Harriet Beecher Stowe House
The story of Bowdoin College’s stewardship for over 14 years from purchase to its repurposing is inspiring.
Harriet and Calvin Stowe moved to Brunswick in March of 1852 when Calvin took a job teaching religion at Bowdoin College. With their five children in tow, they rented a stately, Samuel Melcher built house (c. 1806) at 63 Federal Street from Reverend Titcomb. They only stayed for 2 years when Calvin took a position at another university.
It was here in this Federal Style, hipped-roof house that Harriet reportedly wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a paradigm-changing book for America. Within one year the book had sold 300,000 copies in the United States and over a million copies in England. (England had embraced abolition at an earlier date than the U.S.). Importantly, the house in Brunswick – with the Richard Upjohn’s soaring Gothic Revival First Parish Congregational Church a stone’s throw away – created a context for the book as well as Harriet’s vision while sitting in her pew at First Parish that inspired her writing.
Very shortly after Harriet moved, the house was sold to William H. Hall, who, in 1855, drastically renovated the house to update it to the then fashionable Italianate Style. He changed the roof to a gable, added a third floor, removed the federal style cooking fireplace. Also changed was all of the siding and trim. Interior window and door architraves, mouldings, wood floors and paint were all changed at this time too. Essentially, the entire house was modified to the point that Harriet Beecher Stowe would not recognize it.
Our initial foray with Bowdoin College was to prepare an Historic Structures Report. The house was an early listing as a Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places due to its association with Harriet. Our task was to find out what remained of the house and detail that Harriet would have seen. In other words, the period of significance for the house was assigned to her tenancy. How much remained?
We worked with a team of experts, including a paint conservator. The paint conservator took small samples of paint throughout the house, interior and exterior and determined the layer that was present in 1855.
We have struggled with the preservation philosophy for the house, as while little remains of what Harriet would have experienced, the notion that the ethereal sense of room sizes, shapes and space, as well as its context, makes it worthy of preservation. In addition, it is a very nice example of a house from this time period.
During construction, there were some surprises in the deconstruction of latter layers. One such discovery was that the window openings remained intact on the first floor El on the south side. They had recessed pockets for interior shutters and were identical to the window configuration in the Southwest Parlor, indicating that these too were part of the 1855 campaign of renovations.
The new exterior paint colors caused quite a stir in the neighborhood.
Just after Harriet and her family moved from their rented home (this one on Federal Street), the owner sold the property to a new owner who did massive changes. That was circa 1855. Our paint analysis was able to determine the shutter color, trim and siding to that period. The door was a mystery as the small samples could not locate an original color. So we settled on a favorite dark green/black, but during the restoration work I found evidence that the front door had the same color as the shutters, but the “dye was cast” and the Bowdoin owner decided to stay with the dark green.
This color was right in line with other mid-nineteenth century greens. It wasn’t until the colonial revival period (not sure of actual years whether as early as the Centennial 1876 or at Williamsburg discovery 1932ish or somewhere in between) that New England homes started seeing the darker green as ubiquitous.