Changes in a New England Meetinghouse

First Parish in Cohasset, where I work, has a meetinghouse built in 1747. When you come at it from the north and see it across Cohasset Common, it looks like the classic white New England church with a simple steeple:

White clapboard New England church set amid lawn and autumnal trees
Cohasset Meeting House from the north

But the tower and the steeple weren’t added until 1799, over half a century after the meetinghouse was first erected. Let’s go back to 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party. There were three young men from Cohasset who participated in the Boston Tea Party (after being encouraged by their Patriot minister), and they might have seen something like this when they came at the meetinghouse from the north:

Line drawing of Cohasset meetinghouse before the tower and steeple were added
My visualization of the appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse c. 1775

Instead of the tower and steeple, there would have been small belfry on the north end of the building. (When you go up into the attic today, you can see timbers in the north end that now serve no special purpose, and it’s possible they served to support the belfry.) I haven’t found any record of what Cohasset’s belfry looked like, but there are drawings of other eighteenth century meetinghouses with belfries. The sketch above shows the north facade with a representative eighteenth century belfry.

This still isn’t the original appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse. Originally, there was no porch on the west side. That porch was built in 1761. In order to create more floor spaces for pews, the original stairs to the gallery in the northwest and southwest corners inside the main building were removed. The porch was added to house a new set of stairs to the gallery. Prior to the addition of the porch, the Cohasset Meetinghouse looked something like this:

Line drawing of meetinghouse
My visualization of the appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse c. 1760

As you can see, prior to the addition of the porch the meetinghouse was just a simple rectangular building with a small belfry on the north end. Mind you, we don’t really know the exact appearance of the building. In my visualizations, I’ve added triangular pediments above the doors, but who knows if there was even that level of ornamentation.

The earliest drawings we have of the Cohasset Meetinghouse date from the mid-nineteenth century. They are fairly consistent in showing the tower with crossed balusters at the bell level, and a steeple with a rounded section before the actual spire — quite different from the present steeple. The meetinghouse was not painted white; it was pea green. In fact, most New England meetinghouses were not painted white prior to the Colonial Revival in the late nineteenth century; documented colors include various shades of yellow, red, and green; there were even a few meetinghouses painted orange. Here’s my digitally edited version of an 1850s woodcut showing the Cohasset Meetinghouse:

Reproduction of a woddcut

There have been several other changes over the years. The clock was added in 1764. Shutters (or more accurately, exterior louvered blinds) were added around 1765. The steeple was completely rebuilt after 1869; it got shattered by a lightning strike in that year. The shutters were removed again around 1986.

In short, like most historic buildings the Cohasset Meetinghouse has changed considerably over the years.

Dusk

I went for a walk to Wheelwright Park this afternoon. I still forget that the time change means the sun sets pretty early. By 4:30, it was already getting dark. As much as I enjoyed listening to the Great Horned Owls calling, there have been reports of Coyotes in the woods at dusk. So far, the Coyotes have done little more than harass small dogs, but just in case I now carry a whistle and a bright flashlight.

Woods path at dusk.
Wheelwright Park Trail, 4:31 p.m.

The woods were lovely, dark, and peaceful. Since I had several miles to go, I began walking faster.But I had to stop twice, so I could take photos of the yellow and orangey-brown leaves of American Beech saplings looking surprisingly bright against the dark pines and oaks.

Woods path at dusk.
Wheelwright Park Trail, 4:34 p.m.

And I couldn’t help thinking how much better I’d like it if we stayed on Daylight Savings Time all year long. The woods would still be lovely, dark, and deep, but I’d have an hour longer to enjoy them.

Natural dyes update

Our experiments in early August to make natural dyes using pine cones or invasive plants weren’t very successful. Subsequently, Carol did a lot of research and experimenting. When we held Ecojustice Camp in mid-August, she was able to produce some pretty good colors using natural dyes.

Person holding a t-shirt dyed in red, yllow, and brown in a spiral pattern.
Tie-dye cotton t-shirt by Micah with turmeric, choke cherry, and walnut husks

The most successful colors came from turmeric powder (bright yellow), choke cherry (magenta), and black walnut husks (brown). Camper Micah brought in the choke cherries. I’m not sure what Carol’s dye recipes were, but I do know she used an alum mordant.

Right out of the dye vats, the colors were pretty spectacular. After a first washing, the colors definitely faded to some degree. Nevertheless, they were still attractive.

I liked the warm brown of the black walnut husk dye the best. I’ve been collecting walnut husks over the past couple of weeks. If I can just find the time, I’m all ready to cook up some dye with them. And if I do, I’ll post the results here.

Hot weather

After a summer that’s been cool and rainy, it’s going to be hot all week here in Massachusetts. Records are going to get broken. Some local school districts are worried, because of course schools aren’t air conditioned in Massachusetts. We never used to need air conditioning in September.

