The parking lot at the Tilden House was filled with cars and trucks. Ladders extended off of truck racks, and the team descended on the house with the fervor of forensic scientists on the hunt for clues and evidence. In fact, this is exactly what the team was doing - using their seasoned and critical skills to analyze the architectural and historical evidence that is extant in this three-century old relic.
As part of the Tilden House Preservation Project, the architectural historians are creating a Historic Structures Report. This is the first step in understanding the evolution of the building as it was constructed across several distinct periods. The last time a truly measured eye looked at the house it was in 1975. At the request of the Friends of the Little Red House, Inc., the noted architect and preeminent preservation planner Frederick Detwiller studied the house and compiled a short report on how he felt the house was built and developed through the years.
The First Period of colonial American architecture is set approximately at 1626 through 1725. There are very few remaining first Period houses in Norfolk County, MA. These rare old houses have either been destroyed or altered such that they no longer represent any one period of time, becoming an amalgam of periods in which they were added on to or remodeled to suit the fashion of the day or new owner.
First Period houses have steeply pitched roofs, are asymmetrical due to having been built in phases, and feature large central chimneys. Exposed chamfered summer beams are almost always found, especially in the front rooms. The Tilden has some excellent examples of the type of framing and beams typical in such houses. First Period builders were often trained in English Medieval techniques and so the houses have an older european look at first glance. The facades of these houses often faced south to maximize heat from the sun. Most of these earlier homes were updated to appear Georgian as they were enlarged or remodeled, but the lack of symmetry and the central chimneys generally remain.
Today, more than forty years after the Detwiller Study, much is known about the development of First Period houses. Looking at the Tilden House today allows experts to use new tools and the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of examples of period homes that have been preserved in New England. And, on an overcast day, more than half a dozen specialists performed an exhaustive day of discovery. Led by Lynne Spencer, the team included preservation carpenters skilled at removing the layers of the house in order to peer into the timber frame. Detailed measurements were taken, and every inch of the house was observed with a close eye on the details and tell-tale signs of construction clues. Investigators removed exterior layers in order to look at the skeleton of the house. A well choreographed surgery peeled back layers of clapboards to reveal hidden pins in posts of chestnut or oak.
What is emerging is the sense that the Tilden House has far more mysteries than answers at this point. One of the leading experts in the development of the architecture of the period is Bill Finch of the preservation firm Finch & Rose in Beverly, MA, At first blush Finch looks like a mad scientist - wild unkempt hair, darting eyes, and constantly qualifying his answers to seemingly simple questions. The simplest question asked on the day of discovery was "Bill, what do you think about the house?" Finch's answer... "I call this house the Tardis" referring to the time machine in Dr. Who, "In order to answer so many questions, we need a Tardis to go back in time to see how it was built." Finch is only half joking, many answers will surface, but some tantalizing questions emerged that will be very difficult to answer.
On the second floor a bedroom wall was opened, exposing cross braces that suggested that a lower floor once had a far different roof line and a much earlier second floor. What is most exciting is the fact that this would have been a second floor over the back lean-to of the house, long thought to be the oldest section of the house - predating David Tilden's ownership in 1725 by perhaps eighteen years or more. We do know that Tilden purchased 20 acres of land and there was a house already there, likely constructed by Jabez Searle who was on the leased land in 1707. Is the rear of the Tilden House the original pioneer house of Searle that he constructed on land leased from the Ponkapoag Indians? Was this structure moved and attached at some point, or did David and Abigail Tilden spend their first few months living in the then-existing Searle house? While we may a Tardis to truly answer these questions, we will certainly be able to know more about the development and structural pieces of the existing house as the study continues.
Preservation of the Tilden House is well underway with the work being done today. The final study will yield a vast new quantity of data that will help drive the direction of the restoration carpentry due to start early next summer. Each visit to the house brings us closer to exciting new insights into one of Canton's earliest settlers. In time, archeology on the site may send forth even more data points to help us learn more about the families that called the Tilden House their home.
