Historic Preservation the Dames’ Way

Submitted by NSCDA-MA

May is an important month because it is National Historic Preservation Month, a celebration of the nation’s heritage through historic places. Along with preserving the places, also worth preserving are the stories behind them. Preservation is the protection of culture. Historic preservationists work within state and national guidelines to carefully restore properties back to their period detail. One of the primary missions of The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America is historic preservation and the Society is affiliated nationwide with 90 historic sites, collections and monuments. The Massachusetts Society, one of 44 state societies, now in its 127th year, owns and/or operates three historic house museums in the state: the William Hickling Prescott House in Boston, the Quincy Homestead in Quincy and Martin House Farm in Swansea.    

There are many different ways in which properties and collections come together. Some come by design; some happen by bequest; and some by a quick response to opportunity. The three properties the NSCDA-MA stewards also include an extensive costume collection and each has come to the Dames in a different way. For over 125 years, the NSCDA-MA has been able to protect and preserve their three historic properties through the generous support of its membership, donations, tours, grants and public partnerships.

 In 1904, just eleven years after its founding, the MA Society leapt into action to ensure that the 1680 Quincy Homestead did not fall to encroaching urban development in the city of Quincy. It purchased the 1.8-acre property with the help of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., grandson of President John Quincy Adams, and many Quincy residents. With an eye to its financial future, and looking to the long-term protection and preservation of the property, the MA Dames soon transferred the Homestead to the Commonwealth, which then leased the house back to be furnished, interpreted, and cared for by the Dames. This important public/private partnership, which continues today, provides the necessary care needed to maintain one of the state’s earliest surviving historic properties.

The Edmund Quincy family settled in Braintree (now Quincy) in the 1630’s where five generations of Quincys placed their imprint on the Homestead’s property.  The Dames undertook extensive renovations of the house in 1904-1907, hiring Joseph Everett Chandler, the architectural historian who went on to renovate the Beale House in Quincy, the Paul Revere House in Boston, and the House of the Seven Gables in Salem. Numerous maintenance, repair and restoration projects have been performed by the NSCDA–MA, the former Massachusetts Metropolitan Park Commission (MDC) and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) over the years. The Dames rose to the challenge of furnishing a house with over 300 years of architectural evolution, which includes Colonial, Georgian, and Victorian design.

Preservation projects are always underway and recent accomplishments include an analysis on the Homestead’s structure and history. The dendrochronology results indicate that the house timbers were cut in 1680, when building began. In fact, it was discovered that many timbers were reused from a 1630 building. This exceedingly early reuse – perhaps the earliest known in New England – increases the mystery and lure of the building to those dedicated to its preservation. The conservation of the lovely formal dining room, that started in 2005-06 with the restoration of the rare hand-painted Chinese motif wallpaper, was also completed. One surprise to be discovered by visitors is the stunning shell-carved dining room cupboard painted in vibrant colors and picked out in gold leaf, all hidden behind a door.

Among the Homestead’s most notable artifacts is the restored “Hancock Chariot” which transported the American patriot, John Hancock, and his wife, Dorothy Quincy, the youngest daughter of Edmund Quincy IV. The Homestead’s beautiful grounds with formal gardens feature a boxwood parterre reflecting European standards adopted by the early Colonies. The Quincy Homestead is both a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Also listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1979) is Martin House Farm. The NSCDA-MA acquired the property through the 1930 bequest of Susan Tabor Martin Allien, a member of the New York Society, who bought Martin House as her summer home from her cousin John Martin in 1914. Martins have lived in the rural community of Swansea for over 350 years. Most important of all, they kept Martin House Farm intact: over 50 acres of fields, woodlots, barns, and a house.  An inveterate collector of antiques and memorabilia, Mrs. Allien furnished the historic farmhouse with items ranging from a few family pieces to English and American pewter to furniture of varying times and places. One of the most significant historical pieces is a wainscot chair, a 17th-century piece dating back to King Phillip’s War; a reproduction is now at the Farm and the original is on extended loan at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Martins were subsistence farmers, none of notable fame or fortune. However, fortunes did wax and wane. What began as a one-room dwelling was expanded in the early 19th century (after the War of 1812 in which many gained prosperity) into a nine-room two story house. Mrs. Allien substantially upgraded the quality of the furniture one might expect in a farm community. Entrusting the property to the Dames has preserved the Farm from the threat of development and conserved the open land, capturing an authentic glimpse of 18th and 19th century America. During the summer, high school students of Swansea serve as docents leading tours for visitors of the house and barn. Special events and educational programs draw visitors and offer a glimpse into Colonial life. Every fall, all Swansea fifth-graders enjoy a visit to the farm through our Living History Program and often become docents during high school. 

The  William Hickling Prescott House at 55 Beacon St. in Boston was purchased in 1944, rescuing it from a future use as a boarding house and providing a much desired headquarters for the NSCDA-MA. In 1964, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The house was designed by Asher Benjamin, the influential American architect (1773-1845), for the merchant, James Smith Colburn, in 1808. It later became the home of William Hickling Prescott, historian of Spain, Mexico and Peru. Visiting Prescott House, you will see on view a rare noctograph, a writing implement for the blind that Prescott utilized. 

As with Quincy Homestead, the house was renovated and furnished in an elegant manner to fit the architectural details. Prescott’s study and the Best Bedchamber are kept as museum house rooms while the remainder are used by the Society for programs, events, and business as well as storage for the NSCDA-MA Costume Collection of over 7,000 pieces. This collection consists of clothing and accessories donated by Dames with rich histories of known provenance. Notable pieces are two dresses belonging to Dolley Todd Madison and several House of Worth gowns. The collection ranges from children’s articles to adults (mostly women) with an impressive array of accessories that includes shoes, fans, hats, and gloves. Clothes tell us much about life among different social classes over time. The collection is being catalogued, enabling scholars access to the resources online, supporting the educational mission of the NSCDA-MA through the preservation of material culture.

As all know who have ever considered themselves stewards of historical objects or places, preservation brings a tremendous responsibility to conserve, discover, interpret, and impart knowledge to others. Through Historic Preservation, we strive to pass on to future generations an understanding of our Colonial heritage and to inspire patriotism by appreciating our country’s rich history. During Historic Preservation Month, we hope this period of “sheltering in place” gives all of us time to reflect on what historic properties can teach us about what to preserve and what to change.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the seasonal schedule at the NSCDA-MA houses is pending. Visit nscdama.org for updated historic house tours and further information.

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