In other news, clean up continues in Vermont and western Massachusetts after the devastating floods in July and August.

The phrase “global warming” now feels outdated. So does “climate change.” So does “climate weirdness.” In fact, the phrase “climate emergency” is beginning to feel a little dated….

What really amazes me is that there are still people in the U.S. who think climate change isn’t real.

Labor Day weekend

Carol and I have been doing as little as possible over this holiday weekend. We talked about driving somewhere, but driving is always a nightmare on Labor Day weekend. So, we’ve been sleeping late and doing some desultory housecleaning. And I took a couple of walks at nearby conservation areas.

On Friday, I went to Black Pond Bog, a Nature Conservancy property in Norwell.

A small bee on a flower.
A small green bee (Augochlora sp.?) pollinating Rough Boneset (Eupatorum pilosum) near Black Pond Bog, Norwell

On Saturday, I took a long walk in Wompatuck State Park. The park covers about 3,500 acres, and you can spend all day walking its miles of trails. It’s mostly wooded, but there are also a number of ponds.

A pond surrounded by woods at dusk.
Heron Pond, Wompatuck State Park, Hingham

Getting to Black Pond Bog and Wompatuck State Park both required a fifteen minute drive.

Today, neither Carol nor I felt like driving even that far. So we walked down Main Street from our apartment to Wheelwright Park, and from there into Wright Woods.

A fuzzy seed head of a grass plant nods in the breeze.
Yellow Foxtail (Setaria Pumila), Wheelwright Park, Cohasset
A bright red flower blooms in a pond at the base of a rock face.
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) in Ice Pond, Wright Woods, Cohasset

We’re extraordinarily lucky to live in a place where we don’t have to drive long distances to find something to see and do on Labor Day weekend.

More photos from the renovation of a 1721 house

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I took some more photos this morning of the renovation of First Parish in Cohasset’s 1721 Parish House. No more surprises today. The cladding that was removed yesterday — 5/4 pine milled to mimic stone — is associated with Colonial Revival, an architectural style of the mid- to late nineteenth century. So the appearance we had become accustomed to was really a nineteenth century invention.

By this morning, the original framing was clearly revealed. The framing is beautiful in its own right. Here are some photos:

House with siding removed, which exposes the old timber framing
With the clapboards and nogging removed, the framing is clearly visible
Close up photo of framing
Joint between the girt and the post at the northeast corner of the house — you can see a treenail (or trunnel) and other details of the framing
Close up of framing
The girt with second floor joists and wall studs

It’s fun to speculate what the front facade of the building looked like in 1721. Based on what we’ve seen so far, and based on what would have been typical of that era, I’m guessing that the windows had smaller panes, and were somewhat differently proportioned (in my imagination, the second floor windows were double hung windows with 9 over 9 sash, and the first floor windows were 12 over 9). There were no pediments over the windows. The cladding was thin graceful clapboards, perhaps with no paint, nailed on with forged nails that had large heads. There were probably no corner boards, and it’s unlikely there was a front vestibule. All of the wood used to construct the house was cut from local trees, and the brick-and-mortar noggin was also of local manufacture. The glass would have been hand-blown, and therefore slightly wavy.

All this raises the difficult question of how we should restore historic buildings. Even if we knew exactly what the building looked like (and we can’t be sure), First Parish does not have the budget to purchase authentic windows with hand-blown glass and hand-made sash and frame. Nor would such windows be energy-efficient. I suspect the neighbors would not like it if we left the facade unpainted; white paint is de rigueur in New England historic districts. Even if unpainted clapboards were acceptable, we would not be able to find old-growth Eastern White Pine, and something like unpainted Western Red Cedar would look wrong. I suspect we would also receive pushback if we had no corner boards (plus, we would have to change the siding around each corner to match, which would add even more to the expense).

In my experience, historic renovation is always a compromise between historically informed research and current aesthetic standards, between practicality and community standards, between what would be nice or best and what the building owner can actually afford. The best way to reach an appropriate compromise is through community review (i.e., going through the Historic District Commission), accompanied by good-faith efforts on the part of the owner of the building.

Renovating a 1721 building, and what we found

We’re completing the final stage of renovations on our historic buildings. The renovation began in 2021 with extensive repairs to the 1747 Meeting House. Now we’re working on repairing the crumbling facade of the Parish House, which was built in 1721 by Nehemiah Hobart, the first minister of First Parish. The Livingstone Company arrived today to begin work.

And we ran into a big surprise.

The front facade was wood milled to resemble masonry blocks. Here’s a 1936 photo showing the facade (click on any photo to see a larger image):

Detail from an old photo
1936 Historic American Building Survey photo of the 1721 Nehemiah Hobart House in Cohasset

But there was something completely different underneath that.

Under the existing cladding, we found old clapboards. So the front facade was originally covered with clapboards!