In the meantime, the preservationists, engineers, carpenters, and historians are just beginning to investigate this time machine into Canton's past. The Tilden is indeed a Tardis, and we are willing and inquisitive time travelers.
After so many years of work and dedication to this project, a flood of emotions wash over the group as we gather for the first project meeting. The kick-off meeting was held, coincidently, in the same place where more than ten years ago a group of citizens gathered to help "Save the Tilden." Not quite journey's end, but instead a new chapter and promised life for the Tilden House. There was a night so many years ago, where Patricia Johnson, Wally Gibbs, and George Comeau gathered with other concerned citizens and took up the task of working to preserve this old house. And, now after more than thirty seasons have passed over the roof, after more than 3000 days in the life of this house, the threat is being peeled back slowly.
On September 24th a new group gathered. This time the excitement was secure. One of New England's foremost and experienced preservation architects sat at a small table at the home of what was once Eugene Williams and signed the contract to begin her work at the Tilden. Lynne Spencer, with years of experience and a deep knowledge of First Period buildings, sat confidently at the table. George Comeau had brought a large archival box containing the research and historical documents that had been amassed since 1970. Preservation efforts began in the early 70's when the town purchased the Draper Estate for conservation land. Since that time, the Tilden underwent fits and starts of activity. Three times it sat on the edge of serious demolition, and three times it was brought back from the brink. Today, looking at the house, it still seems to cry out "please save me," but it is so tired and so neglected that it's pulse beats weaker with each passing equinox.
The task that falls to Spencer is to create a Historic Structures Report that helps us understand and guide the work that will begin in 2016. Spencer explains that what the town is about to receive is "over 100 pages of historical, architectural, cultural, and engineering data that is the basis for the demolition and construction documents to follow. The timeline is complex, but as of this writing we expect major study to be underway immediately, followed by bid documents and scoping in late winter, bidding in the spring, and construction to commence in July 2016. Once work starts on the structure, it is expected to take three-four months to complete.
Yet, this is merely the start. Plenty of hard work is needed to write grants that will guide the interior restoration. New systems for hvac, electrical, and safety will need to be designed and put out to bid. This is a long term project that brings a major historical asset into the lives of the citizens of Canton. The excitement felt through the next few years will resonate across the community.
In 1973, Doris Peters wrote her famed poem "Goodbye Little Red House" and in it she opined "But here it seems I'm doomed to perish. ….Wilt no man in my favour speak? If only Master Tilden wouldst, ….Come back and set me straight!" The spirits of David and Abigail Tilden are strong and it is often said that this is a building that cry's out to be saved. We are happy to report that the saving has begun, and the long line of men and women that have so ardently worked for forty years we be proud to see what comes next.
After a detailed RFQ process, the Town of Canton through the Building Renovations Committee has selected the architectural preservation firm of Spencer & Vogt for design services and the production of an Historic Structures Report. There was a splendid field of professionals to choose from, but Spencer & Vogt rose to the top owing to their experience, sensitive assessments and restoration of wood frame First Period homes, and a long history or working with municipalities and museums.
It is an exciting time at the Tilden House, a time of discovery, planning, and moving forward in what will be a centerpiece in preservation in Canton. Lynne Spencer noted that "the historic David Tilden House is a rare First Period structure and reminder of the town's agrarian past." These are important observations from an expert that has worked on some of New England's most treasured landmarks, including the Old North Church in Boston, H.H. Richardson's "Stonehurst" in Waltham, and Oakes Ames Hall in North Easton, the Buckman Tavern in Lexington and Longfellow's Wayside Inn. Most impressively was the firm's work at the Abigail Adams Birthplace in Weymouth.
