Author: J. R. Theriault; Research: Susan Lee
Our ‘Historic Place of the Month‘ is the Ralph Houghton Garrison house presently located at 204 West Bare Hill Road. The house is listed in our Local Register of Historic Places (HRV-771) as well as the Masschusetts Historical Commission’s MACRIS. We begin with Nourse’s description of the house and its evolution from his “History of Harvard” written in 1894.
“No pioneer’s home now standing in the town offers more of interest to the antiquary than the James Houghton garrison house, which has been handed down from father to son through five generations, with only those alterations and additions which the comfort and accommodation of successive families made imperative. No homestead in Harvard has remained thus permanently in the same family.
The capacious farm-house, lovingly cared for by the present owner, Edward Warren Houghton, is obviously the sum of at least three structures, all ancient; the western end being the original garrison house, built between 1682 and 1704. The first chimney was of stone, the huge foundation of which yet fills half the cellar. This was very early replaced by the present many-flued brick pile, with its eight fire-places, oven, cupboard niches, and a smoke closet in which there is room enough to hang for curing the hams and shoulders of a score of swine. Many of the little windows. though the sash are modern, remain at nearly double the height from the floor which is now thought convenient, and the walls below arid around them are filled in solidly with brick and stone, so as to be completely bullet-proof.
The huge oaken beams and plates, from twelve to fourteen inches square, show for a third of their thickness below the lath and plaster of the ceiling. It became necessary to remove the paneled wainscot during some renovations. It was unpainted of the softest pine in which neither knot nor shake nor sap could be found, fastened with wooden pins and faultless in workmanship. It was doubtless the handiwork of the owner and builder of the house, who was a carpenter. and the portions of it preserved afford evidence of his practiced skill. Wherever iron was used in any part of the construction. even in fastening the rived clapboards. it was the wrought work of the blacksmith.
The successive occupants of this interesting homestead have been:
- 1, the builder of the garrison, James Houghton, the son of Ralph and Jane. His will was proved September 11, 1711.
- 2, Thomas Houghton, the third son of James, who married Mariah Moore, December 2, 1725, had one son, Elijah, and died at the age of sixty-eight, April 10, 1764. His widow survived him over twenty-six years.
- 3, Elijah, married Mercy Whitney and had eleven children, the oldest, Thomas, coming into possession of the house.
- 4, Thomas, by his wife Betsy White, had thirteen children, of whom
- 5, Cephas [Cyrus] retained the homestead. and his son is the present owner.”
The following narrative is from our ‘Local Register of Historic Places’.
Ralph Houghton was granted the 600 acres of this property from the King of England. Some time prior to the King Philip War, a garrison was built not far from the Nashua River. At the time, garrisons were used as defense outposts against the local native Americans. It is believed that after the war, Ralph and his son, James moved the garrison on the Houghton property to its present location. In its earlier location by the river, the garrison was apparently within the flood plain. James remodeled the garrison house as his residence around 1682 when present-day Harvard was still part of Lancaster and Ralph Houghton, at 29 years old, was the Clerk of Lancaster. This garrison may be the oldest existing house in the town of Harvard. When his grandson (James’ son) got married, the Houghton’s added the second half of house. The house would continue in the Houghton family for 227 years. The present-day Still River area of Harvard was one of the town’s earliest areas of English settlement along with the Old Mill area in present-day northern Harvard where John Prescott built a mill for his son, Jonas in 1668.
The house is an example of a first period house that has been expanded over the years, and retains a significant surrounding of farm acreage, occupied by the same family for generations. The farm’s 4.35 acres are adjacent to Still River Road where West Bare Hill Road cuts through the property to Still River Road. The farmhouse is located on the north side of West Bare Hill, while the barn and various out buildings once stood on the opposite side of this road. The two-story clapboarded house fronts onto a broad lawn, the side and rear agricultural fields currently lie fallow. This center chimney house represents a transitional phase between Post-Medieval and Georgian architectural forms.
