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, November 27, 2013


This year, as in many other years, I will enjoy my Thanksgiving dinner in the perfect setting; a red 18th century country farmhouse.  You already know the house.  It is the red house that you see at the top of my blog.
Moses Jewett House, 1759

No, it is not my house.  It is the Moses Jewett house located in Ipswich Village near the Rowley line.

Built in 1759 it is the oldest of a string of Jewett houses along this old post road, all of them old and all representing different generations of the Jewett family.  One or perhaps two even earlier houses are no longer standing.  The location of the very earliest house is known.  It was quite some distance from this house near the Egypt River and a spring..  There has been a suggestion that perhaps another house existed closer to this one but I am not aware of any concrete evidence.

My acquaintance with this old house goes back to the 1980s when I was a partner in a restoration project involving this house and barn.  It was intended to be just a quick fixer upper but as soon as we owned it we knew it was a serious antique and that we had to do it right.  With that revelation we watched our profits fly out the window. In fact we each lost a small amount.

Was I sorry?  Not at all!  This experience of uncovering, evaluating what we had, and making the decisions that were necessary to be made taught me more about old houses than I could possibly know without having gone through this experience. We started out as spec buyers but this exercise in preservation turned us into restoration purists.

We did make some mistakes but looking back I think we did fairly well.  The project was complicated by the fact that we were going to sell the house and tried to keep in mind the various scenarios for appealing to a cross section of buyers.

One of our best decisions was keeping the kitchen and the first floor bath/laundry in a lean-to that was 19th century but not very significant.  This kept the old part of the house free of modern intrusions.  We kept a small upstairs bath where it had always been rather than rip out walls to change it.  Sometimes accommodating the old house can mean eliminating the idea of extravagant bathrooms and kitchens. As you know by now, I am always talking about accommodating the house instead of trying to make the old house accommodate extravagant kitchens and baths or anything else when it means ripping out walls and original fabric.

The house had an exterior door in the Beverly jog that was not going to be used.  The laundry and first floor bath were planned for the other side of the door. Our solution was to leave the door intact.  The wall on the inside was sheetrocked and plastered and no evidence of this door remained on the interior.  We gained the wall space we needed but the door is still there if sometime down the road someone has another plan for this space.  In other words, what we did is easily reversed.  No original fabric was lost or even jeopardized.

Several floors had to be replaced.  The original floors were painted as they had long been but we stained the floors we replaced knowing that refinished pine floors are popular and would appeal to some buyers, while the old worn floors with paint would be acceptable to another group of buyers.

We ripped out one terrible looking ceiling before we were stopped in our tracks by our contractor,  That's when we found out that all of those ugly, peeling ceilings could be saved without loss of any more original plaster.  Initially I thought the ceilings resembled lumpy oatmeal.  They were so rough I never dreamed they could be saved. (Important lesson learned.  Don't rip out the plaster and  lath.  It is original fabric.  It CAN be saved!)

One of the mistakes that is a common mistake is leaving the hinges and thumb latches black.  These should have been painted to match the woodwork and made to disappear.  They shouldn't stand out..  Black hardware is "phony colonial" but that's what we did! I know better now.  Never again!

The new windows should have had heavier muntins.  We knew this but it just wasn't in the budget.

So now, many years later I think we had remarkably good consensus among ourselves.  I believe that many of our decisions were tough decisions and I still feel good about most of the things we did.

Anyway,  we sold the house to people from New York City looking for a taste of New England.  This house was perfect; just what they were looking for. The closing was conducted at a big table in front of the fireplace in the old kitchen with a fire burning.  This was followed by a trip to the Registry of Deeds to record the deed.  This was hardly the traditional closing taking  place in a lawyer's office!

Huge cooking fireplace in the old kitchen
For me, it has worked out well.  I have been a very frequent guest back in the old house ever since.  My family is not nearby so the owners always make sure I have an invitation for holidays if they know my family won't be around.  In addition to holiday dinners a small group of friends has celebrated  New Year's Eve in the old house ever since our buyers took up residence.
Elegance in the old house for New Year's Eve

 Often there are others in attendance that have no idea that I had anything to do with the restoration.  So I quietly listen to the reaction of newer attendees who are in awe of the ambiance of this house decorated for the holidays with fires in the fireplaces, especially the fireplace in the old kitchen that approaches ten feet in width.

It seems as though this house was built just for the holidays.  It is the quintessential Currier and Ives "Home to Thanksgiving" kind of house.

The host

                                                     Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers wherever  you are. Looking at the statistics it appears that many of you are reading this blog from distant lands around the world. May your holiday be a good one !

"Home to Thanksgiving"  Currier and Ives, circa 1860
Thank you for visiting.  Look for new photos the day after Thanksgiving.  This year's pictures will be added to these old photos from years past.



