surface.

I am very traditional and never like to cut corners or alter our time honored traditions.  It might be easy to skip the creamed onions, the sweet potatoes or the mince pie but not at my house.

An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving    Doris Lee   1935
Today's newspaper annouced that the State of Massachusetts wants to eliminate some of the ridiculous, outdated and by the state's description, archaic laws.  That  brought to mind an old tradition in Massachusetts that was not a law but an archaic custom, nevertheless.

Having grown up in Massachusetts I was familiar with the strange custom years ago of closing stores and professional offices on Wednesday afternoon.  Yes, I'm serious!  With the exception of chain stores of which there weren't many in my neck of the woods, forget about going to the doctor, the hardware store or most other businesses on Wednesday afternoon.
 I had long since left Massachusetts and moved to Connecticut where I lived for fifteen years before moving back to Massachusetts to Newburyport.

We moved to Newburyport the weekend before Thanksgiving in 1971.  Our wonderful 1800 Federal period Robert Dodge house had most recently been used as a rest home called Cutting Manor. Although a beautiful house it was hardly presentable for the coming holidays with lots of linoleum on the floors and green flowered wallpaper everywhere. Those were the days when green was advocated as the most restful color and this rest home took that advice to heart.  There was a lot to do and a lot of green to get rid of.  

On Monday I was busy unpacking, getting the kids into their new school and dealing with all sorts of details including calling the gas company.  We needed to get the old gas stove in the kitchen turned on.

On Tuesday the gas company came.  Disaster!  They condemned the old stove.  Thanksgiving was two days away and I didn't have a stove.  What was I going to do?

I went to Fowles Market right down the street looking for food that I didn't need to cook and told the owner, Joe Vigneault, my sob story.

He then told me that he had just seen a great stove, like new, and affordable.   It was at Bill Goss's auction house in Brentwood, NH. I had no idea where Brentwood was.  I hadn't figured out how to get to Amesbury even though I knew it was right next door. Seriously! But I was motivated so I got a map and headed to Brentwood with my big Oldsmobile station wagon that could hold just about anything.

I found the place, found Bill Goss and negotiated for the stove.  It was a beauty...the latest style...avocado.  I can't remember whether is was $50 or $100.  Either way there was no question. That stove was going home with me!

It was electric so no more problems with the gas company.    My husband was able to install it and by mid-day Wednesday I had a working stove.  We would have Thanksgiving after all but I would have to skip a few dishes.  There just wasn't time for everything I would normally prepare.

Next I ran to the bank.  I needed to cash a check and get shopping in a hurry.

I hurried up to the door of the bank.  It was locked.  What was going on?  Why in the world was the bank closed?  Oh, no! Then it all came back to me. It's Wednesday.  I am in Massachusetts.  What can I do?

I drove to Shaw's supermarket and went to the courtesy desk almost in tears and told them my plight. They asked me where my new house was and I told them my new house was on High Street.  In those days a High Street address really meant something as I was about to find out. Shaw's immediately gave me a check cashing card on the spot, told me to go shopping and have a nice Thanksgiving.  Shaw's saved the day but my new address helped.
Shaw's at Port Plaza

I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I couldn't believe they were so accommodating.  That was forty five years ago but I still have a soft spot for Shaw's.  Market Basket has Shaw's beat hands down where prices are concerned but I will never forget that Shaw's rescued me in my distress and saved Thanksgiving for my family.

I'm not sure when Massachusetts abandoned Wednesday afternoon shut downs.  That custom is a distant memory.  Also a distant memory are the days when a High Street address really meant 
something and was all you needed to be considered a good risk at Shaw's Market. 

Time marches on and times have changed.  Nothing closes on Wednesday afternoon anymore and some don't even close on the holiday itself.  I think maybe I liked the old way better.

Home to Thanksgiving      Currier and Ives

After thought:  Long after the stove was wired up and Thanksgiving was over I returned to Brentwood to Bill Goss's Auction House.  Every other week there was an evening auction.  I became a regular at the auctions and found many treasures for my new house.  What fun it was!

Thursday, October 13, 2016



There are two cities that I love the most.  Both are in Massachusetts in Essex County: Newburyport and Gloucester/Cape Ann.

My family, husband, three kids and a dog and I moved to Newburyport from Connecticut in the very early 70s.  After driving through this small city a few times we were blown away by the architecture.  Houses with interesting rooflines and huge chimneys were everywhere.  Sure, they were shabby (today many of them would be called "tear-downs.) but it would have taken more than shabbiness not to see that here was an enormous collection of the finest New England architecture.

Some were from the Georgian period but most impressive were the Federal period houses whether three stories on High St. or modest Federals on side streets leading down to the Merrimack River.  We drove up and down the streets feasting our eyes on this incredible city.

Within a short time we made a giant decision to uproot our family and live in Newburyport.  We arrived a few days before Thanksgiving in 1971.

