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, October 19, 2016



As the leaves begin to fall our thoughts turn to Thanksgiving.  The menu, the guest list and other thoughts aren't too far from our minds and frequently come to the surface.

I am very traditional and never like to cut corners or alter our time honored traditions.  It might be easy to skip the creamed onions, the sweet potatoes or the mince pie but not at my house.

An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving    Doris Lee   1935
Today's newspaper annouced that the State of Massachusetts wants to eliminate some of the ridiculous, outdated and by the state's description, archaic laws.  That  brought to mind an old tradition in Massachusetts that was not a law but an archaic custom, nevertheless.

Having grown up in Massachusetts I was familiar with the strange custom years ago of closing stores and professional offices on Wednesday afternoon.  Yes, I'm serious!  With the exception of chain stores of which there weren't many in my neck of the woods, forget about going to the doctor, the hardware store or most other businesses on Wednesday afternoon.
 I had long since left Massachusetts and moved to Connecticut where I lived for fifteen years before moving back to Massachusetts to Newburyport.

We moved to Newburyport the weekend before Thanksgiving in 1971.  Our wonderful 1800 Federal period Robert Dodge house had most recently been used as a rest home called Cutting Manor. Although a beautiful house it was hardly presentable for the coming holidays with lots of linoleum on the floors and green flowered wallpaper everywhere. Those were the days when green was advocated as the most restful color and this rest home took that advice to heart.  There was a lot to do and a lot of green to get rid of.  

On Monday I was busy unpacking, getting the kids into their new school and dealing with all sorts of details including calling the gas company.  We needed to get the old gas stove in the kitchen turned on.

On Tuesday the gas company came.  Disaster!  They condemned the old stove.  Thanksgiving was two days away and I didn't have a stove.  What was I going to do?

I went to Fowles Market right down the street looking for food that I didn't need to cook and told the owner, Joe Vigneault, my sob story.

He then told me that he had just seen a great stove, like new, and affordable.   It was at Bill Goss's auction house in Brentwood, NH. I had no idea where Brentwood was.  I hadn't figured out how to get to Amesbury even though I knew it was right next door. Seriously! But I was motivated so I got a map and headed to Brentwood with my big Oldsmobile station wagon that could hold just about anything.

I found the place, found Bill Goss and negotiated for the stove.  It was a beauty...the latest style...avocado.  I can't remember whether is was $50 or $100.  Either way there was no question. That stove was going home with me!

It was electric so no more problems with the gas company.    My husband was able to install it and by mid-day Wednesday I had a working stove.  We would have Thanksgiving after all but I would have to skip a few dishes.  There just wasn't time for everything I would normally prepare.

Next I ran to the bank.  I needed to cash a check and get shopping in a hurry.

I hurried up to the door of the bank.  It was locked.  What was going on?  Why in the world was the bank closed?  Oh, no! Then it all came back to me. It's Wednesday.  I am in Massachusetts.  What can I do?

I drove to Shaw's supermarket and went to the courtesy desk almost in tears and told them my plight. They asked me where my new house was and I told them my new house was on High Street.  In those days a High Street address really meant something as I was about to find out. Shaw's immediately gave me a check cashing card on the spot, told me to go shopping and have a nice Thanksgiving.  Shaw's saved the day but my new address helped.
Shaw's at Port Plaza

I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I couldn't believe they were so accommodating.  That was forty five years ago but I still have a soft spot for Shaw's.  Market Basket has Shaw's beat hands down where prices are concerned but I will never forget that Shaw's rescued me in my distress and saved Thanksgiving for my family.

I'm not sure when Massachusetts abandoned Wednesday afternoon shut downs.  That custom is a distant memory.  Also a distant memory are the days when a High Street address really meant 
something and was all you needed to be considered a good risk at Shaw's Market. 

Time marches on and times have changed.  Nothing closes on Wednesday afternoon anymore and some don't even close on the holiday itself.  I think maybe I liked the old way better.

Home to Thanksgiving      Currier and Ives

After thought:  Long after the stove was wired up and Thanksgiving was over I returned to Brentwood to Bill Goss's Auction House.  Every other week there was an evening auction.  I became a regular at the auctions and found many treasures for my new house.  What fun it was!

Thursday, October 13, 2016



There are two cities that I love the most.  Both are in Massachusetts in Essex County: Newburyport and Gloucester/Cape Ann.

