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

Friday, March 6, 2015








Prudence Paine Fish


 Oh, what a scene! Was there any hope for this room?  Optimism was hard to muster.

There was no sign of the fireplace. A blank wall covered with crumbling tan plaid wallpaper greeted us where the fireplace should have been. We had to excavate again, just as in the kitchen. It was a mess.

This is the mess that confronted us in the future dining room that would
become the scene for many elegant dinner parties down the road but not yet!.
There actually is a fireplace in there!  It has an oven.
Surprise, Surprise

Down came the Victorian plaster and lath, down came studs, out came bricks. What a nice surprise to find a rather large firebox with another brick oven in the rear. That meant three large bake ovens in one chimney. It was unexpected that we would find one here.  Perhaps this fireplace had been altered to accommodate two families. The hearth must be rebuilt and a damper added.

Above the fireplace was a cupboard minus its door. On the left of the fireplace was the door to the cellar. This was a major change and the door was Victorian. The cellar door should be in the front hallway underneath the staircase. We removed the offending door in the dining room. But wait!  What about that panel in the attic?  We were lucky.  It was the missing panel removed when the cellar door was created. It was necessary to find a door for the cupboard but after finding that the rest of the fireplace and surround fell into place.

That was the fun part. The rest was not fun.

The raised field panels on the fireplace wall ended at the ceiling, cut off mid-way. Something was wrong here. The ceiling must have been lowered. The panels were incomplete. We reasoned that the ceiling must have been lowered to cover the summer beam, a frequent solution for hiding the old summer beam when it was no longer aesthetically acceptable. This 1759 house must have summer beams. How could it not?

Notice the space for a cupboard above the fireplace.  Particularly notice the
small panel upper left that is not finished on the top.  You can see the ceiling
The ceiling was horrible beyond description so we tackled the messy job of pulling it down. Two problems emerged immediately. There was no summer beam. There was just a system of large floor joists; beams really, but parallel. That was the first disappointment.

Next, we found that the panels at ceiling height were not complete above the plaster line but just ended as three sided panels with no tops. It was original!  That seemed strange, to say the least. Even stranger were the two round holes in the newly uncovered raised field panel over the door to the front hallway. What purpose did these holes serve? Obviously they were very old because the room had been re-plastered and all of this paneling covered probably in the mid 19th century. It wasn’t until long after we sold the house that I understood the reason for this “transom panel”.

Our contractor, Paul, was lucky to find a paneled door that fit the
cupboard over the fireplace.  Former cellar door is on the left.
The future dining room wall on the driveway side had buckled due to a rotted sill, but more particularly, a rotted and rolled sill. The wall had to be torn out to window sill height and rebuilt starting with a new pressure treated sill. When all was said and done there was not enough of that wall left to save so it had to be replaced. 

The wall of the dining room was torn out up to the windows because
of the rotted and rolled sill that had caused the interior wall to buckle.
There were sill problems on all four sides of the house that were replaced.
The kitchen wall likewise had to be replastered because of the door to the little bedroom that was no more. That had to be covered and made to disappear. 

On the left is the door that previously accessed the first
floor bedroom.  Notice the old wavy split lath.
And because we had destroyed the ceiling in our quest for the summer beam and panel tops, a new ceiling was in order.
This is what the dining room looked like as the buckled outside
was repaired and the door to the old bedroom was covered not
to mention the mess we made pulling down the ceiling looking
for a summer beam that we were sure we would find but didn't.
That was not all. The pine floor was in very bad condition. Some of the boards were paper-thin, the rest we used for repairs elsewhere. A new floor was laid. Like the new floors in the old kitchen and the new kitchens, it was stained. We hoped it would appeal to the buyers who didn't like painted floors.They could always be painted at a later date but that would be the new owner's choice.