At that time many other families were moving to Newburyport, excited by the houses and the redevelopment that was just beginning.  Newcomers were ecstatic when they uncovered old paneling or found a hidden fireplace, some of walk-in size with bake ovens.  It happened all the time.  Newburyport was one big treasure hunt.  New homeowners celebrated the discovery of significant but long hidden features.
There was a lot of “do it yourself” restoration going on, people helped each other and everyone was careful to do the job right. There were no big dumpsters in sight. Families lived in the houses as they slowly chipped away at the restoration.  Features were saved, repaired, reused and when necessary pieces and parts that were missing could be replaced at Whitey Davis’s big salvage barn in Salisbury.

It was save, save, save and restore, restore, restore; always replacing missing or unusable material with like material.  Very gently, one house after another, was coaxed back to life.  Old wavy window glass sparkled when it caught the light, old plaster was patched or skimmed and had a slight 
undulating appearance that looked just right without the stark surface of sheetrock or blue board.

These houses were two hundred years old or more and perfection was in saving the fabric of the house and giving it a new lease on life.  Perfect restorations did not mean perfection as in brand new, smooth, flawless in defiance of age of the house.  These houses weren't disney-like reproductions. They were the real thing. The care and the research devoted to the rebirth of the city was exemplary and a model for other places waiting to be discovered and brought back to life.

Summer house tours were coordinated with Yankee Homecoming.  Testiment to the interest in viewing these houses was the long lines of people waiting their turn to get across the thresholds for a glimpse of  a saved house.

Now living in Gloucester I have been on a rant because of demolition, threatened demolition and the callous gutting of houses by developers with a heavy hand and houses chopped up to create condos even in a typical single family house.

It has been thirty or so years since I left Newburyport but the reports along the way have been disturbing.  The thoughtful gentle work of the first generation of restorers is in the distant past.  Newburyport has been discovered, the redevelopment of the 1970s is now a distant memory.  The city looks gorgeous!  Driving around and seeing the beautiful, houses, fences and gardens everywhere is impressive.  But I have been hearing that all is not well in these houses after you cross the threshold. Walls have been removed, windows with old glass thrown into huge dumpsters along with the other fabric original to the house.

In the early days of Newburyport’s rebirth nobody cared about fads and trends.  Friends tell me I would be shocked and that it is a good thing that I don’t live there anymore! Why?  Because in order to achieve the features in a house that the family of today feel they need or are entitled to, walls must be taken down. Kitchens need to be huge so that they can accommodate huge refrigerators and commercial quality stoves.  And of course there must be an island in the center made of granite, obviously.  Walls must be taken down so that the housewife can talk to her guests while she prepares for a dinner party.  A “closed” kitchen is a thing of the past. 

 But the pendulum will swing the other way and housewifes will eventually realize they don't really want guests hanging over shoulder while they cook, finding it distracting.  Meanwhile the precious original fabric of the house has gone to the dump.

A few days ago with a friend in tow I decided to make a quick trip to Newburyport to see for myself.

I had only gotten as far as Ipswich when my attention was arrested at the sight of a gutted house almost across the street from the Moses Jewett house whose restoration I wrote about in this blog a year ago. One curved attic window remains as a reminder of its Italianate beginnings.  There is evidence of new wood.  They are reducing the size of the large original Victorian windows.  Maybe they want to conserve heat, maybe replacement windows don’t come in that size.  Who knows?  It wasn’t a great house and it was not two hundred years old but it was an honest house, needing work, but did it need to be reduced to a shell?  Old time builders understood a lot about proportion.  What will the change in window size do to a straightforward Italianate house?  Time will tell!

Classic Italianate Victorian farmhouse

We drove on into Newburyport and made our way up High Street, always considered one of the most beautiful streets in New England.  In no time I was shocked to see the former Van Bokkelen house at 249 High Street completely stripped of its old clapboards and without windows.  What was missing inside I couldn’t tell.  This was one of the beautiful three story Federal houses.  It needed work for sure but seeing it looking like a shell even if it isn’t totally gutted was shocking.
This is an example of a fine three story High Street Federal.

What also caught my attention was the work being done on one of the chimneys.  It appeared that it was being rebuilt with cement blocks.  Sure they can parge it and from the street no one will know the difference but where I come from this is not restoration. I remember the former owner relating the story of one of the big snow storms in Newburyport.   Maybe it was around 1968.  The owner built fires in many of the fireplaces and the house cooled off but at a certain point it leveled off and a tolerable temperature was maintained.  I’m sure it was not 72 degrees but it kept the house from freezing.