Working with such an amazing firm will mean that the Tilden House will benefit from the experience and wisdom of a firm that has specific strengths in ancient wooden structures. And, the firm has worked with over 45 Massachusetts cities and towns - key to understanding the public bidding process and the building code as it intersects with historic properties. Joining Spencer & Vogt on this project is our old friends from Structures North Consulting Engineers, the same firm that managed the engineering assessment to prepare for the Community Preservation Act Grant Application. Also, American Tower & Steeple have partnered to continue their work on estimating the project costs. Finally, the firm of Finch & Rose has joined the project as consultants on the historic framing and fabric for the preservation work. All in all, there is in place an amazing team that will work closely with the Town's Building Renovation Committee joined in the process by the Canton Historical Society, the Canton Historical Commission, the Canton Conservation Commission, the Board of Selectmen, and of course - the Friends of the Little Red House, Inc.
As the project ramps up, expect to see more profiles and interviews with the experts, multimedia, and behind the scenes photos of this landmark project.
As the process moves forward, the partners in the project begin to assemble. Early on the success of this project has always been rooted in superb historical and technical research. And, as we begin the process of actually preserving the Tilden House, we start at the drawing board. A historic structures report is the foundation for all high quality preservation projects and soon, the Town of Canton will release a "Request for Proposals" (RFP) that will seek qualified preservation firms to propose their services for the Tilden.
This early planning will pay off when the actual preservation begins. Deciding what will be demolished, what needs to be replaced, and the methods for which new materials are used is all part of the specifications and details for the work at hand. This critical phase lays the groundwork for developing plans and specifications that will become the documents upon which preservation carpentry firms will bid in order to do the work needed for Phase One. Working closely and in partnership with the Building Renovation Commission, we will have superb guidance, support, and oversight - to ensure that taxpayer funded preservation is done to the highest standards and meets the public procurement process.
After one of the worst winters on record in New England, the Tilden House withstood tremendous roof loads as well as blizzard conditions on more than one occasion. Yet, the house bravely stood, which suggested to many of us that indeed it wanted to be saved for the next (and future) generations. As we enter this exciting new time in the life of this house, we welcome your thoughts and comments on this work.
On Monday, May 18th the voters of Canton overwhelmingly voted to support Phase One of the Tilden House preservation project. More than forty years in the making, the support came only as a result of an almost five year effort to place the Community Preservation Act within the Town of Canton. Key to passing the CPA was the Tilden House project, and at Town Meeting voters made good on their promise to preserve one of Canton's oldest houses. The Friends of the Little Red House, Inc. have been advocating for this historic site since they were founded in the early 1970s. Today, we stand on the brink of making good on the promise of preserving our legacy of not only our town but of the country as a whole.
Within the next few months we expect to begin work on this amazing project. Watch this site for more information and project progress reports. Thank to the people of Canton, we will restore an amazing part of our culture, heritage, and history.
Patricia Johnson, the treasurer of the Friends of the Little Red House group stood in front of the Canton Community Preservation Committee (CCPC) making the case for the project that would "once and for all" save the Tilden House from the imminent threat of destruction by neglect. Johnson's voice trembled as she explained that "this is the last chance" for Canton to save one of the most important parts of a more than 300 year legacy. While the numbers were large, the task at hand was equally large - to convince the CCPC that the project was well planned, and indeed, would be a success.
For more than forty years the Friends have been advocating for the Tilden House. When the Community Preservation Act passed, the Tilden was a cause célèbre - a poster child - for all the promises of what the CPA would do. The idea of funding historic projects that culturally are a link to our past is embedded in the CPA and the Tilden House epitomizes all that CPA stands for. In the August 2014, the Friends began work on an ambitious funding request that would use Community Preservation Act money to preserve the Tilden House.
On a frigid December night, in the Community Room of the Canton Public Library, Johnson, - along with Wally Gibbs made their pitch. The questions for Johnson were tough and yet at each turn she had the answers. The timeline, the budget, the historic relevance. At least one of the CCPC members had visited the site before the meeting and exclaimed that he house is in dire condition, yet had to be saved. The presentation images flashed on the screen, and one by one each member of the committee came to see that the plan was doable and one that deserved support. The request was aimed squarely at Phase One - which would largely take care of the exterior, framing, foundation, roof, and structural interior support. Johnson explained that in fact there would be additional phases over time, but this first critical phase would mean that the house would be placed into a condition that more than renewed its lease on life.
