Today was an emotional day for me at the Tilden House. I have to admit that as our guests left a friend caught me crying. There is no doubt it was very delightful. After all, it had been more than twenty years since the public had been in the house. It was the realization that finally we can safely take people through the house and showcase the history, workmanship and heritage of this first-period home.
The two-hour workshop was a test. We wanted to know whether the story that we had been telling for many years would have meaning and spirit within the space. Because the house was “standing sawdust” for the last several years, it was always precarious whenever we invited people inside. The windows had been boarded up, the floor sagged, and animals had largely come to occupy large sections of the basement and attic.
What we can say now, and on no uncertain terms is that indeed the stories and discussions that have led to the preservation project resonate within the authenticity of the house. It’s a simple house built in a simple time for families that came to live in Dorchester Village – or Stoughton and then Canton. We spent time talking about the process of preservation and what it takes to deconstruct a wood frame structure in order to put it back together. At one point a dozen people stood in the front parlor – to do so merely six months ago would have been impossible.
We’ve always been very forthcoming with the fact that the work we are doing is in phases. And phase one is all about structural integrity. In order for twelve people to stand in the parlor, the floor strength had to be brought to one-hundred pounds per square foot. The new floor loads in the Tilden are designed to meet the demands of a modern museum. Your house has a floor load of less than half what we are providing for in the Tilden. And so, it is no surprise that there was great joy seeing so many people in a place that was once off limits to more than two or three people at best.
The new challenge that is arising is the need to understand how to reframe the house and the windows. Since the plates, girts, beams and posts are all repaired or replaced, and the sheathing is about to go back on, there is a need to figure out the rough opening and quantity of windows. Sadly, we are still trying to raise money to actually place new windows into the project. The balance is being made with the need to make sure there is a wooden roof as well. Is it possible to want to much? Probably so. But, that is what the creative side of preservation is. Deciding how best to allocate the funds in a way that ensures success and safety.
Last week our historical architectural consultant spent an entire day studying the exposed building. This is where the window style is being chosen. It is also where we are making a choice as to which windows to eliminate. The house is not being restored to the time or Tilden or Alexander – rather we are moving to adjust the time of the house to the first third of the 19th century. Keeping all the elements that were there just before the Civil War. So, the house as a continuum will show several owners and several styles. Certainly, the first period (late 18th century) will be shown. But, some of the changes made in the late 19th and early 20th century as well as work in 1976 are being eliminated. Careful documentation is underway to preserve what is being changed. Through reading the building we are now more confident in the final look of the facades and lines of the house.
And so, on a glorious summer day, we opened the Tilden for the first time. We shared so many stories and in a private moment I cried a tear of joy. It’s really hard to explain the joy and elation of this work. A five-minute trip to the Tilden turns into an hour or two whenever Jay or Gerry are working. Until now, it was only for me, so it is a new emotion to be able to share with others; the details, craftsmanship and history of such a remarkable place. Our architect, and dear friend Lynne Spencer remarked, “out of the ashes rose the Phoenix,” and the Tilden is just that – radiant and shimmering. Just like the Phoenix, the Tilden has lived for several hundred years, nearly died by bursting into flames, and now reborn to start a new life – long and rich and worthy of our heritage.
On the east facade of the Tilden House there has been a flurry of activity. Our preservation carpentry team has always felt that the work has to be visible to the public, and what better way to demonstrate the progress than to work on the wall that faces the street. As the scaffolding suggests, the work is focussed on the repair of the girt (horizontal timber joining wall posts between sill and plate) on the gable end of the building. And, the chestnut girt is surprisingly strong and needs minimal yet surgical repairs.
At the very middle of the beam, the rotted section needed to be cut away, and a new oak section installed in its place. The work here demonstrates clearly the difference between preservation carpentry and modern adaptive reuse. The repair is made even more complex owing to the fact that within the building and centered on the repair, the girt has to connect and join the enormous summer beam inside the parlor ceiling. The summer beam is a critical component in the strength of the structure and carries a great load. This beam is the major floor timber spanning the large room, and joining it to the girt was a challenge.
Once the rotted section was removed, a rare site was revealed. The joint that was at the end of the summer beam was quite unusual, and Bill Finch, our architectural historian identified it as a tusk tenon. Bill wrote from Maine, "this is a variant of a “tusk tenon” joint, the variant being the angle cut in the top of the lower part of the joint." What we saw onsite this week was magical. The workmanship of almost three centuries revealed. And, the challenge was to preserve the tenon - even though it would never be seen again once the repair was made. And so, the tusk tenon was carefully measured and then the negative space was cut into the new oak repair and slid into place. The original pins that held the summer beam into the girt will be placed back inside for a genuinely authentic and detailed repair. Gerry O'Doherty smiled as he told me a bit of grease helps move the tenon into the specially cut mortise. I can never tell if he is playing on my gullibility or if he is genuine in his teaching. Often times he tells me that he "can't give away all his secrets" as if I would ever embark on such a project again in my lifetime. In any case, the after using a sledgehammer as a persuader, the oak repair slid into place. The tusk tenon will never be seen again.
