Found Between Sheathing and Lathe!
A few weeks ago I wrote about the re-shingling work at Mitchell House and what the removal of the shingles revealed – carpenter’s marks, sawyer’s marks, and coils upon coils of wood shavings circa 1790.
Well, here is a sample of what was uncovered and what I saved to become part of the Mitchell House collection. The shavings had not seen the light of day since 1790 when the House was built. These fell down between the sheathing boards and the interior walls. As the carpenters worked – Hezekiah Swain and others – the shavings fell down between and were not removed – it is just wood shavings after all. Many were in pristine condition, some a little dirty from dirt slowly working its way under the baseboards and down through the space between the outside and inside walls. That white curl is plaster that squished through the lathe and the rusted iron piece is part of a very long nail used in the main timbers of the House. The sheathing board which hid these treasures had not been removed since the House was built and since we had to cut out two small areas of rotten sheathing, these treasures were revealed.
Mitchell House Gets A Facelift …
Or maybe we should call it a chemical peel since nothing was sagging.
With the tremendous support of grants, the Mitchell House’s southern façade is currently being re-shingled. The shingles we are all used to seeing – the dark almost black shingles of many decades – are no longer sufficient to protect the Mitchell House from weather. They have shrunk, curled, and left significant gaps between one another courtesy of sun, rain, and age. This can allow water to penetrate to the sheathing and thus cause rot and those dreaded leaks.
Nathan Killeen of Nathan Killen Old House Restoration is up to the task. Nathan has worked on the Mitchell House for many years with Sanford Kendall who is now retiring and passing the torch. Nathan is very “in-tune” with historic properties and only works on historic structures. He is incredibly knowledgeable. With carpenter Matt Anderson, they have been getting the job done carefully and respectfully – both of the historic house and the carpenters who came before them – mainly in 1790 when the House was built!
Nathan’s work has uncovered some things we knew about and some new things such as sheathing rot. He carefully cut out just the rotted areas and placed in old wood, trying to re-use what he could of the original sheathing – no plywood or pressure treated anything here and not full replacement! Removal of these two small sheathing areas also revealed what we knew already existed, sill rot. So, he carefully dug out the rot – LEAVING the existing sill – and sistered in a “new” piece of wood – nothing new or pressure treated – he used an old piece of lumber. This way the original sill stays and we have strengthened it with this piece that is now attached. That is the right way to do it. Nathan, Matt, and I also signed and dated the back of the new sister piece. Hopefully, it will last another 200 years or so.
We think based on nail holes, that this is only the third time the façade of Mitchell House has ever been re-shingled. The last time was in the 1950s or 1960s and they covered the sheathing with tar paper – something that did not exist in 1790. Tar paper may stop leaks but it also stops moisture from leaving the structure – it acts as a vapor barrier and the Mitchell House cannot breathe. Leaks get trapped and the tar paper and sheathing get wet and then you get – rot and a house full of moisture that cannot escape. So, tar paper is being removed and none is being put back in – just the sheathing and then shingles. What IS being replaced are the splines around the windows, front door, and corner boards. These pieces of cedar – one long piece – stop water from getting behind the framing of the windows and doors and getting to the sheathing. These were once on the House but for some reason when it was re-shingled, they thought tar paper was a better option and did not take into account the age of the House. It NEEDS its splines.
We have also found carpenters’ marks – roman numerals where pieces are to meet up – sawyer’s marks from when the wood was cut, and even better – shavings from the carpenters when they built the house in 1790! These were stuck between the sheathing and the interior wall in the space or pocket that exists. I recently just found these at another house of about the same vintage that is being worked on in the neighborhood – very, very exciting!
And we owe a BIG thank you to Nathan – and Matt!
Take a look at a few photographs documenting the journey of the “chemical-peel.”