Late afternoon sunshine.  Thanksgiving 2013

Inside was warm and cozy as dinner was prepared

Unfortunately I ruined the photos of the big fireplace with blazing logs.  Sorry!


Sunday, November 24, 2013



My family and I moved to Newburyport, MA in 1971 just after the demolition of urban renewal had been abandoned for a program of rehabilitation and restoration.  This was a very exciting time in the life of this old city.  The buildings throughout the city were interesting, many untouched and opportunities for preservation and restoration were rampant.

The house we moved to was a three story house built in 1800 in the Federal style.  It had most recently been used as a rest home and all the signs were still there.  Bars to hang onto were everywhere.  Most rooms were painted green,  that nice restful color advocated years ago.  There were red fire alarm boxes and we later found we had the only residential house in MA at that time that was fully sprinklered.

Between unpacking, decorating and turning this fourteen room house into a home I dashed to the library looking for information on my house, its occupants and learning everything I could about Newburyport.

One of the books I found with references to my house and it occupants was a book that was to become a life-long favorite.  It was called “Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian.”  Published in 1879 by Sarah Anna Smith Emery,  born in West Newbury in 1787 on Crane Neck Hill,  it recorded with infinite detail, her life in the home of her ancestors during her childhood.  Later after her marriage while Sarah was living  in Newburyport in the Rawson-Pillsbury  house on High Street, she described the streets of that city, the houses and the people that occupied them including mine.

In this book I learned much about my neighborhood and the people who owned my house. (My house was built by a merchant, Robert Dodge, who owned a vessel called the Citizen and had a warehouse on Ferry Wharf.) But more than that, I found the entire book including the descriptions of her original home and neighborhood riveting.  I really had to see this house for myself.  I was a brand new resident of the area but with the help of a map I knew approximately where to look for the house.  I drove around trying to find it but after not finding it I reluctantly concluded that it was probably gone.  After all, the book had been written  almost one hundred years earlier.

The years passed and I was now a Realtor with a specialty in antique houses.  One day in the summer of 1993 someone came into the office and urged me to check out a very early house that had just come on the market in West Newbury.  By this time I practically knew the stories in Sarah’s book by heart.

An appointment was made and I met potential buyers, the Fullertons, at the property.  Sited way back off the road with a long salt box lean-to facing the driveway I was beginning to hope that it might be Smith Place, the homestead of Sarah's family.  A few minutes later I was positive it was Smith Place.

Sarah (Yes, I feel I am on a first name basis with her!) had described the front entryway.  She recounted that in the fall the loaded wagons would back up to the front door with its great door stone.  A trap door in the floor allowed stores for the winter to be lowered into the cellar.  Barrels of apples and cider were lowered by a rope strung through an iron ring she called a stanchion, in the "unplastered" ceiling.  I was prepared to look for these clues. 

The first thing that I noticed was that the hall ceiling was now plastered.  There was a lighting fixture in the center of the ceiling.  And right there next to the lighting fixture poking through the plaster was a heavy  chunk of iron.  It was the bottom of the iron ring!  A tug on the rug revealed the expected but long unused trap door beneath our feet.  It was the Smith house!

The buyers who saw it that day did not buy the house but the next buyers, a young energetic couple, Janet and Jim, who were not afraid of a huge amount of work and had a passion for first period houses, did buy it. They saved it.

The location is truly remarkable.  It is near the top of Crane Neck Hill and faces south with the long lean-to facing the road. Although the location is many miles from the coast, from its height Ipswich Bay is visible.  In the opposite direction is Boston and looking to the right is Boston Hill in North Andover and beyond.  The panorama takes your breath away. Sarah recounts hearing her family talk of the townspeople who gathered on top of the hill to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill being played out at the time of the Revolution!  Today you see planes flying into Logan Airport in Boston.
An immense tree stands guard over the old house.
The condition was pretty awful.  There was cordwood in the parlor and chipmunks running around inside.  The great center chimney was falling apart and it was a small wonder that the house was still standing.
Ancient trees in the summer
Other details were discovered. There was evidence of the cupboard that was filled with pewter (shining like silver) in Sarah's time and much more.  The book was tantamount to having a blueprint guiding restoration of the house.  There were many descriptions of events in the life of the family living there but one event stands out.
Close-up of house and Smith family and old fruit trees
In the 1790s the farm was devastated by a tornado that took everyone by surprise in the middle of the night.  Dozens of fruit trees (70-80) were uprooted.   At the height of the tornado something crashed into the corner of the house terrifying the occupants as they frantically searched for candles in the pitch darkness in order to see what was happening.  Children and adults alike were terribly frightened and one child was hit by a flying missile.