My family, husband, three kids and a dog and I moved to Newburyport from Connecticut in the very early 70s.  After driving through this small city a few times we were blown away by the architecture.  Houses with interesting rooflines and huge chimneys were everywhere.  Sure, they were shabby (today many of them would be called "tear-downs.) but it would have taken more than shabbiness not to see that here was an enormous collection of the finest New England architecture.

Some were from the Georgian period but most impressive were the Federal period houses whether three stories on High St. or modest Federals on side streets leading down to the Merrimack River.  We drove up and down the streets feasting our eyes on this incredible city.

Within a short time we made a giant decision to uproot our family and live in Newburyport.  We arrived a few days before Thanksgiving in 1971.

At that time many other families were moving to Newburyport, excited by the houses and the redevelopment that was just beginning.  Newcomers were ecstatic when they uncovered old paneling or found a hidden fireplace, some of walk-in size with bake ovens.  It happened all the time.  Newburyport was one big treasure hunt.  New homeowners celebrated the discovery of significant but long hidden features.
There was a lot of “do it yourself” restoration going on, people helped each other and everyone was careful to do the job right. There were no big dumpsters in sight. Families lived in the houses as they slowly chipped away at the restoration.  Features were saved, repaired, reused and when necessary pieces and parts that were missing could be replaced at Whitey Davis’s big salvage barn in Salisbury.

It was save, save, save and restore, restore, restore; always replacing missing or unusable material with like material.  Very gently, one house after another, was coaxed back to life.  Old wavy window glass sparkled when it caught the light, old plaster was patched or skimmed and had a slight 
undulating appearance that looked just right without the stark surface of sheetrock or blue board.

These houses were two hundred years old or more and perfection was in saving the fabric of the house and giving it a new lease on life.  Perfect restorations did not mean perfection as in brand new, smooth, flawless in defiance of age of the house.  These houses weren't disney-like reproductions. They were the real thing. The care and the research devoted to the rebirth of the city was exemplary and a model for other places waiting to be discovered and brought back to life.

Summer house tours were coordinated with Yankee Homecoming.  Testiment to the interest in viewing these houses was the long lines of people waiting their turn to get across the thresholds for a glimpse of  a saved house.

Now living in Gloucester I have been on a rant because of demolition, threatened demolition and the callous gutting of houses by developers with a heavy hand and houses chopped up to create condos even in a typical single family house.

It has been thirty or so years since I left Newburyport but the reports along the way have been disturbing.  The thoughtful gentle work of the first generation of restorers is in the distant past.  Newburyport has been discovered, the redevelopment of the 1970s is now a distant memory.  The city looks gorgeous!  Driving around and seeing the beautiful, houses, fences and gardens everywhere is impressive.  But I have been hearing that all is not well in these houses after you cross the threshold. Walls have been removed, windows with old glass thrown into huge dumpsters along with the other fabric original to the house.

In the early days of Newburyport’s rebirth nobody cared about fads and trends.  Friends tell me I would be shocked and that it is a good thing that I don’t live there anymore! Why?  Because in order to achieve the features in a house that the family of today feel they need or are entitled to, walls must be taken down. Kitchens need to be huge so that they can accommodate huge refrigerators and commercial quality stoves.  And of course there must be an island in the center made of granite, obviously.  Walls must be taken down so that the housewife can talk to her guests while she prepares for a dinner party.  A “closed” kitchen is a thing of the past. 

 But the pendulum will swing the other way and housewifes will eventually realize they don't really want guests hanging over their shoulder while they cook, finding it distracting.  Meanwhile the precious original fabric of the house has gone to the dump.

A few days ago with a friend in tow I decided to make a quick trip to Newburyport to see for myself.

I had only gotten as far as Ipswich when my attention was arrested at the sight of a gutted house almost across the street from the Moses Jewett house whose restoration I wrote about in this blog a year ago. One curved attic window remains as a reminder of its Italianate beginnings.  There is evidence of new wood.  They are reducing the size of the large original Victorian windows.  Maybe they want to conserve heat, maybe replacement windows don’t come in that size.  Who knows?  It wasn’t a great house and it was not two hundred years old but it was an honest house, needing work, but did it need to be reduced to a shell?  Old time builders understood a lot about proportion.  What will the change in window size do to a straightforward Italianate house?  Time will tell!

Classic Italianate Victorian farmhouse

We drove on into Newburyport and made our way up High Street, always considered one of the most beautiful streets in New England.  In no time I was shocked to see the former Van Bokkelen house at 249 High Street completely stripped of its old clapboards and without windows.  What was missing inside I couldn’t tell.  This was one of the beautiful three story Federal houses.  It needed work for sure but seeing it looking like a shell even if it isn’t totally gutted was shocking.
This is an example of a fine three story High Street Federal.