Stately High Street Federal with beautiful enclosed pilastered portico.  It is not obvious what is left inside .
Down on Merrimac St. along the river was the so-called 1690 House.  It wasn’t really built in 1690 but was actually a mid 18th century house. (This date,1690, may have been the date of the first silversmith in Newburyport.) It was previously next door to the Towle Silver factory.  When I moved to Newburyport this house had been restored by Towle and then decorated by some Newburyport ladies.  Towle used the lovely rooms to display some of their silver products.  There was a parlor that inspired me.  I think it had green velveteen tab curtains.  The stairhall with a beautiful Georgian staircase was papered with a paper I loved called “Whipple House”.  It obviously got its name from the Whipple House in nearby Ipswich.

Towle is out of business, at least in Newburyport. The house was sold and hardly recognizable.  The land behind it is filled with what appears to be new condos crowded together and maybe the 1690 house is going to be part of that project.  Whatever, the old house is no longer nicely integrated with the now barren, treeless streetscape.

This Georgian house formerly owned by Towle Silver was one of my favorites but hardly recognizable.

With just a few minutes left to spend in Newburyport we drove up Strong Street so that I could admire one of my favorite houses, the Georgian Atkins house at 9 Strong St.

This house is an all-time favorite.  It too has been through
a lot but was carefully brought back.  It is beautiful inside and out. I 
looked at it once in a blizzard when it was only $11,000.  The 
condition was rough but the beauty was obvious under the worst of
conditions.  This is one of the lucky ones.  It was respected and saved.

Thankfully it is looking good with a new coat of paint.  (Photo is not the best.) but as we approached the junction of Strong St. and Washington St. there we saw another gutted house at 41 Washington St.  The windows were gone, and the entire interior appeared to be gone. This is a large gambrel roofed house of the 18th century dated at about 1750.  The old maps indicate that even in the mid 19th century it was a double house having been divided right down the middle.  More recently the entire house was owned by one family.  The chimneys appear to be missing and may have been for some time.
This is a really large mid 18th century Georgian.  Not sure what it had inside but it looks
like whatever was there is gone now.
I guess they want to save the pedestrians from
the construction but how about saving the houses
from the developers!

We were out of time.  I had seen enough!  I don’t know any of the owners of these properties.  I don’t know their motivation.  Maybe some of this work is even justifiable. 

Clearly, I don’t know what is going on inside these buildings and I hope it’s not as bad as it looks.  I don’t know what is necessary to save these houses and I hope those in charge know what to do to preserve these gems, not with a goal of making them brand new.  It certainly does not look like sensitive restoration/preservation to me.  I hope I am wrong but I never saw a sight like this when I lived in Newburyport.

Last year a stately house in central Gloucester was gutted much to my dismay.  It has since been turned into condos and they just went on the market.
Stately house with all of its pieces and parts intact, one year ago

Outwardly the house looks much as it did before, at least from the street side.  The back has been added onto but the dignified old house was reduced to a shell.
One year later.  The exterior has been retained or reproduced
because it was in the historic district but the interior was gutted.

Reduced to a shell.

The condos developed inside are now ready for the market at prices ranging from $775,000 to $795,000. I’m sure they are beautiful but the woodwork, staircase, chimneys and fireplaces if it had them are gone. 

Well intentioned people have been led astray, by the craze for replacement windows, the need for insulated walls, steel doors, big open kitchens and commercial appliances and enormously decadent bathrooms.  These are fads and will pass as all fads do.  In some cases it is the building codes that doom our historic properties.

In the meantime I can hardly bear to think about. the cost to the integrity and well being of our historic houses.  There is beauty in an honest house even when shabby.  It is painful to read an ad for a house described as a tear down.  Sometimes they really are but often they are houses with historical value.

Newburyport, Ipswich, Gloucester and every other town in New England has this legacy from the past that is being squandered.  Before ripping out anything find someone in your neighborhood or community and ask for advice from qualified people or someday you may look back and think, “OMG.  What did I do?” 

Monday, October 10, 2016



Cape style houses with gambrel roofs, now known as "Cape Ann Cottages" are what I call the signature houses of Cape Ann.  These are the modest little houses that the Cape Ann fishermen and farmers called home.  They dotted the shoreline beginning in Manchester by the Sea and continued around Gloucester and Rockport never too far from the shore.  Most were built between 1740 and 1790.

Gloucester's great historian, John James Babson, stated that at the height of their popularity there were about three hundred and fifty of these little houses.  For many years now I have been recording the ones that exist, the ones that are now attached to larger houses and the ones that were moved to a new site.  I have also recorded the ones of which I have been made aware but no longer exist.  

The count now stands at only fifty nine and not growing very fast these days. In March of 2014 I did a blog post on these little cottage houses which you might want to check out.