Over the holidays, the Mitchell House and its curator lost a dear friend, supporter, and mentor. Clarissa P. Porter was a champion of the Mitchell House and historic preservation and an enthusiastic fan of Maria Mitchell. I do not remember just when I first met Clarissa, but I must have been a teenager. Since that time, she has always been there with support, friendship, and advice. She was tireless in her support of the Mitchell House’s conservation and one of the founding members of the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award Committee. Numerous non-profits here on Nantucket (and elsewhere) have benefitted from her enthusiasm and enduring support and some would not exist if not for her unflagging energy and volunteerism. She continued to keep in touch and wanted to know everything that was going on, even when her illness made it more difficult. She cared and she continued to care even to the end. But there really is no end, for her spirit lives on in all those she touched. I know that there is a piece of her that makes me who I am.
The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands. − Maria Mitchell
A few weeks ago as I was vacuuming the Birth Room in preparations for closing the Mitchell House for the winter (always a depressing thing to do!), I turned and looked back into the 1825 Kitchen to see the sun streaming through the windows and casting its light and shadows across the floor. Simple. Beautiful. I thought about how this pattern of sun and shadow across the floor is something that has played out since the kitchen was built by William in 1825. Lydia, William, Maria and all of her siblings saw that same light and the shadows of the sashes and mullions that I was looking at for the thousandth time as well. That has not changed – for over 187 years. Wow!
I also thought about how lucky Lydia and the Mitchell’s were to have a kitchen so filled with lovely afternoon sun. In the summer that made it a bit too warm especially with the fire going for cooking, but in the winter and during cool fall and spring days, that afternoon sun was a help for lighting and warmth.
Now not much has changed in the Mitchell House since it was built in 1790 and we also have many of the family pieces owned by the William and Peleg (William’s youngest brother who later owned 1 Vestal Street) Mitchell families, as well as Maria. But something so simple as the sun – and it remains the same. I think it is important to remember that we are just the caretakers of a home or building – even if it is our personal home. Owners of a home will come and go but the building will remain for generations and it is our privilege to live or take care of that building or home and our responsibility to preserve and protect it for the future so that someday, say in a hundred years, someone else will look upon a moulding, a fireplace surround, a riser, or even the sun coming through the window and know that someone else admired that one hundred, two hundred, three hundred or more years ago and that it has not changed. It connects you even more to the past and the people who inhabit the past.
The Mitchell House in Autumn
Vestal Street is quieter. There are fewer tourists, summer residents have returned to their year-round homes especially if they have children in school, and the air is cooling and becoming more crisp. For Mitchell House, we are still open for tours although on a shorter schedule (this year on Saturdays from 10-1PM), but there are still many things to accomplish before it gets cold and I have to seek a winter office – one that has some heat!
As I noted last year, I always find closing up the House depressing. But at this time, it is still open with everything in its place and I am able to focus on some more detailed cleaning and the conservation of small artifacts, working more in-depth with the collections, and working on other House related projects. I will also be out in the garden even more as I cut back this year’s perennials and annuals, making things neat and tidy for next spring when I wake the garden up and add annuals, a few new perennials, and a bounty of wonderful heirloom seeds such as the morning glories you see in this image that I planted at the south fence along Vestal Street. I am hoping that next year, the fig plant will have some figs – William Mitchell had a fig plant in the garden when he lived at 1 Vestal Street and I have been trying to introduce plants he had in his garden.
We still have some historic preservation workshops coming up. We just had a “Behind-the-Scenes at the Mitchell House” with NPT – an architectural and conservation focused workshop that had a nice group of people on such a beautiful day. And, we have two more to come.
On the 22nd of September, I will join with the Executive Director of Nantucket Preservation Trust (NPT) and Education Staff from the Nantucket Historical Association to present our “Four Centuries of Domestic Life” walking tour. It starts at 10am at the Oldest House, ending on Main Street. It’s an interesting way to learn more about the changes in the built and natural environments and how changes in domestic life changed these landscapes. And, it is free!