As Johnson finished, Emily Prigot - a Canton resident and National Park Ranger, spoke passionately about why we save such buildings. “This house is a powerful reminder of our origins and destiny, of our town, of our Commonwealth, and indeed, of our nation." Powerful words that resonated through the presentation.
It worked, the hard work and exacting grant application paid off. The CCPC voted to recommend to the Annual Town Meeting a sum of $414,150 for a major preservation effort in the life of the almost 300 year-old home. What's next? - Work begins anew on the public relations campaign that will assure passage of the funding in May 2015. If all goes well, the plan is to begin construction in late summer 2015. Working with the Town of Canton's building renovations committee, the project has one more hurdle after Town Meeting - that being the selection of an architect to create the bid documents and specifications. It is indeed an exciting time for the Friends of the Little Red House as we get one step closer to the kicking off one of the largest preservation projects in the history of Canton.
The grant application took over seven months to conceive and draft. The decision to develop a phased approach came from the fact that this is, in fact, a very ambitious project. The process of developing an accurate projection for the funding meant reaching out to experts in engineering, preservation carpentry, and historians. The result is an accurate budget that will allow for the achievement of several key goals.
In an effort to be transparent about the development of the budget for the CPA - here is how we devised the process.
Since 1975, architectural historians have studied the David Tilden House. The earliest report, and still valuable today, was completed by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). This report by Frederick Detwiller, a noted architect and preeminent preservation planner, has been the guiding analysis of the architectural history, progression of construction, recommendations (at the time) and program development.
In order to arrive at a project cost for the restoration and preservation of the Tilden House, the Friends of the Little Red House, Inc. (FOLRH), began an extensive study in August 2013. For the past several years the FOLRH have worked closely with Steven O’Shaughnessy, the Department Chairman of the North Bennet Street School Preservation Carpentry Program, to create a roadmap for short, mid, and long-term preservation. Securing and protecting this 300 year-old artifact has taken the work of some of the regions finest preservation carpenters. In fact, in the fall of 2013 (in advance of this grant request,) students in preservation carpentry produced measured drawings of the Tilden House. These plans have been extremely helpful in guiding the current phase of analysis. The Tilden House is a “living classroom” and example of early wood-frame timber construction techniques.
The first major step towards completing this grant was through the engagement of the services of Structures North, Inc. – a consulting engineering firm. Structures North is one of the New England Region’s preeminent engineering consulting firms in the field of historic preservation.
A structural survey was conducted in late September with a scope that included:
Following receipt of the conditions report extensive consultation with historic preservation experts led to a two-part phasing of the overall project. In order to leverage time and CPA resources, the project was phased in such a way as to work across a five-year plan.
The plan that has been developed is funded in two separate CPA grant rounds.
At a meeting in early November 2014, the structural survey report was used to develop a relative order of work and a rough project plan for cost analysis. At that time some decisions were made to create a preservation time period that would bring the building’s preservation plan to a date in the mid-to-late 18th century. Fixing a period in time for the building that would allow for adaptive reuse for meeting space as well as ample space for interpretation and educational use.
The next step towards “costing” this project was retaining the preservation carpentry firm of American Steeple & Tower, a highly regarded preservation carpentry company that since 1969 has had extensive experience with timber frame buildings. After a lengthy site visit and field measurements, the Building Program Costs were developed. On advice of preservation experts and other organizations that have undertaken similar and ambitions projects, a 20% contingency was added to the bottom line to manage unforeseen conditions that can only be observed once the building project is well underway.
Finally, in order to understand costs associated with the proposed Historic Structures Report and associated specifications for the bid process, Groundroot Preservation Group was brought in. The work of Groundroot was completed after a site visit to both develop scope for specifications and review the budget assumptions associated with the work of American Steeple & Tower.
The FOLRH are comfortable with this proposed preservation plan and know that this is an extremely complex and ambitious project that will preserve one of Canton’s first homes.
Go behind the scenes and learn about the preservation of this historic structure.