A few years ago knowing that I had an interest in these little houses, Fred Buck, the photo archivist at the Cape Ann Museum sent me a scan of a 19th century watercolor painting of one of these cottage houses.  It was on its last legs and to see it you would immediately know that it wouldn't be there much longer.  The big chimney was missing with just a gaping hole in the roof, one corner of the house was missing and the window sash was just hanging or missing..
Circa 1774 Cape Ann Cottage originally built across the street from Plum Cove Beach in what was then called Plum Cove Pasture  Artist unknown.  Courtesy of Cape Ann Museum.
Even so the painting was charming.  It had been a very sweet house sitting  up on a small knoll. There was a stonewall and an outcropping of granite for which the neighborhood was famous. On the back it indicated that it was Mr. Griffin's house near Plum Cove.

I really wanted to know where it had been.  With a friend we searched for a similar outcroppings of rock.  She thought it was in one area and I thought another.  Turns out it was neither.

Last weekend I was doing my volunteer shift at the first period White-Ellery house. An interested visitor struck up a conversation and told me about her house that was built in 1878 and she was only the third owner of the property.  
This very sweet Victorian house was built by Austin Griffin of
Lanesville in 1878. Who knew  the secret hidden under the house? 
She then told me that local historian, Barbara Erkkila had told an interesting story in the 1980s. According to the story which was published in the Gloucester Times the first owner of her house was William Northway, a man with a family who had come from England to Cape Ann and worked in the granite quarries. Barbara Erkkila quoted him as saying that when he was digging a cellar hole (probably for an addition) he came across another very old foundation, the base for a chimney and a threshold. (possibly a door stone?)

Immediately I had a thought.  What if her house was built on the site of the long gone Cape Ann Cottage?  I couldn't wait to check the deeds.  I quickly found Mr. Northway in 1878.  He had bought it from Austin Griffin, a "house carpenter".  Griffin!  The name on the back of the painting.

I thought I was on a roll but that would have been too good to be true.  I struggled through so many deeds and probates with complications I almost gave up.  Here are the basics.

Peter Sargent married in 1774 and probably built his "homestead" as it was referred to, shortly after if not before, placing date of the house right before the Revolution   Since these houses were mostly built between 1740 and 1790 this date would be exactly right.  Peter lost his first wife and then married "Lucy" his second wife. 

Peter died in 1811.  At that point the house was divided.  It was customary for the widow to get 1/3 of the marital property.  Usually the wife could live there until she died or remarried.  In other words she did not have outright ownership but what today we would call a "life estate".  After her death the title of the house would revert to other heirs.  The deeds referred to the "reversion of the dower" or the widow's third reverting back to others and by doing so the entire house would be whole again and no longer encombered by her dower.

Here is the description of the house in 1813, one third  of which went to Lucy, the widow, as her "widow's third".  From the inventory of Peter's estate comes this description of the house.

"Also, one small dwelling house standing on said mowing land one story high with a gambrel roof, only one room tenantable , all the rest unfinished."

This portrays the house perfectly.  There were only two rooms downstairs,one for the widow.  The front room was the only one plastered and finished.  The rest of the house was probably whitewashed on the interior.  Perhaps there was one "chamber" whitewashed on the second floor and the rest was garrett.

This portion of the division of the property described the house as it was divided in a way that is hard to understand but must have made sense to those involved.

 "The wall which divides the fore room from the back room as it now stands together with the fore entry also the cellar from the fore side  sill as is plumb with the northeastern side of the third sleeper the whole width of the cellar from end to end.  Also a privilege to wash, bake and brew in the back room as there is no oven only in the back room , also a privilege to the well, there being none in her enclosure, the dwelling house standing partly on the third.  There being no way to go  up to the chamber or garrett only in the fore entry and the way down cellar or attic in the fore entry so that whoever shall own or occupy the remainder of the dwelling house is to have the privilege of going up stairs and down cellar in the fore Entry which  parts of the dwelling house privilege amounts to $33.00".

So Lucy had the front room but had the right to use the back room which would be someone else's part of the two family house.  That is where the cooking fireplace was located and she could use the fireplace with the bake oven for "washing, baking or brewing".  Makes one wonder what Lucy was brewing!

The people with whom she would share the house had the right to go through her room if they needed to go upstairs or down to the cellar from the entry near the front door.

What is astonishing is that this was a typical arrangement and a typical household.  Many rooms were not plastered and during the time the widow lived in her third of the house others were occupying the rest.  It seems like an impossible arrangement when you think of the discomfort, the close quarters and what they had to put up with but this description is reality.  In many instances the families were large, cramming a lot of people into a tiny house.

Lucy was awarded her third when her husband's estate was finally settled in 1813.  She lived there until she died in 1835.

Lucy's son by her first marriage was living there but in 1838 he died and his wife, Hannah then got her widow's third of the house. The estate appealed to the court saying that Hannah was in frail health and had no friends or relatives.  But by 1839 she appears to have vacated and apparently got married.

