From Chemical Peel to New Make-Up: Mitchell House Gets a New Coat of Paint

MH Trim and Door Painting December 2013Well, shingling was completed this spring and the sashes were painted last year. Now, the trim is getting some sprucing up thanks to the good work of Jim Tyler and his crew. This work is being completed with the funding of a grant for the Mitchell House’s exterior conservation. While ideally all the painting would be completed at once, it is not always easy given grant funding and timing. But, for the trim it was better to wait until Nathan Killeen had completed the shingling because he had to remove some of the corner boards and other trim pieces in order to properly shingle. So, come this summer season, Mitchell House will sparkle even more! A special thanks to Jim and his wonderful crew who you can see here hard at work on the southern façade of Mitchell House.


Shameless Self-Promotion

Mitchell House, circa 1790

Mitchell House, circa 1790

Well, it’s not “self” it’s Mitchell House and Maria Mitchell promotion. Mitchell House and I have come (kicking and screaming?), into the 21st century. Cognizant that we have to reach younger generations and those who are more technologically savvy, we have been working to connect. We blog every week (sometimes more), our blogs get Tweeted out, we have a Pinterest page, and now, (drum roll please), we are on YouTube. I may not be looking too sweet, but Mitchell House has on it new coat of shingles on the south side, its gardens are revived, and it has undergone some wonderful conservation work of structure and artifacts too, over the last decade or so. So, it is putting its best foot forward.

Over the next few weeks, with the enormous help of my colleague, MMA’s Director of Natural Sciences, Andrew McKenna-Foster (cameraman, editor, and YouTuber), Mitchell House will be rolling out some short YouTube videos ( ) − with more to come over time – about Maria Mitchell, the Mitchells, the Mitchell House, island architecture, Quakers, and Nantucket women. So, you, those from afar, and others can learn a little more about the topics that are relevant to the mission of the Mitchell House and the legacy of Maria Mitchell. Unfortunately, you will have to see me but, I hope you learn a bit more about the House, Maria, the marvelous Mitchells and the island we call home.


Oh, Bunny!

Baby RabbitOr maybe I should call this the “Woes of a Gardener.”

What you are looking at is an absolutely adorable baby bunny who (yes, “who” – because we call him Mister Baby Bunny – although the Mitchell House intern thinks he should be named Peleg) is now twice his size after just a few short weeks. I am firmly convinced that baby bunnies eat 400 times their weight – each day! I battle rabbits and deer in my own garden but it has not been until recently that I had to battle them on Vestal Street. Since trying to restore plants that William Mitchell once had in his garden, I have scoured high and low to find the right plants. I do add some that were not necessarily on the list made by John Quincy Adams when he visited the Mitchell home in the 1830s but when I do, I try to find plants that were available in those days. This baby bunny made great hay (pun intended) munching away on my heirloom Heavenly Blue Morning Glories. As soon as they twisted up from the earth, he was upon them − and before I knew it! In one night in early June, he had a wonderful salad of approximately 350 seedlings – I planted 400. Last year, there was a wonderful display of Morning Glories on the front fence of Mitchell House, this year, we may have four. Oh well, I guess we contributed to his quick growth.


Mitchell House is Open!

Amy Brill at NBFWe have had a busy opening first two weeks here at Mitchell House. After a week of training, the Mitchell House’s new summer intern, Sarah Scott − a 2012 graduate of Vassar College − is leading tours of the House, working on planning our summer Junior Historian classes for children aged 7-10, and learning the finer points of “keeping” a historic house museum. Soon, she will be assisting me with cleaning and moving the Special Collection books and working on some small research projects related to the Mitchells. We had a large number of visitors during our first week and on Saturday, I led a women’s walking tour concerning Maria Mitchell and other famous Nantucket women.

Additionally, as co-sponsors of author Amy Brill with the Nantucket Book Festival (NBF), MMA was a part of some of the activities for the NBF including the opening reception and talk, as well as the opening dinner and of course the breakfast at the Dreamland Theater where Amy read from and spoke about her debut novel The Movement of Stars inspired by the life of Maria Mitchell. Amy also spent some time at MMA speaking more about her book and meeting some of our members as we opened up the Mitchell House and the Vestal Street Observatory for invited guests.