With the light of day came the awful realization of the extent of the damage. The roof of the house was gone, all of the fruit trees were uprooted, the barn was in tough shape. A piece of the barn had struck the house. The farm seemed ruined. Word of the disaster spread and help came from areas untouched and outside of the swath carved by the tornado.  Many from the village arrived  to replant the fruit trees.   Gradually repairs were made and the farm recovered.

Another happy ending is that all of the fruit trees that were replanted that day survived!  Some are still visible in the old photograph of the house above.

Fast forward again to 1994.
The new owners of the house, Jim and Janet, well into the restoration, needed to have the workmen open up a wall in the corner of the parlor.  It was reported to me that there was a big patch on the wall and it was extremely old being held together with 18th century rose head nails.  What could have caused this serious but ancient damage to the house?
Winter at Smith Place after restoration with well sweep as described in the book
The tornado, of course!  A piece of the barn had struck the house!  The details were in the book!  It was true.  What was revealed to human eyes for the first time in two hundred years was the damage to the house caused by the tornado that terrible night.

The old landmark has been saved. The house was identified positively as Smith Place, the ancient house where the author, Sarah, had grown up and written about so interestingly when she was ninety years old.  It is a remarkable marriage of house, book and historical document revealing the smallest details of an old dwelling house before and just after turn of the 19th century.  Few houses, if any, are as well documented.

At the time of our country’s bicentennial  (1976) Sarah’s book was reprinted and indexed under the new name of “Reminiscences of a Newburyport Nonagenarian.”  Another generation of readers, historians and preservationists discovered what I had known for years,  It is a book I turn to over and over in my research or just to pick up, open to any page, and start reading.  It’s that good!

Discover this gem for yourselves. It will become one of your favorites, too.  Mine is usually on my bedside table, ready to pick up at a moment's notice or just to grab on a sleepless night.

Reprints are available through Amazon.  Here is one person's review found on Amazon's site.

I absolutely love this book. It is my family's history and I am honored to have it.
This book provides a view of history when people were benevolent, God-fearing, and caring. The author provides amazing details of everyday life between 1787-1879 that would otherwise be unimaginable. The fashions, transportation, food preparation, public meetings, the Revolution, George Washington who came to town, oh, this is a gem of a book!

I agree!

Thank you for reading.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I guess it is inevitable that in a community that is pushing 400 years old that much has been lost.  For example, John James Babson's History of the Town of Gloucester, circa 1860 states that in  years past there were about 350 gambrel cottages of a story and a half that were home to the Gloucester fishermen and farmers.  Now even though they are not as old as the first period houses there are fewer than 60 remaining and some of them are merely fragments.
This is a watercolor from around 1890 depicting the last days of
a Cape Ann Cottage, the vernacular houses of the  Cape Ann fisherman.
Original watercolor is at the Cape Ann Museum.
That means that the first period houses that are even older would have an even higher attrition rate.

Also, you will notice that over and over I describe the houses as being of plank frame construction.  Most of the first period houses on Cape Ann are of plank framed construction. (vertical two in thick plank sheathing) It has gradually become apparent to me that nearly all of these house ARE plank framed construction.  This is said to be found in areas with sawmills available.  However, plank framing in the first period is parctically unique to Cape Ann.


Last year a stereo view photo of a Gloucester house appeared on eBay .  Someone called it to my attention. I didn't purchase it but I did download it to my computer and the Cape Ann Museum did purchased it for their wonderful collection.

The old house in the photo was clearly on its last legs.  I had never seen such a dramatic picture of a distressed old house.  At the same time one could peer inside the house and observe some details.
This is the former home of Sylvester Eveleth (pronounced Everleigh) in its scenic location on the water.
The house was the Eveleth House overlooking the water at Presson's Point on Little River in West Gloucester.  It had an overhang in the front as well as overhangs on the sides.  According to all reports picnickers used to go over there in boats to enjoy the setting and the old house.

I believe this house to have been almost a twin to the Davis-Freeman house built in the same area about 1707. (see previous post)

Notice the double overhangs on the gable end wall and vertical plank sheathing indicating plank frame construction.  The chimney had long since fallen.


The old Dolliver house originally stood on Main Street in the heart of the city.  At the time it was built there was no commercial district as there was in later years.  It was surrounded at a time when the fishing industry took off and this became the center of business and fishing activities.  The house was called the oldest house in that part of Gloucester.  The Dolliver family was an old family who contributed much to the City.

The house was located about where Gloucester Music is today.
The Dolliver House before demolition, even before
the diner.  Notice the overhang on the left gable.
This house was also of   plank frame construction and had an overhang on the gable end as appeared in many of the first period houses of plank frame construction. 