The next owner, William Langsford, held it from 1839 to 1863.  In 1863 it was purchased, both land and house, by people named Lucas.  In 1877 the property was sold to William Northway with no mention of a house.  The shaky, worn out old house seems to have disappeared.  

Mr Northway purchased the property from Austin Griffin, a house carpenter.  Probably he is the one who tore the cottage down to build the new house that is there today but already an antique itself at one hundred and thirty nine years old.

Now the present owner of the house who thought only three families had lived on that land knows that a lot more went on there before Mr Northway owned his little Victorian house and while digging in the cellar found the old foundation and chimney base.

And now I know the story of Mr. Griffin's Cape Ann Cottage.

So the cottage mystery came to an interesting conlusion but there was one more watercolor of a similar Cape Ann cottage.  It was sitting close to a road.  I have no idea where it is or most likely where it was! I really don't think it has survived.  Maybe some of you who read this will have a clue. 
This quaint old house by the side of the road has not been identified .  It may not exist.
Courtesy of Greg Gibson and the Ten Pound Island Book Company
As in the case of the cottage at Plum Cove I am hoping that someone, some day when we least expect it will come forward with a story and another mystery house will be identified.

For now: one down, one more to go!

Note:  The present house was built by Austin Griffin.

The Samuel Griffin family came from to Annisquam from Newbury in the early days of the 18th century. Samuel was a housewright. His son, Oliver, lived nearby also in Annisquam but his grandson, Tristram Griffin, settled in Riverdale in another Cape Ann cottage on Washington St. now gone.

The next generation, Tristram Griffin, his son, was born there in Riverdale in1840 in his words "in the shadow of Pole Hill".  After the Civil War the second Tristram became an early architect, living and working in Malden but always interested in the history of his home town.  After Gloucester High School burned Tristram designed Central Grammar, later renovated by another well know architect,  Ezra Phillips.

Tristram's brother, Thaddeus, born in 1842 was a house painter.

Another brother, Austin Griffin, was born in Riverdale in 1846 and built houses.  He settled in Lanesville and most likely built his own house on Washington Street with remarkable woodwork.

A talent for designing and building must run in the genes of this old Cape Ann family! 

Saturday, September 3, 2016



Many people purchase a shabby old house because it is affordable and they think with a little sweat equity they can then make it into what they really want.  Once in a while it is a success but more often than not the end product isn't either old or new but something nondescript.  It no longer appeals to the  antique house buyer nor does it appeal to someone wanting a new house.  It could fall through the real estate cracks if you decided to sell.

A friend who is committed to saving houses by showing  people in the real estate industry different house styles and how to present them sent me the following photos illustrating what can happen to a houses in this case; capes.  I have no idea where these houses are located or how old the photos are.  All examples are of similar architecture and demonstrate what can happen to an old house, both good and bad.

The first photo shows a very shabby cape with non-traditional windows.  It is an example of a type of house that can be found all over New England.  Ever popular, capes can be the most endearing style and with a little effort they can be super charming whether they be true antique, vintage or brand new.

THIS IS "BEFORE" BUT  IT GOT WORSE                
Here is a remuddled cape.  Unfortunately it got worse. The windows are
inappropriate for a traditional house and the front door doesn't help.  Neither 
does so much exposed foundation with so many cellar windows.
This cape could have been restored with small paned, true divided light windows and an appropriate door.  It doesn't matter if it was built in 1770 or 1920.  A traditional treatment goes a long way with a cape.   Fencing or stonewalls and landscaping can change the image for the better.  Modernizing clearly doesn't  work.

If this  house had been brought back to its former self with the right windows, paneled door, minimal landscaping and general TLC it could have been appealing.  But take a look at what happened to it.

Instead of accepting the house for what  it was an effort was made to update it for today.  What was the outcome?  The result is a boring house of no particular identifiable architectural style.

I guess this would be called a "colonial"!!!  The replacement windows have no 
visible muntins and the new portico is weak.  The second floor windows are small
 and the pitch of the roof appears to be shallow.  Judging by the corners it must have 
vinyl siding instead of  appropriate wood clapboards with attractive paint colors
This is a case of making a house into something that it isn't.  The fact that it was a New England cape was ignored in the new rendition of the old house.

The house was raised up to two stories.  The double windows on the side of the front elevation are not  traditional and break the symmetry of the house.  The portico is weak and the columns are puny. It appears that the pitch of the roof is too low to be pleasing to the eye.

Worst of all are the windows;, just dark holes instead of small panes with muntins that would make the house pop.  Windows are like they eyes on a face.  They give the house its personality. Compounding the installation of characterless replacement windows are those paneled shutters rather than real working louvered shutters common to New England capes.  They are clearly non-working shutters as evidenced by the double windows whose shutters would never cover the glass.

Actually no shutters at all would have been OK. The foundation plantings provide minimal landscaping and do little to minimize the foundation of the house and cellar windows.

