NRF promotes and invests in the architectural heritage of the Newport community, the traditional building trades, and Doris Duke’s fine and decorative arts collections, for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of all.
As a leader in the preservation of early American architecture, NRF supports research and education in areas directly related to its collections and issues of critical concern to the field of historic preservation.
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Opening July 1, 2023: NRF and Art&Newport are excited to present a group artists exhibition on cards and card playing: Games, Gamblers & Cartomancers: The New Cardsharps
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By Peter Raposa, Mill Supervisor at Newport Restoration Foundation
The Samuel Whitehorne House (1811), located at 416 Thames Street in Newport, RI, was in dire need of repair when Doris Duke acquired the building in 1970. A story emerged from the massive efforts of that restoration project, a legend of sorts, which was shared with me some 30 years ago. The legend says there are three window sashes original to the house – the round sash on the third floor and the six foot tall arched sash on the second floor, located on the west side of the building (front façade), and the arched window in the stairwell landing on the east side of the building (rear façade). Through the decades, these sashes have been removed to be worked on individually, but never all at the same time since 1970. I recently had the opportunity to work on all three sashes thanks to a generous grant the NRF received.
The approach I took to preserve them was to take one out at a time, repair it, put it back and take the next one, etc. To start, I removed the arched window from the east side. The first thing I noticed was that it was in very good shape and needed minor repairs, such as replacing some loose glazing, sanding the exterior and interior sides, applying some primer and two coats of paint on each side. There was no peeling of paint to speak of so there was no heavy scraping involved. Piece of cake – the sash was completed and reinstalled.
I then removed the six-foot arched sash from the west side, located on the second floor. Compared to the first sash, this one was in rough shape, and the 34″ panel frame work that the sash sits on was rotted beyond repair. A new one had to be made.
The last time this house was painted was back in 2005 – 16 years ago. When I brought the sash back to the mill, I really had the opportunity to take a closer look at it. Most of the glazing was missing, except for some of the areas around the arch. Most of the glass was just floating, and the only thing holding the glass in place were the points. All the lites had to be removed and labeled so each one would go back in exactly the same opening and in the same orientation. The photo below shows how I did this. The interior and exterior paint was flaking off due to the heat from the afternoon sun beating down on it for so many years. I had no choice but to remove the paint on both sides to the bare wood. This did not take long because the condition of the paint was so poor.
When scraping the paint on the curved muntins on the interior side, I discovered something amazing. I noticed how the craftsman achieved the curved shape of the muntins – something that has been covered by layers of paint for quite some time, and remained hidden for possibly decades. The muntins had relief cuts cut three quarters of the way through and spaced 1/2″ apart from each other, all cut with a very thin blade from a hand saw. This method would allow a straight piece of wood to be manipulated into a curve (see photo below). It made me think. Could this sash be original? Further probing needed to happen. Since there were multiple curves on this sash, I needed to confirm how many other curves were made in this manner. To my surprise, I found that they were all crafted in the same way.
At this point, I started to ask a looming question about the first arched sash that I just completed. Since I did not scrape any paint from the interior side, were the curved muntins crafted with relief cuts? If so, this could establish a common timeline for them and if not, expose a different one.
I completed the repair work of that tall sash and installed it back in its home. I was eager to start the last sash – the round one on the third floor. Once getting it back to the shop, the very first thing I did was to remove the paint to expose how the craftsman made the curved muntins. I was hoping to discover relief cuts to give credence to the legend, but what I had actually discovered was that they did not match. Not one curved muntin was made in the same fashion as the other one.
It was very disappointing to confirm this. That very first arched sash from the east side – the one that I did not scrape any paint off – was at the forefront of my mind. I needed to go back and remove the sash even though it was completely done, bring it back to the shop, and confirm whether or not it is of the same timeline. When I had it back at the shop, I removed a small section of paint on just the inside portion of the curved muntins. This is where I would find the relief cuts. To rule out the possibility that I unveiled a repair made from a solid piece of wood, I removed a small section of paint on all the curved muntins, but found that not one muntin had relief cuts.
So it was determined that the two sashes without relief cuts were made from a different time period, much later, and machine made. They were one solid piece compared to three individual pieces – the bead portion with relief cuts, the middle section that was cut to the curve, and then the thin vertical back piece, where the glazing would rest against, that was bent and nailed to follow the curve (see photo below).
