Ambling along the chain link construction fence I came upon a well known "townie" and his dog. Pleasantries were exchanged and then he looked at me quizzically and asked me "Why?" There was a litany of questions attached to the "why" - "why spend the money? Why save this wreck? Why not tear it down and build a new house at half the price?" and so on.
I never have taken offense to the question, even at the core when it reflects my own personal beliefs behind historic preservation. The foundation of the answer lies quite simply in the reply "why not?" The Tilden House has great intrinsic value. The hand hewn oak and chestnut beams all date to the early 18th century and some perhaps date to the late 17th century. The hardwoods that grew in Dorchester Village and cut by the pioneers who made a life and survived at the edge of wilderness. Keep in mind, that this house, even in the worst of conditions has weathered over three-hundred New England winters. Countless snowstorms buried this homestead and it has survived. It is a survivor and continues to speak to us in new ways.
There is a treasure trove of details that are now being seen for the very first time. The fabric, construction, and the hardware that were all created right here on this property. The Tilden House will attract people, young and old, who value history and culture. It will become a backdrop to a historic landscape and help people see the cultural complexity and aesthetics of Pequitside Farm. Touching the summer beams - the load bearing timber that carries the weight of building, and knowing that David & Abigail Tilden lived in harmony in this space, brings great comfort to the visitor.
Many local preservationists and citizens have rallied in support of the Tilden for the past six decades. The heritage and the permanency of this building will become readily apparent over the next several months. Each day the house is drawn away from the brink of extinction. Why? because people care. They have cared to give their time, money, energy, votes and most of all passions. To have lost this treasure would have been unbearable. Imagine that valley on Pleasant Street without the iconic Tilden, and the answer becomes clear.
The Tilden is continuity for our community, it is embedded in our memory of this place, it is one of the reasons that makes Canton (and Stoughton for that matter) unique and culturally significant. When completed, it will again become a beautiful place to visit and learn about architecture, first-period craftsmanship and help generations in the future understand our values.
It would have been so easy to simply allow this building to slip away. To sink into history and show photos as an example of what was. I am not sure that I convinced my fellow townie this morning, and actually it really does not matter. The convincing is now past, the action is before us. Our ancestors are speaking from beyond the years. For all the families that have lived in that house, the Tilden's, Lyons', Howard's, Alexander's and so many more - their spirit is in the work we are doing today and is a fitting tribute. Why? --- Why Not!!!
Work is now formally underway at the Tilden House. It seems so uneventful after the years of slow and steady progress to get to this point. There was no groundbreaking ceremony, and the work is largely hidden from public view. That said, the restoration is well begun. The foundation around the entire building has been exposed and dug out around six inches around the perimeter. After three centuries, the foundation is in relatively great condition. There will be a bit of repointing and historic masonry work, but otherwise the stonework looks great.
Workers are beginning to remove the wiring and systems as part of a directed and careful demolition. Clearing out the spaces will allow new systems to be installed at a future date. Electrical, HVAC, and plumbing will be new and brought up to code. An old 60 amp electrical service will be resized and the hope is to bring all wiring underground to preserve the historic context of the setting.
All of the ground surface preparation it meant to pave the way for the new sills that will be placed between the house and the stone foundation. The white oak trees from western Massachusetts that have been felled merely weeks ago are now at the sawmill being cut specifically for the Tilden House. At some point, we will travel out to Shirley, Mass. to take a closer look at the process and begin delivery. The source of the materials in this project will be of great interest and help us tell the story of preservation carpentry and how we save this first period house.
Outside, a stately black walnut tree extends its branches as fingers touching the roof of the house. A veritable highway for squirrels will be trimmed back. The branch, as thick as an arm, will be saved and become souvenirs and crafts to help fund some of the work that is still to come. A spoon, a cutting board or perhaps a tree ornament - all to be refashioned and salvaged to help sustain the work at the house. The dead apple tree outside the kitchen has served a full life and is about to be removed. One day a historic garden will adorn the grounds, but today is a day of reckoning for the overgrown plants and trees.
Outside the back corner of the house, the ashes of a fireplace are discovered heaped against the foundation. Noted for future research and discovery. Over the next few weeks the work will become more evident to the public. Tours and short seminars on the work will be scheduled once we are well underway. It is so exciting to begin. Onward!
The phone rang at 3:32 am. It rang again at 3:45 am. Both calls went unanswered. When I woke at 4:45, I instinctively turned to my phone to check the time. Bleary eyed I saw that there were two missed calls. The first was from the alarm company monitoring the Tilden House. "This is James, this call concerns the Canton Historical Society and 93 Pleasant Street. At 3:28 am we received a fire alarm in the first floor smoke detector. The fire department has been dispatched."