So all the repairs were made and new materials introduced. It looked like a new room. The ceiling was too smooth and the corners where they met the walls, too plumb. Perhaps crown molding around the ceiling would take the sting off those sharp edges. Nice old molding was found at Whitey Davis’s salvage yard in Salisbury and installed. That helped. We tried to mimic the earliest color, a soft green. The room began to look better. Perhaps that wallpaper that Nellie had would look nice. I had planned to use it at my house but decided to donate it to the Moses Jewett house at the last minute. It was a Chinese Chippendale paper. Nellie called it “bird of paradise, tree of life”. The formal name of the pattern was Chartwell. Chartwell was manufactured by Thomas Strahan in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The pattern dated to the 18th century. The paper matched the paint perfectly and the outcome was pretty. It is still there and still looks good. The present owners have no plans to change it…ever.
    This photo shows the door from the dining room to the front entry.
     The panel with the holes goes above that left hand door.  The right 
hand opening was the entrance added to go to the cellar but we 
found the missing paneling and restored it to original.  Above it
      is one of the panels with no finished top.  It just disappears into the

To enhance the integrity of the house we chose not to install a chandelier in the dining room. Cassidy Forge made us a chandelier for candles that would hang from a hook over the table. The center was the wooden hub of an old wagon wheel. Branches and cups for the candles were added. It looked great. Unfortunately, the pleasure it gave us was short lived. The chandelier was stolen! Much more about that to follow.
The chandelier was made for us at Cassidy Forge from the hub of an old
wagon wheel that they had been saving for just the right job.  This was it!

In order to provide modern illumination, two small eyeball lights were recessed in front of the fireplace and operated by a dimmer. These lights spotlighted the paneled room end and fireplace and the degree of light could be controlled so that it did not compete with the candles. Many people were shocked that I would consider this modern lighting. It was the right solution. 
 At last the room had come together and holds its own with the rest of the house. I’m not sure anyone remembers that so much work was done in this part of the house. It all looks compatible, has mellowed with age and now has a patina to match the rest.

This is really the same room after the restoration
was complete.  It is hard to believe what a mess it was.
 Later I understood the two holes above the hall door. The answer became apparent when the new owners tried to have dinner parties with a smoking fireplace that didn’t draw well.  Over a number of years they tried different ways of building fires: smaller ones, bigger ones, fires in the rear, fires toward the front. They optimistically always claimed to have found the solution only to be driven out in the middle of dinner by smoke, usually on a cold winter’s night with the front door and a window open to let the smoke out.

 Now I understood the purpose of the holes in the panel over the hall door. That fireplace had smoked for two hundred years! The holes were to let the smoke out into the hall or out the front door without opening the door from the dining room to the cold hall. This was not a new problem!

Old-time masons knew how to build a fireplace that would draw well. What happened to this fireplace?  My theory is that the fireplace was altered long ago. Probably the oven was added. Maybe it had something to do with the various divisions of the divided house. The mason may have done the best he could to accommodate the occupant with a large firebox, a crane and an oven but the balance and the draft were changed forever. The fireplace smoked then and it smokes now.  My theory is that the fireplace was altered and an oven added when Moses left his two maiden daughter the use of one third of the house while his son, Aaron, and his family had the rest including the big cooking fireplace in the old kitchen.  Maybe a new kitchen fireplace was created in the front room for their use.  And using that fireplace meant cutting two round holes in the panel over the door, each hole the size of a baseball, to let the smoke out from a fireplace that will never draw well.

The new owners finally gave up trying to make it work and have resorted to a gas log. It looks pretty good, throws heat and allows for a cheerful fire at a dinner party. I guess it’s the only solution there was. It's better than having to evacuate the room during a holiday dinner!  The bottom line is that it is another change that can be reversed. This makes it a good thing. 

It is hard for me to believe that with all my photos I do not have one of the finished fireplace wall but I don't.  So my last picture of the dining room is of the table with the chandelier hanging above it just days before it was stolen never to be seen again.

The completed dining room.  There is the new crown molding around the ceiling.  The
colors in the wall paper are more natural beneath the window.  The custom made chandelier
made by Cassidy Forge hangs over the table.  A few days after this picture was taken, the chandelier 
was stolen never to be seen again.  The woodwork is actually a soft sage green that works perfectly with the Chinese 
Chippendale wallpaper.  The age of the photos and the camera do distort the period colors.  The wall paper is quite soft
and not as strong looking as in the old photo.


The tiny hall has a three run “captain’s” staircase with a closed string ascending to the second floor. It winds up tightly against the chimney from left to right.
Feather edged sheathing and an unplastered
ceiling were original to the entry hall.