And there is more. If you look at the repair in the last photo below, you will see that Gerry O'Doherty has two cuts one either end of the new repair. The cut on the left is quite complex (sloped half lap) and was done to preserve additional details in the vertical beams above and below. On the right, the joint is less complex (half lap) because the area surrounding the joint had little material, if any, to preserve in context. When people want an explanation of what this project at the Tilden is about, this is but one example of dozens where careful attention to materials and historic fabric are taken into account to dictate the means and methods of preservation.
The joy of discovery lies in the academic research of answering so many mysteries about this house. There is some degree of conjecture in the process, but with so many experts to draw upon we have learned so much more about David Tilden and what kind of a man he was here in what was the wilds of Dorchester. There is a talented hand at work in the craft of building a timber frame house. And, what had been described once by our structural engineer as "standing sawdust" was standing as a result of the strength of the materials and workmanship in their assembly. When the snow loads in February 2015 caused the collapse of the modern ice skating rink in Ponkapoag, the Tilden House carried the loads admirably. Now we know why. The timbers of native chestnut, oak and fir have dense cores that despite the burrowing of the powder post beetle have withstood the test of time and still support the structure. The work we do today will extend the life of the Tilden for many more generations.
That is the magic of this project! Preservation happens for the pure joy of preserving something and sharing the discovery with people who care and have a passion for history. The house is talking and we are listening.
Watch a short movie showing the process of cutting the new repair and tightening the building.
Jim Roache, a fellow curator from the Canton Historical Society, stopped by today. We walked around the building together and near the front door we saw something very special. At the ground, from out of the muddy grass we saw a spring crocus. Purple and yellow with tender green leaves, the crocus greeted us with the joy of another Spring at the Tilden House. That's the thing about what we are now doing. Small things start to become illustrative of a larger story. We now see nails protruding from the beams in what was the kitchen and instinctively we know that at one time, fine herbs once hung from that same spot. We are looking at so many new things everyday.
The remarkable thing about this project, is that in doing the work today, the preservation carpenters are using some of the same techniques that have been employed in timber frame construction for the past several centuries. As you walk through the project, the oak timbers are cut with painstaking precision. There is a quality in the craftsmanship that will speak through the ages. The visitor is hard-pressed to find modern materials at this site. Yes, there are a few power tools, but still the old ways are the best ways. The men working at the Tilden are craftsmen, and they take great pride in their work. Chisels and ice tongs liter the work zone, and even scraps and cribbing are employed when needed for a shim or temporary brace.
The timbers that are being replaced also tell a story. The marks of the tools that fell the chestnut trees in the 18th century help us see the house in new ways. Gerry O'Doherty pulls out a large bean and shows the marks on the side, "this beam was shaped with a broad axe," he explains. O'Doherty has an instinct that is supported by more than three decades inside really old houses. A natural teacher, O'Doherty shows me the marks, and explains how the tree was felled, shaped, notched and formed to become the beam at our feet. The, O'Doherty goes on to describe the tool itself. Waxing over the description of a goose-neck handle and finely sharpened edge, it is as if David Tilden is describing his work back in 1725. It's a joy to learn so much from a single block of wood.
It's been a good season for the preservation crew. The weather has been cooperative, and snow stayed at bay for the most part. Inside the basement, where the bulk of the work has progressed, has stayed fairly tight and has not presented nearly any surprises. From an engineering standpoint, the new oak timbers are impressive. On a recent visit we found that the structural engineer has added three new footings below the oldest section of the house. The new support frame, in many cases, is being sistered alongside existing beams. Visitors to the Tilden in the future will be able to see the new work being done today alongside the preserved work that dates to the original builders of each phase of the house.
Soon, the carpenters will be out of the basement, and as the weather gets warmer we will see increased activity outside the house. The transformation is slow and steady. We remain on budget and on a timeline that brings us into the mid-summer for the completion of this phase of work. Each and every time we visit, it is a joy to see and learn more about this place.
The trees were felled quite recently, and the white oak timbers are still green and soft. Harvested using sustainable forestry techniques, the enormous beams are now being hand-notched and slid into place in the basement of the Tilden. The snow has helped provide a ready-made skid as we move the beams weighing hundreds of pounds. Techniques we are using to preserve the house are essentially the same methods that David Tilden used to build his home almost three-hundred years ago.
This past month, we have found some very special evidence of early first-period building workmanship. It is an exciting time to be a part of this project.
In the oldest part of the house, built as early as 1707, we discovered unique interior panels that are splined together and show evidence of a simplistic decorative bead. And, in another section of the house we found two original windows that may date to the within a few years of the 1725 construction date. And, when opening up the basement floor to pour new footings, we surprisingly found the original footings that David Tilden placed when the house was originally built. Almost three-hundred years of engineering comes full circle in the basement of this historic site.
And then there are the random discoveries that hint at the personalities of the people who once lived here. At the bottom of the basement stairs, a small artifact was discovered in the dirt floor. Certainly not old, but a clue that children played here in the early 20th century. A toy fisherman made of some heavy metal and in near perfect condition. Long lost, long forgotten, and now discovered. It's a wonderful found object.
Over the next few weeks, as the timbers get replaced and the pulse grows stronger, we will bring back the historic building experts to help us understand and place into context the building now revealed. Also, we will begin to schedule tours for the public to come and see the project up close. We all share in the discovery and learning process.
Each day we draw the building further away from extinction and into the relevancy of enhancing our place in history. The building speaks, and we are listening.
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.
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.
The behind the scenes look at the preservation of this historic structure.