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

Saturday, January 7, 2017

STILL HATING FIG NEWTONS, STILL LOVING OLD HOUSES AND CHIPPENDALE FURNITURE

FIG NEWTONS: YUK

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.

Pru






Wednesday, December 21, 2016

REVISITING SOLOMON DAVIS' TEMPLE IN GLOUCESTER


SOLOMON'S TEMPLE REMEMBERED

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
(1722-1791/1793)
Elizabeth WHEELER
(1729-1804)
Capt. Elias DAVIS
(1758-1821)
Lucy HASKELL
(1761-1847)
Solomon Haskell DAVIS
(1803-1866)
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.

Pru


Sunday, December 18, 2016

PLANK FRAMES, SECRETS IN THE WALLS OF AN OLD HOUSE

THE TELLTALE SIGNS OF A PLANK FRAMED HOUSE

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!

Pru







  

Friday, December 9, 2016

WHICH IS IT? A HOUSE OR A HOME?


A MESSAGE FOR OWNERS OF ANTIQUE HOUSES AND THEIR REALTORS

For nearly thirty years I  was a Realtor selling antique and historic houses, some of them my own.  I still research house histories and  follow the real estate market. I pay attention to all the listings of antique houses. I have been a buyer, a seller and a Realtor.  As a consequence I am rather opinionated and pretty critical of the way a house is marketed.  There are mistakes that can turn off a potential buyer looking for an antique or an historic house.  Often the salesperson representing the house has the best of intentions but has an incorrect perception of what is good in an old house and what is not so good; what to advertise and what not to advertise; what should be saved and what shouldn't be saved.                                                                  

New homes for sale 

Here is a headline from today's local newspaper's Friday real estate section.  Look in the real estate section of any newspaper and you will see a similar headlines.  So what is wrong with it?

Here is what is wrong.  Homeowners or brokers are not in the business of selling homes.  They are selling HOUSES.

A home is what you create for yourself and your family when you live in a HOUSE.  It is a HOUSE infused with your taste, your stuff, your treasures and all the things that make it a special place for you and your family.  You start with a HOUSE and it becomes your home.  Realtors are in the business of selling HOUSES.  The new buyer will make it their home.  Empty houses are not homes.  It is not a home until you have lived there and tailored it to yourself or your family.

Sometimes a seller, developer or broker is convinced that the word home, like hearth, depicts something to a potential buyer that makes the property sound more appealing.  But to others is is annoyingly incorrect. When you sell your HOUSE it will become the new owner's home just as it had become yours.  But for the purposes of the sale, it is simply a HOUSE!

When you have an antique house for sale there are certain things that will make a serious buyer cringe or even reject a house.  Most Realtors and sellers are oblivious to these missteps in showing or advertising the property.  Serious old house buyers are always wishing they could find a salesperson to speak their language.  In the meantime many are politely frustrated.

Do not tout the gleaming hardwood floors!  Why not?  Hardwood floors usually suggest quality in a building.  Right? That is usually true but the reason not to focus on hardwood floors is because real antique houses didn't have hardwood floors.  They had wide pine floors and this is what a buyer of an antique house looks for so an ad for hardwood floors isn't going to help your sale.

People tend to have high regard for the widest boards.  In some instances the use of the widest boards was to cover the floor faster as we might use plywood today.  In other houses the widest boards are in the attic and narrower in the important rooms downstairs.  In the 19th century many of the wide board floors were intended to be covered with wall to wall ingrain patterned carpets.

Example of 19th century ingrain wall to wall carpet

The former occupant of my 1863 house long ago told me that the worst day of the year was the spring day when they pulled up the carpets and took them outside to be beaten.  When returned they had to be tacked down again with all those little carpet tacks.  If you have a 19th century house examine the edges of the best rooms.  You may find plenty of evidence of tack holes from years of taking up and replacing the carpets.

Another error is calling the floorboards planks.  A plank is a thick board, usually two inches thick.  Most old houses have pine floors that are either worn thin or sanded thin and hardly meet any definition of a plank. Planks are thick boards and have nothing to do with the width of the boards.  A very wide board on the floor doesn't make it a plank.