My heart sank. For so many moments over the years I had an image of how this project could end, and fire has always been a great threat. After all, this is a wood frame building and with over three centuries of history, wood buildings are at great threat from flames. The house has been protected as best possible. Most of the electricity has been removed, smoke and motion detectors monitor the building 24/7 and exterior lighting has been added to make sure it can be well observed from the street. All that said, fire is always a possibility.
There was a sense of foreboding and I scraped the frost from the windshield and headed out in the darkness of the morning. In the driveway I sniffed the air for smoke and looked to the north of my house for any signs of fire across the swamp towards the Tilden. As the car warmed, I imagined that the money raised would need to be returned. Letter's would be written, tears would be shed and the town would mark the loss with a plaque. I drove faster than I should have. A bright moon shone over the Reservoir as I searched for tell-tale emergency lights in the meadow. I even imagined how the television news reports might cover the loss of this already almost lost building.
Turning into the parking lot, the Tilden stood strong against the cobalt blue dawn. There was no fire. It was just as it had been the day before. Turning the key in the lock, and accompanied by a Lieutenant from the Canton Fire Department, we searched for the source of the alarm. A smoke detector had malfunctioned in the cold of the December night. The house was safe and sound.
When my wife woke up and I relayed to her my pre-dawn adventure, she smiled softly and said, "that house wants to be saved." A mantra that she, and others have said countless times over the past fifteen years. Indeed, that house speaks every time we touch. And, on Christmas Day, the dawn of a new era for this historic site is about to break. The builders will reach deep into the soul of the house and find the weakest of pulses. They will begin major surgery on the vital organs, the spine and the bones of the house. Tilden will speak volumes over the next several months. Today, one of the great gifts that I received was a false alarm and renewed hope that this house wants to be saved.
The Canton Historical Society signed a contract with Gerard O'Doherty of Lincoln, Massachusetts for Phase I structural preservation work at the Tilden House. This culminates the efforts of preservationists that began in 1973. With close to forty-five years of work, a major milestone has been met to protect and preserve the historic homestead of David and Abigail Tilden. Work is expected to begin mid-December.
Earlier this week, the Board of Selectmen executed a preservation restriction with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to protect the building in perpetuity. The restriction paved the way for a $50,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission. In addition, Governor Baker's Office of Administration and Finance is releasing the $100,000 budget earmark that was filed by Representative William Galvin and Senator Walter Timilty. Taken as whole, more than $500,000 is dedicated to the project.
Taken as a whole, sufficient money has enabled the Canton Historical Society to begin work on the nearly three-hundred year old house. The house was built over the course of the years between 1725 and 1747 with a rear lean-to constructed in the late 17th century and moved into place in 1725. The house has had seven owners - including the Town of Canton who purchased it in 1970. When preservation is completed the house will become a study in early architecture and wood-frame construction techniques. O'Doherty has very specialized skills that will be used to replicate early construction techniques.
In August 2018 the Canton Historical Society assumed a twenty-five year lease and has begun the restoration as a centerpiece of their commitment to the people of Canton. Plans to share the work and develop tours of the preservation efforts will begin later this Winter.
The Canton Historical Society has secured a $100,000 earmark in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Budget. A contract is pending with the Secretary of Administration and Finance. Through the efforts of State Representative William Galvin and Senator Walter Timility, this money will secure full funding for Phase I structural work. Work is expected to be underway within weeks. The money will be used for windows, structural preservation and additional work to move the project forward on a string footing.
The Massachusetts Historical Commission has awarded a $50,000 matching grant to the Canton Historical Society for Phase I structural preservation of the David Tilden House. This highly competitive grant will bring additional financial stability to the project. As part of the Massachusetts Projects Fund Round 24, the Commonwealth is affirming their commitment to one of the oldest houses in Norfolk County and this National Register property.
The house is in grave danger of being lost forever, and this infusion of money will allow for work to begin within the next few months. After more than fifteen years of private efforts, the Friends of the Little Red House and the Canton Historical Society have secured more than $485,000 in overall funding. Placing the house in private hands through the grant of a twenty-five year lease will allow preservation professionals the oversight and care that is needed at this critical juncture. Having the Massachusetts Historical Commission as a partner elevates the work and secures the promise of a permanent preservation agreement for this first-period home.
The matching grant will allow the leveraging of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds that have been committed to the project to stretch even further. Essentially, $50,000 of CPA money will now be matched by the grant from Mass Historical. The total funds available for this project are now estimated to be $410,000. In addition the CPA has already funded structural plans, a historic structures report and project plans at the 80% design stage. Given that plans and bid documents are at an advanced state of readiness, this project is truly "hammer ready."
Next steps for the project include additional fundraising, a sign-off from the Board of Selectmen for the preservation restriction and engaging the architect in mobilizing the plans and bidding documents. The Canton Historical Society remains cautiously optimistic that stabilization work can begin as early as September and will be completed by June 2019.