In the twentieth century a diner was moved into the front yard obliterating the house from the street. Eventually the diner was removed and taken to Danvers about 20 miles away where it is still operational.

.This diner in Danvers was originally in the front yard of the
Dolliver  house on Main Street in Gloucester.  The name is
obscured beneath the bunting.
Sometime around 1940 (I don't have details available) there was a deal made for the Red Cross to take over the house and restore it for use as their regional offices.  Things were going along well until the idea was turned down at the Federal level and the deal was dead.  I'm not sure what the urgency was to get it out of there but it was demolished.

Unexpectedly, a few years ago, a Dolliver descendant from South Carolina saw my book on Gloucester houses and wrote to me, sending wonderful photos from inside and outside which I shared with the Cape Ann Museum.

An old newspaper clipping had described a McIntire fireplace mantle in the house.  (McIntire was the wood carver of the Federal period in Salem, MA who created the beautiful houses and furniture found there.)  One of the photographs I received confirmed the presence of what appeared to be a McIntire mantle surrounding a front room fireplace.  The newspaper of the day reported that a local man took the mantle from the house to install in his own house.  I would love to know where it is and if it still exists!
A Federal mantle in the style of McIntire,
the wood carver of Salem
The photos also showed some wonderful furnishings as well.


At 96 Prospect Street in Gloucester there was a little first period house of plank frame construction built around 1718-1720 when Prospect Street, originally known as Back Street became the route to the Harbor from around the green where farmers had settled.  Now fishing had taken on new importance and the people from the old neighborhood either moved to the busy harbor or traveled there frequently over the path called Back Street.

The Steel house at 96 Prospect Street before being moved.
After the first period the little house was enlarged to become a fairly large gambrel roofed Georgian.  The original house was still there, swallowed up inside.

A relative who was a housewright lived there around 1800 and replaced the front staircase with a pattern right out of Asher Benjamin's handbook, The Country Builder's Assistant.

 This staircase was very graceful and very modern at the time in this old house.

Staiccase right out of Asher Benjamin's
Country Builder's Assistant.

In the 1890s a later descendant wanted to build a new double house on the site of the old house.  The old house was moved to quite a distance to Fair St. and became two apartments.  Eventually it was sided and finally ready to be discarded to redevelop the lot.

This is the large double house built by the Steeles in the
1890s after the removal of the old house to Fair Street
When it was opened up there was evidence of casement windows, plank frame construction, a great summer beam, all from the first period not to mention lots and lots of unpainted feather edged vertical sheathing from the second or Georgian period; then the lovely staircase from the third of Federal period. Not to suggest that the condition of any of it was lovely. It was not.  Ravages of time and too many tenants had left their mark on this once nice house.
Gunstock corner and brace from corner
of the plank framed house.
A salvage man took the old doors, floorboards, sheathing and whatever he could get, then left the house cannibalized to be bulldozed and hauled off in dumpsters.

Cannibalized house
Before it was entirely removed Ann Grady from Historic New England photographed it and took samples back to Boston so that at least a record of the house would remain.  The full story is also in my book, Antique Houses of Gloucester.

This is not a Gloucester house but I am sliding it in here for several reasons.

The first is that I have alluded to it several times and referred to the fact that it is considered the oldest timber framed house that is still standing in North America.

Front of the Fairbanks house.  Notice the extremely steep roof pitch.
The other is that I wanted to share with you the two antique oil painting that I have found over the years, one of the front and one of the back of this house.  I feel very fortunate to have these paintings from another time when the scene was pastoral.  It is now near a very busy street with constant traffic.

Quite a few years ago I found an oil painting of the Fairbanks house, a house which particularly interested me as the most distinguished first period house.  It was very pleasing .  On the stretcher I was able to find a partial label for an artist' supply store in Boston in business during  the 1870s.  It isn't always easy to photograph a painting when the camera wants to use the flash and I can't remember how to turn the flash off!
Fairbanks house from the rear with the dramatic lean-to roof.
The other painting I found this summer at a flea market.  I thought it was the Fairbanks house but it didn't look just right.  Then I realized it was the front of the house seldom seen while most views of the house are from the back to feature the long, low lean-to roof.  I am very pleased with it.

The old Fairbanks house from the front.
There was an 1880 date on the stretcher of this one.  So even though neither painting is artist signed I have at least been able to date them approximately.  Believe me, the setting and land surrounding this house is entirely different today.

Anyway, I love both paintings and like that they record the house with the peaceful look of a Hudson River painting.

As always, for reading.


Monday, November 18, 2013


Part II of the first period houses of Gloucester continues with more houses that date from 1680 to about 1720.  It can't be stressed enough that these dates are approximate and may be subject to change when and if more conclusive testing is performed on their frames.

