Watertown History

Executive Council Chamber Configuration Uncovered

An extensive study of the building fabric by Architectural Conservator Andy Ladygo was completed in March, 2006.  Mr. Ladygo worked at the Fowle House many days, nights and weekends to uncover the secrets this house has held for so many years.  The Historical Society is excited to announce that the original layout of the second floor has been uncovered after being hidden for over 125 years!  It was our hope that the Council Chamber, where the Executive Council met during the Revolution, would be found.  This room has been delineated and several other surprises have been revealed, as well.

Mr. Ladygo's discovery of the second story floor plan includes a large, L-shaped room taking up the whole right side, as well as most of the back part, of the house, a very small room in the back left corner and one other room in the left front of the house which was originally slightly larger than it is today.


Rendition of the original 1775 floor plan


The members of the Historical Society Council were quite surprised to be informed that the staircase leading to the second floor on the #26 Marshall Street side of the house is original.  It was believed previously that this staircase was added when renowned local architect Charles Brigham bought the house in 1871 and reconfigured it into a 2-family property, #26 and #28 Marshall Street.

Other discoveries on the second floor include a small closet area in what is now the chimney-space hallway that was accessible by way of the Council Chamber and a diagonal egress from the Council Chamber by the staircase leading to the first floor on the #26 Marshall Street side of the house.  The small room in the left back corner of the house originally had only one window.  The other window was located further to the right in the larger L-shaped room.  The exit from the attic stairs was originally located in this small room.

For those who know what to look for, there are clues available in this old house to help decipher the mystery of the original layout.  The large, L-shaped room was delineated by the cornice between the ceiling and wall that encircles the front and back rooms on the right side of the house.  The cornice continues, unbroken, between the front and back rooms, visible now because the wall between the two rooms has been taken down.  It is also now apparent that length of cornice which had been covered by the wall has never been painted.  Removal of sections of the ceilings in the #28 and #26 Marshall Street bathrooms has revealed a ghost image of the cornice or soffit, the underside of the cornice, indicating that the space used for the bathrooms was probably originally part of L-shaped room.


Architectural Conservator Andy Ladygo


Andy Ladygo is also a plaster expert.  The plaster ceiling in the front and back rooms, as well as in the two bathrooms, is one continuous plaster ceiling and dates from the 1700s.  He has determined that there is one original continuous whitewash paint application on it, although it does show more recent traces of paint in some areas.


The front and back second floor rooms after removal of the wall that separated them (left);
the never-painted length of cornice (right) is located between these two spaces


A small section of a plaster ceiling, separate from the L-shaped room, can be observed beneath the attic floorboards.  This delineates the closet space mentioned earlier.

Beneath the existing floorboards in the small hallway at the top of the staircase between the first and second floors on the #26 Marshall Street side, holes from hand-wrought nails can be seen going in a diagonal direction where it appears that a threshold had been nailed down.  Diagonal framing for this egress from the L-shaped chamber is visible upon lifting floorboards in the attic.

Maud Hodges' original manuscript for Crossroads on the Charles, prior to editing for print, describes the second floor of the Edmund Fowle House in 1775 as being "one big open space," not just as having one unfinished room, as many Historical Society Council members had once believed.  This wide open space that could be outfitted as needed by order of the Provincial Congress made the Edmund Fowle House a very desirable meeting place for the 28 member Executive Council in 1775.


A Video Tape is Worth a Thousand Words

An incredible amount of information has been uncovered during the study of the Edmund Fowle House.  The Building Restoration Committee wanted this information to be documented and somehow conveyed to our members and the general public.  Our "history detective," Architectural Conservator Andy Ladygo, agreed to walk through the house explaining the different finds while being videotaped.  The filming took place on February 21, 2006.

We were joined that day for a short while by David Gordon, a photographer, and Chris Loh, a reporter, both from the Watertown TAB.  As a result, an article about the Edmund Fowle House was printed in the TAB on February 24, 2006.

The "tour" began in the back yard, where Andy pointed out how the back window on the first floor does not line up with the back window on the second floor, because the upstairs window was moved when the bathrooms were installed in the 1870s.  This window will be moved back to its original location during the restoration.


View of the back of the house showing the misalignment of
the first and second floor windows


Once inside, Andy explained how he came to the conclusion that the staircase from the first floor to the second floor on the #26 side is original.  He opened the door to the basement on the #26 side.  The underside of the staircase leading to the second floor is visible from the basement staircase.  He pointed out the wide plank paneling on the walls in the stairwell and the hand-wrought nails at the bottoms of the planks.  He also pointed out a right-angle cut-out that has been filled in with plaster that appears to have been part of the opening at the bottom of the stairs.  The stairs turned here and the exit was in what was then the kitchen and is now the room on the left back side of the house.  We plan to restore the original kitchen.

We then moved into the dining room.  As was reported previously, the homosote ceiling was removed from this room on the first floor with the bow window last October, exposing the original hand-hewn beams.  Incredibly wide wood planking could be seen above the beams.  The removal of the ceiling was carried out by students from the North Bennett Street School, a prestigious trade school for artisans in Boston's North End.  The removal of the ceiling also exposed the original framing of this room, making it apparent which doors are original and where original windows were located.  Hand-made nails were also visible in this framing.


The Fowle House dining room with modern ceiling intact (left) and a close-up of the second
floor joists and floorboards (right), which were exposed when the ceiling was removed


Removal of the modern ceiling revealed piping for gas lighting, as well as wiring for electric lighting, showing the changes and updates that the Fowle House went through during many years.