What also caught my attention was the work being done on one of the chimneys.  It appeared that it was being rebuilt with cement blocks.  Sure they can parge it and from the street no one will know the difference but where I come from this is not restoration. I remember the former owner relating the story of one of the big snow storms in Newburyport.   Maybe it was around 1968.  The owner built fires in many of the fireplaces and the house cooled off but at a certain point it leveled off and a tolerable temperature was maintained.  I’m sure it was not 72 degrees but it kept the house from freezing.

Stately High Street Federal with beautiful enclosed pilastered portico.  It is not obvious what is left inside .
Down on Merrimac St. along the river was the so-called 1690 House.  It wasn’t really built in 1690 but was actually a mid 18th century house. (This date,1690, may have been the date of the first silversmith in Newburyport.) It was previously next door to the Towle Silver factory.  When I moved to Newburyport this house had been restored by Towle and then decorated by some Newburyport ladies.  Towle used the lovely rooms to display some of their silver products.  There was a parlor that inspired me.  I think it had green velveteen tab curtains.  The stairhall with a beautiful Georgian staircase was papered with a paper I loved called “Whipple House”.  It obviously got its name from the Whipple House in nearby Ipswich.

Towle is out of business, at least in Newburyport. The house was sold and hardly recognizable.  The land behind it is filled with what appears to be new condos crowded together and maybe the 1690 house is going to be part of that project.  Whatever, the old house is no longer nicely integrated with the now barren, treeless streetscape.

This Georgian house formerly owned by Towle Silver was one of my favorites but hardly recognizable.

With just a few minutes left to spend in Newburyport we drove up Strong Street so that I could admire one of my favorite houses, the Georgian Atkins house at 9 Strong St.

This house is an all-time favorite.  It too has been through
a lot but was carefully brought back.  It is beautiful inside and out. I 
looked at it once in a blizzard when it was only $11,000.  The 
condition was rough but the beauty was obvious under the worst of
conditions.  This is one of the lucky ones.  It was respected and saved.

Thankfully it is looking good with a new coat of paint.  (Photo is not the best.) but as we approached the junction of Strong St. and Washington St. there we saw another gutted house at 41 Washington St.  The windows were gone, and the entire interior appeared to be gone. This is a large gambrel roofed house of the 18th century dated at about 1750.  The old maps indicate that even in the mid 19th century it was a double house having been divided right down the middle.  More recently the entire house was owned by one family.  The chimneys appear to be missing and may have been for some time.
This is a really large mid 18th century Georgian.  Not sure what it had inside but it looks
like whatever was there is gone now.
I guess they want to save the pedestrians from
the construction but how about saving the houses
from the developers!

We were out of time.  I had seen enough!  I don’t know any of the owners of these properties.  I don’t know their motivation.  Maybe some of this work is even justifiable. 

Clearly, I don’t know what is going on inside these buildings and I hope it’s not as bad as it looks.  I don’t know what is necessary to save these houses and I hope those in charge know what to do to preserve these gems, not with a goal of making them brand new.  It certainly does not look like sensitive restoration/preservation to me.  I hope I am wrong but I never saw a sight like this when I lived in Newburyport.

Last year a stately house in central Gloucester was gutted much to my dismay.  It has since been turned into condos and they just went on the market.
Stately house with all of its pieces and parts intact, one year ago

Outwardly the house looks much as it did before, at least from the street side.  The back has been added onto but the dignified old house was reduced to a shell.
One year later.  The exterior has been retained or reproduced
because it was in the historic district but the interior was gutted.

Reduced to a shell.

The condos developed inside are now ready for the market at prices ranging from $775,000 to $795,000. I’m sure they are beautiful but the woodwork, staircase, chimneys and fireplaces if it had them are gone. 

Well intentioned people have been led astray, by the craze for replacement windows, the need for insulated walls, steel doors, big open kitchens and commercial appliances and enormously decadent bathrooms.  These are fads and will pass as all fads do.  In some cases it is the building codes that doom our historic properties.

In the meantime I can hardly bear to think about. the cost to the integrity and well being of our historic houses.  There is beauty in an honest house even when shabby.  It is painful to read an ad for a house described as a tear down.  Sometimes they really are but often they are houses with historical value.

Newburyport, Ipswich, Gloucester and every other town in New England has this legacy from the past that is being squandered.  Before ripping out anything find someone in your neighborhood or community and ask for advice from qualified people or someday you may look back and think, “OMG.  What did I do?”