Don't say the house is all restored with exposed beams.  Exposed beam ceilings, believe it or not, are not a good thing to advertise in many cases.  The reason?  It's because after about 1725 houses were very refined. They were not crude cabins and they were no longer post medieval. They did not have exposed beams.  If the house is a first period house built before 1725 then you DO want to promote the beams but there are never many houses of that age on the market and chances are the house you are selling is newer than circa 1725 or before.  If the ceiling beams were originally exposed they will be chamfered and whitewashed or at least have a residue of old whitewash.  So if you open a ceiling and all you see is brown bare wood stop right there.  Cover it back up!  A serious old house buyer does not want to see brown beams and boards over their head.  This has become so commonplace that you may be surprised that I am saying this.  Many people like the look but if you want an authentic restoration or wish to be a sensitive restorer you don't want to remove original fabric of the house by taking down the plaster ceilings.

The look of this exposed beam ceiling is popular but incorrect.
If the bricks around the fireplace are exposed or bricks exposed where the breast plate or over mantel should be, this will not be attractive to an old house buyer.  It may look amazing to an untrained eye but, again, after 1725 it is the age of refinement and an easier life style than the days of the 17th century.  Bricks and beams were hidden away and never visible. Bricks surrounding the opening to the fireplace should be parged smooth and painted. Bricks exposed above the mantel or lintel should be enclosed.


This cooking fireplace has been "undressed".  This treatment looks impressive
but not appreciated by a serious old house expert! It screams to be covered up.
Don't brag about all of the stripped paint on the woodwork.  Woodwork was painted as soon as the homeowner could afford it.  Miles of brown woodwork and paneling is not attractive and it is not correct. In fact, it is boring. Pine that  has been stripped invariably leaves paint residue in its pores (the grain) and screams to be repainted.  Once in a while you might come across paneling or sheathing that has never been painted but that is truly rare.  There are styles and periods of houses where unpainted paneling might be correct but not in the typical 18th century house in New England.
Paneling for sale.  Shows evidence of being stripped of paint.
Once I listed a beautiful Federal house built around 1808.  The homeowner had spent about 18 years stripping all of the paint in the three story house including the louvered pocket shutters at the windows.  (By the way, they are not Indian shutters.  No Indians were lurking around our cities in 1800) She stripped paint every day while her husband was at work.  This house was a very fancy house but later owners have come and gone and no one has ever had the heart to paint the woodwork so painstakingly stripped by Julie with Red Devil paint stripper.  What a pity.  A later owner then re- clapboarded the house and left the outside unpainted just like the inside.  Someday I hope a new owner will bring out the Federal beauty of this great house with paint in lovely soft Federal colors.

I showed this house early on in my real estate career to an extremely knowledgeable buyer.  I was sure he would appreciate the beautiful detail of this house including the graceful spiral staircase that soared to the third floor.  His comment after the showing was, "Pru, find us a house that hasn't been scraped.  Even the history of the original paint colors as been obliterated".  He was more interested in the old abandoned cemetery in the back yard.   A lesson learned!

If there is a cooking fireplace never say that the house has a Dutch oven.  A Dutch oven is an iron pot for cooking just as today a big kettle is called a Dutch oven and not a part of the house.
Getting the oven ready for baking



Almost any day of the week I can find an ad for a house with a Dutch oven.  Just call it a bake oven.  Period.
Iron Dutch Oven


Talking about borning rooms or birthing rooms is just plain corny and inventions of the colonial revival period and has nothing to do with the the period vocabulary of the antique house. The same goes for the term keeping room which is widely used.  I'm not sure where this comes from but I have been researching old houses period and reading old inventories for at least forty years and I have never seen the term in an old document.  Only once I saw "keeping room" on an old house plan and it was in reference to a sitting room in the front of a circa 1800 house.  Therefore, I never use that word.
Inside of bake oven, looks like a beehive.


Once I was dealing with an expert buyer.  As we mounted the stairs to the attic with my buyer following behind me I was aware that a section of the attic floor was plywood. How did I know? I knew that because I was one of the restorers who had made the decision to steal a few boards from the attic because we couldn't find more old wood for a repair on the first floor! In fact it was the red house at the top of this page! Thirty five years ago that was the thing to do and I didn't know any better back then.   As I approached the top of the attic stairs the buyer following behind me said, "Pru, don't  you just hate it when  people take up the attic floor to use elsewhere in the house?"  Ouch! Talk about being chagrined especially since he knew that I had been one of the restorers of the house.  That was a long time ago and I hope my advice to others since that time who were about to make the same mistake has saved a couple of attic floors.  Don't borrow from one part of the house to use in another part of the house.