Here is the third example below on which my friend commented, "They could have done this." i.e. leave it alone".  That doesn't mean not to paint, landscape or perhaps add louvered shutters.

This cape is not spectacular but its value is in the fact that no heavy handed owner
has done anything to spoil the symmetry,  It is somewhat of a diamond in the rough
but still looks better than the previous two photos. Its recessed front door is not typical 
but it is nice.
When house-hunting try to keep this rule of thumb in mind.  When looking at an older house, even if not an antique house, remember to try to accommodate the house if it has any degree of integrity. The results will be better than trying to make the house accommodate your taste.  That is what happened to the previous cape.  If you  really want a more contemporary style of house continue to look for one.  If you want a two story house, try to find one you like.  Or you can buy the shabby old house like this and bring it back to its former glory whatever that may be, all the while respecting what it is. This is another cape that hasn't been extensively restored.  It is still an honest house!  It isn't masquerading as something that it never was.  Even when somewhat shabby it is still pleasing because it is what it is.  It has integrity that is missing in the two story house.

The next cape was not sent to me by my friend but I wanted to demonstrate that if you go the next step you can have a result like this house.  This cape has been respected by its owners, painted a lovely ochre color and a small amount of fencing  has been added.  It is simple and beautiful just the way it is.  

This classic New Hampshire  cape doesn't really look done over.  It could use some work but it has integrity!  The 9/6 windows are correct and the ochre yellow paint is perfect.  The picket fence may be a little shaky but it has appeal.   With a little spiffing up this country cape could have just the right look.  It is refreshing because it has not been spoiled in any way.  It is simple and pure New England.

.I want to thank my friend for assembling these house pictures to make a point. 

Here is what has the potential for being a charming New England antique country
cape.  It needs TLC but has its chimney, the heart of an antique house and would be a
great restoration project.
So to reiterate here are my own most basic rules for dealing with an old house.

1.  Respect the house and accommodate it.  Don't try to make the house accommodate you.  If the bathroom is small...so be it.  Don't lose a bedroom for the sake of a big glamorous bath in a modest New England antique,house.  Do  you really want or need a fireplace in the bathroom?

2.  Don't do anything to an antique house that can not be reversed.  Cover over a door or window if you don't want it where it is.  It can always be put back.  What you have done is not permanent. Reversible is the key word.

3. Don't  discard original fabric of the house.  If parts of the house need to be replaced the new work should be done with the same natural materials as the original.

Fads come and go.  Right now dining rooms are not  popular and walls are being knocked down everywhere to create large kitchens/dining combinations..  Once the original fabric goes into the dumpster the damage can't be undone. Sure, it can be replaced but better to save the original and not succumb to trends and fads.

It seems to me that every time I notice something happening to an old house that is inappropriate it is because the family that lives there wants to tailor the house to their lifestyle and needs.  Invariably the houses that have been done inappropriately by owners who swear they are going to stay there forever are soon back on the market.  The remuddler with the heavy hand has moved on. Either the house is permanently altered or the changes are left for a new owner to cope with and try to reverse.

The highest and best use is to respect the architecture and materials that are original to the house.  

Note:  The photos in this post were sent to me.   I have never seen the houses and have no idea where they are.  The ochre yellow house is something that I found but no longer remember where it was. All are modest houses of the type we see every day in our travels.

                                       NICE CAPE!

This charming cape may be a reproduction because the foundation  looks too
new but the house is nicely done.  The trim is the same color  as the body of the house.That is an authentic way to treat the exterior of the house.  Any of the 
above houses  have the potential to look as nice this cape does.

The best advice comes from the Credo of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It is short and sweet but says it all.

“It is better to preserve than repair, better to repair than restore, better to restore than reconstruct.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2016




There is something nice about having a silver spoon with which to stir your cup of coffee or tea.  At least I think so!

This year, not wanting to use sterling every day in the kitchen, I had a brainstorm.  Since antique mid 19th century coin silver (900 parts silver per thousand versus sterling at 925 parts per thousand) are delicate and elegant but not too expensive I decided to put together a collection of twelve nearly matching fiddle back coin silver spoons.  I would retire  the stainless steel. It wouldn't be too extravagant, a little elegant but no need to worry if one was lost or bent.

I did a little research to single out a silversmith whose spoons were relatively easy to find in order to have a set that somewhat matched.  A search on eBay led me to Hall and Elton, silversmiths from Geneva, New York. There seemed to be many offerings for their spoons. So I bid on several groups or singles that would make  up a set of twelve.  All were of the mid 19th century fiddle back style and I was having a good time pulling this new collection together and excited about my solution for getting rid of stainless steel without the worry of losing or abusing my good sterling..