And on October 6th Mitchell House and NPT will co-host island conservation plasterer and mason Pen Austin as she discusses the preservation and conservation of historic masonry using the Mitchell House chimney and the chimneys and fireplaces of several houses nearby. Come and learn how to slake mortar! It is $5 for members of MMA or NPT and $10 for Non-Members. AND, reservations are necessary due to very limited space, so please call me at the Mitchell House to reserve a spot at 228.2896.
We hope you will join us, for a tour on Saturday mornings in September or for one of the remaining workshops!
The Answer to “Where Is This?”
The image I posted last week and here again is the newel post at the bottom of the front hall staircase in Hinchman House, the MMA’s Natural Science Museum. The small white piece you see on top is what is often referred to as a “mortgage button.” And here is where we have some issues.
Let’s start with the newel post. As time went on, the posts became more elaborate as they became a part of increasingly elaborate staircases in some homes. In some, the newel post became large enough to support a light and the post would be made hollow in order to hide the gas lines or wiring. When these lights were removed by future owners, a large hollow place was left behind and stories began to abound that people once hid their mortgages or deeds in the hollowed out newel post. Thus, that hollow place did hide something but it was really for hiding the magic behind the lighting. The Hinchman House post, ballustrade, and railing are simple. I believe some of the elements are original, reflecting the Quaker ethics of its original owner, Thomas Coffin. But some parts, the balusters, for example, may be later replacements although they themselves are fairly old and the newel is just simply a small piece of rounded wood mounted to a simple baluster.
And then, there in the photograph you see a bit of whalebone (if indeed that is what it is). These “mortgage buttons” as they are often referred to might only have been a way of hiding the joinery beneath them. However, the legend is that they began on Nantucket in the nineteenth century. In the period and earlier, mortgages were less common, spanned a shorter time period, and usually had a large lump sum payment at the end. So the mortgage button could have come to be a display of status to show what you had accomplished. But, there is no known connection between the button and the mortgage so this is really just conjecture although a very nice story. But I like the story, so I will continue to tell both distinguishing between the two because stories are important too, even if there is only a tiny bit of truth there.
Where Is This?
Here is a photograph of an architectural element. Can you tell me where it is? First correct answer – and this is not for employees of the MMA – receives a free gift. Please send me an email at email@example.com with “Where Is This?” in the message line.
What is This?
What you are looking at is early nineteenth century decorative floor paint found in one of the bedrooms of the Mitchell House (House) which was built in 1790 by Hezekiah Swain. While it appears to be a pattern – it is not. It is reminiscent of when seventeenth century kitchen floors were covered in sand and women would sweep patterns into the sand to make it more decorative. The sand would absorb grease and drippings from cooking while scouring the floor at the same time. Sometimes, herbs could be strewn across the floor causing a pleasant smell – think of it as much, much better than a chemical air freshener (and try is when vacuuming by sprinkling some dried herbs on your carpet – such as lavender – and then vacuuming!) when walked across.
We think that perhaps William Mitchell might have painted this floor soon after moving into 1 Vestal Street (1818) and maybe the others in the House. He was a creative man and also would likely have been trying to save some money. The colors are blacks and greys of different depths and it was likely painted with a round brush. It takes many forms – stripes, diagonals, swirls, large dots, and an almost sponge like impression. It is painted on large pine boards that vary in width. It remains fairly intact – in particular the area located on the inside walls where William’s brother, Peleg Junior – owner of 1 Vestal starting in 1836 – had located his bed. Later, carpet was placed over the floor likely when Peleg’s widow was living in the House (until 1902 when she passed away and the Maria Mitchell Association was formed and the House became a museum).
It has been documented – by photograph and sketches – by a conservator whom we contracted with to work on the conservation of other decorative paint in the Mitchell House. Her work was funded by the Community Preservation Act. The floor paint has also been documented in numerous magazines and other publications, including the book American Painted Floors Before 1840 by Ann Eckert Brown. If you have not been to the Mitchell House, or not visited recently, make sure you come for a visit and we will reveal all sorts of fascinating details about this unique and wonderfully preserved historic house.