Again, remember that although the Pilgrims were here in 1620 and Gloucester settled in 1623 there are no houses or buildings of any kind remaining from this period.  In fact, the Fairbanks house in Dedham, MA dating to 1641 incorporates some older timbers and this is considered to be the oldest timber frame house in the United States.

There are several problems with dating houses.  Many of the features considered in dating work some of the time but not all of the time.  These would be features such as joist spacing, the size of rooms, the quality and size of the summer beams and their chamfers as well as roof pitch, and method of construction.

A continuing problem has been deed research.  The deeds follow the land.  At some point the deeds will refer to a piece of land with the dwelling house.  Many have been led to believe that this describes the house that remains on the land until the present.  This is not necessarily true.  The first house could have been replaced, burned down or moved away.  There is no proof that the house mentioned in  the early deed is the same house that is on the lot at the present time.  This mistake has been responsible for the incorrect dating of many houses.

Some towns have notoriously erroneous dates proudly displayed on historic markers.  Here in Gloucester no plaques are ordered without a certain amount of research and a tour of the house to make sure the researched date matches the physical architectural evidence.  (see post "When a Houses Isn't What You Think It Is")

To be somewhat correct in determining the date the architectural features have to be reconciled with the deed evidence.  Neither method of dating can stand by itself.

Often a house is rebuilt or greatly altered about the time of a sale of the property passing to the next generation.  Just like today, new owners made changes as they saw fit and this could include building a brand new house to replace the original.

The most accurate method of dating houses today is dendrochronology, the study of the tree rings.  I will tell you more about this in a future post.

Here are more houses and pictures!  Again, the order is random, not chronological.


The Wharf house is near the Mill River in the Riverdale section.  One gable faces the street and the other faces the river.  It is dated to about 1718.  In addition to deed research the construction date is confirmed by the decoration on the beams called a quirk bead.  In place of the big chamfer and lamb's tongue is a rather delicate bead dressing off the edge of the beams.  This is the last gasp for the decorated frame as the post medieval first period in  houses transitions toward the Georgian period.
The Wharf house before renovation.
For many years this house, originally a single family house, has been divided into a duplex with two owners.
One side has remained in the same hands for many years.  The other side has changed hands several times. The desirable waterfront end of the house has undergone extensive renovations that pretty much obliterated the remaining features of the first period.  This is an example of an owner making the house accommodate their needs or wishes rather than accommodating the old house by working with what it had to offer.  Needless to say, this is the right of the owner to do so.
Wharf house after renovation, not restoration
There is an incredible photograph of the house before it had neighbors.  It is now in a thickly settled neighborhood and all of the houses are old!  The photo is undated.  It is the property of the Cape Ann Museum.
!9th century view of the Wharf house with lots of rocks but no neighbors.
The impressive early staircase remains.  Notice the heavy handrail and the stout turned balusters of the closed string staircase. (The balusters are attached to a cover board and not the step itself.)

Remarkable early closed string staircase
Seeing the condition it was in during the 19th century doesn't it seem miraculous that it has survived at all?


The Whittemore house was in the Lane family for many years.  At one time Gloucester's famous marine painter, Fitz Henry Lane, had his studio in this house.

The Whittemore house in recent years as a photo sho
The house no longer has its central chimney.

My book, "Antique Houses of Gloucester" includes a first person account of a snowy night in winter in the mid 19th century.  It is a remarkable account of what it was like at a time when the occupants depended on the big fireplace for heating and cooking.

The house is now a photography studio and the charming old photo of the house was provided for my book, Antique Houses of Gloucester, by the owner of the house, Sharon Howard, who owns the original.

The house is in excellent condition.

The West Parish of Gloucester is a neighborhood that is rare in that there are sections and pockets so remote and removed from other parts of Gloucester that you can readily imagine stepping back in time for two hundred years.  Gloucester is so fortunate to have the large expanses of pristine land punctuated by massive outcroppings of rocks.  The terrain can be extremely rugged in the West Parish.

West Parish has many private lanes leading down toward the water with beautiful views of Ipswich Bay, the dunes of Ipswich and beyond.

In one of these neighborhood stands an ancient house.  One corner is tantalizingly close to the narrow road just daring a car to hit it as it is angled to face south.
The remarkable early Proctor house in the West Parish of Gloucester.  Note the steep pitch of the roof.
This house is truly very old.  Perhaps it is the second oldest in Gloucester.  It is certainly the oldest house in the West Parish.

The left hand side of the house is the oldest.  It was not uncommon to build one side or the other at a later date. That is how this house evolved.

