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, 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!



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Paula, for your continuing loyalty and comments. I'm so glad you are enjoying learning about New England!