1947 Restoration

At its location on Bridge street in North Weymouth, through the years the birthplace was occupied by various tenants until 1947 when the land and the building was acquired by the federal government in order to build federal housing.  All of the farm’s buildings were marked for demolition.  At this point, a small group of Weymouth residents, aware of the historic value of the birthplace, began strenuous efforts to save it.  A citizen’s group was incorporated and the building was moved without delay.  The Abigail Adams Historical Society now came into being.

On May 1, 1947, the Town of Weymouth released a triangular lot of land at the junction of North and Norton Streets for the sum of one dollar.   A foundation was laid, and in October of 1947 the old house, sawed squarely in half, was moved to its new site.   The two sections were joined so skillfully that no trace of this operation appears in the house today.

The house was in a sorry condition and it was necessary to strip it to the frame in order to restore it, following the recommendations of Frank Chouteau Brown, an architectural historian.  A central chimney, with four fireplaces and a “bee-hive” oven in the kitchen, was rebuilt.  The paneling in the two front rooms came from a distinguished old home in Braintree; and the kitchen beams and wall panels were from a Hingham tavern.

The furnishings and articles of daily living seen in the house date to the period of Abigail’s residence and serve to illustrate what life was like in the mid-eighteenth century.

The 1947 Restoration of the Abigail Adams Birthplace

The 1947 restoration of the Abigail Adams Birthplace was a multi-year collaborative work by several designers and craftsmen: noted restoration architect and author Frank Chouteau Brown, muralist and architect Carroll Bill, artist and landscape architect Theron I. Cain, and four craftsmen experienced in restoration work: contractor James Gordon, masons Frank Osborne and Charles White, and carpenter Charles Peaselee. Although the two moves and complicated history of the building make it difficult to absolutely prove its age and original form, the Abigail Adams Birthplace is undoubtedly important as a restoration of a First-Period structure planned by Frank Chouteau Brown and carried out by a group of designers and craftsmen passionately interested in honoring his principles in achieving their goals.

Origins of the Birthplace

The traditional story of the Abigail Adams birthplace can be summarized briefly, based on town and parish histories and the extensive files of the Abigail Adams Historical Society, Inc. This gambrel-roofed Cape Cod house was built in 1685, on land to the south of the Old Burying Ground, for the Rev. Samuel Torrey and was commonly known as “the Mansion.”  In 1737-38 the Rev. Smith purchased the Mansion and expanded it by adding a larger house onto it, likely before 1740 when he married. In 1826 the First Church in Weymouth purchased the lot, and in 1838 it pulled down the Rev. Smith’s large addition. Under the direction of a parish building committee that included housewright Elnathan Bates, a stylish large new parsonage arose, using some of the lumber salvaged from the old parsonage. The committee, who also had to raise the money to pay for the new parsonage, sold the original ell, built by the Rev. Samuel Torrey in 1685, and containing the upstairs room where Abigail Adams was born in 1744 to Nathaniel Ford.

First relocation of birthplace

Nathaniel Ford had it dragged by oxen a mile north to his farm on Bridge Street in North Weymouth. For the next century the building, with a rear addition, housed workers on the farm. In 1943 the U.S. Government Housing Agency bought the farm to redevelop as the Wessagussett Federal Housing Project and cleared all the farm buildings except the Adams Birthplace. In 1947 Weymouth residents formed an association to save the house, threatened for demolition.

Second relocation of birthplace

The residents purchased the lot at the intersection of North and Norton Streets from the Town, and moved the Birthplace ell back close to its 1685-1838 location, where they restored it. The women and men who formed the Abigail Adams Historical Society grew up in the golden age of building restoration, the first four decades of the 20th century, when dozens of houses across Massachusetts were restored, often quite severely, to some earlier point in their history. The results were dramatic, especially in the case of First Period houses like this, but sometimes not very true to the history of the building. In the decades since, a much more conservative preservation policy has prevailed, in which many of the layers of later additions are preserved. One of the people responsible for that shift was Frank Chouteau Brown who would oversee the second relocation of the birthplace to its present location. Brown brought a meticulous archaeological approach to preservation, carefully measuring and drawing the buildings before restoration, investigating the framing and core details using the least invasive methods, and restoring conservatively, with as little conjecture as possible. Brown still restored buildings rather than simply preserving them, but he constantly balanced the two approaches.