The oldest side of the house has a remarkable frame.  The first floor has an enomous summer beam with a quarter round chamfer. A quarter round chamfer is quite special and can indicate a 17th century house but they do persist into the 18th century as will be shown below in the White-Ellery house.

You can see the residual old paint evidence clinging to the beam.

This is a rare example of an 18th century quarter
round chamfer and lamb's tongs chamfer stop.
The frame is huge as is seen in the "gun stock" post.  This is tremendously heavy framing; an indication of its roots in the 17th century.

Great example of a flared "gunstock" post
Not visible is an exceedingly rare door opening with a segmented arch. The door was revealed when a wall was opened between the front room and the lean-to room in the rear. It has been covered but remains intact behind the wall.  

I find this a good way to handle a problem.  The door evidence is rare and important but was not wanted or needed by the modern family that lives there.  It was covered over but what is important is that the change is reversible.  That is the key!  The owners have accommodated the old house but at the same time been able to bring the house into the 21st century to suit their lifestyle.

This is another house on which it would be interesting to see the results of dendrochronology.


It is nice to report that the White-Ellery house has been tested by dendrochronology.  Happily the 1710 date, the result of the dendrochronology confirmed the 1710 date indicated by the deeds.  This is seldom the case but in this case it worked out perfectly.
The White-Ellery house belonging to the Cape Ann Museum after restoration

The house was built for Rev. John White.  The house was originally located on the edge of the marsh about where the travel lane of the route 128 rotary is today.  It was contiguous with the meeting house lot that was on the knoll behind the house.  In some ways the house incorporated features sometimes associated with earlier houses such as the quarter round chamfers and well carved lamb's tongues.

Like the Proctor house, the White-Ellery house has fabulous
decoration on the summer beam and chimney girt
Conversely, it has a beautiful staircase that was very forward looking for 1710, a time when many staircases were enclosed with walls of sheathing and no railing.

Very stylish staircase with open
balustrade, rare for the 1710 period
To save it from demolition during the highway construction of route 128 in the 1940s, it was moved intact across the street  and came to rest behind the historic Babson house, its long time neighbor and next to a late first period barn.  Although not the original site, it has joined it neighbors to become part of a remarkable group of old buildings at the entrance to the City.

Since it was moved  it has had  ups and downs.  There was a time when it was open to the public and furnished with the collection of the Atkins', former owners of the first period Haskell House.  

The furnishings were eventually removed, the house boarded and not utilized for anything.

These days things are looking up for the White-Ellery House.  Owned by the Cape Ann Museum, it has had the roof replaced with traditional wood shingles, the clapboards replaced and historically correct leaded casement windows installed.  It is a shining example of a house that has been restored correctly. 

The inside will remain untouched as the house has been designated a "study house".  

Throughout the warm months it is open to the public on the first Saturday of each month accompanied by an exhibit staged by a local artist which changes from month to month.  These openings have been very successful and many hundreds of people have satisfied their long pent up desire to see what the inside of this special house looks like.  Many come back repeatedly.   All are fascinated.



It is hard for me to write about this house.  It is a sad story.

The Wheeler house after loss of chimney and added attached garage
The Wheeler house is an ancient house dating to the first quarter of the 18th century.  It had what today is considered the luxury of being high above the water of the tidal Annisquam River with magnificent views.  In the end it is that wonderful location that has spelled doom for the house as an antique.

Some years ago the long-time owners made plans to sell the property.  They were extremely concerned that the property be preserved after they were gone.  This was a priority.  They considered different options for protecting it going forward.
Early  20th century view of the Wheeler house
In hopes of accomplishing their mission to save the historic house they put a protective covenant in the deed. What sort of negotiating took place or who authored the covenants isn't clear but this is what it said.  This is directly from the public record and included in the deed.

     1. The original main house consisting of four rooms and the stairway in the front of the premises cannot               be torn down or moved off the site.

      2. No further subdivision of the land hereby conveyed shall occur, it being the intent of the Grantors that              the current size and shape of the within described land be maintained.

Another great early staircase and
raised field paneling.  1st quarter 18th century.
That is all.  There was no mention of the chimney, a huge oversight as the central chimney and fireplaces are the heart and soul of an old house.  Further, it did not name any person, body or organization to oversee the covenant.  It was worthless.

The first thing to immediately be demolished was the great central chimney.  Again, it was not mentioned in the covenant.  A great pile of bricks mixed with the old oak lintels littered the front yard.  It was enough to make you cry!  Concerned people grabbed the beams, others took bricks.  I have no idea what the outcome was; how much was salvaged or what happened to the rest.  I suspect more caring people rescued them.

Later the lean-to went.  It was an early add-on but still very old.

In place of the chimney a group of metal pipes punctuated the ridgepole, soon to be encased in a box.  The fireplaces had been replaced by zero clearance fireplaces.