As is characteristic of late-17th century frame structures, the hall and parlor plan was augmented by an integrated lean-to which housed a rear kitchen, buttery, and small chamber. The building measures five bays in width and two piles in depth. While exhibiting greater symmetry than an early residence, this fenestration does not yet adhere to the standard proportions of Georgian architecture. The chimney and entry are slightly off-center. Later additions include a single-story shed roofed ell (which extends from the left lateral wall) and a pedimented entry porch. Window treatment consists of six over six sash in the main house, and eight over twelve sash in the ell. The farm’s two-story New England barn has clapboard siding on its gable front and vertical siding along its lateral wall. A single-story gabled ell with carriage bays projects from the barn’s left lateral wall. A cinder block garage stands to the west of the barn, its overhead door is located in a canted corner. The garage also takes a gable block form and is lit with industrial sash windows. This east/west progression of outbuildings culminates with a late 19th century shingle-sided carriage house with large sliding doors.
It is the understanding of the Morrill G. Sprague family (present owners around 1990) that the house was passed from the Houghton family on to Mrs. John F. Sprague (Mabel Goding) the mother of the present owner.
The following information is based on two articles written by Nicholas Kouros in the Harvard Press, the first on September 18, 2009:
Today, the house is owned by Karla Perlstein,a professional restoration consultant and is being restored by Robert Adam Preservation Services. Adam is also a special advisor to the Preservation Carpentry program at the North Bennet School of Preservation Carpentry. Adam, in his work has studied the structure and components of the house and believes that the first part of the farmhouse structure was a former garrison house that had been built at another site closer to the Nashua River. After the King Phillip War, Adam believes, the Houghtons moved the garrison to their land, and over time expanded it into a multi-generational family house with sleeping quarters for farmhands.
As Adam continues to work on the historic farm house, he has restored its well which had been condemned. He and his client are researching the components of the building to determine where the original doorways and windows were located. Architecturally, Adam thinks that style of the garrison is taken from the late Elizabethan period and the remaining part includes some “high-style Georgian features” such as the pedimented windows , the early riven clapboards that were fastened with rose-head nails. The front façade is really a “federal, interpretational transition.”
Pearlstein mentions that Pat Sprague told her that her grandmother gave some of the old diamond pane coral glass windows to the Concord Museum. Some fragments of coral glass was found embedded in the walls which hinted at the locations for the windows. As to the other rooms in the house, Adam noted that the lower room in the garrison section is likely to look as it originally did, with wide board
sheathing on the walls, while the upper story is done in a Georgian period, and has paneled walls. He said that one room may have a Federal 19th-century look to it, while the kitchen is likely to be early 20th century. Each side of the house had its own kitchen, so they know this was a duplex, housing an extended family over a couple of generations.
Nicholas Kouros reports that according to Adam “The interesting thing about the house is that it is a very early house; it’s what’s considered a first period house. The section of the house that was the garrison was probably used as a community meeting house in addition to providing protection from Indians when this land was originally part of Lancaster.”
Kouros continues “A tour of the house reveals some interesting features, such as a fireplace arch in the basement that supports the mass of the chimney, while providing within the arch (really a small brick tunnel) a space for cold storage. There are smoke chambers off the fireplace that, when opened, still smell of the smoking. “Set kettles”—large covered kettles—are suspended over a brick oven that would warm them for doing laundry and other chores. These and other elements of the house have been written about by William Nourse in his 1890 publication, A History of the Town of Harvard. That book also tells about the paneling in the house, which Adam found stored in the rafters. He has already figured out where the panels were originally placed.” Adam believes that this garrison was not originally a dwelling, because it had no chimney mass. “It was probably a meeting house,” he said.