Frank Chouteau Brown

Frank Chouteau Brown (1876-1947) was born in Minneapolis and trained as an architect, working as a draughtsman there for several years and touring Europe before moving to Boston in 1902. Brown began in the Boston office of architect James T. Kelley before establishing his own practice, specializing in domestic architecture—from restorations to large estates[1] He wrote and published throughout his career, beginning with an influential book on calligraphy, Letters and Lettering (1902), and an album of bookplate designs published in 1905. These early works were important in bringing a unique artistic sensibility to his measured drawings of historic houses. His later architectural books included The Orders of Architecture (1904-06), New England Houses (1915), Modern English Churches (1917), and Modern English Country Houses (1923). Brown served as editor of the journal Architectural Review from 1907 to 1919. He contributed numerous articles and measured drawings to the influential White Pine monograph series, which he co-edited for a time with Russell F. Whitehead. Toward the end of his life he worked for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) and edited its periodical Old-Time New England.

Frank Chouteau Brown knew about and valued the Abigail Adams Birthplace as early as 1941. Beginning in 1934, Brown served as Boston’s District Officer for the WPA-funded Historic American Building Survey (HABS), processing the documentary drawings and images that the Boston office sent to Washington. Two of the photographs currently archived on the Library of Congress’s American Memory HABS website have connections with the Meeting House District, although in unique ways. The “Abigail (Smith) Adams House” depicts the Birthplace ell, but at its former site, a mile north of the district, on Bridge Street. The accompanying card notes “Built 1635?” The dislocation of the ell may have disoriented the photographer, Frank O. Branzetti, who took a second North Weymouth photograph, also on May 23, 1941. The image is labeled “First Church, Weymouth, Norfolk County, MA,” but an examination of the steeple reveals that the image actually depicts another Greek Revival house of worship, the Pilgrim Congregational Church founded in 1851 in North Weymouth. Brown forwarded both images to Washington for archiving.

Brown also taught, joining the faculty of Boston University in 1916 and becoming chair of its department of art and architecture in 1919. By the mid 1940s, he was teaching at the Massachusetts School of Art, a state college where he shared an office with Edwin A. Hoadley of Weymouth. Brown’s passion for historic architecture inspired his office mate, and when the Abigail Adams Birthplace was endangered, Hoadley signed on as Restoration Chairman and hired his friend to help out. Together in July of 1947 they measured and investigated the house, cutting small ports into the building fabric where necessary to examine its structure. Brown produced a handsome pair of blueprints for the house based on these measurements and investigations, conforming to the HABS standards. They are in the possession of the association, but they do not appear to have been officially filed in Washington. The house was moved to its new site in October; but on November 18, 1947, Brown died. Besides the blueprints and his site visits and consultations, Brown left behind drafts of an article for Old-Time New England and a sketch of how the building and its site might look when completely restored. Brown’s widow sent the unfinished drafts to the association. In the article drafts, Brown ruminates on the special problems presented in investigating and restoring a building with such a complicated history

Carroll Meredith Bill and Theron Irving Cain

After Brown’s death, two other local artists and designers carried out the restoration: Carroll Bill as artist and Theron Cain as landscape architect.

Carroll Meredith Bill (1877-1968) was born in Philadelphia and a graduate of the architecture program at Harvard in 1900. He built a career as “one of Boston’s most successful designers in the field of interior decoration and period furnishings. Mr. Bill had an avid interest in old houses, buildings, marine subjects and historic landmarks. His oil and watercolor paintings of those subjects were in such demand that he decided to devote full time to painting”[2] He married another artist, Sally Cross, and moved to Weymouth. “Bill decorated the interiors of a number of ships built at Fore River, those of the old Dollar Line Company and United Fruit Company”[3]

Theron Irving Cain (1893-1988) was born in Braintree and graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art in 1916. After working in landscape architecture at Olmsted Brothers, he returned to Massachusetts College of Art, where he taught from 1921 to 1957[4] He worked with the association from at least 1950 to 1962; several of his planting plans for the site remain in the association’s collection. Cain produced a scale model of the house and grounds for display in the Tufts Library in 1950. He also inspired the creation of, and served as a consultant for, the nearby city park, Abigail Adams Green, in 1978.