Before I could give my final evaluation of whether or not the six-foot arched window was original, I needed more proof to lead me to believe it was indeed original – and I found it.
I went back to the museum to look more closely at the interior trim and it was staring at me all the while. The interior trim around the arched openings were obviously curved as well and I needed to see how it was made. We know with certainty through old photo documentation that the trim around those three window frames are original, as well as many other trim pieces in the house, for that matter.
You can see by the photos below that the method of creating the curve is an exact match to the way the curve of the arched sash was created, all done with relief cuts and possibly with the same saw. The house joiners in 1811 not only made and installed the interior trim pieces but also made the sashes as well. Furthermore, that tall sash had old wooden shutters on the exterior side protecting it for many decades. In many ways, that building was sustained for decades because of preservation by poverty.
Examples of original relief cuts
With of all the evidence falling into place and fitting perfectly, I believe the six foot arched sash is indeed original and that a part of the legendary story is true. The other two sashes are unfortunately not original, but are still beautifully crafted and historic.
As always, it is a complete honor and privilege to have had the opportunity to dive into these historic sashes and exam them carefully. Thank you for your time reading about the sashes of the Samuel Whitehorne House Museum. The museum is open to the public seasonally, and worth your while to pay a visit, not only to see the fine furniture and artifacts, but also to see these sashes in person for they, too, are made of the highest craftsmanship and integrity.
Thank you to The 1772 Foundation, in cooperation with Preserve Rhode Island, for providing partial grant funding to support this project.
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Today we often agonize over the color to paint our houses. What was the original color, what is appropriate for the style, what do I like? Light, dark, the choices are truly infinite today. When your color choice is finally made, it’s then a trip to the paint store that results in gallons of perfect paint in the exact color. And, if you are short a gallon, the paint store pulls out a formula and mixes a gallon to the exact color.
What of paint in the 18th and early 19th centuries? First it was considered a means of protecting and preserving the material fabric of a house. The decorative aspect – color – was less important in this early period. That is not to say color was of no concern within the limitations of the time.
Paint in this early period was made up of linseed oil, the vehicle; pigment, the colorant; turpentine, as a dryer and often red or white lead as a strengthening agent. Shops sold the stuff of paint throughout the 18th century – there were numerous businesses in Newport that advertised oil, pigments and other accoutrements of paint. NRF has examined the Newport Mercury newspapers from about 1750 to 1815 for advertisements and mentions of paint. The information was put into categories such as the pigments mentioned; the number of times particular pigments were advertised and the dates a pigment first appears. This data creates an interesting picture of paint in 18th century Newport and may be the material of another article.
The ingredients were imported primarily from London. Linseed oil came in large wooden casks; pigments, simple and complex, were available ground to a fine powder-like consistency. The ingredients were mixed on the job in a quantity that could be used in a day’s time. The reason for the daily mix is one of those things hardly considered from our perspective – there were no cheap metal re-sealable containers. The mixed paint had to be applied before it dried in the pot. Cheap re-sealable tin cans didn’t exist until the period of the Civil War. Once the paint can was available it allowed for the paint industry as we have come to know it – centralized manufacture, repeatable consistency of product and color, plus mass distribution.
One area of concern to us today is trying to determine the appropriate color for a building of a specific date. It can be done through paint analysis if there is fabric – painted boards – that are original to the build date. This process involves taking several small samples of paint down to the wood, and examining it with an electron microscope. The first layer next to the wood is believed to be the first color applied. The accuracy depends a great deal on the experience of the professional doing the work. Is that first layer a primer or the first real color on the building?
“Historic Color” charts from paint manufacturers are some help, but they often don’t reveal where the color was found or what period the color applies to. Hopefully this short piece will lead to a follow up with more detail on the colors and pigments available in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Roofing materials have seen radical changes over the years; yet one common material has remained the same almost from the start of New England’s history. Early 17th century settlers made their homes in basic structures that drew heavily on traditional English heritage. They covered these early roofs with thatch made from marsh and sea grasses that were readily available and the technique was widely known. It did not take long however to realize that conditions in New England, particularly the winters, were not kind to thatch. Rain, snow, freezing and thawing tried the roof’s integrity and found it wanting.
By 1650 it was obvious that roofs of wooden shingles were the answer. In England such a practice would have been horribly wasteful of wood but here, timber was available in abundance. For Newporters, cedar and pine became the standard well into the 19th century.
