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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

ABBOTT LOWELL CUMMINGS, MENTOR TO MANY




Abbott Lowell Cummings

Students of New England architecture, preservationist and lovers of early Massachusetts houses were saddened recently to learn of the death of Abbott Lowell Cummings, a man who had a great influence on so many people especially in my circle of preservationist friends.

After relocating in Newburyport, MA in 1971 just as urban renewal was getting off the ground, we soon found ourselves in close contact with others, like us, who had been drawn to Newburyport for its collection of decaying 18th and 19th century houses that had been languishing for years, shabby, run down but with mouth watering features and historic integrity just waiting to be rescued.

From time to time I would hear someone say something about " Abbott says....."  Who was Abbott?

I soon found out that Abbott Cummings was the undisputed expert on early houses and also Federal period houses inspired by Asher Benjamin of which Newburyport had many.

In 1979 he published his great book, "Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay", the bible for early houses then and still the best reference book out there.  An amazing book!

As time went on and I knew he would be speaking somewhere I attended.  One memorable talk was one that he gave in the late 1980s at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society in Boston (NEHGS) at one of their "Come Home to New England"  summer programs.  The subject was "The Homes of Our Ancestors".  Tapes of his talk were sold and I played mine over and over in the car soaking up what he had said as I drove around.

Another memorable event was when my son, Bob, and I took a tour with Abbott through the Gedney house in Salem, an early mostly shell of a 17th century house of four rooms.  The tour took hours!  I left the house with my brain on overload, dizzy from what I had absorbed or tried to absorb.  How could there be so much to learn in an empty house?


Gedney House, c 1665

Interior of the Gedney House, Salem, Ma

It was there that I first heard Abbott talk about dendrochronology as he pointed out the tree rings in a girt above a doorway.  That was long before dendro became available in New England.

In 2007 I was to be involved in a rare opening of the 1710 White-Ellery house in Gloucester.  It is open on a regular basis these days but prior to this event had been closed up for many years.  I wrote to Abbott and asked him if he would come and perhaps say a few words about the house.  Much to my joy he accepted the invitation.

White Ellery new claps and cornice.JPG
White-Ellery House, Gloucester, MA  1710

He had previously been in the house in the 1950s with Alfred Mansfield Brooks, president of the Cape Ann Historical Association.  Not only did he come but he had the notes that he had originally taken when viewing the house nearly fifty years before.  He  spoke in front of a large crowd, too many to fit in the house, the rest of us listening through the open windows.

I was fortunate to visit him several times after he retired to Deerfield and discuss features that had left me puzzled.  Those visits were truly memorable events.

Lunch with Abbott Cummings in Deerfield, MA

In 1979 I bought "Framed Houses" and used it until it was shabby and falling apart but thanks to eBay I found another first edition online.  Just as I had done with the first one I asked Abbott to sign it. When he did he commented that I was the first to have worn on my original book and replaced it for him to sign again just as he had with the first one probably 30 years before.

He was 94 years old when he died and left legions of followers who relied on him as the ultimate expert.

The following is an obituary written by he long-time associate, Richard Candee.  It is perhaps the longest obituary I have ever read but there is no way to abbreviate his work and tribute to his life.

Here is the link which is probably more efficient than copying the long obituary but I hope you will read it and appreciate the legacy of this remarkable man to those of us who love old houses.  It was written by his long time associate, Richard Candee.

https://www.antiquesandthearts.com/abbott-lowell-cummings-94/

Abbott Cumming's scholarship and influence will always be remembered by those who knew and respected him...and there are many.

Pru

Three old timers.  Abbott Cummings,  Elizabeth Hough, benefactor of the
Sargent House Museum in Gloucester and Harold Bell, then president 
of the Cape Ann Historical Association, now Cape Ann Museum.   All
three made contributions to preservation and all now passed on. 
Pru Fish Photo  1990s


TEAR IT DOWN OR SAVE IT - A TALE OF TWO CITIES



In late 2015 the City of Gloucester was threatened with the loss of several houses.  In the end one was saved, one was demolished and one was gutted to the studs and turned into condos.  