Mitchell House Receives Its Architectural Preservation Award
On the evening of June 28, the Mitchell House and the Maria Mitchell Association received Nantucket Preservation Trust’s Architectural Preservation Award!
The Architectural Preservation Award recognizes the owner(s) of an historic structure, and when appropriate one or more members of building professionals who assisted in the completion of the preservation project. Structures may contain additions that are compatible with the historic sections and include exterior and interior work. In order to qualify for the award, preservation of those portions or features that convey the property’s historical, cultural, or architectural values is required.
There have been many, many craftspeople and conservators from both on and off the island that have helped to preserve and conserve the historic integrity of the Mitchell House. We are also grateful to the Community Preservation Act and its Committee for its monetary support of our work, as well as private donors who have given to help in our efforts. Please see my earlier blogs to see who has helped us in our efforts.
If you are not familiar with the Nantucket Preservation Trust (NPT), have a look at their wonderful website at www.nantucketpreservation.org. Below is the mission of NPT that celebrates its 15th birthday this year. Happy Birthday NPT and thank you for this incredible honor!
NPT’s Mission as found on its website:
The NPT is a nonprofit, membership-based organization with a focus on the preservation of the island’s historic architecture. We provide programs that explore the architecture and history of the island’s buildings, and strive to increase awareness of the importance and fragility of these resources. Of special concern are Nantucket’s historic interiors that are not protected by local government regulations and are often threatened by insensitive “gut rehabs.”
Other island non-profit organizations focus on the island’s history, its flora and fauna and its open spaces, but there is no other organization whose primary concern is preservation of Nantucket’s unique historic resources. Paradoxically for a place so steeped in history, no other organization on island has such a charge, and at present no other charge is so important.
Although preserving the texture and appearance of our historic buildings is central to Nantucket’s economic and social appeal, the affluence of the past decade has posed new threats to the very basis of that appeal. The issue of “gut rehab” threatens historic homes. Each year scores of historic buildings are altered without considering the irreplaceable architectural qualities that led to Nantucket’s designation as a National Historic Landmark.
Awakening the Mitchell House
Unlike a teenager who is terrible about being rousted out of bed, the Mitchell House happily stretches, takes a shower, eats her breakfast, and begins her day. That said, she has to take a supremely long shower in order to make sure she is in tip-top condition for presenting herself to the public.
About five months ago in this blog, I briefly detailed buttoning up the House for the winter and the sadness it always brings for me. Opening the House however is a whole different thing emotionally because even though the cleaning is again intensive – removing mildew from the front sitting room ceiling (my neck gets a work out!), vacuuming high and low, dusting everything, washing the floors, washing all the sheets that were covering everything, moving all the furniture back into place, putting out all the artifacts, bringing back the fine art, cleaning out the garden and planting, working on administrative tasks that need to be completed for opening, and training one summer intern who arrives in late May or early June (tired yet?!) – the House looks like a home again and everything is in its place, and all is right with the Mitchell House world. Classes begin, workshops are led, and visitors come for their first visit or their twentieth visits to see what’s new.
And there is always something new to share at Mitchell House and there is always a conservation or preservation project that took place while the House was buttoned up or is currently in progress. This spring, we completed the painting of the southern façade’s sashes – thank you Jim Tyler and Crew and to the Community Preservation Act for the funding – and the UV filters on the southern façade’s sashes were also replaced – thank you warranties and New England Sun Control! The front of the House – the southern façade – takes a beating and even the UV are no match for that sun after ten years so they were replaced. And we completed some further mending of the 1790 chimney – thanks to Pen Austin our mason!
The House is a happier, less depressing looking place once it is open. The piles of sheets are folded and put away for a few months (only about eight loads − I tell you, I do everything at work that I do at home just on a more intensive and careful level!), the garden is in full bloom with foxgloves abounding, and we are ready for a productive summer of classes, visitors, research, and conservation projects. So please, do stop by – whether it is your first time or your twentieth – and we will show you just what makes Mitchell House so special and what we have completed and learned over the course of another winter!