While tourists are drawn to Massachusetts’s rich history in places like Beacon Hill, Plymouth, and Salem, Dorchester has its own share of notable landmarks, including the oldest surving structure in the city: the James Blake (circa 1661) near Edward Everett Square.
Now local preservationists have turned their gaze to another structure worth saving: a dilapidated house at 65 Pleasant St. that stands on a foundation that dates to the town’s very first days.
The Anna Clapp Harris Smith home will be restored in a joint venture between Historic Boston Incorporated and the North Bennet Street School. First built in 1635, the house was owned by The Clapp family, one of the original founding families of Dorchester, for most of its history. Much of the house was destroyed in a fire in 1804. It was rebuilt on the original foundation later that year. The site was later a childhood home to the founder of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, Anna Clapp Harris Smith.
“This house has been here from the beginning, and the neighborhood just kind of grew up around it,” said Historic Boston’s executive director Kathy Kotteridis at an open house last Wednesday.
The house’s age and longtime neglect shows. The paint is chipping off the rotting walls; there is an ancient wood burning stove in the kitchen and dusty fireplace in the living room; the floors are sagging from years of being built on dirt. And there’s a funny smelling tree that no one quite knows the identity of anymore.
While the interior looks like something out of an old haunted house, the exterior displays visions of a more modern age, such as a the most recent owner’s air conditioner jutting out from between a cracked window frame.
Historic Boston is leaving it up to 30 or more students from the North Bennet Street School’s preservation carpentry division to meticulously restore the home to its former glory. The school educates adult students in craftsmanship and construction, using sites like the Anna Clapp Harris Smith home as a classroom. They have already restored a door frame and door with era-appropriate hinges and doorknobs, along waith patching a few holes in the siding. To keep everything as authentic as possible the students will complete the project with old fashioned tools, as well.
“Projects like this inspire a great reverence and respect for the ones who came before, and the quality of their craftsmanship,” said North Bennet Street School instructor Steve O’Shaughnessy. “We are bringing back all those old techniques. Underneath all this muck, we have a real gem, here.”
Because of the historical significance of the home, care will be taken to slowly peel back the veneer of nearly four centuries, in a process akin to a kind of archaeological dig.
“Demolition is a slow process,” said O’Shaughnessy. “Where other contractors would just come in and tear everything down, our job is more like careful disassembly.” North Bennet Street School hopes to keep the restoration design authentic, and hopes to draw on what’s left of the original design for inspiration.
“As we pull layers away, we unveiled more stories,” said Kotteridis. “You can see the shadows of what was there before.”
Even though the site is a wealth of Massachusetts history, HBI is not intent on creating a second Plymouth Plantation. At the end of the two year project, HBI plans to put the restored home on the market with special easements to preserve the home as a landmark.
“We would like to preserve this site as a historic place in Dorchester, but we feel equally strongly that buildings like this should be used and lived in,” said Kotteridis.