NOVEMBER 2007 » RECENT PROJECT

Puritan's Progress

The oldest house in Boston undergoes a sensitive restoration.

Project: Elder James Blake House, Dorchester, MA

Architects: Historic Preservation & Design, Salem, MA; John Goff, principal

By Eve M. Kahn

In the late 1600s, a farmer named James Blake was a pillar of a young, prosperous Puritan community in what is now the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, MA. During his long life (1623-1700), he held just about every prominent civic or religious title the town had to offer, including Selectman, Constable, Court Deputy, Deacon, Fence Viewer and Elder. In 1661, he built an oak-framed mansion for his wife Elizabeth Clapp and their three children. He clapboarded the house's two-and-a-half-story gabled bulk, and illuminated its four rooms with roof dormers and leaded-glass casement windows.

Blake's is now the oldest surviving house in Boston, and the second oldest in the state. It's also one of the oldest remaining American houses built with thick beams typical of England's West Country, the homeland of Elizabeth's family. And this year the house earned one more honor: it underwent one of the thriftiest and shrewdest full-body restorations in the history of American house museums.

The scrappy and enthusiastic but somewhat cash-strapped Dorchester Historical Society, on a tight $180,000 budget and eight-month deadline, recently brought in world-class experts to work over the house's envelope. From the routed white-oak steps to the vintage-brick chimney with arched recesses, the once-dowdy Blake House has been stopping traffic lately.

"People who'd scarcely noticed it before were giving us the thumbs-up sign as we worked, and honking their horns," says Jerry Eide, preservation contractor with Wendell, MA-based Hill Town Restoration. The building has a scholarly resident caretaker as well: Ellen Berkland, Boston's city archaeologist, who's fondly known around Dorchester as Miss Blakey. The house, she says, "was an eyesore, and now it's a shining gem."

Blake might not quite recognize the place, however. In 1895, it became one of America's first preservation success stories. The city had threatened to raze it to make room for an avenue widening and the construction of new municipal greenhouses, which supplied plants for the "Emerald Necklace" of Boston parks that landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted had been developing since the 1870s. Dorchester preservationists scrounged up a few hundred dollars to have a horse-powered winch haul the house 1,200 ft. to a new Olmsted-designed park.

There a young MIT-trained architect named Charles Hodgdon reimagined the 1661 artifact according to his own tastes for Arts and Crafts architecture.The Blake and Clapp descendants had changed the house so often over the centuries – shrinking and removing dormers, replacing casements with double-hung sash – that Hodgdon felt free to conjecture. Through the 1930s, the historical society used his inventive amalgam of shingles and diamond panes as a headquarters and museum, but then took over two grander Clapp-family houses nearby. The Blake House became a rarely open satellite, and sometimes suffered vandalism, break-ins and even arson attempts.

But the academics, schoolchildren and curiosity seekers who did pay visits found astonishing intact evidence of Puritan life. About 60 percent of the 1661 fabric remains, including a West Country frame fashioned from posts, beams, collars and purlins and insulated with wattle and daub. The renowned historian Abbott Lowell Cummings devoted a chapter to the Blake House in his groundbreaking 1979 study, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725. And, in 2004, Salem-based Historic Preservation & Design started researching the building for an historic-structure report and restoration plan that eventually ballooned to some 600 pages.

"It was a tough nut to crack," John Goff, principal of Historic Preservation & Design, says of the house's convoluted 346-year journey. Earl Taylor, head of the historical society since 2002, supplied Goff with stacks of primary source material. Goff soon discovered that the Blake House had numerous brushes with greatness, and almost surreally varied stories to tell about American history. The Clapps and Blakes had arrived in Dorchester in the 1630s, on some of the first shiploads of Puritans fleeing religious persecution. American Indians had probably been hired to help split and hew construction materials for the Blakes' house – only a few straggly, traumatized members of the Neponset tribe in Dorchester had managed to survive skirmishes with whites and European diseases. In 1776, the Blakes and Clapps probably hosted George Washington's troops at the house while Bostonians drove off the British from a cannon-studded earthworks in Dorchester Heights. By 1800, part of the Blake farm had become a tanning mill, later run by the Converse family (of sneaker-production fame). In the 1890s, among the Blake and Clapp cousins helping to save the house were a colleague of Alexander Graham Bell, a woman mystery writer and a prolific historian considered "the father of American genealogy."

Goff concluded one chapter of his meticulous, thorough report with an impassioned plea: "Repairs to the Blake House," he wrote, "are urgently needed." The slate roof, a misguided 1940s intervention, and the ca. 1970 gutter system were failing, window frames were sagging and windowpanes were taped together. The exterior shingles were rotting underneath coats of chocolate brown paint and water was infiltrating the oak sheathing and beams. The historical society won a $50,000 restoration grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and raised the rest of the financing from private donors. During the work, a banner hung over the front doorway, printed in huge letters: "Save the Blakey!"

Eide's team removed the windows for shipment to Shalan Stained Glass Studio in North Adams, MA. "We photographed each window, made a vellum rubbing to document every pane, every break, every came line and reinforcement bar, and then we disassembled and cleaned every piece," explains studio proprietor Glenn Shalan. "In the end, we had to replace all the lead and more than 100 panes, which were either broken or were later additions in colors that didn't match the 1890s glass." The new hand-blown panes, he adds, come from Lamberts in Waldsassen, Germany. "They make the closest product we've found to antique hand-blown glass, with the right amount of striation, ripples and sense of movement," Shalan says.

Eide meanwhile re-skinned the roof and walls with shingles from West Kingston, RI-based Liberty Cedar. He patched a few framing members with sections of white oak sawn by Jim Aaron of Shutesbury, MA, but mostly injected epoxy into damaged areas – "we wanted to remove as little historic fabric as possible," Eide explains. Based on Goff's interpretations of 1890s photos of the house, Eide lathed rotund capitals for new downspouts. In place of the boxy 1940s chimney, he created a stack of vintage bricks and lime mortar, with an arched recess on each side and tapered top brick rows. Hodgdon's shapely 1896 chimney, Goff notes, "is a very subtle, elegant design."

As the work progressed, more research discoveries turned up. Architectural historian Anne Grady launched dendrochronology studies, and restoration carpenter Michael Burrey drilled out attic-beam samples. Oxfordshire, England-based Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory concluded that the trees were felled in 1661. (Historians had long believed that Blake built the house in 1648, just before his wedding. But the 13-year discrepancy is relatively minor; dendro-analysis in recent years has shown a number of historic houses to be decades younger than previously thought.) Inside the walls, Eide found flowery wallpaper shreds, a medical syringe and a board bearing a carpenter's signature, dated 1896. Berkland brought some of the walls' wattle and daub samples to her city lab. Pumpkin and squash seeds, fabric fragments, burned bone and human and animal hair are all in the mix.

The house remained open throughout the overhaul (for tour hours see www.dorchesterhistoricalsociety.org). The society has not yet decided how to furnish the low-ceilinged rooms, but will probably install exhibits about local history and the house's evolution from Puritan farmstead to Arts and Crafts-inspired preservation milestone. The tours usually include the attic, Berkland says: "I love taking people up there and pointing out that those beams are from pre-Columbian trees – just think about that in the grand scheme of time." Eide adds that children are especially awed upstairs: "You can say to them, 'Now, try to imagine what this town was like when those trees were acorns.'" 

 

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