A Tale of Two Houses
By Sean Sullivan
“At its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”
So said William Murtagh, our country’s first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places. Spurred by keen interest in history and architecture, he was a keeper of the flame of national treasures, and kindled a country’s interest in its past and preserving it.
That legacy continues in projects large and small, among them the Robert Jenison House. Natick resident Melissa Sullivan is a local realtor, and has taken on the task of selling the old house. She’s also a member of the town’s Historic District Commission.
It’s still possible to take a photo of the Jenison house, and convince a viewer of the picture that it might have been taken a century ago. Looking through the lens, one can find angles to excise the far-more modern dwellings and details that have cropped up in centuries since its foundation was set.
Such is the sprawling landscape on three sides, save for where the house abuts Frost Street. On that thoroughfare, it’s address #1. The house was built around 1738 on a massive plot of land, purchased then from Native Americans who’d long called it their home.
Colonial missionary John Eliot is said to have been against the sale, and to have registered his opposition on the reverse side of the bill. Undoubtedly he knew which party was getting the better bargain.
Sullivan appeared in the distance, making her way across the lawn toward the old house last month in weather that could have been mistaken for September’s. And while the purpose that day was to show the home, it was more an effort to sell history.
Her own home is located quite close, within walking distance, on neighboring acreage that was formerly part of the original 200-acre Jenison house. Nestled in the corner of the property is a small structure that might well have housed tools wielded toward the property’s upkeep.
But long ago, the two-room hut had been converted into a meeting place for local men. In today’s parlance, it might well be called a man cave. Back then, said Sullivan, the hut hosted card games and other manner of meetings. Its watchful windows still overlook the vast lawn, as if on watch for uninvited guests.
The main house dwarfs the meeting hut, seeming to keep watch over the smaller structure in turn.
“Somehow, the house has withstood the test of time,” said Sullivan of the residence.
For humanity’s part, such a statement can be heard as humble. It seems to suggest the house got lucky, had dodged these storms, those floods and fires over its dozens of decades. Maybe so. But its colonial builders had a hand in the house’s destiny, as surely as did every family that sheltered beneath its beams. They tended fireplaces carefully, kept shingles in good repair, preserved the old wood with fresh paint.
Houses are like people in that way, brought into being, raised by others, built of frail and sturdy stuff—through no choice of their own. So it’s indeed a certain species of luck to be built strong, to have the right people living among your rooms. They protect one’s vulnerable insides from the elements, years of wear and tear. From hardship.
It’s a lottery of sorts, where winning means finding yourself among more people with caring hands and hearts. And those caretakers can be found in the community outside the house’s walls as well.
“It just has an amazing history,” said Sullivan. “It was one of the original homes in Natick.”
Walking through its halls and rooms is like meandering through a century lost to living memory. The faces of portraits stare from framed canvases, painted in an era when it was still unfashionable to smile for the artist.
Antique appointments are everywhere, rooms decorated with items crafted when the terms functional, durable and decorative were not mutually exclusive. An ancient loom is the conversation-piece of one bedroom, its wooden wheel dominating the space like a penny-farthing bicycle turned upside-down for repair. Leaves of small, folding side tables hang at rest from hinges, but at the ready to be raised should the need for more workspace arise.
The sprawl of its lawn sparsely populated with trees, daylight finds it way inside the old rooms, imbuing them with enough light to warm the mood and work by.
“It has just so much history,” said Sullivan. “It almost looks like a museum.”
As part of preserving that history, owners of the house must come before Natick’s Historic District Commission for approval before making changes to the structure. It was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1978, and its four main rooms are inspected annually to ensure their authenticity and integrity has been maintained. the Jenison House foundation, a tank-less water heater now fulfills the role of technology far past its prime. And of course, electricity has eclipsed candlelight and oil lamps in illuminating the home’s innards.
The current owner and seller also sits on the local historical commission, said Sullivan. To own such a house, she said, is to assume above and beyond the median concerns of home maintenance and repair. One takes on the responsibility of cultural caretaker as well, the maintenance of history.