Amy continues on her travels promoting her book – an exhausting thing to do especially when she leaves her husband and two young daughters behind for much of it – although they were able to come along to Nantucket for the weekend! But leaving them at home likely has given Amy a better understanding of what Quaker women went through when they left their young families behind to spread the word of the Quaker faith throughout America and even sometimes abroad for many months or even years at a time.

If you have not had a chance to read Amy’s novel, please do. Amy is sure to have more novels for us to read in the future. Thank you, Amy, for your time and for being so inspired by Maria Mitchell and this tiny little island that had such a far reaching influence many generations ago.

For further inspiration, please come by Mitchell House for a tour or sign a child or yourself up for one of our history/historic preservation classes! Become inspired by Maria Mitchell and the Mitchell family as Amy did. You never know what that inspiration may become!


Found Between Sheathing and Lathe!

Treasures from between Mitchell House sheathing and walls

A few weeks ago I wrote about the re-shingling work at Mitchell House and what the removal of the shingles revealed – carpenter’s marks, sawyer’s marks, and coils upon coils of wood shavings circa 1790.

Well, here is a sample of what was uncovered and what I saved to become part of the Mitchell House collection. The shavings had not seen the light of day since 1790 when the House was built. These fell down between the sheathing boards and the interior walls. As the carpenters worked – Hezekiah Swain and others – the shavings fell down between and were not removed – it is just wood shavings after all. Many were in pristine condition, some a little dirty from dirt slowly working its way under the baseboards and down through the space between the outside and inside walls. That white curl is plaster that squished through the lathe and the rusted iron piece is part of a very long nail used in the main timbers of the House. The sheathing board which hid these treasures had not been removed since the House was built and since we had to cut out two small areas of rotten sheathing, these treasures were revealed.


Mitchell House Gets A Facelift . . .

Or maybe we should call it a chemical peel since nothing was sagging.

With the tremendous support of grants, the Mitchell House’s southern façade is currently being re-shingled. The shingles we are all used to seeing – the dark almost black shingles of many decades – are no longer sufficient to protect the Mitchell House from weather. They have shrunk, curled, and left significant gaps between one another courtesy of sun, rain, and age. This can allow water to penetrate to the sheathing and thus cause rot and those dreaded leaks. East corner where sill work was completed.

Nathan Killeen of Nathan Killen Old House Restoration is up to the task. Nathan has worked on the Mitchell House for many years with Sanford Kendall who is now retiring and passing the torch. Nathan is very “in-tune” with historic properties and only works on historic structures. He is incredibly knowledgeable. With carpenter Matt Anderson, they have been getting the job done carefully and respectfully – both of the historic house and the carpenters who came before them – mainly in 1790 when the House was built!

Nathan’s work has uncovered some things we knew about and some new things such as sheathing rot. He carefully cut out just the rotted areas and placed in old wood, trying to re-use what he could of the original sheathing – no plywood or pressure treated anything here and not full replacement! Removal of these two small sheathing areas also revealed what we knew already existed, sill rot. So, he carefully dug out the rot – LEAVING the existing sill – and sistered in a “new” piece of wood – nothing new or pressure treated – he used an old piece of lumber. This way the original sill stays and we have strengthened it with this piece that is now attached. That is the right way to do it. Nathan, Matt, and I also signed and dated the back of the new sister piece. Hopefully, it will last another 200 years or so.

We think based on nail holes, that this is only the third time the façade of Mitchell House has ever been re-shingled. The last time was in the 1950s or 1960s and they covered the sheathing with tar paper – something that did not exist in 1790. Tar paper may stop leaks but it also stops moisture from leaving the structure – it acts as a vapor barrier and the Mitchell House cannot breathe. Leaks get trapped and the tar paper and sheathing get wet and then you get – rot and a house full of moisture that cannot escape. So, tar paper is being removed and none is being put back in – just the sheathing and then shingles. What IS being replaced are the splines around the windows, front door, and corner boards. These pieces of cedar – one long piece – stop water from getting behind the framing of the windows and doors and getting to the sheathing. These were once on the House but for some reason when it was re-shingled, they thought tar paper was a better option and did not take into account the age of the House. It NEEDS its splines.