It seems that all the new owner really wanted was a house on the water.  Everything not named in the covenant went by the board.  That was easy.  There wasn't much there.  This owner made the house into what she wanted.  A large new house on the water.  And that is what it is.  A large new house on the water complete with a large attached garage.  The million dollar view is all that remains unchanged.

This house is on the National Register of Historic Places.  In case you ever thought that listing on the Register was protection; it is not.  There are many in preservation community still wringing their hand over this loss.  



One of the most discussed and controversial houses in Gloucester is the old Haskell dwelling.  It is first period.  There is no question about that.  There is controversy regarding the date long purported to be from the mid 17th century and always called the William Haskell House.  
The restored Haskell house newly cladded with cypress and cedar roof.
Perhaps it has recycled parts of the original William Haskell house incorporated into its frame.  Some of the framing members are of a dimension that could easily be 17th century.

On the other hand, the decorated frame has very fine serpentine dressing on the edges, beautifully executed but not the big gutsy chamfers and lamb's tongues seen in the other early houses.  

If ever there was a house needing dendrochronology it is this one!  Personally, I can hardly wait for the day when a true date is ascribed to the big frame or the fancy carved summers.  The newest owner has spent large sums of money in the last year making this house a spectacular restoration complete with geothermal heating and cooling, almost unheard of in these parts.  Dendrochronology has not been a priority during the  ups and downs of restoration, dealing with state and local boards because of it location on the marsh and myriad other unexpected stumbling blocks always encountered in a big restoration project.
The rear of the Haskell house showing additions and chimneys
There is a strong Haskell family association.  It would be nice if they, or some other descendant would step up to the plate.  In its newly restored condition the Haskell descendants are going to be very proud to claim this as their ancestral homestead!

More of the story of the Haskell restoration can be read here. 


The final touches are complete.  Some furniture is in place.  The Old Haskell Dwelling is on the threshold of it next chapter.  One thing is certain.  Its condition couldn't be better.  And eventually the real age of the house will be revealed.  For all the people who have debated its age for years and  years, that will be exciting.

Inviting front entrance though the batten door
studded with nails.  Old reproduction.
The final post on Gloucester houses of the first period will feature some houses that are no longer standing along with a closer look at the oft mentioned Fairbanks house.

Thanks for reading this long post!


Monday, November 11, 2013


First Period  1640-1725

First period houses in Gloucester means that these houses date to the earliest building period in New England. Although the first period begins as early as 1640 there almost no survivors that are this early and none are in Gloucester.  The oldest house in Gloucester may date close to 1660, a very early date, but this has not been verified.

The absolute oldest standing timber framed house in the United States is the Fairbanks house built about 1641 and located in Dedham, Ma.  The second oldest house may be the Blake House in Dorchester dating to 1661.  Almost all others are newer...a lot newer.

The first settlers around here came from East Anglia in England and brought their building styles and techniques with them.  In fact, it wasn't until long after the Revolutionary War that America developed a style of its own.  London remained the seat of culture and the inspiration for style in houses and just  about everything else.

The first building period extends from approximately 1640 to about 1725 after which the styles gradually began to reflect the Georgian taste in England named after a long line of Georgian kings.  From approximately 1725-1730 houses became less post medieval.  Now they were very refined with no exposed beams, no bare bricks and only minimal bare wood.  That period had been left behind forever.  (or at least until the 20th century when a new interpretation of "early"  made it fashionable to unmask all that was intended to remain covered)

The earliest houses were temporary because they were built right on the ground and could not have lasted.

On Cape Ann (Gloucester and Rockport, MA) there are few known survivors from the 1600's.  The two houses suspected of being the oldest in Gloucester date to middle or late 17th century.   All others, as far as is known, date to 1700 and beyond.  After 1700 the number of early houses swells dramatically.

This means that when someone tells you a house was built in 1650, or almost any date in the 1600s, you can be 99% sure that the date is incorrect.

Only yesterday a new listing in a nearby town stated that the house was built in 1634.  That would mean it was the oldest standing timber framed house in the United States.  I don't think so!

Let's look at some survivors.

From the White Pine Series of monographs, c. 1932
The Edward Harraden house is located in Annisquam Village overlooking Annisquam Harbor. This old photo shows its very steep roof, the hallmark of an early house.  The house has been dated to a very early date, possibly the 1660s.  It began as a small house (the front door and the two windows to the right.  The left side was later added and yet another addition on either end creating a very long house.  My understanding is that much of the early evidence is covered and it has not had dendrochronology (the study of the tree rings).  It is quite likely the oldest house in Gloucester or all of Cape Ann but that is unverified.