Gloucester is America's oldest seaport; a small city founded in 1623 where preservation should be paramount.  Peabody, a short distance away, is a tired industrial city with less to preserve.  A significant building, one that was familiar to me, in Peabody was also threatened with demolition.

The following story is taken from a piece I wrote at that time and submitted to Enduring Gloucester, a local blog, (enduringgloucester.com) some of which I will repeat here along with a follow-up.  The date was October 13, 2015.




LEADING BY EXAMPLE

We accept the fact that Gloucester is America's oldest seaport but it is easy to take this distinction for granted.  In addition Gloucester has a rich history in the art world.  The list of painters who came to Gloucester, drawn by the scenery and the special light, is a who's who in art.  Throw in the history of the granite industry, the uniquely ethnic neighborhoods and last but not least, the architecture.

Switching gears, let's talk about the City of Peabody.  Peabody?  Of all the towns and cities on the North Shore what's so historic about Peabody?

The City of Peabody was separated from Danvers and was the scene of leather workers and tanneries.  The tanneries are mostly gone and although that city is proud of its history few would compare it to Gloucester on any level.  It is a city of malls, old factories, busy highways and a central square that is sometimes under water.  Above all it doesn't have a harbor and any comparison to Gloucester, Le Beauport, would seem to be ludicrous.

Although Peabody doesn't have much going for it compared to Gloucester, in one respect it has Gloucester beat hands down.  Here's why.

In the late 1890s J. B. Thomas built a house for his grandson.  He spared nothing to create a beautiful house smack dab in the middle of the city on the corner of Main Street and Washington Street.  It also had fabulous carriage house in the rear not to mention an enormous and beautiful old beech tree in the front.

The Thomas family lived in the house for 15 or 20 years before selling it to the O'Sheas.  It then became known as the O'Shea house until sold around 1970 and converted into a furniture store.  After the furniture store owners retired the house was sold to a social agency.

In recent years the house has fallen on hard times and was foreclosed.  Bank owned, it was available for sale.

In a scenario that is far too familiar, a developer from our own City of Gloucester eyed this high visibility site for redevelopment and negotiated to purchase it.  He made it known that his intent was to demolish the old house.  He was so taken with the site he had not, according to reports, even looked at its wonderful interior.  This is when the story takes a remarkable turn.

Unlike Gloucester, this community, Peabody, has a demolition delay ordinance and has had one since 1986, more than thirty years ago.  It was invoked in an attempt to save the O'Shea house. But when  the City realized that the delay was not long enough to be effective the city council boldly extended the  ordinance from 90 days to one year, 365 days, to buy more time, a lease on life for the old house in question.

The trend is for longer delay periods as towns where demolition delay has been tested understand that in order to be effective, longer delays must be enacted and are addressing this finding. Meanwhile, remember, Gloucester doesn't even have a demolition delay ordinance, still rolling out the red carpet for developers who care little for the historical value of the properties they would demolish.  

(Newburyport, a most beautiful nearby city, has found out the hard way that developers gutting their beautiful Federal period mansions for condo conversion leaving them a pretty shell with all of the original interior fabric, destroyed or scrapped.  They are just now recognizing and assessing their loss.)

Determined not to lose this historic house, the City of Peabody, led by the mayor and supported by the Peabody City  Council, made a second bold move.  They announced they would take the house by eminent domain!  The house will be saved and it will be interesting to see what happens next.  The City can potentially recover their fair market value purchase price and will have the option to sell it with preservation covenants or easements to protect it into the future.  This is what anyone caring about the house hopes will happen.

Perhaps eminent domain is a tool that Gloucester should invoke from time to time when a historic building is in jeopardy.  How is it that  Peabody can take such a decisive seep while Gloucester languishes totally vulnerable with no demolition delay and only a tiny historic district?