We have also found carpenters’ marks – roman numerals where pieces are to meet    up – sawyer’s marks from when the wood was cut, and even better – shavings from the carpenters when they built the house in 1790! These were stuck between the sheathing and the interior wall in the space or pocket that exists. I recently just found these at another house of about the same vintage that is being worked on in the neighborhood – very, very exciting!

And we owe a BIG thank you to Nathan – and Matt!

Take a look at a few photographs documenting the journey of the “chemical-peel.”



Here you see the fruits of a Sunday walk along the harbor – another of my favorite things to collect. The recent storms have swept some areas clean and in others, they have helped to deposit treasures stirred up from the bottom of Nantucket Harbor – something that once served as a dumping ground among other uses in the nineteenth century and earlier.

These are pottery shards of various ages. Looking at them closely, they are mid to late nineteenth century (the blue and white pieces – in particular the lighter blue pieces) and possibly all the way up to the 1930s or so with the largest piece on the bottom right having a floral and bamboo/basket decoration that reminds me of McCoy warePottery Shards 2013. I will have to see if I can find any such pattern with them – it could very likely be another pottery maker, from the early to mid- twentieth century but maybe even the late nineteenth century!

But in any case, it tells a story of what Nantucketers used in their homes. Each time we have a hard rain, shards will appear in the yard of the Mitchell House where the family tossed out some of its trash that slowly became a part of the landscape and the earth. When a sewer pipe was re-done the plumber left the shards that he had found for me – I think he knows me too well! (The family has worked on MMA plumbing since the MMA had running water – early 1900s.)

One piece reminds me of mochaware but I think it might be a much later copy though I do hope I am just being cautious and this really is a 19th century shard of mochaware. That too I will have to investigate. Mochaware was started in the late 1700s in England and was just about the cheapest pottery one could get then and into the nineteenth century. Maybe akin to Fiestaware which while many collect it today used to be given out at the grocery store and the movies!

In any event, take a look around you. Look down and up – observe! (“We see most when we are most determined to see,” according to Maria – how right she was!) You never know what your feet are treading over and you never know what you might find – it might whisper something about those who once lived in the houses and neighborhoods we now inhabit.


In Memoriam

Over the holidays, the Mitchell House and its curator lost a dear friend, supporter, and mentor.  Clarissa P. Porter was a champion of the Mitchell House and historic preservation and an enthusiastic fan of Maria Mitchell.  I do not remember just when I first met Clarissa, but I must have been a teenager.  Since that time, she has always been there with support, friendship, and advice.  She was tireless in her support of the Mitchell House’s conservation and one of the founding members of the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award Committee.  Numerous non-profits here on Nantucket (and elsewhere) have benefitted from her enthusiasm and enduring support and some would not exist if not for her unflagging energy and volunteerism.  She continued to keep in touch and wanted to know everything that was going on, even when her illness made it more difficult.  She cared and she continued to care even to the end.  But there really is no end, for her spirit lives on in all those she touched.  I know that there is a piece of her that makes me who I am.

The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands.  − Maria Mitchell


A few years ago, a scientist contacted me regarding William Mitchell’s meteorological journals. As an astronomer and as someone who worked for the US Coast Survey, William kept detailed data regarding the weather throughout the day, tides, storms, and of course astronomical observations. All of this was used by the Coast Survey for creating nautical charts among other things. This scientist travelled to the island just to go through William’s data and then I made further transcriptions once he left the island and returned to his university down south. You see, William’s data is still relevant in assisting in making determinations about storms and other weather events- now how exciting is that?!

I write this quickly this morning – not my originally planned blog for this week – as we face the increasing wind associated with Hurricane Sandy combined with a nor’easter. Sandy is due to hit along the New Jersey coastline (there were once Mitchells inhabiting Sea Girt, NJ in the early 1900s) – and we are faced with wind gusts at or over 75 miles per hour. Let us hope that the Grey Lady sees her way through safely – and the Mitchell House as well. I was here Saturday battening down the hatches inside and out but Mother Nature is not one we can control.