Out with the New in with the Old:
The Restoration of the Noah Webster House
Created by Catrina Meyer, Intern Summer 2014
Edited by Sheila Daley and Abby Perkins
Today the Noah Webster House looks like the colonial farmhouse that Noah Webster grew up in. Before the Hamiltons gave the house to the town in 1962 it was privately owned by other families who called this house their home, and as most homeowners do, they improved upon it by adding features that were modern and desirable for their time.
The Noah Webster Foundation, led by John Mikna, spent 1965 to 1967 investigating and restoring the house. They restored it to what it may have looked like in 1774, the last year Noah lived there before he went to Yale. The restoration was a process of discovery and decisions. The restoration team removed features that were added after 1774 and sometimes they were surprised with what they found. Using different restoration methods, such as restoring what was there, creating new materials consistent with old styles and reusing materials from this and another house, they brought the house back to 1774. Let’s explore some of these discoveries and changes.
The Fireplace Grows: The Old Kitchen Fireplace
One of the features you will see on a tour of the Noah Webster House is the impressive 8’ 6” wide fireplace in the original kitchen. Before the restoration, however, the fireplace you would have seen was much smaller. The restoration team knew that an 18th-century farm house would have needed a larger fireplace. They decided to remove the plaster surrounding the fireplace and this exposed the larger size, complete with two rear bake ovens. The space behind the wall had been filled in with brick, stone rubble and dirt. At first this material may seem unimportant, but the bricks were actually valuable to the restoration team. The team was able to reuse the bricks in other parts of the house where replacements were needed.
One Fireplace for Another: The Old Kitchen Fireplace
In approximately 1787 an addition was added to the house. The center room of the lean-to addition became the new kitchen, with a smaller, more modern fireplace. The team concluded that it was at this point that the original fireplace was reduced in size. The side bake oven in the new kitchen would have protruded into the original kitchen fireplace. Since the original fireplace was used while Noah lived in the house, the restoration committee decided to it was more important to restore the original fireplace to its original size. This meant that the lean to fireplace would need to be partially filled in and made inoperative. The original kitchen could now be shown as the important living and working space it had been for the Webster family.
A Name in the Mortar:
The Old Kitchen Fireplace
There was a surprise found on the parging (a thin coat of mortar) of the old kitchen fireplace. The restoration team found an inscription on the throat of the chimney that read, “Dan[i]el Webster[r]”. In 2013 Ground Root Preservation Group concluded that the name was written with a finger while the mortar was drying in the 18th century. Daniel Webster was the name of Noah’s grandfather and great-grandfather, which suggests that the house may have been built by one of these men, rather than Noah’s father, Noah Webster, Sr. At first it was believed that the house was built in the 1740s, but this discovery could mean that it was built earlier.
The Ghost of a Clock: The Old Kitchen Clock
While peeling back the modern layers of the wall, the team found the ghost of a clock against the wall of the original kitchen. It appeared that the clock had not been moved when the wainscoting was painted, leaving an unpainted area in the shape of a clock. To determine if this was important the team looked for historical evidence that would show if the clock had been in the house while the Websters were living there. Since the walls could have been painted long after Noah moved out, this was not enough evidence to justify putting a clock there. The clock that is currently in the Parlor is from Noah Webster’s house in New Haven.
Saltbox or No Saltbox: The Lean-to
The lean-to is the rear portion of the house that gives it the distinctive saltbox shape. This shape is used in the Noah Webster House logo today! According to a letter written by Noah’s brother Charles, the lean-to was added approximately 1787, so it was not part of the house while Noah lived there.
During the 19th century more additions were added to the house, changing its structure, footprint and even roofline. When the lean-to was originally added, the saltbox roofline extended across the entire house. Later the lean-to roof was modified to accommodate a new room. As a result of these changes the saltbox roofline is no longer on the left side of the house.
Even though the lean-to was not original to the house when Noah lived there, the restoration committee decided to keep it, as it provides valuable space for the museum. Today, it is used as Noah’s Discovery Learning Space.
A Surprise in the Corner: The Corner Cupboard
On the ceiling of the lean-to kitchen the restoration team found a plaster outline that showed evidence of a corner cupboard. Once the modern plaster was removed, the same line was seen in the old plaster, confirming that the line was from the early days of the house. A corner cupboard with the same dimensions was found in the upstairs chamber. The restoration team concluded that this cupboard had originally been located downstairs so they decided to return it to the lean-to.
Did Grandma Steele Freeze?: The Corner Fireplace
As the team removed the plaster from the walls in the lean-to chamber, they found bricks for a fireplace and a section of the lean-to plate (a beam that supports the lean-to) that had been cut to make room for a chimney. Noah’s maternal grandmother, Catherine Steele, likely lived in this room when she came to stay with the family in her old age and a fireplace would have been necessary to keep her warm. While the discovery of the fireplace and chimney was interesting, they were not in the house while Noah was. Therefore, the restoration committee decided not to go to the expense and trouble of rebuilding a fireplace.
Creating Solid Ground: The Floor
The modern flooring was removed to reveal the old flooring beneath, but these floorboards were too punctuated to reuse. However, they did not go to waste. The restoration team used the old floorboards as sheathing boards for the roof. This reuse allowed them to use authentic material. Later an antique building material dealer from Southbury, Connecticut, Mr. Weise, provided early, undamaged floorboards. The practice of “salvaging” materials from one structure to be used for another is generally frowned upon today because it damages the integrity of another building. But, in the 1960s it was a common practice, and in this situation it provided a more accurate reproduction.
Recreating What Was There: The Exterior
The modern clapboard siding was removed and native wood clapboards were laid-up using old style methods and spacing. The boards were scarfed together rather than butted. Scarfing is a method of joining boards together that was historically used, where the ends are overlapped; while butting involves nailing the ends of boards together and is more common today.
A Red House: The Exterior
Early in the restoration process the team speculated that the house may have been yellow. However, as the modern siding was removed the team discovered two sections of original siding under modern siding. These clapboards contained wrought nails, a type of nail used until the early 19th century, indicating that these boards were likely original. On these boards there was evidence of red paint which is the reason the Noah Webster House is red and not yellow today.
Entering the Noah Webster House: The Doors
As part of the restoration the modern doors on the front and south entrances needed to be replaced. Doors were found at the Mortlake Tavern in Brooklyn, Connecticut, that was built in about 1750. These doors are a reasonable approximation of the doors young Noah Webster would have passed through because they are from a similar time and geographic location. The doors were brought to the Noah Webster House, and since the tavern was already being razed, no harm was done to the integrity of an existing building. These doors needed latches, so by copying what was on another early West Hartford home, reproductions were made
Investigating the Piazza: The South Piazza
At the time of the 1960s restoration there was a porch on the south side of the house. Cut nails, which were not used until the 1790’s, were found in the porch rather than wrought nails which were used during Noah’s time at the house. The porch was also not joined to the frame of the house. To determine when it was added, the restoration team investigated the porch using nail chronology and joinery, common clues for building analysis. The restoration team was able to conclude that it had been added after Noah’s time here and so it was removed.
The devoted restoration team and the Noah Webster Foundation made many changes to the house to restore it to what it may have been like in 1774. It is thanks to these efforts that the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is the great house museum that it is today.
To learn more about Noah Webster, the house and colonial life, we invite you to come on a tour of the Noah Webster House.