Don't call the house restored if it has replacement windows or siding.  This is a sign of renovating with nothing to do with restoration.  Houses with interior walls that have been removed are not restored either.  They are remodeled or re- muddled.  Both are insensitive.

One last piece of advise is when showing a house to its best advantage I prefer to take a potential buyer in through the front door.  Sometimes the door has hardly been opened in years but I still want to introduce the house from the front.  Many old houses have additions and ells and ramble on in the rear which can easily confuse a buyer.  Entering by the front door usually makes more sense and the layout of the house becomes clearer and the house seems to flows better.  It is very easy to become confused if entering from a rear door.  I like to start at the front door with a front hall and a staircase, the living room or parlor, the dining room and continue on toward the kitchen and the back of the house.  Entering through an old woodshed or mud room doesn't contribute toward a favorable first impression anyway.

I understand that every real estate professional is not going to be an expert in architecture or period houses but there are a few basics that can prevent a Realtor from unknowingly embarrassing themselves. Serious old house buyers just shake their heads and wring their hands at the lack of knowledge exhibited by the typical broker/salesperson.

Anyone in sales needs to know their product whether it is pots and pans or automobiles.  Only in the real estate industry are they trained to deal with contracts, legalities, and myriads of paper work but many have no clue about the house they are representing.  Few so-called real estate professionals know their product adequately.

Years ago before I was in real estate I saw a fuzzy photo in the newspaper ad for a three story house.  I called the listing broker and asked about the age or style of the house.  Was it a three story Federal I asked?  Her answer was that it was really "no style". I got nowhere with her but I thought I could discern a big chimney.  I persevered, calling another broker who assured me that it was in fact a three story Federal, circa 1800, with big chimneys encompassing many fireplaces.

We bought the house...through the second broker.

If you are a seller and you suspect that your antique house isn't being represented enthusiastically try to find someone in you area that will show more interest in learning about your house and representing it with a positive outlook. 

 Condition may effect the price tag but condition does not effect the historical value.  A dilapidated house has value, can be important architecturally or historically and needs a broker/ salesperson who is excited about it.  An old house can be very exciting regardless of condition.  Don't judge a house by the condition.  Look at it carefully.  A neglected house my be wonderfully intact.  A house in great condition is more apt to have been stripped of its original detail and fabric than a rundown old house that has been left alone and left with integrity.  

A beat up old house can be an exciting, untouched diamond in the rough. And that's a fact!

These days I am a died-in-the wool preservationist on a rant.  We are losing our architectural heritage at an alarming rate and I will do what I can to call attention to the loss, to educate and do my part to reverse this trend.

This morning on the Internet I read about a house in jeopardy and slated for demolition.  Someone responded with the most ignorant comment yet.  This was the remark.

“There aren’t many rules and regulations on the book about what to do when an old house is too old"

In my imagination I would like to say to this person,  "Fix it, restore it, preserve it or go to jail!"

But what I say to those of you out there who care about our architectural legacy and built environment, "Get on board!  Get involved, and speak up."

Thanks for bearing with me and reading these comments which are not only important to me but to others who want to save our architectural heritage.

Pru

PS   Here is an afterthought that should have been included above .

The word is hearth.  Many people think that hearth and fireplace are one and the same.  They are not. If you say you have a hearth (pronounced harth) you'd better have a fireplace to go with it because the hearth is the floor of the fireplace.  You build a fire on the hearth but it is inside the fireplace and extending out into the room for safety.  A house with three hearths would look pretty funny if it didn't have three fireplaces to go with them.  In fact, it would be impossible to have a hearth if there wasn't an associated fireplace.

So these two words, hearth and fireplace, are not interchangeable.  They go hand in hand but in describing a house the word fireplace should be used.  There is little reason to talk about the hearth unless you say the cat was lying on the hearth to keep warm or you are putting the logs on the hearth before you start the fire in the fireplace.