“It’s a very niche property,” she said. “He’s done such a good job on this house.”
A few miles away, Natick’s John Moran has been concerned these recent months with his own corner of conservation. He is overseeing the rehabilitation of a Wayland house, one which nearly straddles the town’s border with Natick.
Moran’s project is more a story of preservation via renovation. Unlike the historic Robert Jenison House, the Wayland home was recently acquired in a state of disrepair, requiring much TLC to bring it back to life. Built in the late 1800s, the house is a spring chicken (about half the age) of its distant Frost Street neighbor.
Purchasing the home, Moran reached out to historical authorities to ensure his renovations wouldn’t run afoul of any preservationist protections. Finding he was in the clear, project rehab began in earnest.
Autumn passersby might have seen Moran at work in recent months, he and his crew busy deconstructing the old home.
Bricks that once comprised its chimneys still retain their rich, ruddy complexion. They’re now arrayed horizontally, repurposed to pave a path leading up to the front door. Standing on newly-laid boards of a half-finished front porch, Moran pointed to a pile of the bricks on a grassless lawn during a day in waning October.
In the cellar, a collection of old doors lay stacked against its stone foundation like so many picture frames – each a portal opening up to scenes long since faded. Those doors will soon open and close upon new tableaus. Moran said he plans to reuse them in the newly-renovated house, a nod of nostalgia amid the new. Having to buy fewer doors is also a welcome perk in preserving part of the past.
Walking through the bones of the old house, its inner framing and walls were stripped of sheathing and wall coverings. Daylight beamed in through windows (or their empty frames) as if trying to fill a vacuum, compensate for the dim of dark-aged wood all around. These bright spots attracted the eye, though giving in to the temptation hit like emerging from a movie theater into the bright light of day.
Newly excised also from the house’s infrastructure were several dozen cast-iron radiators, the kind that might hiss and click as hot water meanders through their metal ribs. The antique workhorses stood disconnected and idle among the old wood, as just-retired laborers might, a lifetime of work now behind them and an undefined future ahead.
“I hate to throw anything away,” said Moran.
Still, some things had to go. Every bygone era brought also its share of baggage - asbestos insulation an infamous case in point. The hazardous material required professional help to remove it, so in came the crew, covered head-to-toe in protective white suits. Wooden shingles had also been installed over the years, and were now rotted, ripe for replacement.
Keeping the old doors company back down in the basement were two mantelpieces, both awaiting their next assignments. While the bulk of their renovation went on above, Moran was looking into how to rehabilitate the wooden fixtures.
How many fires had been kindled, tea and coffee brewed in those fireplaces, Christmas stockings hung from the hearth’s overlooking shelf? The mantelpieces that framed those fires featured ornate woodwork, decorative flourishes like the frosted fringes of a wedding cake.
An original bill of sale was still affixed on the backside of the fixtures, courtesy of Irving & Casson. The renowned Cambridge-based furniture manufacturer was founded in 1874, specializing in interior design and woodwork.
Tearing out the old and unusable portions of the house took about three months, said Moran. The waste from that process filled about a half dozen 30-foot-long dumpsters.
Along with the salvageable fixtures and materials, energy will be conserved as well. Hard-foam insulation was chosen to keep the house’s inside cozy, and Moran received a $10,000 credit for converting from gas to electricity.
“You’ll be able to heat it with a match,” he said. Moran has also been a member of “Keep Natick Beautiful,” a nonprofit whose mission is made clear in its moniker.
The erstwhile owners, he said, were offered above-market rate for the house by a neighboring commercial rental company. The plan was, ostensibly, to raze the old house and pave its lot for patrons of shops in the small retail plaza. Yet the homeowners declined the offer, choosing instead to sell to Moran. In that way, the neighborhood’s residential character was preserved.
“The neighbors were delighted. I’m sure they felt the same way I did – that we don’t need another parking lot.”
“I’m all into preserving history,” added Moran, who hopes to put the newly-renovated house on the market this spring. “It’d be awful to have a wrecking ball go to it. Maybe it will be here another 100 years.”