07 May 2015

Envisioning ancestors’ neighborhoods: A study of Lexington, Massachusetts, part 3

How can you picture how your ancestors lived and what their home may have looked like, if the original structure and photos do not exist? 

For this study, we’re using the year 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts, as an example. Part 1 set the scene, with events and historic sites. In part 2, we covered books, maps, and photos. Now let’s add historical property data into the mix. 

The National Register of Historic Places (NR) seeks to “identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.” However, Massachusetts is one of those states that hasn’t had its paperwork digitized yet. Fortunately, there’s the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO), and in the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), which provides information on Lexington. (Again, not all towns are digitized.)

First, let’s search the MACRIS database by location and time period. Select Lexington, and on the next screen, type <1775 under Construction Year (as in less than 1775). Thirty properties show up in the results, including the Lexington Old Burying Ground (c. 1690) and 1775 Traces of the Battle Road (c. 1636), since we did not select Resource Type (area, building, burial ground, object, structure). Objects include historic markers and monuments while Structures include walls, bridges, streets, wells, cow pens—much more than we want. By selecting Buildings, <1775, the results are 27 properties.

For each property, the onscreen spreadsheet shows the inventory number (Inv. No.), property name, street address, town, approximate year built (circa or range of dates), whether the house is listed on the State Register of Historic Places (SR), whether the National Register nomination has been digitized (NR), and (INV) for the scanned inventory file. For record detail, click on Inv. No.; for the scanned nomination paperwork, click on INV to download the PDF. 

Architectural Styles

MACRIS lets you select from many different kinds of architectural styles, including “altered beyond recognition.” However, the web site does not provide descriptions for these styles online. So let’s go to Historic New England, which divides architectural building styles before the 20th century into the following categories: 
  • First Period (Post-medieval English): 1600-1700
  • Georgian: 1700-1780
  • Federal (Adam): 1780-1820
  • Greek Revival: 1825-1860
  • Gothic Revival: 1840-1880
  • Italianate: 1840-1885
  • Second Empire: 1855-1885
  • Stick: 1860-1890
  • Queen Anne: 1880-1910
  • Shingle: 1880-1900
  • Colonial Revival: 1880-1955
Georgian Style

Let’s say an ancestor built a home in Lexington circa 1750 that no longer exists and we want to look at a home of a similar age and style. Houses dating from 1700 to 1780 were often Georgian in style, with the center entry flanked with an equal number of double-hung sash windows balancing each side. One or two stories high, these clapboard or shingled wood-framed homes had center chimneys (if built before 1750) or double chimneys on each end of the gable roof. The box floor plan was two rooms deep with a central hallway.

Henry Harrington - Dr. Joseph Fiske house (LEX.710)
In MACRIS, we search Lexington, Georgian and find 21 matches, including the Henry Harrington - Dr. Joseph Fiske house (LEX.710) at 70 East Street. Besides its architectural significance, it has an interesting history, being commonly known as the Lexington Pest House, and a long association with the Fiske family. The Lexington Historical Commission nominated the single-family dwelling as historically important in March 1998. The paperwork, downloadable as a PDF, includes a photo, a map showing location and footprint, an architectural description, a historical narrative, and—what every genealogist likes to see—a bibliography and/or references. 

Considered “one of the best-preserved of the 21 Georgian houses still standing in Lexington, the original house was rectangular with an integral lean-to, 2-1/2 stories, five-by-one bays, and side-gabled with a large center chimney and an exterior chimney at the west end of lean-to.... The original house has a center entrance with a surround composed of a projecting molded cornice and fluted pilasters; the 6/9 windows in this house have molded window heads on the first floor and are framed into the cornice on the second.” Major alterations include a “shed attached to house, rear addition, attached garage (1979).” 

House Genealogy

Although this file does not include a floor plan, it has genealogical and architectural value. Cary Library in Lexington includes notes from Fiske descendant, Mary Abbie Fiske, suggesting the house was built in 1745 by Henry Harrington (1712-1791) and three of his sons were born there. However, the house nomination paperwork questions the date since sons John was born in 1739 and Jonathan in 1744. By 1790, Dr. Joseph Fiske (1752-1837) acquired the house from Henry Harrington’s son John. Probably during an epidemic in 1792, Dr. Fiske was treating 32 smallpox patients at 70 East Street—hence the name pest house. In 1809, Dr. Fiske moved to the old Fiske house (LEX.735) at 63 Hancock Street after his father’s death, though several generations of the doctor’s family continued to live at the Harrington-Fiske house until the 1940s.

By studying the Georgian homes in the Lexington area, you can gain insight into how your ancestors lived at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

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