Halfway up the stairs a fairly large door opens into a closet in the chimney. Closets such as this are not all that common but are seen occasionally.  Aaron Jewett’s house just up the street, until recently belonging to the Stevens family, had a similar closet in the chimney.

The closet in the chimney
The panel under the stairs was reopened to its original use as a cellar door. Again, as in the antique kitchen, we discovered a white-washed ceiling under newer plaster. We allowed the unfinished ceiling to be exposed.

The woodwork was painted with Nellie’s “tusk”, a versatile green/tan color. For the walls we chose Katzenbach and Warren’s “Charles the Third” wallpaper from the Williamsburg Collection. It was extravagant but wonderful paper for an early setting. 

Charles III wallpaper.  One of the oldest patterns known.  This
 was from the Katzenbach and Warren Williamsburg Collection.
Tin sconces near the front door and a hanging tin hall light hanging from the second floor ceiling completed the hall restoration. These tin lights, authentic copies, came from the Federal Street Lighthouse in Newburyport, a store much loved by restorers and now greatly missed by restorers.

Bulls eye glass has been installed in the front
six panel door and a tin sconce mounted beside it.
From the entry hall looking into the dining room.
Sometimes these halls are called stair halls, some
times they are called entries or even passageway.
In this photo you can see the wallpaper as it
really looks


At this point the worst of the first floor was finished and looking good.  We were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

A peek at the next room, the parlor, from the front entry.



After all of the other serious projects on 
     the first floor the work needed in this room 
seemed quite routine.
Actually, much less work was needed here than in the other first floor rooms.

After we destroyed the dining room ceiling we were told by Paul that they could save all of the plaster and they did. No more ceilings or plaster were removed except where Victorian lath and plaster were removed to reveal original paneling or sheathing.  The plaster that was saved looks just right.  We were amazed at what the crew was able to do to salvage the old plaster.  It has held up and still looks great.

All of the plaster was saved in the parlor. The fireplace was opened and a new hearth built. A damper was put in and the fireplace was ready to go after Richard Irons had created a new boiler flue in the back space in the center of the huge chimney.  The only other options would have been to build a new disfiguring chimney on the back of the house and that was too expensive and too unsightly anyway. So that was really  not an option for the budget or for resale.  Or the fireplace could have remained blocked but we wouldn't think of leaving a fireplace blocked especially in the parlor.  Today we would have used a direct vent to the outside but that was not an available option at that time although they were available just a few years later  .  We worked out the problem very neatly and satisfactorily.

The parlor fireplace had a small cupboard above it like the one in the dining room.  In this
room the cupboard and the paneling were intact.  Some of the wall covering was feather
edged sheathing and not sophisticated but typical of a country farmhouse.
The paneling here was naïve.  It was a mixture of raised field paneling and feather edged sheathing. There was a cupboard above the fireplace just as there was in the dining room.

A pretty corner near the fireplace. More about the candle
stand later. Some feather edged sheathing can be seen on the
 left side.

The floor was comfortable; worn but salvageable. The woodwork was painted a slate blue and the floor a harmonizing but darker blue. The walls were left white.

No special or unusual problems were encountered here. That was a break! The restoration of the first floor was complete!

Here as in the rest of the house where there were plaster ceilings that were saved.  The disaster in the dining room is the only exception. There is remarkably little to comment on in this room.  Most of the changes were simply cosmetic.  It is completely original.

Notice the furniture used for staging here as well as in the old kitchen.  There will be more to say about that in a future post.

Onward and upward to the second floor in the next installment.
The gable wall of the house staged with items from our homes and Yolanda's toile drapes at the windows.

To be continued in Part 7


  1. Always so fascinating! Are you presently reading "A Country Farmhouse" blog and the work that Mike and Trina are doing on their early 1800's house? It is such a pleasure to read about the history of these old homes!

    1. Thanks so much for telling me about "A Country Farmhouse" I just found it and will enjoy getting acquainted with their project.

      And thanks for reading my blog!


  2. Such an enjoyable read..... I always enjoy your posts.

  3. Such a very great idea. thanks for shearing with us.
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