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

Monday, October 7, 2013


Recently I met Abigail and Alex.  A year ago they bought a three family house and live on the first floor.  They knew they had an old house.  The previous owner had given them a stack of old deeds and they wanted an historic marker for the front of the house.  My friend, Helen, and I are the designated committee to do a little research to ascertain a reasonable construction date, the name of the original owner or builder and the owner’s occupation for the official city plaques.

To begin I drove past the house as I had many times before for a look.  That is the usual starting point.
113 Prospect Street after Victorian renovation

What we found was a large three story mansard Victorian, circa 1875-1880 approximately.  Maybe it could be a little earlier.  This one would be easier to research than most I thought.  After all I didn’t have to go back in the deeds for three hundred years.

The next step was to do the deed research.  If I could get back to a vacant piece of land without a house it would be pretty safe to date the house to that time period.  And so I went to work, moving backward through many deeds, names and mortgage transactions searching for that magic deed circa 1875 with no house on the land.

But something unusual was going on. When I came to the 1870s the deed for a vacant lot was not there.  I continued working backward and the deeds still referenced a house when there shouldn’t have been a Victorian house there on this lot.  My research had passed the Victorian period and I was still moving back toward a different period architecturally.  At this point I referred to old maps. Checking the 1851 map confirmed there was the house on the lot.  It couldn't be this house.  This house must have  replaced an earlier house.

But the deed search still continued to reference a dwelling house.  The empty lot did not appear until 1825. Now, at last, the vacant lot was found.  But what did that mean for the Victorian house that stood on the lot? When and how did it get there?  What happened to the 1820s house?

Eventually I emailed Fred, our local museum photo archivist.  Did the museum per chance have an old photo of the house?  They did indeed and promptly emailed it to me.

113 Prospect Street, formerly Back Street
                                Here is the house in 1882 by Corliss and Ryan showing the
                                earlier windows on the first two floor but with the new Victorian
                                top on the house with Victorian window sash and Victorian door

In 1882 a firm call Corliss and Ryan came to town and photographed many houses, usually with the homeowner standing proudly in front of the house.  The photo label said it was the home of Anna Guptil.  So that must be Anna Guptil in a long Victorian dress standing near the gate.

Anna Guptil  1882
But that is only the beginning of what the photo revealed.  In the photo the first two floors had 6 over 6 window panes.  That’s odd because the third floor had the expected 2 over 2 windows panes in the mansard roof.  The windows on the first two floors didn't match the third floor windows. The façade of the house was of the typical center entrance plan with a front door in the middle, two windows flanking the front door and five windows above on the second floor.  By covering the roof to block out the Victorian mansard I saw that the first two floors indicated a perfectly symmetrical 1820s façade.  The mansard roof with its Victorian windows had been added to the house like a big bonnet!  Beneath the bonnet was a traditional New England form with the exception of the Victorian brackets flanking the front door and the Victorian door itself with a window in the top.

A visit to the house revealed a nice late Federal/early Greek Revival front hall and staircase. There were two typical stair runs and a divided third run, half going toward the front bedrooms of the house and the other half accessing the rear. It was a modest good morning staircase!  The newel post was small dating to the 1820s and the balusters were round dowels which mark the end of the Federal period and the beginning of the Greek Revival period.

Slender newel post and round balusters
Unusual staircase that divides at the top  with a short flight
leading to the frond bedrooms and another leading to the rear

The conclusion is this.  The house was built by a housewright named Richard Friend, Jr. circa 1825 and sold in 1829 to a presumed investor before being sold in 1837 to a family that would live there for many years.  The mother, Dorcas, sold it to her daughter Anna, whose husband, Warren, was a fisherman who had come here from Nova Scotia.  My guess is that when the house passed from Dorcas to Anna it was updated in the Victorian period.  Today new home owners have dreams and plans for their new house and they make changes.  The same pattern existed in the 19th century and before. 

Today the front hall is all that remains of the late Federal dwelling.  The frame is hidden, the fireplaces are gone but the house has given up at least some of its secrets. There is still a major question regarding the location of earlier fireplaces and chimney bases.

 At its core it is a late Federal, center entrance house in the traditional New England style.

The lesson here is this: you can’t judge the book by the cover!  In this case don’t judge the house.  It’s not what it appears to be.

You just never know!

Thanks to Abigail and Alex for opening their house to Helen and me, and thanks to Fred, the museum photo archivist, for finding the photo in the museum's collection.

And thank you for visiting my blog.


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