1947 Restoration Project

In the detailed reports Edwin A. Hoadley filed as chair of the restoration committee, the deliberation and conservative approach the committee employed in restoring the Adams Birthplace become evident. Craftsmen who had worked on other restoration projects were carefully chosen to undertake the work. James J. Gordon of Hingham oversaw the moving, with the house cut in half and carted southward in two sections. He served as contractor for the long process of restoration, employing masons Frank Osborne and Charles White and carpenter Charles Peaselee (d. 1955). White and Peaselee were both residents of Hingham. Peaselee had considerable restoration experience and old-fashioned hand tools which he employed in the restoration. In one report Hoadley documents White’s restoration masonry, listing architects and projects, including the Old Ordinary in Hingham on which White worked.

Decisions were made on an individual basis. Decaying items like sills were carefully tested to see if they could remain in place with bracing. The restoration principles of the time dictated that the age of any replacement materials was almost as important as provenance. The restoration includes foundation stones from the ell’s Bridge Street site, doors from a house-wrecking in Quincy, three thousand old bricks from an old house in Newburyport, 1100 old hand-wrought nails from Boston, floor boards from old Fort Independence in South Weymouth, kitchen beams and panels from a tavern in Hingham, other bricks from streets around the Old North Church in Boston, and sockets for the fireplace cranes salvaged from the ruins of a recently demolished house in Lovell’s Corner, Weymouth. Age and style were so important that two doors which previously had been installed were removed and replaced when it was discovered they dated from the 1790s rather than 1744, the date to which Brown had suggested restoring the house. Another association member did a title study to confirm the age of the Malvena Tavern in Braintree, whose paneling was found the right vintage for use in the Adams Birthplace restoration. Still other elements were copied directly from surviving details and manufactured new for the restoration: clapboards by Rhines Lumber Company and window frames by Sward Brothers, based on the single dormer window in Abigail’s room. Hugh Burgess turned by hand the balusters for the staircase. Hoadley documents a trip he made to South Wareham with Brown, down a dirt road, to investigate salvaging an old barn for the site. Hoadley became an expert on ovolo mouldings, ogees, and quirks. While on vacation Hoadley visited the Egremont Tavern restoration (ca. 1730) in South Egremont, Massachusetts. The rear saltbox addition to the gambrel roof of the Adams Birthplace was made only after painstaking investigation of the frame, careful reading of Brown’s suggestions, and a search for other examples.

While Carroll Bill directed the restoration under Hoadley’s watchful eye, the public face of the organization was its President Amy Hill Duncan, a Weymouth activist and newspaper columnist. She organized a “clean-up” of the house on Bridge Street by advertising that Life magazine photographers would cover the event and lining up a fiddler to play “Turkey in the Straw” and waltzes to entertain the workers. The dedication of the site on July 13, 1947, included guest speaker Stewart Mitchell, executive secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society and editor of a volume of Adams letters; and the widow of telephone pioneer and Old North Cemetery occupant Thomas Watson. She saw to it that all the area newspaper photographers captured images of the severed halves of the house parading down North Street to their new home. She approached the railroad executives and convinced them to allow her to open an Abigail Adams thrift Shop in the basement, the former coal room, of the Weymouth Heights Railroad Station in 1948. A natural culmination of this publicity campaign was the 1951 solicitation of bricks from all the surviving first ladies, resulting in bricks from the Mrs. Coolidge, Roosevelt, Truman, and Wilson being used in the hearth of Abigail’s room.

JFK Visit

Two further items might show how iconic the Adams House restoration has become. By 1958, it was natural for an aspiring politician such as Senator John F. Kennedy to visit the Abigail Adams Birthplace for a photo opportunity. The association still has the autographed copy of Profiles in Courage that Kennedy presented to them on his visit. In 1970, Gertrude Vaughan hired architect Peter Worden to build a replica of the Adams Birthplace house on a lot she owned in Harwich on Cape Cod. Given the current national resurgence in interest in John and Abigail Adams, the history of the birthplace of Abigail Adams, the country’s “first Second Lady and second First Lady,” is increasingly important to document and register.

Sources

[1] Withey, Henry F., and Elsie Rathburn Withey. Biographical Dictionary of American Architects

            (Deceased). Los Angeles: New Age, 1970.

[2] Kevitt, Chester B. Weymouth, Massachusetts, a New England Town. Weymouth: N. p., 1981. p.123

[3] Kevitt, 123

[4] Ask Art Online