Post Script

When I posted this story my computer immediately went crazy with the viewings piling up by unimaginable numbers.

Meanwhile, a Newburyport group, Newburyport Preservation Trust, posted my blog post on Facebook and the number of Facebook viewings also skyrocketed.  At the end of 24 hours this blog had 1000 viewing and Facebook had racked up 3000 viewings!  People responded nationwide.  What is happening to so many old houses touched a nerve.  The count on this blog has exceeded 1200 viewings at this point and still climbing.

The Newburyport Preservation Trust featured the story of what happened in their fall newsletter.  Read the story here.


This was followed by an editorial that appeared in all of the Essex County Newspapers condemning gutting and demolition of historic properties.  It also introduced the new mandate passed in Portland, Oregon.  In Portland if a house is going to be demolished  and is 100 years old it must be carefully
DECONSTRUCTED.  This means that it is torn down piece by piece and the salvaged material recycled as opposed to filling dumpsters with destroyed debris.

I hope that this attention to problem continues to be promoted not just here in New England but everywhere.

Monday, October 10, 2016



Cape style houses with gambrel roofs, now known as "Cape Ann Cottages" are what I call the signature houses of Cape Ann.  These are the modest little houses that the Cape Ann fishermen and farmers called home.  They dotted the shoreline beginning in Manchester by the Sea and continued around Gloucester and Rockport never too far from the shore.  Most were built between 1740 and 1790.

Gloucester's great historian, John James Babson, stated that at the height of their popularity there were about three hundred and fifty of these little houses.  For many years now I have been recording the ones that exist, the ones that are now attached to larger houses and the ones that were moved to a new site.  I have also recorded the ones of which I have been made aware but no longer exist.  

The count now stands at only fifty nine and not growing very fast these days. In March of 2014 I did a blog post on these little cottage houses which you might want to check out.


A few years ago knowing that I had an interest in these little houses, Fred Buck, the photo archivist at the Cape Ann Museum sent me a scan of a 19th century watercolor painting of one of these cottage houses.  It was on its last legs and to see it you would immediately know that it wouldn't be there much longer.  The big chimney was missing with just a gaping hole in the roof, one corner of the house was missing and the window sash was just hanging or missing..
Circa 1774 Cape Ann Cottage originally built across the street from Plum Cove Beach in what was then called Plum Cove Pasture  Artist unknown.  Courtesy of Cape Ann Museum.
Even so the painting was charming.  It had been a very sweet house sitting  up on a small knoll. There was a stonewall and an outcropping of granite for which the neighborhood was famous. On the back it indicated that it was Mr. Griffin's house near Plum Cove.

I really wanted to know where it had been.  With a friend we searched for a similar outcroppings of rock.  She thought it was in one area and I thought another.  Turns out it was neither.

Last weekend I was doing my volunteer shift at the first period White-Ellery house. An interested visitor struck up a conversation and told me about her house that was built in 1878 and she was only the third owner of the property.  
This very sweet Victorian house was built by Austin Griffin of
Lanesville in 1878. Who knew  the secret hidden under the house? 
She then told me that local historian, Barbara Erkkila had told an interesting story in the 1980s. According to the story which was published in the Gloucester Times the first owner of her house was William Northway, a man with a family who had come from England to Cape Ann and worked in the granite quarries. Barbara Erkkila quoted him as saying that when he was digging a cellar hole (probably for an addition) he came across another very old foundation, the base for a chimney and a threshold. (possibly a door stone?)

Immediately I had a thought.  What if her house was built on the site of the long gone Cape Ann Cottage?  I couldn't wait to check the deeds.  I quickly found Mr. Northway in 1878.  He had bought it from Austin Griffin, a "house carpenter".  Griffin!  The name on the back of the painting.

I thought I was on a roll but that would have been too good to be true.  I struggled through so many deeds and probates with complications I almost gave up.  Here are the basics.

Peter Sargent married in 1774 and probably built his "homestead" as it was referred to, shortly after if not before, placing date of the house right before the Revolution   Since these houses were mostly built between 1740 and 1790 this date would be exactly right.  Peter lost his first wife and then married "Lucy" his second wife. 

Peter died in 1811.  At that point the house was divided.  It was customary for the widow to get 1/3 of the marital property.  Usually the wife could live there until she died or remarried.  In other words she did not have outright ownership but what today we would call a "life estate".  After her death the title of the house would revert to other heirs.  The deeds referred to the "reversion of the dower" or the widow's third reverting back to others and by doing so the entire house would be whole again and no longer encombered by her dower.

