Historic Preservation of the Marsh-Whitlock House
My journey to preserve the Marsh-Whitlock House — the oldest house in Warren, Connecticut, a salt-box house built in 1739.
When you don’t grow up in a family of carpenters or craftsmen, and you become just that, it is sometimes hard to explain why you do what you do with your life. It becomes more and more obvious to me that I really had no choice in the matter. I think it first began with my parents insistence on keeping me in an 18th century wooden crib which provided me with a steady supply of splinters in my forehead. I assume that some of those splinters worked their way pretty deep and doomed me to a future focused on the manipulation and obsession with everything wood.
The second influence is the house that I spent a large part of my childhood in. A house which I eventually made my job to restore. Although neither of my parents are “craftsmen” in relation to the building arts, they are both aesthetics, writers, and historians. Being in love with early American vernacular furniture and architecture, they sought escape from the Big Apple in the 1970’s, and found it in a dilapidated but incredibly intact “salt box” house in the North West corner of Connecticut.
The Marsh-Whitlock house, which is named for its first two owners, was built in 1739, and lived in continuously since.
Ebenezer Marsh originally constructed the house on a land grant from King George, while Samuel Whitlock purchased the house from him ten years later. It was proven to be the oldest house in the town of Warren, Connecticut, and I should point out that all of its history was discovered and recorded as a result of the diligent work of my mother, May Brawley Hill, a historian by training and nature. It remained almost completely unchanged for two and half centuries.
“As far as we know, the house had been lived in continuously for almost two-and-a half centuries. But in all that time no owner was prosperous enough to add on to it, nor poor enough to abandon it.” — Frederick Hill, my father and previous owner
When little, living in a house this old is an adventure.
It feels akin to a large tree house, with all of the expected animal and insect guests, as well as drafts and invasion of all kinds of weather, including snow drifts on the insides of window and door sills. The nightly visits of flying squirrels and mice seem like normal occurrences, while the prospects of bats and snakes are not wholly out of the ordinary.
As I got older however, I became more and more fascinated by the construction of the house, as well as the furniture which my parents slowly collected to fill its rooms. None of the furniture would be considered “fine” examples of American antiquity, but rather like the house that they occupied, were of the same quirky vernacular, worn and battered by constant use. Like the house however, there was a simple elegance and grace to their utilitarian design. As I grew older I was drawn in by my surroundings, and now realize how lucky I was to not see these things as some part of a by-gone era, but rather as examples of enduring craftsmanship.
The house and its belongings were a testament to building, to creating, not solely for commercial consumption, but for living in and with for generations to come.
After graduating from college in 2001 with a degree in U.S. History, it only seemed fitting that I entered the building trades. I spent a better part of a decade living in this old house, getting to know all of its secrets and details of its construction.
I added my name in hidden spots, below the names of others that had come before me, doing their level best to maintain the soundness of her frame.
I discovered just how hard virgin North American Oak could be, and marveled at the ability to utilize, let alone drive a wrought iron nail into this material. I discovered beautiful panels of hand planed chestnut, a once prominent tree of the Northeast, which is now for the most part extinct.
Most importantly I discovered my love of craftsmanship, and my overwhelming need to work with my hands.
Amidst my tenure as caretaker to this house, I returned to school, determined to learn the craft of woodworking. I wanted to learn it as the people who built the house and furniture I was surrounded by would have understood it. I attended the North Bennet Street School in Boston for two years, and returned with a new found understanding and respect for the furnishings, architecture, and building history that I was surrounded by in Connecticut.
I continued to work on the Marsh-Whitlock house, as well as several other barns and houses in the surrounding area until the eventual sale of our house in 2013. It is sad to part from such a unique and amazing place, but I am confident that the work I have put into it should help maintain her frame for years to come.
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