Who would think that Peabody would have the foresight and courage to act so decisively?  Why is Gloucester so indifferent?

Is it because Peabody has so much less to save that they are galvanized into making such a bold move?

Regardless of what motivated them, I say, "Kudos to Peabody"  May they lead by example!


June 20, 2017

I wrote the above story on October 13, 2015.  Having heard no more about the O;Shea house I moved on and did not follow up.  This morning's paper and the following article jolted me into the realization that I had taken for granted that the house was safe.

The developer, Michael Corsetti, who happens to come from Gloucester, is suing the City of Peabody saying that his civil rights were violated when the City took the property.

Here is an unbelievably exquisite property now in the hands of a developer who is is determined to win this battle with the City of Peabody although he has no credentials and no background in preservation.  He is typical of the developers such as those that have attacked the City of Newburyport to convert historic properties into money makers for themselves and then move on. When preservation easements are ignored they offer the community a sum of money to compensate the community in lieu of having respected the history, architecture or even the covenants on the property.  This trick has worked in some instances.

It is a sad state of affairs and I hope Peabody keeps fighting this callous developer tooth and nail.

For more details here is a link to the updated newspaper story published today, June 20, 2017.

http://gloucestertimes.cnhi.newsmemory.com/?token=3e8542161188ba0c2040ab51244b7882_59492045_8e6a&selDate=20170620&goTo=01&artid=art_0.xml

Also, related to this sad story is the piece I wrote in this blog called "Why Are You Gutting This House" October 13, 2016, exactly one year after the O'Shea house story.  This piece addressed what was happening in Newburyport, a city that has a lot to lose.

Each community has its sob story recounting the loss of special properties.  It is not an easy problem to solve but demolition delay and preservation easements can help.  These historic towns and cities need to employ all the tools available to slow down the destruction of antique and significant properties.

Good luck to Peabody!


Sunday, March 12, 2017

THE REMARKABLE 1764 SAUNDERS MANSION

WHERE HAVE I BEEN?

It has been some time since I have posted.  I had several posts prepared and just about ready to go when my attention was diverted to what I perceived as an emergency here in Gloucester.

1764 Saunders Mansion.  Became the SawyerFree Library in 1884,
 a gift from Samuel Sawyer who deeded it to the trustees of the library
The deed stipulated that it would remain a library in sacred trust and 
in perpetuity     1956 Dexter photo courtesy of CAM
Ten years ago the Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester was seeking a grant to enlarge the library.  The library, a very busy library with high traffic, consists of a Georgian house built in 1764 to which was added a stacks section in 1913.  Finally in 1976  a large low key contemporary building was added which has become the main functioning part of this sprawling complex.  This 1976 addition was designed by a local architect, Donald Monell. It was particularly pleasing and appropriate for the setting, the entire complex having high visibility and blending with City Hall and the Cape Ann Museum, the latter designed by the same architect.

The library was awarded the grant but then was unable to get the override from the City that was needed to proceed so the plans were shelved.

Ten years passed  until this year when the library was once again eligible to apply for a 40%  grant. The opportunity only comes around every ten years.  An architectural firm looked over the job and advised the library board and building committee to bypass the 1764 house, physically cutting it off. Then they then advised that it was best to demolish the 1913 addition and to also to demolish the handsome 1976, forty year old main section designed by Donald Monell and start all over again.

On the left is the old Thomas Saunders House, 1764.  A 1913 connecting link is next followed by the 1976 addition
designed by architect, Donald Monell. The hipped roof reflects the hipped roof of the old house.  The arched windows reflect the arched windows in nearby City Hall.        P. Fish photo
A short distance away is the Cape Ann Museum also designed by Donald Monell and also attached to an old house, the Elias Davis house.  The library and the museum perform as bookends flanking Gloucester City Hall.