In a subsequent Harvard Press article published May 4, 2012, Kouros writes:
“Adam believes that when the two main sections of the house came together, “a new chimney mass was built,” he said. One side had an oven and the other side was a mirror image of it. “It was a dual household,” he said, “[most likely] with a widow and the eldest son and his wife.” There were four fireplaces, with two on the first floor and two on the second floor. About 20 years later, four more fireplaces were added on the back (around 1800). As a new generation arrived in the 1830s, there was additional remodeling, and the process continued in that manner, creating a jigsaw puzzle of a house that Adam has gradually been putting together.”
Adam pointed out the plaster on the original walls that are now exposed. “Plaster in the 18th century was very dear stuff,” he said. “This was a very fancy room, and it became even more fancy in the mid-18th century, in the Georgian period, when they put in all of this paneling, and all the wainscoting you see in the other room.” Adam said he sees evidence that casement windows were later changed to the mid-18th century Georgian openings, with pediments over the windows.
“This was a very, very fancy building. It was nothing like what it was married up to, which was very vernacular,” he said. “…Stylistically, we are looking at the late Elizabethan period for the garrison, then there are some high-style Georgian features, and the early riven [split] clapboards were fastened with rose-head nails; yet the front façade is really a federal, interpretational transition.” Standing in the earliest room in the composite house, Adam shifted to what the interior restoration will look like. “This dates from 1717, and we’re restoring to its second Georgian period,” he said. “The kitchen will reflect more of the turn of the last century [about 1900] whereas the parlor is more of a room from the early 19th century, and so they came together when the two buildings were combined.” Where the parlor would be “sort of a Federal period room,” the dining room would reflect a period around 1835 to 1845. “We’re looking at the majority of evidence from each of the rooms, and restoring it according to the evidence,” he said.
Pearlstein says that she has been in touch with the Historical Commission, and wants to share the house with the community and use it for educational purposes. She says that she is working with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties to ensure that anything that isn’t historical (such as rigid insulation or storm windows on the inside) is done in a reversible manner.
“We are currently planning the kitchen/bathroom spaces,” Pearlstein said in a recent email. “They will not be interpreted as contemporary, but will hold hidden contemporary elements. I am hoping they can be used to illustrate how accurate period revival kitchens and bathrooms can be just as functional as any contemporary kitchen or bath, while retaining the historic flavor of the building.”
To do this work, Pearlstein hired Walter Parker, the “old school plumber” from Dudley, Mass., to create the period baths. Parker said in an email, “When viewed after finish there should be no signs that the bathrooms were put in in 2012 rather than 1912. Plans are in place for radiant heat to be installed throughout the house. “Because of the dampness problem in the cellar, we took out the brick floor and we’ll put down radiant heat there,” Adam said. He’s using the historic brick from the cellar floor for the hearths in the living space and putting a new brick floor over the radiant heat in the cellar to accomplish a couple of things. “It will take the dampness out of the building, but also give the house some thermal mass, Adam said. “The walls are only three inches thick, and we’re insulating with rigid foam, but still it’s not going to be to 21st century standards, so we’re hedging our bets by adding some thermal mass in the basement, drying it out and adding some residual heat to the rest of the building.”
Wanting to restore the exterior to its original color, Pearlstein attended seminars to learn how to develop the historic paint colors to be used on the house. “We analyzed the past colors that the house had been and decided to go with the early red color,” she said. “We used paint recipes from an 1812 book called ‘Every Man His Own Painter’ and ground our own pigments. It was very insightful and did influence my approach to the paint on the Houghton House, but we did not make the paint for the house.”
A tour of the house reveals some interesting features, such as a fireplace arch in the basement that supports the mass of the chimney, while providing within the arch (really a small brick tunnel) a space for cold storage. There are smoke chambers off the fireplace that, when opened, still smell of the smoke. “Set kettles”—large covered kettles—are suspended over a brick oven that would warm them for doing laundry and other chores.”
The recent historic plaque in front of the property, which reads Houghton-Sprague Farm, reflects the inheritance of the farm by Delia (Goding) Sprague in 1912.