Not only that, but the clapboards that were uncovered may be the original 1721 clapboards. They’re attached to the house with what may be hand-made cut nails with forged heads. Each clapboard is about three and a half feet long, and the butt ends are feathered where they overlap. The outer faces of these old clapboards are well weathered, and it appears that they were never painted. [Update, 8/22: A neighbor stopped by who has a graduate degree in historic architecture. He believes the clapboards are pre-Revolutionary War, but later than 1721. He believes they’re from the 1760s.]

Here are some photos to show you what we found:

The front of the Parish House with the old clapboards revealed
The front of the Parish House showing the remaining original clapboards
Close-up of clapboards
Detail showing how the butt ends of the clapboards are carefully overlapped

There were some more surprises.

Under the clapboards, the spaces between the frame of the house were filled with old brick and mortar (called “nogging”). Some of the bricks appear to be quite old — not the modern water-struck brick, but irregular bricks that may have been hand-made. This apparently served as insulation and/or fireproofing for the house.

Close-up of clapboards with ruler to show size
The old clapboards nailed to the house frame, with bricks and mortar under the clapboards — you can also see the back side of the lath and plaster of the inside the house

And there were still more surprises in store.

When the triangular pediments over the first floor windows were removed, it appears that the original opening was for taller windows. We were pretty sure that the windows on the front facade were not original (the sash appear to date from the nineteenth century), and this may confirm that supposition.

You could also see where the ends of the floor joists for the second floor were mortised into the girt or cross-wise beam. Notice how the original window frame apparently went right up to the girt, and the opening has been blocked in with a piece of lumber that is machine sawn, not hand hewn. This means the original first floor windows were probably significantly taller than the existing ones. And you can see a builder’s mark, “XII,” which would have indicated which beam went with which post when erecting the finished posts and beams.

Close-up of framing and clapboards over a window
Above the window just to the left of the front door — the builder’s mark is chiseled into the girt above the left edge of the window

We’re now in the process of consulting with the Cohasset Historic District Commission. We received a permit from them based on replacing wood milled to mimic stone. But it’s now clear that this was a much later addition to the building. (I’m guessing it was added at least a hundred years after the house was built, i.e., in the nineteenth century.)

In any case, it has been an exciting day today, as we learned a lot more about our historic 1721 Parish House.

I’ll include a couple more photos below, for those who can’t get enough of historic buildings.

Click to read the follow-up post….

Close-up photo of some of the clapboards
A section of the clapboards
Corner bracing near the front door

Crossposted.

Ecojustice Camp comes to Cohasset

I teamed up with Ngoc Dupont and Matt Mulder, two professional educators, to bring the Ecojustice Camp concept to the South Shore of Boston last week. We didn’t have the best of weather for the camp, with rain showers almost every day, and a tornado alert for early Friday morning. The tornado alert meant that we didn’t camp at Wompatuck State Park, but instead camped at the Parish House of First Parish (where there was a full basement we could retreat to if necessary). Yet in spite of the weather, we had a blast.

We’ve posted photos from the past week on the camp website. Since we only have permission to post photos from camp on that website, you’ll have to click here to see them. The photos will give you an idea of the range of camp activities — from cooking outdoors, to whittling, to ecology simulation games, and more.

Natural dyes: pine cones

Carol and I are still investigating natural dyes. At the moment, we’re looking for dyes that (a) we can use with kids, (b) will work well for tie-dyeing cotton t-shirts, (c) are in season right now and can be easily collected by kids, and finally (d) are plentiful (i.e., we’re not going to collect endangered lichens to use as dyestuffs).

It looks like the most promising dyestuff for our purposes is going to be pine cones. They’re in season and plentiful, readily available, produce a pleasing pinkish-brown color, and I found someone who did tie-dye with them.

Carol and I went and collected some pine cones today (on land where we had permission to collect). The recipe for the dye bath says to soak the pine cones for 48 hours (see the recipe below); I’ve got some pine cones soaking now. But because I’m impatient, I also boiled some for a couple of hours this evening, even though this will probably produce a dye bath that makes a less intense color.

Stay tuned for updates on our natural dyeing experiment.

Update, 12 Sept: Follow up post here.

Update, 8 Aug.: I followed the recipe below fairly closely. The cloth emerged from the dyebath a pleasing light tan-yellow color. But nearly all the color came out in the first washing, so that now we have a very light tan-yellow. N.B.: In her book Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens (Univ. of Toronto, 1980), Karen Leigh Casselman says she got a “warm tan” color from pine cones with “good colorfastness,” but she used alum and chrome mordant; I suspect, too, that she used this dyestuff with wool, not cotton.

We were not encouraged with our experience using pine cones for dyeing cotton. It’s too bad, because where live it’s easy to find plenty of pine cones. We probably would have gotten better results with a chrome mordant, but we don’t want to use chrome with kids because of the toxicity.

A pot containing pine cones in water, simmering on a stoe top.
The simmering dye bath
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