The Cape Ann Museum attached to the Elias Davis house with a contemporary
addition.  The museum and the library face each other and were designed to
work well together as they flank the centerpiece of the Civic Center, Gloucester
City Hall    CAM Photo

I recoiled at the threat to the library, rolled up my sleeves and jumped in to do what I could to save the library and protect the house.  My first step after a scathing letter to the editor was to write a history of the old house which was published in a local blog called Enduring Gloucester. (enduringgloucester.com) This was followed by a history of the entire block in which the library is located.  

http://www.sawyerfreelibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/GDT-letter-12-22-2016.pdf

Rather than reconstruct these two stories I am going to give you the links and urge you to read both pieces.  The story of the house called the Saunders house will not disappoint you.  It's history is right up there with the most interesting and most read stories I have previously published.

https://enduringgloucester.com/2017/01/04/the-saunders-house-1764

Then please read the follow-up.

https://enduringgloucester.com/2017/02/15/a-neighborhood-wiped-out/

I am happy to report there have been successes.  After many meetings, publishing later discoveries on Facebook and joining a group of like minds there has been a positive outcome.  At this point demolition is off the table.  Architects are working on an alternate design that involves retrofitting the present library with the possibility of adding onto the back for more space.

The old house has been decommissioned for library use because of lead paint and shaky handicapped accessibility.  The idea now is to form a non-profit  for the old house.  The Historical Commssion has pledged to help find preservation or restoration money to appropriately restore the most remarkable rooms in the high styled  Georgian mansion.  The goal is to be able to eventually rejoin the Saunders house when it is free of lead and fully handicapped accessible.

Our fingers and toes are crossed for a favorable outcome.  There is every reason to believe that in the end Gloucester will have a beautiful library with a fabulous antique house combined with a state of the art 21st century library with all the bells and whistles and all within the shell of the 1976 Monell section which is so much loved by the community.

And now I can step back and complete the new stories that were about ready to go when I was so distracted that I could only think of one thing: saving the library!

Thanks for reading and know that with valid arguments and by speaking out, it IS possible to make a difference.   You can fight City Hall! (or the library)

Gloucester City Hall.
 Off to the left is the library and off to the right is
Cape Ann Museum.  Gloucester has a very handsome Civic Center.  Removing
the library and replacing it with s very contemporary building would  interrupt
the rhythn of these lovely compatible buildings and the streetscpe.   Web photo




Saturday, January 7, 2017

STILL HATING FIG NEWTONS, STILL LOVING OLD HOUSES AND CHIPPENDALE FURNITURE

FIG NEWTONS: YUK

In the 1940s an older couple moved into the house next door to ours.  I liked this husband and wife, the Norwoods, and even as a child was impressed by some of their furnishings and decorating.

For example, in their kitchen was a table surrounded by a set of four Mexican hand painted chairs with rush seats.  They were in vivid blue, cheerful and quaint adding a warm friendly touch to the kitchen.  I had never seen anything like those pretty chairs and thought they were wonderful.
Mexican chairs brightly hand painted with rush seats.  The Norwoods,
 our new neighbors, had a set like these in their kitchen.  They were bright blue.

The set of dishes used in this charming kitchen were French Quimper ware.  I adored these colorful peasant looking dishes with the quaint painted chairs.  Most children wouldn't even notice someone's kitchen chairs or the neighbor's kitchen dishes but I did!  And I wished we had some just like them.  (either that or a chrome dinette set)


In the Norwood's dining room was a Chippendale lowboy with ball and claw feet.  It was clearly vintage, but barely, and certainly not antique but I had never seen one before and I knew I wanted a lowboy.

In the living room was a so-called Governor Winthrop secretary bookcase.  These were very popular and common but I hadn't seen one before.  Like so many others those days, my mother had a Governor Winthrop desk purchased at Jordan Marsh Co. in Boston for $100 but it didn't have the glass doors and bookcase on top.  So I added that to my list of favorite things, a must have for a beautiful home.