Soon the packages began to arrive.  Some had been cleaned and some were slightly tarnished but not badly.  I got out the Wright’s Silver Cream, the old standby silver polish made in New England, and went to work.  I thought I would be thrilled with my new spoons but something kept telling me that I wasn’t really impressed or entirely happy with them.  What was wrong?  They were not plated, they were genuinely old, they weren’t scratched or damaged so what was my problem?  I was feeling so deflated but couldn't put my finger on the source of my disappointment in the spoons..

Eventually, I hit the books and the Internet and discovered something that I had never known or suspected.  These antique spoons were not coin silver!  So what were they?

The following is typical of what different Internet sites had to say about Hall and Elton.

“There were makers that marked the wares just like coin silver, but the metal was something other than predominantly silver. Although it is not one hundred percent true, Hall & Elton is one example of a maker that marked their wares like coin, but it was not coin.”

If it was not silver what the heck was it?

Many pieces are being sold as coin silver which should be 900 parts silver.  But sometimes the look and texture is not right. Possibly Hall & Elton created their own alloy that included only a small amount of silver...or none at all.  This is sometimes referred to as “German silver or nickel silver”.  As it tarnishes it looks more and more dingy with a decidedly yellow cast.  When compared with genuine coin silver the difference is readily apparent.

Over the years it is possible that Hall and Elton made coin spoons and later on made plated spoons but the market seems to have plenty of examples of these inferior spoons.  I have no proof that Hall and Elton made any real coin silver spoons.  All the spoons I purchased were this alloy,  nary a coin silver spoon in the lot.

I used them for a time.  The yellow cast grew worse quickly, some even developed green corrosion.  I soon realized I couldn’t continue using them so sat down with my polish to at least clean them up and then decide what to do with them.  After a lot of elbow grease was expended on two spoons the result was not even close to satisfactory.

I decided that they were not worth the cost of the silver cream or my time so I threw them into a bag with no idea what to do with them next.  Do I throw away genuine antique spoons from 1840 or 1850?  They are not damaged, just inferior and very discolored and tarnished. I don't want them and I don't know who would.

Checking on eBay today I found twelve offerings for Hall and Elton spoons advertised as coin silver and only three described as German silver or an alloy.
Yellow tarnish that is stubborn.  Polishing
does not achieve a good result.on Hall and
Elton antique spoons.
(German silver is also sometimes referred to as nickel silver).  Mostly there is no silver content or very little silver content. They are an alloy comprised of copper, zinc and nickel.

Looking at recent eBay completed sales twelve listings were represented as coin, two were accurately listed as an alloy, one honest seller admitted not knowing whether they were coin or an alloy and one seller even stated that his spoons had a greenish tint!  Oh my!  Not a good sign!

If you look online at photos of Hall and Elton spoons the yellow tinge, the dullness and the dingy look comes through loud and clear.  Polishing may improve them but the final result doesn’t pass especially compared in my case to my family’s Newell Harding spoons in the same style and similar age made in Boston.
True coin silver Newell Harding spoon polishes nicely..
Several years ago I bought a beautiful pierced serving piece at an antiques show.  It was marked sterling by the dealer on the tag but the price was low.  It looked good to me so I bought it and showed it to a friend who deals in antique silver.  He assured me that it was sterling and quite lovely.  The mark on the back said Alpaca. As it turns out Alpaca or Alpacca is just another name for German or nickel silver.  My serving piece could have fooled anyone! It was not as old as my spoons and probably never used.

Recently I have noticed Alpacca (Alpaca) spoons advertised as plated.  That is no more accurate than calling them coin silver.  They are not plated!

Here is what eBay says about Alpaca.

Alpaca Silver (Alpacca) refers to an alloy that imitates sterling silver. This non-precious bright silvery-grey metal alloy is made up of copper, zinc and nickel and sometimes iron. Alpaca Silver does NOT contain any real silver; it is just another name for Nickel Silver”.

I can’t say that there are not some Hall and Elton spoons out there that are really coin.  None of my purchases were coin but all were represented as coin.  I am not faulting the sellers.  I’ve been interested in silver for a long time but I was clueless and I expect the sellers were as well.
I am also not suggesting that Hall and Elton were the only company using this alloy to make inferior spoons.  There are probably others but my “matched set” are a real flop.  By the time I retired them they were disgusting!   If nothing else it was a lesson learned.

BEWARE!  It brings to mind my own version of the old familiar  adage.  All that glitters is not silver.”

What about that bagful of ugly spoons?  I certainly won't try to palm them off on another unsuspecting buyer.  I won't use them.  They are antique but as far as I'm concerned they are worthless!

How about those  stainless steel teaspoons that I rejected?   Hmmm!  I guess  I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth after all!  Stainless is looking better all the time.

Saturday, August 13, 2016



This unidentified house is not the house in the story 
but representative of the house described.

Tucked away in a New England town and down a long lane, is an ancient saltbox house.  Nobody that I knew had ever seen it other than in some long out of print books on old houses.  Don’t we all know houses that we have seen and fervently wished we could get inside?  Well, this is the house that was on my wish list.