The Harraden house as it appears in the 21st century
Tucked away out of site is the Aaron Riggs house.  This is not the famous Riggs house of log construction but a house of another generation.  Below is a 19th century photo of the house.  I have made the photo large so that you can see what a county house and yard really looked like 150 years ago.

Country yards were not manicured in the 19th century.  This is how they looked.
The following picture show the early summer beam, the main carrying timber, that is found on the inside at the ceiling.  It has what is called a flat chamfer, a beveled dressing along the edge of the beam, the signature of a first period house,  At the left end of the beam is a carved "lamb's tongue" or chamfer stop, a decorated flourish where the beveled chamfer ends.  It has been smoothed and polished to a furniture finish.
Huge chamfered summer bean and lamb's tongue
The owner made me promise many years ago that I would not divulge the location of the house and his privacy would be respected by me.  Therefore, no specific location will be included.


In West Gloucester near the head of Little River is the Jacob Davis house.  Here Jacob Davis established his saw mill and built this house around 1709.  It has an overhang on the front, double overhangs on the sides and an extremely heavy chamfered frame visible on the interior.  It is a very fine example of the first period.

The first period Davis Freeman house with "jetty" overhang.
It was also associated with important black families, the Freemans and the Johnsons, who lived in the house for a number of years after which it was very run down.

Magnificent large chamfered summer
beam with lamb's tongue chamfer stops.
Once the house caught fire from a defective chimney.  Hattie Johnson continued to sit undisturbed in her rocking chair.  After the fire was out the fire chief asked her why she didn't move somewhere safe and comfortable.  Her answer, "Sentiment.  Just sentiment."  To her it was "home sweet home."

One writer in the 1920s predicted that the house was so deteriorated it would soon be gone.  They were wrong.  It is now in great condition and is called "Wellspring House", a place that offers training to women in unfortunate circumstances to help get them back on their feet.

It is a wonderful example of the period with considerable remaining integrity.

Can this house be saved?  Yes, it can!

Deacon James Lane was an early settler in the Lanesville section of Gloucester.  This was a very remote neighborhood in 1700.  It was shortly after this date that a road was pushed through following the shore to Flat Stone Cove. (Lanes Cove)  It is between Flat Stone Cove and Folly Cove that several families of Lanes established their homesteads. 

The small Deacon James Lane house has been sensitively added to without spoiling the saltbox profile.

This James Lane house is first period, possibly dating to around 1708 and has unusual carved post heads on the interior where the posts meet the horizontal framing members at the ceiling.  It has a saltbox shape but probably the saltbox lean-to was added on later as many of them were.  The chimney was reproduced during a restoration about thirty five years ago.  

At some time in the nineteenth century  this house was moved from a location closer to the main road to the rear. It is now approached by a long lane to a very charming and private setting.

The present owner has added onto the small house in a way that has not spoiled the integrity of the saltbox shape.


The Thomas Riggs house has  long been called the oldest house in Gloucester.  As in the case of the Harradan house it will take dendrochronology to verify the age.

In Massachusetts there are only three houses of squared log construction.  The ell of this house is one of them.  The others are the so-called Witch House in Rockport and the Norwood Cottage, also in Rockport. The Witch House dendrochronolgy dated that house to 1711.  The others have not been tested.

Thomas Riggs was the Town of Gloucester's first town clerk and first school master.  He was on this property as early as the 1660s.  Was this the original cottage?  Only testing will determine the answer to that question.
The Thomas Riggs house as it appears today as a fully functional  21st century house with old features intact
The log portion of the house is the little ell to the right side of the house.  That is the first and oldest part of the house.  The gambrel roof was added by a grandson in the 1750s.  It is very charming with many fireplaces, a ten footer in the old kitchen and some of the smallest fireplaces in the bed chambers.

The ell is the little squared log cottage of Thomas Riggs
When purchased in the late 1990s by the present owner it was still owned by descendants of the Riggs family.  It had only been occupied as a summer house.  It was accessed by passing behind a more modern house on the property to the old house beyond.  It had minimal electric and plumbing and had never had central heat.  It has been carefully restored respecting its originality but creature comforts were added. It is now a year 'round home.

Comparison to other similar houses helps to date a house.  In this case, the log construction is so rare as to make comparison difficult.  Because of this I am not assigning a construction date to this house.  There is not doubt, however, that the log portion of the house dates to the first period.

The names found on the above five house: Riggs, Lane, Harraden and Davis, represent the names of some of the earliest settlers in the area.

My next post will continue with more houses of the first period in Gloucester; the homesteads of more of the earliest occupants of the Cape,  followed by some important early houses that have been lost. Note that they are not in chronological order and the dates are subject to change pending further testing.

The antique photo of the Aaron Riggs house is from the collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

Thank you for reading.