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, February 23, 2015








Prudence Paine Fish


With the big fireplace opened and all intruding partitions removed we could begin putting the colonial kitchen back together.

Without doubt, this would be the most dramatic room in the house with its cavernous fireplace dominating the room. This would become the focal point of this restoration and the important all-purpose room in the house just as in had been in colonial days.

In its original configuration when built this area would have been divided into three sections. The evidence was there but the changes took place long ago beginning when the house was divided. In its original form approximately 1/3 of the space at the east end toward the driveway would have been the first floor bedroom. Since many of the old houses faced south, it is common for the right side of the house to be the east side and the left side facing west, at least approximately so.  Today people would call this east room the “borning room,” a misnomer and term arising from the colonial revival period about one hundred years ago. This room was romanticized as a room reserved for childbirth but in reality it was a bedroom for whatever purpose needed. It was handy to the kitchen fireplace, warmer than the upstairs and practical for an elderly, sick, lame or other needy family member.
Here is the floor plan of a similar but typical 18th century center chimney house.  Notice that the front entry
here is called the "porch".  That name is not commonly used.  The cooking fireplace is this house has only one
oven.  The right hand wall in the kitchen is not located as ours would have been allowing a door into the parlor
directly from the kitchen.  The back stairs are approximately the same.  It is not a coincidence that this plan so
nearly approximates the Moses Jewett house.  There was a consistency and this plan is typical with minor changes.  
A smaller area at the opposite end of this large space would have been reserved for a buttery and a back stair. The largest space centered in front of the big fireplace, the heart of the colonial period home, and was the most significant living/working part of the house.

The back staircase in the Jewett house was missing. It was necessary to restore a functional staircase in the back. In a central chimney house the large chimney occupies the middle of the building. The front stairs turn by necessity allowing access to the two front bedrooms but no direct access to the back half of the house except through the front bedchambers. Therefore, a back staircase accessing these rooms and providing a more convenient direct route to the second floor is imperative.

The new back stairs.  Design taken from Capen
House in Topsfield which is really much earlier.
The carpenters built the staircase leading up to the room in the back right hand corner of the second floor. A few more steps across this room now accessed the attic door and stairs making it infinitely easier to carry things from the first floor straight to the attic rather than the circuitous route previously called for.

Fireplace wall has an added mantle and simple sheathing above
After pulling down plaster on the inside walls of the kitchen we uncovered much feather edged sheathing covering the entire interior wall. The only missing pieces were above the newly opened fireplace. A few scraps and remnants of that wall were left and reproduced. Although fireplaces at the period the house was built did not have mantles over the fireplaces, we took the liberty of adding a mantle in the old kitchen since there was nothing left from the original to alter. Mantles are nice. They provide a place for a clock, candlesticks, or holiday decorations and were often added to existing paneled walls but for most of the 18th century there were no mantles.

The ceiling was not original at all. There were several layers of squares, bad plaster and damage from old plumbing. It was then that it was discovered that in its early years the ceiling had been whitewashed and not plastered. This is unusual. This was not a first period house. But the evidence was clearly there. Old greasy whitewash clung to the beams and floorboards above. It was dirty, yellowed and disgusting but rather exciting to recognize that this second period farmhouse had not had a plastered ceiling for a long time. The absence of split lath indicated that the ceiling came much, much later. So we left the ceiling uncovered after cleaning off the now offensive whitewash. The open ceiling would be more authentic if it was whitewashed.  An open ceiling in a house of this period is not the norm, I would not have expected it but it seemed important to remain faithful to what we found. People love beamed ceilings anyway and we were able to justify its veracity.  We left it open knowing that it should have been whitewashed again but that was an option for a new owner to decide.  To this day it has not been whitewashed.

There had once been a door from what would become the dining room (designated as a parlor on the above plan)  into the small first floor, east end bedroom.  There was another door that had always led from this future dining room into the old kitchen.  In its present state it left two doors almost side by side connecting the same two spaces.  We handled this by covering the door on the dining room side and simply closing the door on the kitchen side. This change can be reversed at any time in the future.  No original fabric was disturbed.

A large soil line and other pipes led to the bathroom above. A tidy step-back pine cupboard was built to disguise some pipes and another was boxed in pine and resembled a vertical post. These offending pipes were neatly disguised.

The biggest issue was the fireplace hearth. There was none left. We had to begin again from scratch.

Richard Irons and his crew set the hearth in place. I objected. It seemed too shallow to balance such a huge fireplace. I imagined the fireplace tipping forward on such a small platform. More courses of bricks were added. I was still not satisfied. Nellie came “over the road”.  To the restoration masons she proclaimed that, “We have to understand life at that time period. We have to visualize how they lived, how they cooked, spun, did their weaving, candle making, soap making and socializing, all around the big fireplace.”  Then she startled the men by saying, “Why, in those days, who knows, they may have even slaughtered the cow on the hearth!”
The bricks are being laid out to replace the missing hearth.
Meanwhile, I had been impressed with the large hearth at the Paine-Dodge house known as Greenwood Farm in Ipswich, down on the edge of the marsh off Jeffreys Neck Road. Finding an image of that hearth in a book and with the help of a magnifying glass I had carefully counted the courses of brick in that hearth and hoped we could do the same.  Mr. Irons did not necessarily agree but I prevailed.

The following day as the last courses of brick were added to the big hearth one of the masons was heard saying to the other, “Well, do you think this is big enough for your average cow?"
Here is the very wide hearth that is probably
inappropriately wide but works well anyway.
Right or wrong, I loved it.  Many years later I learned that the one I had copied was not authentic after all.  Oh, well.  I still love it!

We had discovered early on that because the cooking fireplace predated the days of swinging cranes. 
there were brackets (I call them lugs.) in the chimney to support a lug pole. A lug pole was a green sapling that would be inserted up in the throat of the chimney resting on the two brackets. (lugs). Trammels hung from the lug pole to which pots and kettles were attached. Historically, the lug pole had to be monitored because they eventually burned out and needed to be replaced before a kettle of soup crashed to the hearth. Our masons dutifully replaced the lug pole. It was good for a laugh years later when a chimney sweep was called in and he reported with alarm to the new owners that there was a big stick up in the chimney and he would remove it for them. No!  Leave it alone! I’m happy to report it is still there.
Finally, it's a working fireplace!

We all brought belongings from our own homes to fill the house.  Today it
would be called staging the house but that term had not been applied in those days.
A damper was placed on the top of the chimney with a chain hanging down into the fireplace and fastened to a hook for opening and closing the damper. This works better than having an oversized iron damper that would be a struggle to open or close in such a large flue.

At one point the building inspector appeared and said the kitchen fireplace was not safe because it had an oak lintel.  He insisted that we wrap the lintel in sheet metal.  This oak lintel beveled on its face toward the fire, had been doing its job without damage for generations.  After adding the sheet metal we observed that the metal didn't even get hot.  The old time masons knew what they were doing and I have seldom seen one that had burned under normal use.

From all the changes, walls added and subtracted, stairs removed, hearth removed and more, the floor was a lost cause. We had to replace it. Here, as in the new kitchen, the floor was stained. Many potential buyers would love it and those that didn’t could always paint it.

Here is the finished room staged.  The extra door is on the left side of the fireplace and the second door is hidden by the projecting fireplace.
When completed this room worked well with the new kitchen and became the main living area of the restored house. The size of the big room, the size of the fireplace (and the hearth) still leaves visitors in awe.

This story will be continued in Part 5 with the progress in the creation of a new working kitchen.


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