Mr. Ladygo talked about these finds, as well as those mentioned in the previous story, during the taping.  This footage, as well as additional footage of the interior deconstruction and future restoration, will be edited for future viewing by our members and the public.


Edmund Fowle House Undergoes Dendrochronology Study

If you are a Watertown history lover, you have probably come across sources with conflicting information on when the Edmund Fowle House was built.  Watertown's Military History states that the house was built in 1765.  Maud Hodges' original manuscript that was published as Crossroads on the Charles states that it was built in 1772.  For many years, the Historical Society has stated that the house was built circa 1742.  A title search of the Fowle House property done in 1974 traces the history of ownership back to the 1600s.  Later, John Bond came to own this property.  In 1747, he sold it to Edmund Fowle.  It included "a mansion house and barn."

Because of the uncertainty as to when the Edmund Fowle House was actually built, the Historical Society decided to undertake a dendrochronology study.  Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, makes use of the annual growth ring patterns of trees to determine the year a tree was cut.  Each year, trees grow a new layer of wood under the bark.  The fluctuating widths of these rings are dependent on the climate that year, as well as other environmental factors.

To date the building of a house, wood boring samples are taken from timbers and the growth rings are compared to a database of samples from houses with proven build dates.  Dendrochronologists Anne Grady of Lexington, as well as Daniel Miles and Michael Worthington of the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory in England, arrived at the Fowle House one morning in February, 2006.  The structural beams and joists in the basement and attic were examined to determine if they were suitable for this type of study.  A ring pattern of 80-100 rings would be needed to properly date the house.

After about an hour of inspection, Dan told us that it looked as though the house's structural beams were from fast-growing, second growth trees, having only 20-30 growth rings, but that the joists appeared to be from slower growth, first period trees.  Core samples of the joists could be taken, but it would be necessary to collect, overlap and cross-match 20-30 samples in the lab, hopefully compiling a pattern with the 80-100 rings needed to properly date the house.

With Dan's assistance, Michael began boring into different joists in the basement that they agreed were worthwhile specimens.  This is done with an electric drill with an 18" bit with a 1/2 inch diameter hole in the middle.  As the bit bores into the wood, a 1/2 inch wood core is collected in the hole in the middle of the bit.  The result looks something like an oversized pencil.  Each hole was then covered with masking tape and numbered in sequential order.  The core sample was assigned the same number as the spot from which it was taken.  The holes in no way compromise the structural integrity of the house.  They can be plugged with plastic inserts, which can be painted or stained to match the surrounding wood, if so desired.


Core sample taken from a joist at the Fowle House


Most of the samples collected were 4-6 inches long, containing 30-50 years worth of rings.  Michael discovered two beams in the basement from which he could obtain samples, one running from the front to the back of the house and one running from one side of the house to the other.  He took three samples from these beams that were about 12 inches long and have 80-120 growth rings.  In the attic, Dan was able to obtain two samples from beams and the remainder from joists.  Samples were also collected from the newly-exposed joists in the dining room.

The wood in the basement is all red oak.  Some of the samples were sapwood, which is the top layer just below the bark.  Some of the cores actually included bark, which may help determine during which season the trees were cut down.  In all, 19 samples were collected from the basement, 12 samples from the attic and 2 samples from the dining room.

The samples were taken back to the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory for analysis.  It will be two to three months before we are informed of their findings.


Deconstruction of Second Floor Layout

Months ago, an overall physical needs assessment was conducted by Wendall Kalsow to determine what must be done to bring the Edmund Fowle House into compliance with the Massachusetts State Building Code and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Kalsow, of McGinley, Kalsow and Assoc., the architectural firm chosen to work on the Fowle House renovation project, has been working diligently to complete this phase of the project.

Our two requests for variances were approved in January and March, respectively.  We are now ready to move forward with the renovation/restoration plans.

The importance of the Edmund Fowle House lies in the fact that the second floor housed the Executive Council of the State of Massachusetts Bay during the early Revolutionary period.  Additionally, the Treaty of Watertown was signed in this room on July 19, 1776.  This treaty between the Governors of the State of Massachusetts Bay and the Delegates of the St. John's & Micmaq Tribes of Indians was the first international treaty signed by the newly-formed, independent country.  The Historical Society's primary goal at the beginning of this project was to uncover the second floor Executive Council Chamber and restore it.  We are on our way!

Deconstruction on the second floor has been carried out carefully by students from the North Bennett Street School.  All but the original walls have been taken down.  The bathrooms on the second floor have been removed.  The 1930s claw bathtubs are up for auction on eBay.  A new unisex, ADA-compliant bathroom will be located on the first floor in what is now the #28 kitchen.  The kitchen addition was put on in the 1870s.


This composite image shows the #26 and #28 Marshall Street bathrooms
with the wall that separated the two sides of the house removed



The two windows on the right were located in the bathrooms of
#26 and #28 Marshall Street


The 1870s staircase to the attic on the #28 side was also carefully removed, revealing some hidden items, including a small, empty, corked bottle of an elixir called "Pain Killer" that was very popular in the latter part of the 1800s.  Also found in the attic stairwell were a musket ball and a piece of wood wrapped in the December 11,1896, issue of the Watertown newspaper, The Enterprise.  Upon examination of this newspaper at the Library, which has copies of many newspapers on microfilm, nothing was found to tie this issue of the newspaper to the house.  The significance of the piece of wood is not yet known.

Construction documents for the renovation are being drawn up and will go out for bid shortly.  Work should begin before summer.  This work will include accessibility, wiring, plumbing, landscaping and other non-restoration work.  The restoration work will begin at the end of 2006.