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of the Historic Northampton Society

The Parsons House still stands at: 58 Bridge Street, Northampton, MA 01060. Photo by Helen Rice, 1981.

At one time, it was thought the Parsons House was built in 1658 by Cornet Joseph Parsons and his wife, Mary Bliss. However, through archaeological evidence, it is now known that the house was built about 70 years later by Nathaniel Parsons, his grandson.

The following information was taken from an archaeological report: REPORT ON BUILDING ARCHAEOLOGY AT THE NATHANIEL PARSONS HOUSE, NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS. Prepared For Historic Northampton and The Institute For Museum Services. By Gregory Clancey, Architectural Conservator, Society For The Preservation Of New England Antiquities, and John Leeke, Preservation Consultant, 1992.

The earliest section of the Parsons House is a two-and-a-half story frame of center-chimney type, probably erected in the decade of 1725-35. This original house was greatly expanded and the interior entirely remodeled in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. The first house survives entombed within these later additions and remodeling, and can be examined at points only through the process of excavation.

The original house was probably typical in general design to those built by the more prosperous Connecticut Valley townsmen of the early eighteenth century. Stylistically, it belonged to Massachusetts' First Period of domestic architecture, which lasted considerably longer in the Connecticut Valley - perhaps as late as the 1750s - than it did at Massachusetts Bay. The house's characteristic First Period details included casement windows, probably diamond-paned; chamfered summer beams and exposed ceiling joists; exterior siding which abuts at the corners; molded horizontal sheathing in the kitchen; and a single-pile plan to which a lean-to was later added. Only one detail demonstrates a knowledge of the emerging Georgian decoration: plaster walls with molded chair rail and baseboard in the "parlor".

The changes which transformed Nathanial Parson's house into the present building occurred in at least three separate remodeling campaigns or "builds" i.e.:

1. The discrete addition of a kitchen lean-to, sometime later in the eighteenth century. This did little to change the appearance of the earlier section.

2. A more comprehensive remodeling of the entire house, which may have begun in the last decade of the eighteenth century and certainly extended into the early nineteenth. A second floor was placed on the lean-to, the roof was expanded accordingly, and the exterior was entirely re-sided. The interior was also plastered (most rooms for the first time). This work took place gradually, perhaps over the course of decades, and likely constituted a number of discrete campaigns (e.g. 2A, 2B, etc.) whose length and timing we were unable to explain with any certainty.

3. The addition of the ell, east wing, and west wing. The ell and east wing are contemporary. Their chronological relationship to the west wing cannot be determined through physical evidence. All of these additions were completed by about 1830.

While the constant remodeling of houses was almost the rule in 18th and 19th century New England, the Parsons House preserves this record of change to an unusual degree, and this is its chief importance in the architectural and cultural history of the region. A multitude of early finish materials remain layered within its wall cavities, much of it susceptible to exposure and exhibition, as demonstrated by the illustrations which follow.

The most important discoveries made during the present investigation - those which should prove most valuable to a larger understanding of domestic architecture in this period - have mostly to do with finish materials. While neither the frame nor plan of the house present any real surprises, the original interior and exterior finishing schemes clearly do. The house has not so much overturned existing assumptions, however, as provided unusually clear evidence about matters we know fairly little about, compared to framing and the development of floorplans in the same period. The more interesting findings can be summarized as follows:

VARIETY IN THE APPLICATION OF EXTERIOR SIDING MATERIALS, AND THE IMITATION OF WEATHERBOARDING ON THE FACADE. The exterior of the first house was sided from the beginning with three different materials, all of which remain at least partially intact under the present weatherboarding. The two gable ends were covered with relatively thin and narrow weatherboards, very similar in intent and appearance to modern clapboards. The rear elevation was flush-bearded: wide 1" boards laid in a single plane. The material on the facade was a compromise between the two: flush boards grooved horizontally in imitation of thin weatherboarding. The first two materials are rather conventional in this period but the last has been documented on only two other 18th century houses, both in the Connecticut Valley.

A PENTICE. An even more unusual exterior detail are two mortises above the front door, which seem to describe an early hood or pentice, of which we have very few documented examples in New England. The physical evidence demonstrates its existence but does not describe its appearance.

VARIETY IN THE APPLICATION OF INTERIOR FINISH: AN EARLY USE OF PLASTER AND MOLDED WOODWORK. The interior finishing plan of the first house is also intriguing. Of the two first floor rooms, the eastern room, or kitchen, was sheathed with molded horizontal boards, while the walls of the western room were covered with an early form of plaster. These plaster walls also incorporated a baseboard and thin chair rail, early manifestations of what would soon become the standard Georgian room finish. The up-to-date wall finish in the western room co-existed, however, with banks of diamond-paned casements and a chamfered summer-beam. The two chambers stood unfinished until at least the 1790s.

Interior finish was clearly used at this early date to establish a spatial hierarchy of parlor, kitchen, and chambers. The lack of finish in the chambers adds to the growing evidence that many 18th century rooms stood without interior walls until the Federal period, only a single layer of weatherboarding, in this instance, protecting the room from the elements.

THE USE OF GRASS AS A BINDER IN THE EARLY PLASTER. The plaster in the western first-floor room is bound together by short pieces of grass rather than animal hair. Examining the mix microscopically also revealed small amounts of dyed blue and red fiber. The plaster itself seems to have some amount of soil content, although it was not subjected to laboratory analysis.

SELECTIVITY IN THE APPLICATION OF PAINT OVER INTERIOR WOODWORK: THE USE OF WATER-SOLUBLE PAINTS OVER INTERIOR WOODWORK. Water-soluble or distemper paints have been found on woodwork and interior walls in some 17th century houses. Evidence is only now gathering, however, of their continued and extensive use as woodwork paints in the 18th century, a period when oil paints were thought to be ubiquitous over all materials save plaster. The Parsons House provides unusually clear evidence of this. The board walls and ceiling joists of the kitchen are still covered with water-soluble paint in two colors - white and yellow - and distemper paint was later used over the same features in the lean-to kitchen even later in the century. On the other side of the hall. the woodwork in the Georgian parlor, despite its progressive character, was left unpainted, while the plaster walls were covered with white paint.

The remodeling of the house in the late 18th-early 19th century, while conventional in most aspects, also provides some insights which can aid broader scholarship:

THE INCREMENTAL NATURE OF THE REMODELING. Incremental work on large remodeling projects may have been the rule in the 18th and early 19th centuries, certainly far more than in later periods. A major upgrading of the interior and exterior of the Parsons House began before 1800, but was likely not completed until between 1815 and 1825. In the case of plastering the interior, the varieties in the types of lath nail used from space to space least suggest that the work was done a room or two at a time, and over a long period. This evidence belies the notion that remodeling occurred suddenly, and can be crisply dated. Indeed, the process may have been continuous at the Parsons House for a rather long period.

THE RECOVERY OF EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY DECORATIVE FINISHES. We recovered a number of decorative wall and woodwork finishes dating to the first quarter of the 19th century in the course of performing excavation work. These include three wallpaper patterns, each matched to its corresponding woodwork color, two distemper wall paints, and the fragment of a now-destroyed overmantel painting also executed in distempers. Over a dozen early woodwork colors have also been documented, including a kitchen floor paint.

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