Architectural Notes From 1900

The following architectural history is taken from Norman M. Isham and Albert F. Brown’s Early Connecticut Houses, first published by The Preston and Rounds Company in 1900 and now in the public domain. Isham oversaw the 1916-18 restoration of the House. At the time of Early Connecticut House‘s publication, the House was known as The Fiske-Wildman House. A dendrochronology study completed in 2015 established that the House was built in 1713.

isham1-houseGuilford was laid out around a rectangular “Green.” From the south end of this, continuing the street which bounds the open space, runs the New York and Boston stage road, the colonial post-road, a prolongation, along the Sound, of the old “path which leadeth to Pequot,” which ran from Providence to New York.

On this Boston road, perhaps an eighth or quarter of a mile from the Green, stands the Dr. Fiske house, to it a familiar name,1 one of the largest as well as one of the most picturesque in Guilford. It is a wooden house, with a central chimney topped-out with brick, and it has a long lean-to in the rear. This lean-to, though very old, is not original, and, if we consider the plan, where the oldest work is shown in black, we shall see that we have here a survival–a house of the old two-room, hall-and-parlor type.isham2-floorplan (1)

From a view of the house it would not seem possible that it could have been built as late as 1720,2 but, on closer study, we must admit that the evidence in support of that date is very powerful.

In the first place, the great width of the house, nineteen feet or thereabout, in the clear, and the considerable height of the two stories, argue very strongly for the late date.

In the second place, the summer does not appear in either of the lower rooms. We might suspect that they had been hewn away, especially as there are two parallel cracks in the ceiling which betray the presence of a beam flush with the floor joists. This suspicion, however, receives a heavy blow in the second story, for the summers are lacking — to all appearance — even here, nor have they been hewn off, since they are still to be seen in the attic, the bottoms of them flush with those of the floor joists, the tops projecting above the garret floor.

Isham3-overhangIf it were not for the treatment of the summers in this house and in another like it, we might be inclined to ignore the width of the rooms and the height of the stories; for the Roger Williams house in Salem, which dates from 1634-40, is almost as wide in the clear as this building, and the stories of it are nearly, if not quite, as high. Moreover the Fiske house has on all four sides of the original dwelling, an overhang3 which, at the first sight thereof, would make us claim an early date for the mansion. For this projection is of the hewn type employed elsewhere in the New Haven jurisdiction, and used in the Hollister and Patterson houses in the Connecticut colony, the type, that is, in which the lower half of the post is hewn away to let the upper half come forward. But the overhang is not exactly like that in either of the houses we have mentioned, nor, indeed, like any example we have seen in the present State of Connecticut. The brackets, instead of being double-swell affairs like those in the Hollister house, or plain bevels like those in the Patterson, have a reversed curve, as the drawing shows, and the outer edges of the girts which these brackets appear to support are beautifully chamfered with a cyma reversa filleted above and below, and stopped with a double curve. This is not, however, the real mediaeval curved chamfer- stop into which the mouldings all curve and die away. That stop we have, so far, seen but once in New England, on the edge of the lintel over the fireplace in the old Arthur Fenner house, in Cranston, Rhode Island, where it dated back to 1655.

These chamfered beams, in fact, can be only copies of older work which has disappeared. They seem isolated because the forerunners of them have been lost with the destruction of the houses, or have been covered up by later boarding. The brackets, too, are rare because older examples have been hewn away in many cases to make easier the work of renewing the clapboards, or because the houses have been built out in the lower story to conceal the overhang, as was actually done a few years ago with the Burnham house at Ipswich.

While the hewn overhang has other less elaborate examples in the New Haven colony — where we believe it originated, as far as the Connecticut settlements are concerned — these chamfered specimens can not be considered as necessarily earlier than those that are plain. The chamfers occur at Ipswich, in the Colony of the Bay, in two houses, the so-called Saltonstall, which is very old, but the date of which is still under investigation, and the so-called Cobbett, which is undoubtedly as late as 1701. The other important houses with overhangs, in Ipswich : the Howard house, with no brackets, and the Norton house, with brackets of the same shape as those on the Fiske house — though there are no double ones on the corners — are also late examples. Neither of them has the chamfer. We have, therefore, to abandon our first thought that here we meet an early chamfer, the work of some old craftsman fresh from the same kind of moulding in his English home.

The final argument for the late date of the house is the existence of another dwelling of almost exactly the same kind, which stands on the same road a little further east. This, the Caldwell house, which we shall describe a little later, has the plan and all the marks of the third period and can hardly be earlier than about 1740. It has the overhang, with exactly the same form of bracket, but without the chamfer.

To return briefly to the interior of the Fiske house. The joists in the second floor of the lean-to, which has no plastered ceiling, run lengthwise of the kitchen, and are remarkable for their length and for the quality of the work bestowed upon them. The roof is no doubt original. It is framed with principal rafters and purlins which carry the common rafters. Collar beams, as is common in this colony, are wanting.

isham4-moldingIn the entry, which is wide, as in all New Haven work, there is a very interesting stair with a box string heavily moulded, and with turned balusters of very good contour.



1 It [was] the property of Mr. F.J. Wildman.
2 The builder is said to have been Ebenezer Parmelee, the clockmaker.
3 The overhang appears on the front and on each end. The existence of it on the back–which is really a sign of the late date–is proved by the distance at which the posts of the lean-to stand from the back of the wall to the main house.