The house sits at the far end of Quansoo Road in Chilmark, through a meadow of goldenrod and tall grasses overlooking Tisbury Great Pond. It is perhaps the oldest house on Martha’s Vineyard, more than three centuries old, and one of the finest existing examples of multi-century architecture on the Island.
Known as the Mayhew-Hancock-Mitchell house at Quansoo Farm, the house dates to sometime in the mid-17th century and has additions from the 18th and 19th centuries. The original part of the house is wattle and daub construction, making it one of four houses in the country still standing with this construction technique. The building was originally used as a farm and missionary meeting house.
The house is now owned by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, a gift in 2007 along with 156 acres from the late Florence (Flipper) Harris. Planning has begun to restore the historic home, with actual restoration work expected to begin next fall.
Last week, historic preservation architect Brian Cooper and dendrochronologist Bill Flynt were on the property to survey the house.
“It’s great to have what is potentially three centuries under one roof,” Mr. Cooper said. “Nobody has messed with it. It’s more uncommon because houses are inhabited and building offices force you to put in wiring and bring it up to code. But this has yielded a lot of great information. This one has lots and lots of maritime history which in New England people love. We just gobble it up.”
There is still debate over the exact original construction date of the house, and this is where Mr. Flynt comes in. He was looking for the wane of the timber in the eaves, or the outermost layer of wood used in the beam. An expert tree dater, Mr. Flynt is taking core samples of the house to get a more precise date of when the house was built.
“When I core it I know that I got the last year of growth and the year they took the tree down, which usually means the following year was the earliest they could frame it,” he said. “They cut the trees in the wintertime and would frame in the spring when it was still new wood. All I can tell you is when the tree came down.”
The oldest house Mr. Flynt has dated was a 1672 house in Salem. Results from his work on the Quansoo house will be ready in a month or two.
Dating the house is one part of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation’s application to list the house on the National Register of Historic Places. The foundation is a land trust whose mission is to own and hold restrictions on land for conservation purposes. But executive director Adam Moore said ownership of the Mitchell house fits the agency’s mission by preserving the character of the rural landscape and promoting educational activities. It is also in keeping with the wishes of Mrs. Harris and her large conservation bequest to the foundation.
“This is part of the landscape and the house has been here for hundreds of years; it’s been here longer than the trees have been growing here on the property,” Mr. Moore said. “Mrs. Harris came down here as a child and ultimately bought all of this land with the intention of conserving it. The house was the focal point of the property and sits on this bucolic landscape against the ocean.”
“It was an incredible legacy she left and she wanted the house to be cared for,” he added. “Our stewardship of this house we see as a larger part of her stewardship of conservation legacy to Sheriff’s Meadow.”
The foundation needs $1 million for the restoration project. To date private fundraising efforts have brought in about $600,000. A public fundraising campaign will begin in the near future. The group may also seek town Community Preservation Act funds.
The foundation plans to hold period educational programs that showcase the history of the home. Restoration work will include encasing portions of exposed wall, for example, to showcase the unique construction. Educational programs would be available to the public and to schools.
“It’d be nice if the kids could get off the school bus at the Grey Barn and take a wagon ride down the road — what a fantastic fall outing that would be,” Mr. Moore said. “I think that would be sensational.”
The foundation is also interested in agricultural restoration of the land, and talks are under way with nearby farmers to graze cattle on the open plains.
“We have to balance all of that with the grasshopper sparrows, which is a rare bird that nests here, but I think ultimately we want to keep the land in conservation and that can be a part of it,” Mr. Moore said.
Accurate period restoration of the house will be made easier by the lack of need for modern appliances.
“Often in historic preservation you’re trying to fit in modern conveniences, but here we’re not trying to do any of that,” Mr. Moore said.
Once restoration begins, the house will be covered with a free-span agricultural building to strip the exterior. A product called Bora Care will be applied to all exposed surfaces to protect the building from termites. The house will then be lifted onto pedestals and the basement excavated. A rat slab will be poured underneath, new exterior surfaces will be applied and chimneys will be rebuilt.
Mr. Moore is considering building a lime kiln and holding a 24-hour burn to make plaster from shells collected at Quansoo. A sample has been sent off for testing to get the correct balance between lime and acid to match the original plaster formula. Rotted oak sills will be replaced using trees from Sheriff’s Meadow properties; a logging job is slated for sometime this winter, Mr. Moore said.
The first floor has several sitting rooms and a small buttery was where a canned jar of tomatoes were found during a tour. In the borning room (a small room found in old houses adjacent to the warm kitchen or keeping room, where babies were born), drawings of tall ships are still visible on the wall.
“Maybe that’s a youngster here who saw a ship sailing by on the beach or his dad was the captain of a ship,” Mr. Moore suggested.
The foundation is also examining delicate wallpapers around the house. Mr. Moore said the wallpaper may have come from overseas with former owner Samuel Hancock’s wife, Francis Townsend.
The 17th century portion of the house is 20 by 27 feet. The wood paneling has been stripped away to show the wattle and daub construction technique of Quansoo clay and straw packed into the rungs of the Cape style house. Chamfering, a distinct 17th century decorative technique of exposed post and beams, is also seen in the sloping ceilings.
“You have mud right from Quansoo that could be 300 years old,” Mr. Moore said.
Before heading up to the attic, Mr. Moore stopped at an old door that still had it’s wooden hardware intact. “It shows how precious iron was at the time, and look how well it works,” Mr. Moore said, turning the latch up and down.
Moving upstairs to the attic, Mr. Moore passed by signatures of previous homeowners — Hancock, Mitchell — and drawings made with a compass. Mr. Cooper, the contractor, had just popped up one of the floor boards to reveal 17th century whitewash below.
“It’s continuous,” he told Mr. Moore.
“You’re kidding!” Mr. Moore exclaimed.
“There was a theory that perhaps this line indicated it was the end of a much earlier house with a steeper roof here, so this timber is a front-to-back girt, 27 feet long and goes all the way in one piece, and then the base of the rafters from this beautiful triangle,” Mr. Cooper said. “It’s very solid and a great way to build, which is why they lasted through all of the hurricanes.” He continued:
“The theory I’ve heard is this is a takeoff of an old style for thatch. What struck me was that 50 or 60 years after the house was built, someone decided to copy the methodology. You can see they overlap,” he said pointing to the older and newer sides of the house. “That’s unusual.”
He surmised that the continuous building technique can be attributed to a grandfather’s original design that was copied by a grandson’s construction. Other oddities included five hand-cut floor boards, a rarity in the 17th century when many builders had already turned to sawmills.
“In those days you knew who sawed the wood, who made the nail and you had a pretty good idea about where the glass was made,” Mr. Cooper said.
All the nails in the house are wrought iron and were harvested from ore, “a very tedious process,” Mr. Cooper said. But 250 years later, the nails are still perfect. The charcoal from the fire would become imbued in the core and make the iron stronger. Mr. Cooper will reuse nails during the restoration where possible.
“That’s why a half mile from the saltwater these nails are still functional,” he said. “As people would move west they would burn down the house and take the nails with them.”
Mr. Moore said he looks forward to sharing all the stories with the next generation of Vineyarders. He recalled a recent school trip to the house with students from the Chilmark School.
“The nicest thing we’ll get to do with this house is the educational elements to it because the children grasp all of it,” he said. “They noticed the ship drawings in the wall and that the house is built of mud — I think it gives you a unique connection with the land.”