This particular property belonged to a very protective lady who had inherited the treasure from her parents complete with all the furniture and accessories that one would hope to find in a first period house.

The house was tantamount to a fabulous museum the only problem being that it was not open to the public; not ever.  At least one hundred years ago it became the guest house on the property on which a large house had been built with all the modern conveniences of that day allowing the old house to remain untouched. By the time I was aware of this hidden treasure, it was no longer used at all, even for guests.

Everyone knew that I had studied the photos in books and would do anything to cross the threshold of this ancient, and unspoiled house.  And as luck would have it, my chance to see it materialized right out of the blue through a mutual friend.  Several others decided to tag along until there were perhaps five of us who would be experiencing this superb treat.

On the appointed day we arrived at the newer big house where our hostess lived.  There was only a path leading down to the old house some distance away.  After exiting our vehicles we went to the door of the main house.  We knocked and called the owner’s name repeatedly.  There was no response.  We stood around considering what to do next.  The owner’s car was there but where was she?

After a period of time we concluded that she was probably waiting for us at the old house so we tentatively began to proceed slowly down the path.

Suddenly the owner came racing out of the main house screeching like a banshi ordering us to get back to the house.  “No one goes down that path without me.” she admonished.  So somewhat chagrined we back-tracked while she gave us a scolding and then a history lesson about the house.

Finally the moment arrived.  She unlocked the door and we crossed that treasured threshold into what clearly would be a wonderful experience.  Before proceeding she tested us a bit with questions such as which is older, the banister back chair or the ladder back?  I passed the test with flying colors and seemed to have gained her approval a little.

As we followed her on the tour we were thrilled to be there and in great admiration of the house and its contents.  She also seemed to be warming to the occasion and eventually we ended our tour in the old kitchen with its enormous cooking fireplace.

Now our hostess was really getting into this strange party of sorts.  She decided we could sit around the huge fireplace and she would build a fire.  How long had it been since the fireplace was used I wondered with some concern.  I soon got over my doubts when I realized that sitting before this ancient fireplace in this rarest of houses was a very special event not to be taken lightly.   This would be a very memorable day memorable it was for several reasons.

Now she proclaimed that she was going to send one of us into town to buy sandwiches and we would have lunch in front of the fire.  She was clearly now having the time of her life and so were we. 

While one of our group went for sandwiches she went to her house and came back with wine.  What could be better than a beautiful fall day in New England having lunch in front of this venerable fireplace with a glass of wine?

Along the way different guests were instructed to put more wood on the fire and to take the tongs and arrange a log this way or that way.  By now our hostess was in really high gear.  The smell of the wood smoke was strong.  I was feeling some anxiety about the chimney and slipped away upstairs where it was slightly smokey to which she was oblivious.  We had been there a long time and needed to get back to our office.

That was easier said than done.  I began to have misgivings about this party.  We should leave.  My head started to pound from smoke and the tension that came from realizing that we were prisoners.  She was not ready to let us go!

I looked at my watch repeatedly.  I looked at my friends imploring someone to help.  Our hostess was in control and we had to do her bidding.  More logs on the fire; more wine in the glasses.

Finally we made our escape.  The end is a blur, a least for me.  By this time I had a raging headache.  It was all I could do to drive myself home and crawl into my bed with a full blown migraine and there I remained until the next morning.  I never went back to the office.  Completely wiped out, I was.  I don’t even remember how we dealt with the fire in the fireplace when we left.  The house is still there so nothing bad befell the house as a result of our caper.

That was a number of years ago.  Our hostess has since passed on.  The house has had dendrochronology testing proving that it was built in the late 17th century.   But there was just a little more fallout  resulting from our adventure.

A friend of mine who was a very knowledgeable old house expert was determined to see that house based on my report.  With his charm and knowledge of old houses he thought he could handle this hostess just fine.  So he found an old map that indicated the now private driveway was once an old road.  (If it was, which I doubt, it only went to that house).  So armed with the map for proof that he wasn’t deliberately trespassing and with an expensive bottle of wine, one evening he ventured down the lane.  He had mentally rehearsed how he was going to sweet talk this lady winning her over and getting to see the old house.

As soon as he reached the big house the owner came screaming out of the door ordering him off her property.  He tried to show her the map to no avail.  She finally ended the confrontation by jumping into her car and chasing him out to the main road!  So home he went with his deflated ego and with his bottle of wine which I’m sure he promptly drank.

You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for”?  My wish came true but I paid a price and so did my friend with his expensive wine and shattered ego.

I’m glad I got to see the house and had the rare experience of sitting before that fire in the most wonderful setting on a perfect day.  But I can tell you that I got that house out of my system and have never in my wildest dreams thought of ever going back.  One visit and one migraine was enough.