During these years my best friend was Susan.  (I hope you're reading, Sue)  Her grandparents lived way out in the country at the top of a steep hill called Norcross Hill with sweeping views of the town and with Mt. Monadnock and Mt. Wachusett off in the distance. On summer days Susan and I would walk up there to visit.  It was quite a long walk and toward the end we were climbing the terribly steep hill.  On the side of the road was a stone watering through put there years before in the days of the horse and buggy for the horses to drink as they struggled up the hill with their wagon loads or buggies.  There was also a brook that went under the road.

But back to the Norwood's.  After several years as our neighbors they bought an antique house with fields around it.  It was on the hill near Susan's grandparent's house and we would pass it just before we reached our destination at Susan's grandparent's big antique house in this old rural neighborhood.

One day on the way home we stopped at the Norwood's and Mrs. Norwood gave us a package of fig newtons to eat on our long walk home.  I detested them and I believe Susan did too because my memory tells me that when we got to the brook we threw them in.  I have never tasted another fig newton from that day to today.

Before too many years Mrs. Norwood passed away.  Mr. Norwood was selling their things.  My mother inquired about the Quimper dishes.  My recollection is that they were $75 which my mother thought was too much for those post war days.  So she passed on them and I don't know what happened to them.

While I was away on summer vacation there was an auction.  When I got home a neighbor told me that Mrs. Norwood's things had been sold at the auction.  What happened to the furniture?  The neighbor told me that the nearby antiques shop owner, Dave of Dave's Used Furniture, had been the successful bidder for the lowboy and the secretary.


Here is an almost identical secretary bookcase to the
 one that so impressed me in my youth.
Over we went to this shop and there were the coveted pieces.  My recollection is that the lowboy was $27.00.  How could I ever get enough money to buy it?  I didn't have any money.  But wait.  How about that $25.00 war bond for which I had bought stamps every week at school.  Mother let me cash it in for the lowboy.  Perhaps I had the necessary $2.00 to complete the sale or maybe my mother kicked in the $2.00.  The lowboy was mine! My first piece of furniture in a long life of collecting and buying furniture.

This vintage Chippendale lowboy is very similar
to the prized lowboy I purchased.
The lowboy was ensconsed in my mother's dining room with a tea set on top.  It went with me to CT, then back to Newburyport, MA; always in my dining room.  When my son bought a big house I passed it on to him because I had moved to a smaller house and needed to thin out quite a few pieces. It isn't period but it is still a handsome piece of furniture.

After practically a life time of buying property, selling property of our own along with many years as a Realtor I still can't resist looking at the ads and following new listings through Realtor.com.  From time to time I check the listings in my home town.

A few days ago I did just that and there was a new listing.  I recognized it instantly.  It was the Norwood's old house on that country road.  I looked at the photos and read the description claiming it to possibly be the oldest house in the town.  That is very doubtful but it is still a nice country place, off the beaten path, with fireplaces, old stonewalls and pasture land on five acres.

This is an old picture of the house found on line.  It is more as I remember it than the newer photos.  It has a lovely Greek Revival door and inside the house there are Greek Revival doors and mantels.  The house is dated 1750 but it is probably closer to 1840.  If it was 1750 it would be facing south and the front door would not be in the gable end of the house.The newer picture is easily recognizable but this is more the way I remember it.  It was white not gray but had more detail than it does today.
Seeing the pictures of the house set me off down memory lane reminiscing about our hikes up Norcross Hill, my fond memories of the Norwoods and my introduction to Chippendale furniture. The only thing the Norwoods had that I didn't like was those awful fig newtons!

Old pastures and stonewalls add just the right touch to this country property.

Some things never change.  I still love old houses and Chippendale furniture and I think I would still hate fig newtons, not that I have checked lately.

Thanks for wandering down memory lane with me on a snowy January day.

Pru