Oxford Tree-Ring Laboratory - Massachusetts


155 Whitcomb Avenue

155 Whitcomb Avenue, Littleton, Middlesex County, MA (42.526888, -71.522378)

Felling Dates: Spring 1797, Winter 1797/8

The building at 155 Whitcomb Avenue, which was dismantled for salvage in April 2003, was composed of two eighteenth-century structures: an end chimney, story-and-one-half house traditionally dated to c. 1735 on the southwest and a single story square building, two bays wide, two bays deep and twenty-four feet on a side, on the northeast. The square building had been drawn up and attached to the other structure in the nineteenth century. Together they formed a gable roofed dwelling with an open porch across the west half of the façade facing toward Whitcomb Avenue (Figure 1L). The building had several later additions to the rear. Evidence that northeast structure had been built with a pyramidal roof originally first came to light when the building was being prepared for removal to make way for new construction (Figure 2L). William Gould, architectural preservationist, alerted the preservation community to the fact that, because of its unusual original roof form and its square dimensions, the building might be the remains of an eighteenth-century public building.

At first it was thought that the structure could be the first meeting house built in Littleton in 1717. When documents failed to turn up any evidence to support this hypothesis, dendrochronology was suggested as a means of determining the exact construction date. When the dendrochronological study identified 1797-1798 as the building’s date, research focused on the late eighteenth century history of Littleton. Researchers learned that the first public school buildings in Littleton were authorized in 1797. The coincidence of dates, the notion that a school building might well have been built, unlike conventional dwellings of the period, with a pyramidal roof, and additional evidence described below suggested that the building attached to the house at 155 Whitcomb Avenue might be Littleton’s original West School building.

Although there had been town-funded schools in private houses since 1725, construction of public school buildings was not undertaken until 1797-1798.span style="mso-spacerun:yes"> One school was built in each quadrant of the town. The West School was built “on the road leading from near John Sanderson’s house to Wm. B. Eastman’s house.” The West School is located on the plan of Littleton prepared by Hoar and Foster in 1830 (Figure 3L). Between 1867 and 1874, the town built the first graded school and replaced the outlying school houses. A marker on the south side of Sanderson Road, just west of its junction with Taylor Road identifies the present gray wooden dwelling behind it as the replacement West School of c. 1870. The sign also states that the original West School was on a nearby site, a location that is just a mile from 155 Whitcomb Avenue.

According to Dan Shields, who dismantled the structure, a former owner of the house at 155 Whitcomb Avenue, Charles Morse, told him that the added part of the building had been moved from near the Depot, which still stands close to the beginning of Sanderson Road. Further, Shields felt that the structure was attached to the existing building in the 1860s, based on his estimate of the finish materials and construction techniques used at the time that the buildings were joined.

Although there is no absolute proof that the building moved to 155 Whitcomb Avenue is the original West School, the combination of evidence makes a compelling case for the building’s original identity. IIf so, the frame, now dismantled and in storage, is one of a very small number of eighteenth-century school buildings in Massachusetts of which we have direct knowledge from artifactual remains. Construction details of the 1797-1798 structure at 155 Whitcomb Avenue were photographed and recorded by Anne Grady between February and April 2003.

The roof frame, visible at first in an unfinished attic, retained dragon beams in each corner (i. Figure 4L; 5L). The beams, which bisected the corners, were supported by dragon ties placed diagonally across the corner and lapped over the adjoining plates and tie beams. Mortises for corner rafters were present at the outer ends of the dragon beams. The roof frame in its last configuration supported a gable roof, but evidence showed that the frame for the gable roof incorporated timbers that had been part of the pyramidal roof structure. TThe original central king post, attached to the central tie beam by means of a half dovetail tenon held in place by a wedge, supported the center of the gable roof (Figure 6L). The original central front and rear rafters of the pyramidal roof were still in place mortised into the top of the king post and the ends of the central tie beam. That these central rafters remained in their original position indicates that the pyramidal roof had the same pitch as the gable roof. A central beam in two sections in the attic floor running in a longitudinal direction was mortised into the central tie beam next to the king post (Figure 6L). Where the central side-to-side beam lapped over the end tie beams, there were mortises for the side rafters of the pyramidal roof. At the top of the king post were the empty mortises where the side rafters had once been joined to the king post (Figure 7L). In addition, there were notches on the four corners of the top of the king post to receive the corner rafters that ran from the dragon beams to the king post (Figure 7L). Some of the original corner rafters were re-used in the gable roof, their original use identified by pockets cut on a diagonal to receive previous purlins. At least one corner rafter was flipped over to provide a flat surface to which to nail the roof sheathing, where in their original position the rafters had been beveled to receive sheathing at the corners of the pyramidal roof (Figure 8L).

The building frame was of oak and the major timbers were hewn. Joists running between the tie beams were of slim logs, some still retaining bark, that were hewn flat on the bottom and were joined to the lower sides of the tie beams so that lath for a flush plaster ceiling could be nailed to them. The ceiling present before demolition was still lower, however, and was hung from hangers (Figure 5L).

The original exterior sheathing of the structure was nailed on with hand wrought nails. The sheathing appeared weathered. The absence of nail holes where additional exterior cladding was nailed on suggests that the sheathing may have remained uncovered as the exterior wall finish.

Miles, D H, Worthington, M J, and Grady, A A, 2003 ““Development of Standard Tree-Ring Chronologies for Dating Historic Structures in Eastern Massachusetts Phase III”, Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory unpubl rep 2003/9




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