By Marjorie Nesin
---- — The Old Haskell House, in one form or another, has sat perched on Lincoln Street, just off Essex Avenue or Route 133, since long before Route 133 even existed.
But the house that dates to about 50 years before America declared its independence is not only still standing; it’s undergoing a major restoration, with a preservation specialist and a contractor repairing the house, paying close attention to details from siding to nails.
An Illinois family, with a passion for early 18th century homes, bought the house last April, intending to repair and preserve the home originally built by William Haskell in the early 1700s, then renovated in 1920 with additions.
But, Howard Grote came across more surprises than just the expected hidden gems, like newspapers dating back to the “Roaring Twenties” that had been stuffed into wall cracks, and “nogging,” a layer of bricks and mortar set between the north wall of the original house and the addition, that had acted as insulation from harsh north winds before the 1920s add on.
”Mr. Grote found out it was built by his tenth great grandfather,” said Prudence Fish, a local expert on historic houses.
One exposed side of the house reveals vertical wooden planks, about two feet wide and running from ground to roof. Scratched on tally marks punctuate the plank frame boards, etchings created by sawmill workers who lived about 300 years ago. That plank frame construction, which would have been covered with horizontal siding, is a build unique to Cape Ann circa 1710 to 1715, according to Fish.
”More and more old Gloucester houses, if they’re uncovered, you see this old construction,” said Fish, who joined in a tour of the house Thursday.
House preservation expert Warren Lanpher, arrived in Gloucester from Rhode Island in January and moved into a small bedroom upstairs as his own temporary home and work space. Lanpher hired local contractor Jason O’Connor, and they and Bob LoPiccolo have been hammering carefully away since, pulling back boards and peaking into history.
Inside, the team has discovered countless details that reveal a house that existed long ago, like wooden beams “chamfered” or beveled along the edges, then decorated with a red-orange paint to accentuate the subtly curved detail. Plaster spread over thin wooden pieces nailed directly to the outer wall with handmade rose head nails, characterize the first period structure.
When Lanpher moved in, the house was livable, though he characterized it as “eclectic.” The home had been vacant for a little less than two years.
Though part of the job includes undoing modern details added by recent owners, like a faux-wooden floor that was likely laid sometime in the last decade, Lanpher said in this type of project much of the work is cleaning and scrubbing, subtle repair and unseen upgrades.
“We try to leave it as is, mostly make repairs,” Lanpher said. “Most of what you see here is unchanged, believe it or not.”
A sunny room converted into a modern kitchen contains cupboards, built from scratch with reclaimed lumber, that showcase Lanpher’s mix of passion and skill. Soapstone sink and sideboards mesh with the original wood panel floor. The refrigerator is tucked into a former doorway, and a cupboard opens up to reveal a small flat screen television.
“You’ve got to draw a line somewhere between making it spot on with history and making it livable,” Lanpher said, ducking beneath a low door from the original frame.
The unofficial team gathered in the next room, a parlor, beside a fireplace crackling with embers. The fire has acted as the home’s sole heating system since they removed its radiators weeks ago to replace them with a yet to be installed geothermal heating system.
Lanpher scooped one of the house’s original nails up from the floor, a handmade rose head nail. He held it next to one of the handmade nails that the crew uses as a copycat of the originals. Though he declined to discuss the cost of this restoration, noting it’s a private project, Lanpher did say these nails, hammered all along the exterior’s new cyprus siding and in the inside of the home too, cost 50 cents a pop.
“The Grotes are the reason that this is all happening,” Lanpher said of the private owners. “We’re just so excited about the house and that somebody’s coming here who loves it.”
O’Connor, standing beneath a beamed wooden ceiling, ran a booted foot over knots in the floor boards. The knots appear warped, jutting upward, because the wood’s knots are tougher than the rest of the floor, according to O’Connor. So, as the floor boards wore down over the last 300 years, the knots remained closer to their original thickness.
“Just imagine all the shoes and feet that have walked across this floor,” O’Connor said.
The house construction should be complete around June, when the Grote family plans to utilize the building as an inn until they retire to the home.
O’Connor, who grew to adore the restoration process during this first project for him, said he will return to his work building new houses after June, but hopes to contract more historic house work. Lanpher says they are turning O’Connor to their side, and O’Connor has to agree.
“When they built this house, there was no Declaration of Independence, no Constitution, no United States really,” O’Connor said. “It just blows me away every day while I’m sitting here building.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.