The colonial roof started with a log nearly three feet long. Wood slices about a ½” thick were split off with a froe and mallet. The bark was trimmed and one end was tapered with a draw knife on a “shaving horse”. The extreme length of early shingles came about for at least two reasons: first the horizontal wood strips or purlins applied to the roof rafters for thatching were widely spaced and this traditional measurement was retained, secondly the length allowed three overlapping courses requiring half the nails – two shingles for the nails of one, a significant factor at a time when handwrought nails were more costly than the shingles themselves.
By the middle 19th century, machinery and transportation saw wood shingles become available nationally and standardized through mass production. Their availability and price along with inexpensive nails led to new ideas of how to use them. In the Shingle Style Architecture of the 1890s, shingles became the decorative frosting on the cake as well as simple, effective protection against the weather. As design elements shingles appeared on small cottages and grand houses alike, all of which are well-represented in Newport.
Today, cedar shingles are appropriate on 18th and 19th century buildings for both roofs and side walls. A properly applied wood roof should last thirty-five to fifty years. White cedar and Alaskan yellow cedar are best for roofs while red cedar is wall material. Critical for a wood shingle roof is its ability to “breathe” or to allow air circulation on both sides of the shingle, since retaining moisture promotes rot.
In the 18th century buildings naturally adjusted to temperature and humidity, but today’s efforts to save on heating costs and maximize space can result in problems. For instance plywood sheathing and black tar paper do not allow for sufficient breathing; unfortunately insulation inside the building may reduce breathability as well. Careful consideration must be applied when modern building materials and techniques are used with old buildings. It is best to read up in detail on this or to seek advice from qualified contractors or experts in the field such as the Restoration Foundation.
Copyright Robert Foley, Newport Restoration Foundation, 2008.
Following a recent lecture on Newport architecture, I felt compelled to do a bit of research to back up my knowledge that glass is not a flowing, “supercooled liquid” at all. The characteristics of historic glass are all due to its methods of manufacture, but the nature of the material itself required confirmation from the experts. I contacted Stephen Koob and Dr. Brill at the Corning Museum of Glass, two renowned scientific experts in the conservation of glass and the nature of the material.
They stated that glass is not really a supercooled liquid at all, since it does not display any characteristics of a liquid. It is an amorphous solid, meaning that it does not have the more common crystalline structure of minerals; despite that difference, the material most chemically and physically similar to glass is quartz – definitely a solid also.
As to the notion – often observed to be true – that old window glass is thicker at the bottom than at the top, that quality is due to the original form of the glass, which in turn is due to its method of manufacture. The manufacturing processes will be described first, followed by the construction principles for windows. These generalities apply equally to glass in medieval stained glass as well as to eighteenth-century windows everywhere.
Early glass could be made in three ways: crown, cylinder, and rolled. The latter can be discounted for window glass, because the process was only applied to very costly luxury items. Crown glass was first blown by mouth: a gather of molten glass from the furnace was blown on a blowpipe until it became a proper sized bubble (limited by the glassworker’s breath and arm strength), at which point, the side of the bubble away from the pipe was cut open, and the worker spun the hot glass into a flat disk after transferring the piece from the blowpipe to a pontil rod (stuck to the center of the disk, where the blowpipe had been; this also closed up the hole in the middle). This
often entailed a number of steps, mostly to keep the glass hot and malleable. This was the “crown” of glass. The disk tapered from the center to the edges, but if the worker was skilled, at least it was fairly flat; often, curved lines resulting from the spinning may be seen in pieces of crown glass. Cutting usable panes or “quarries” from the disk involved some waste, but cutting small panes, some of them triangular (for a diamond-pattern window) wasted the least. Unusable scraps of glass were returned to the furnace. The center of the disk, called the bull’s eye, was not as transparent as the rest, and was often used in transoms above doorways, where one would not be able to look out anyway, and some light was admitted. Now, of course, bull’s eyes are much sought after.
A type of flat glass that was a bit thicker was produced by the broad or cylinder method. A large bubble of glass was blown, roughly forming a cylinder, which was cut open along its length and ironed flat while still hot and pliable from the furnace. Although cylinder glass could produce larger rectangular pieces than crown glass, it was more difficult to make, and it was not as clear, due to the ironing process; elongated striations may be seen in it.