Here is the description of the house in 1813, one third  of which went to Lucy, the widow, as her "widow's third".  From the inventory of Peter's estate comes this description of the house.

"Also, one small dwelling house standing on said mowing land one story high with a gambrel roof, only one room tenantable , all the rest unfinished."

This portrays the house perfectly.  There were only two rooms downstairs,one for the widow.  The front room was the only one plastered and finished.  The rest of the house was probably whitewashed on the interior.  Perhaps there was one "chamber" whitewashed on the second floor and the rest was garrett.

This portion of the division of the property described the house as it was divided in a way that is hard to understand but must have made sense to those involved.

 "The wall which divides the fore room from the back room as it now stands together with the fore entry also the cellar from the fore side  sill as is plumb with the northeastern side of the third sleeper the whole width of the cellar from end to end.  Also a privilege to wash, bake and brew in the back room as there is no oven only in the back room , also a privilege to the well, there being none in her enclosure, the dwelling house standing partly on the third.  There being no way to go  up to the chamber or garrett only in the fore entry and the way down cellar or attic in the fore entry so that whoever shall own or occupy the remainder of the dwelling house is to have the privilege of going up stairs and down cellar in the fore Entry which  parts of the dwelling house privilege amounts to $33.00".

So Lucy had the front room but had the right to use the back room which would be someone else's part of the two family house.  That is where the cooking fireplace was located and she could use the fireplace with the bake oven for "washing, baking or brewing".  Makes one wonder what Lucy was brewing!

The people with whom she would share the house had the right to go through her room if they needed to go upstairs or down to the cellar from the entry near the front door.

What is astonishing is that this was a typical arrangement and a typical household.  Many rooms were not plastered and during the time the widow lived in her third of the house others were occupying the rest.  It seems like an impossible arrangement when you think of the discomfort, the close quarters and what they had to put up with but this description is reality.  In many instances the families were large, cramming a lot of people into a tiny house.

Lucy was awarded her third when her husband's estate was finally settled in 1813.  She lived there until she died in 1835.

Lucy's son by her first marriage was living there but in 1838 he died and his wife, Hannah then got her widow's third of the house. The estate appealed to the court saying that Hannah was in frail health and had no friends or relatives.  But by 1839 she appears to have vacated and apparently got married.

The next owner, William Langsford, held it from 1839 to 1863.  In 1863 it was purchased, both land and house, by people named Lucas.  In 1877 the property was sold to William Northway with no mention of a house.  The shaky, worn out old house seems to have disappeared.  

Mr Northway purchased the property from Austin Griffin, a house carpenter.  Probably he is the one who tore the cottage down to build the new house that is there today but already an antique itself at one hundred and thirty nine years old.

Now the present owner of the house who thought only three families had lived on that land knows that a lot more went on there before Mr Northway owned his little Victorian house and while digging in the cellar found the old foundation and chimney base.

And now I know the story of Mr. Griffin's Cape Ann Cottage.

So the cottage mystery came to an interesting conlusion but there was one more watercolor of a similar Cape Ann cottage.  It was sitting close to a road.  I have no idea where it is or most likely where it was! I really don't think it has survived.  Maybe some of you who read this will have a clue. 
This quaint old house by the side of the road has not been identified .  It may not exist.
Courtesy of Greg Gibson and the Ten Pound Island Book Company
As in the case of the cottage at Plum Cove I am hoping that someone, some day when we least expect it will come forward with a story and another mystery house will be identified.

For now: one down, one more to go!

Note:  The present house was built by Austin Griffin.

The Samuel Griffin family came from to Annisquam from Newbury in the early days of the 18th century. Samuel was a housewright. His son, Oliver, lived nearby also in Annisquam but his grandson, Tristram Griffin, settled in Riverdale in another Cape Ann cottage on Washington St. now gone.

The next generation, Tristram Griffin, his son, was born there in Riverdale in1840 in his words "in the shadow of Pole Hill".  After the Civil War the second Tristram became an early architect, living and working in Malden but always interested in the history of his home town.  After Gloucester High School burned Tristram designed Central Grammar, later renovated by another well know architect,  Ezra Phillips.

Tristram's brother, Thaddeus, born in 1842 was a house painter.

Another brother, Austin Griffin, was born in Riverdale in 1846 and built houses.  He settled in Lanesville and most likely built his own house on Washington Street with remarkable woodwork.

A talent for designing and building must run in the genes of this old Cape Ann family!