Published: June 19, 2001
By Marilyn Gould
WILTON, CONN. – On January 17, the historic Sloan-Raymond-Fitch house traveled down Route 7 in Wilton. Separated from its Eighteenth Century stone foundation and huge central chimney, it was pulled by a powerful truck as it balanced on a steel undercarriage and rolled on 14 airplane wheels.
Over the last two months many antiques fans and readers of Antiques and The Arts Weekly have asked about the progress of the Wilton Historical Society’s “Heritage Project.”
Because of the upcoming widening of US Route 7, and because the federally approved Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS) contained a Memorandum of Agreement protecting historic resources, the Connecticut Department of Transportation had to assume responsibility for relocating this classical central chimney house. Not only was it on the National Register of Historic Places, it was also Wilton’s Heritage Museum. Noting this, the Department of the Interior required DOT to relocate and restore this building in a manner that would allow it to remain on the National Register.
This story actually began nearly seven years ago when DOT engineers fist asked, “Mrs Gould, do you have a place to move your museum?” As a result, the decision was made to acquire the Blackmar House, 2,000 feet further south on Route 7 as a future home for Fitch House. The relocation would bring together two significant Eighteenth Century dwellings. Five years then passed with not much happening on Route 7.
During that time the Historical Society structurally restored the Betts-Sturgess-Blackmar house and began the interior work in its period rooms. Two years ago the Society rescued a local Nineteenth Century barn and blacksmith shop about to be demolished and rebuilt them on the Betts-Sturgess-Blackmar site. These buildings are not only architecturally striking, but serve an important function as collections storage and work space during the construction period.
In early 2000 DOT began discussions with the owners of the properties to be acquired for the widening project. The offer made to the Historical Society did not recognize the historic value of the building until the matter of the Memorandum of Agreement was brought to their attention. Almost a year ago a final compromise was agreed to, with the state covering the majority of the costs of relocating and restoring the building. With that agreement, work was started on inventorying and packing for storage 7,000 rdf_Descriptions in the museum’s collections.
By early October the collections were moved onto off-site storage and the office and gift shop were relocated to 224 Danbury Road, into the “new” museum, the Betts-Sturgess-Blackmar house. The crew of carpenters then began to ready Fitch House for its historic move. The oldest portion of the house, the rear ell, was dismantled and the roof was taken down. Tons of stones used to build the original huge chimney base and cellar foundation walls were dismantled and the venerable old post and beam house (weighing more than 200 tons) rested on huge steel beams and wood cribbing.
Meanwhile, back at the receiving site, footings had been poured and the “new” structure connecting the two Eighteenth Century structures had begun to rise on new foundation walls. The primary central structure is a reconstructed Nineteenth Century barn that was south of Wilton High School. It will serve as an exhibition gallery, with the loft providing for the presentation of the Society’s large collection of dolls, toys, and dollhouses and a lower level that will provide a properly outfitted area for textiles and costume storage, conservation, and exhibition.
Four months after “moving day” the complex building/rebuilding project is beginning to take shape. The original stones have been reassembled into the massive base (12 by 14 inch) of the multiple fireplaces centering the house, with the four recessed niches looking as they did before. In fact, the foundation wall and the stone steps going outdoors look just like they did in the Eighteenth Century.
The one-room massive post and beam frame of the oldest portion – presumably the one-room house built by Alexander Sloan in 1732 – has been reassembled. One portion of Eighteenth Century lath uncovered in the de-construction has been reassembled and will be left visible.
The striking framework of the barn is up and will remain visible on the interior when it is closed in. And just recently, a 25-foot-tall (eight inch diameter) maple tree from New Jersey was planted to replace a 150-year-old maple tree lost during excavation last fall.
This project offers striking (and frustrating) conflicts between the desire to re-create the Eighteenth Century while running up against the requirements of Twentieth Century building and fire-safety codes – some expected, some unexpected.
Fire codes required three-hour fire walls (14 inches thick) between the three historic buildings now joined together, when two-hour ratings had been expected. There are three code-compliant, fire-separated staircases and 18 fire doors are required.
The state’s new seismic code required more than four tons of steel to be used in the 30 by 40 foot post and beam barn; an interesting juxtaposition of huge pre-industrialization Nineteenth Century timbers with huge red steel industrial channel beams. But, in case of an earthquake, the Historical Society may be the safest building in town!
Handicap accessibility is also part of the project. Because of the existing grade change, there is now a four foot drop from the Betts house to the Raymond house, requiring a wheelchair lift. In addition, entry ramps and a handicap restroom will be provided.
Before the end of May it is hoped that back-filling will be done and scaffolding will be erected to rebuild the roof on the Raymond-Fitch house. Following that, interior restoration will begin.
The interior of the house built by Clapp Raymond more than 200 years ago did not fare as well as had been hoped during the move. In addition to the structural restoration that must be done, substantial cosmetic work will be required. Much of the original hair-plaster was dislodged from the lath, bowed and split. However, the original paneling and woodwork is in good shape.
After re-plastering, the walls will be whitewashed using the Eighteenth Century “recipe.” The woodwork not restored in the 1980s will regain the original colors that were identified in a paint analysis done by SPNEA more than 10 years ago. The wallpaper in the Federal period dining room did not survive and will be replaced by a hand made paper reproduced by Adelphi Paper Hangings from a James & Bolles paper made in Hartford in the 1820s.
While work proceeds on building and rebuilding, long-planned furnishings plans will be implemented in the Betts-Sturgess-Blackmar house. Currently a group of weavers are organizing a textile making room that will illustrate both linen and wool production in the early home. It will have a full complement of equipment, including a large Eighteenth Century loom.
During the summer a Federal period parlor will be furnished primarily with objects from the Dana Blackmar collection. The floor will be covered with an ingrain carpet reproduced from an original fragment by a craftsman who participates in the Historical Society Craftsmanship Show. A period Sheraton sofa will be recovered with a horsehair fabric. Dimity curtains will be hand sewn by Society volunteers.
The original kitchen of the 1739 house will be sparsely and authentically furnished, including an Eighteenth Century bed. Early hearth iron, pewter, treen, a work table, hutch table, an assortment of chairs, and a blanket chest will complete the room.
Originally, the project timeline forecast taking the collections out of storage in September and the Raymond-Fitch rooms being re-furnished during October. However, the project is probably running two months late now, so the completion date is delayed. It is still anticipated that the annual Christmas exhibit will take place in the new gallery.
The Wilton Historical Society has recently initiated its first capital fundraising campaign in order to pay for this very ambitious project. The Society would welcome any contributions. Please call for a brochure that describes the project and its needs.
We invite those interested in knowing more about the exciting work going on here to stop for a visit when going through Wilton. It’s best to call ahead. The museum is not open during construction, but the Gift Shop is. However, the week of the Outdoor Antiques Show is not a good time to stop by.
The Heritage Project is shaping up nicely. Watch for episode four, which will chronicle the completion of the saga.
Marilyn Gould is museum director of the Wilton Historical Society.
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