As part of the FY19 State Budget, Canton's Representative William Galvin filed an earmark (Amendment #977 to House 4400) dedicating $100,000 for the preservation of the David Tilden House. It is expected that Senator Walter Timilty will do the same in the Senate. The earmark for Canton is another critical step towards the preservation goals of this project.
Earlier this year, both Galvin and Timilty wrote letters of support to the Massachusetts Historical Commission in recognition of the need for funding under the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund (MPPF). The grant application was submitted by the Canton Historical Society, Inc. and is a supporting element as we move forward.
The work at the Tilden House will comprehensively address the structural issues as outlined in the Historic Structures Report and the attendant structural engineering report. The MPPF grant request will only cover a portion of the overall project with the match and additional funding provided by Community Preservation funds. The portion of the project covered by the grant will include the repair of above ground foundation, replacing sills and studs as needed, reinforcing corner posts and plates, sintering or replacing running timber girts, replacing and repairing the west bay of the house, replacing the roof, selective sheathing replacement and new clapboards.
The proposed work is critical given the age and condition of this historic site. The physical condition speaks for itself. At present, unless this work moves forward, it is quite likely this contributing structure to the Canton Corner National Historic District will be lost forever. Moreover, tied to this grant is the significance of the preservation restriction. The preservation restriction will assure that this will indeed be a successful project. The future use of the Tilden House by the Canton Historical Society, Inc. includes educational components tied to proposed work – through curriculum and multimedia development of the preservation process, as well as providing a safe and secure building that will allow us to preserve this historic building.
We are fortunate to have leaders in the House and Senate who understand the work being done at the Tilden House. As the budget season progresses, we look forward to building even more momentum in the legislature with the hope for Governor Baker's assent to the funding request.
Over the last three months there has been quite a bit of progress that moves us closer to kicking off preservation work at the Tilden House. At the 2017 Annual Town Meeting, the voters supported declaring the house surplus property. The Board of Selectmen issued a compressive Request for Proposals (RFP), and the Canton Historical Society stepped forward to answer answer the call. A 25-30 year lease will allow the Society to take on the project in a way that is core to the mission and expertise of the organization.
In mid-December the crew spent another full day at the Tilden House following up on a series of interesting questions regarding the development of the structure. This time, walls were opened up to expose the post and beams that are hidden deep within the bones of the building. Working to discover how the building came together is a key element of the Historic Structures Report (HSR).
The rear portion to the western side of the building has long been considered to date from as early as 1710 - and was on the property when David Tilden took title in 1725. The owner of that section of the house was likely a man by the name of Jabez Searle, who had received a grant of land from his father in 1710, and lived on the property when Pleasant Street was laid out in 1723. We may never know for sure if this is indeed the structure that Searle lived in, or if was moved here when Tilden arrived. What we are learning is that the crudely chamfered structural members are more characteristic of early 18th century building techniques. There is a theory that this surviving early portion was cut down in both height and width. The visit in December seems to be supporting some of this thinking.
On the second floor a sawzall cuts through the sheetrock to reveal descending beams for what was once a roofline that no longer exists. Deep in the attic, corner posts that once went two stories, now are cut off at the floor. Evidence emerges of the older and earlier structure attached onto the main house. Meanwhile, when peeling back the downstairs walls, we discover what may be very early 18th century wallpaper designs and evidence of whitewash and redwash on the beams. Experts peered deep into wall cavities and explored the once massive chimney shaft to uncover more hints that may help us understand the building.
The lesson is clear. To preserve the Tilden House, first we must understand as much as we can about the original structures and changes over time to decide what must go and what must stay. In the truest sense this is becoming a "study house" that gives us a look at 18th and 19th century building techniques, as well as insight into the pioneering spirit of living in the wilderness in the early 1700's. In a few weeks we will begin to present and digest the HSR, and that in turn will lead us to the program design and ultimately the bid specifications. Over the next few months workers will begin to gear up for phase one, and major structural work will begin. In the meantime, each visit uncovers more of the unique history of the Tilden, and will help us educate many new generations who will come to visit this house in the meadows.
With the interest in the Tilden House renewed and as we begin work on this project, our friends at Cape Cod Aerial Photography sent along this amazing autumn view of the Tilden. It certainly reinforces the reason that David & Abigail Tilden settled on this small property in what was then the wilderness of Dorchester. Access to good fallow farmland and a fresh water supply. The Canton Reservoir was not yet created, and in 1725 these were large and fertile meadows. The Pequit Brook snaked through the southern boundary line of the homestead, and a busy road bounded to the western edge. The water table at the site is fairly high and likely led to a groundwater well (still visible) that would provide the growing family with a ready source of water.
All the ingredients for a successful home were present. Access to the road, ample land, clean water, and plenty of woodland for building and fuel. And thus began 300 years of life at the David Tilden House.
Go behind the scenes and learn about the preservation of this historic structure.