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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

WHY ARE YOU GUTTING THAT HOUSE?

RESTORATION NEEDS A GENTLE HAND

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
today.









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.

http://www.nbptpreservationtrust.org/resources/Documents/NPTNewsletterFall2016ForWeb.pdf

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.



7 comments:

  1. Hello Prudence, I agree with you that people would rather have the Disneyland fantasy, even when that means tearing down what was valued originally. In a kind of weird doomed logic, many houses are gutted and rebuilt in order to modernize, but they say that at least they are respecting the exterior. Later, someone else decides it's o.k. to demolish the entire shell, because the interior is no longer original!
    --Jim

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    1. As alway, thank you for your comment. Great point. Save the exterior only to find the house in jeopardy because now the interior is gone. It is impaired and the incentive to save the shell is diminished.

      When a house is chopped up into condos with multiple deeds and multiple owners the chance that it ever be returned to the original is gone. Like Humpty Dumpty, it is so fragmented the the chance of it being restored as a single house is gone. You can't put all the pieces together again!

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  2. Thank you, Prudence, for filling in the historical facts and the architectural details behind the feelings so many of us have when we witness the destruction of antique houses. You expressed my own opinions about certain houses we have lost in towns where I have lived- Newburyport and Gloucester. Why indeed, are these houses allowed to be taken from the community? I believe the answer is: the worship of private ownership, greed, and ignorance. Thank you for all the work you have done to educate us with your research and writing, and for your generous service on historical commissions.

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    1. Thanks, Lois. You hit the nail on the head. I think the damage is mostly done by developers and not the typical homeowner. I know that you know these communities as well as I do and having lived in Newburyport more recently than I you probably have witnessed more destruction than I have even thought of or now about.
      Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Great post. I live in a 1786 home where we think twice before even applying paint, much less physical destruction. I am afraid that in the current political climate where "a house is a castle", "whats mine is mine and hands off", and "why should government/community/my neighbors tell me what to do inside my home", I don't feel enthused about the future. Looking on the bright side, it may make my home even more valuable once these Disneyland renovations start falling apart ;)
    The only way to change behavior is to socialize the respect for old homes through grass roots programs like "if this house could talk", and get the culture to change... see "http://walknewburyport.com for more info about what we did this past summer....

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    1. Hi Jack, Thank you for writing. People are very self serving and resistant to being told what to do but the response to my blog gives me every reason to be encouraged. A lot of people do care and we have to keep going and set an example. Being a preservationist can be discouraging but I like your "Walk Newburyport" idea and wonder if it would work in Gloucester, perhaps in the historic district.

      Thanks for your comment and if you are part of the Newburyport Preservation Trust let them know that I appreciate that my piece was posted on Facebook.

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  4. Yesterday I discovered the front page story in the Newburyport Preservation Trust fall newsletter referring to this blog. I want to thank whoever posted my blog on Facebook. I was shocked but encouraged by the huge response. People do care and we have to keep doing whatever we can to teach and encourage others to the importance of our mission and gain some momentum.

    Please read the story in the newsletter at:

    http://www.nbptpreservationtrust.org/resources/Documents/NPTNewsletterFall2016ForWeb.pdf

    Again, my thanks to the person that posted the story and the person that wrote the great piece in the newsletter. I am thrilled!

    Pru

    When I posted the story the counter on my blog went crazy. I thought something was wrong and actually took it down for part of a day! When reposted the numbers started climbing again to about 1000 in the first 24 hours.

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