The first method for making plate glass was developed in the late seventeenth century, but it seldom pertains to window glass. Early plate glass was made by rolling molten glass on metal tables, producing heavy pieces of dull, uneven glass that needed considerable grinding and polishing to be usable in large windows and mirrors. Needless to say, it was much more costly than either crown or cylinder glass. By the mid-nineteenth century, a method for making drawn sheet glass created smooth glass by pressing the molten material between two rollers. By 1923, high quality thick plate glass could be produced, and in 1959 the float glass process was perfected, producing a continuous ribbon of glass floated on molten tin.
As a brief note, there are two common formulas for glass. In the simplest terms, common glass is made of silica, lime, and soda or potash. Its color and clarity depend on the purity of the ingredients; it was frequently green from iron content. Common glass was often known as “bottle glass.” More expensive flint glass was made substituting lead oxide for lime. The resulting material was heavy, sparkling, and somewhat softer than common glass. Flint glass was well suited to cutting and engraving, while common glass was used in creating decorative pressed glass pieces.
As for the construction of windows, the method is straightforward. Panes are cut from the crown, and often display some taper, due to the nature of the crown itself. Logically, the thicker edge of the glass is placed toward the bottom. Sometimes, lines or smears can be seen in the glass, also as a result of the production method. If cylinder glass was used, those lines may be straighter, but not necessarily. Consider that old mirrors, bottles and other vessels do not change shape over time, and we know that window glass does not, either. The glass does not sag over time, nor does its surface become wavy as it ages. It cannot become “less solid” unless it is placed in a furnace and melted.
About the only change that occurs in old glass – and then, only in rare and extreme cases – is sometimes called glass disease. A fault in the original composition of the glass causes it to be vulnerable to attack by moisture. Alkali is leached out of the glass, droplets of moisture might be seen on the surface (hence the expression, weeping glass), and there may be a slight vinegar smell. The glass may take on a hazy appearance, developing over time into a mass of microscopic cracks; this condition is called crizzled glass. Also rarely, old glass with an excess of magnesium in the mix can develop a purple cast, although in modern times this condition is generally regarded as a status symbol rather than a problem. It does not materially affect the glass.
By Bruce MacLeish, Former Director of Collections, Newport Restoration Foundation.
Copyright Bruce Macleish, Newport Restoration Foundation, June 2007.
In these days of governmental over-regulation how can I ask you to love a government commission? Well, I can, and you should. The Historic District Commission (HDC) has been in existence for about 40 years in Newport and has made a crucial difference. It is a body about which many have griped and complained from time to time (including me); yet I will maintain to my last that it is one of the most important commissions in Newport. It regulates the way historic structures look, whether you can modify or restore them, and how the job should be done. I know what you’re thinking; too much control over personal property; to which I say, a guard dog isn’t always the friendliest of beasts, but I feel safer with one around.
Without the HDC there would have been no official guidance for preservation and perhaps more importantly nobody to prevent demolition. Newport is the last remnant of the wooden cities of 18th century America. Nearly 400 structures in the city predate 1800, arguably more than anywhere else in the U.S. That is a national treasure, indeed our World Heritage nomination contends that it is an international one.
Think about what the Point, indeed all of Newport, would look like right now if the Historic District Commission had never existed:
• The Travers Block on Bellevue would probably be gone
• Through hundreds of small decisions, the character of whole streets and
neighborhoods would have been compromised. Property values would be
• Indeed it is fair to say that without HDC protection probably 25-30% of the
buildings that we know on the Point would have been demolished. (In fact if that
had come to pass there might be no Point and no Green Light to read.)
For those of you who were around here in the 50s and early 60s, both the Hill and the Point had major potential to be razed. Behind the sad facades they also had a wealth of amazing buildings. Individuals with real vision saw to it that preservation occurred through Operation Clapboard, through private efforts, and later through NRF. Some of those same people also had the vision to push for a body that would protect both the buildings that had been restored and those that had yet to see any improvement. The HDC was the result. Towns and cities that never created such a commission are all around us, places with great historic resources that were not protected with such diligence; New Bedford is probably a pretty good example. I imagine that most readers on the Point would rather live here, than there.
Neither the federal nor state government can do a great deal to enforce protection of our priceless legacy. That work is left up to us. Our volunteer HDC does that hard job and they should all get a hearty round of applause for it. Along with an excellent city planner and historic planner in the city administration, this is how historic Newport is protected. Support them, through large actions and small; they made our city what it is today.
Copyright Pieter Roos, Newport Restoration Foundation, 2007.