Norman Isham and the Restoration

The following is an excerpt from An Early Connecticut House: The Hyland House Historic Structure Report, prepared in 1996 by Bryan Clark Green and James Sexton. A dendrochronology study completed in 2015 concluded that the house was built in 1713. 

restoration
Exterior during restoration

The restoration of the Hyland House (or as it was then called, the Parmelee or Hiland-Wildman House) during 1916 and 1917 by Norman Morrison Isham offers an illuminating glimpse at the early years of the historic preservation movement. Isham (1864-1943), was not only one of the first professionals in the field, but also one who exerted a formative impact on the development of the field. Through his work as a historian and preservationist, Isham casts a formidable shadow across our understanding of the early architecture of New England. Isham’s experience at the Hyland House highlights many of the struggles of the early years of historic preservation, and offers valuable insights into the beginnings of the professionalization of the field.

By the time Norman Isham accepted the Hyland House commission in 1916, he was 52 years old, the head of the architecture department at the Rhode Island School of Design, had authored or co-authored three books and two articles. He was a successful, established restoration architect, whose architectural practice and scholarly life would continue to prosper….

In Isham’s proposals for the restoration of the house, he is not particularly concerned with the date of the house, which he assigned in Early Connecticut Houses at 1720. All of Isham’s restorations–whether paneling, mantelpieces, or windows–clearly reflect his commitment to a date of ca. 1720.

In this way, Isham typifies the influence of colonial revival on our understanding of American architecture: restorer-historians such as Isham both established what buildings were worthy of study while simultaneously altering the appearance of these structures, thus changing our impression of early American architecture. The notion of a completely undisturbed colonial house is an elusive one.

The Entry

The Entry received only superficial changes: the wallpaper was removed, the paint removed from the stairs, some of the stair treads were repaired, and the floor is replaced.

The Hall

In the Hall, Isham removed the partition, reopened the cellar stairs, repaired the foot of the southwest and northwest posts, put in new sheathing, painted the room, and re-plastered the ceiling. Isham also rebuilt the firebox, put in a new hearth, and installed glass over the early lath in the western wall.

The Buttery

In the Buttery, his interventions appear to be related only to cleaning. In the Office, a few structural  repairs were made for the feet of the northwest and northeast posts, but little else was changed.

The Kitchen

In the Kitchen, Isham repaired the plaster work, replaced the floor, repaired the feet of all four posted, worked on the firebox, removed the two staircases, and moved the old door from the base of the stairs to the Eastern Chamber.

The Kitchen Bedroom

In the Kitchen Bedroom, Isham seems to have changed little. He re-opened the door into the kitchen, hung the oldest door in the house on it, and cleaned the room.

The Parlor

Isham made many more changes to the Parlor, beginning with the repair of the northeast, southeast, and southwest posts. After making structural repairs, Isham transformed the room back to his vision of an early eighteenth century parlor. New paneling installed around the fireplace was based on a example reputedly from Westbrook or Saybrook, Connecticut, and the other three walls received vertical boarding. The fireplace was widened and rebuilt, the chimney girt was shored up, and the ceiling was repaired and whitened. The floor was also cleaned.

The Stair Hall

On the second floor, Isham made many of the same changes. In the stair hall the partition along the stairs to the attic was removed, the walls and floors were cleaned, the window surround was changed, and the plaster was repaired.

The Western Chamber

In the Western Chamber, Isham added vertical sheathing to three walls. While Isham’s notes indicate that some of this sheathing was in place when he began his restoration, William Sumner Appleton, the founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities wrote in the Bulletin of the Society:

The walls of the [Western Chamber] in the second story were also covered with vertical sheathing. This was done partly for the comfort and convenience of the Dorothy Whitfield Historic Society and partly to show what rooms of the earlier part of the eighteenth century were like. The result is so attractive that one is apt to overlook the lack of evidence for this particular restoration.

Isham also rebuilt the fireplace, plastered half the ceiling, added new windows in the front, and removed the partition. It also appears as though Isham may have moved the sheathing on the fireplace wall in this room, but there is no direct evidence of this other than the present condition of the sheathing.

The Lean-To Attic

In the lean-to, Isham recommended that no work other than cleaning be done.

The Eastern Chamber

The changes to the Eastern Chamber were similar to those made in the Western Chamber: the walls and floors were cleaned; the plaster in the ceiling was repaired; the partition was removed; the fireplace was reopened. The windows in the front of the House were replaced. Isham also appears to have returned a window from the collection of the Henry Whitfield State Museum into its original location in the closet in this room.The stair to the attic behind the chimney stack was also altered by Isham.

The Exterior

On the exterior of the building, Isham rebuilt the chimney above the room with stone, perhaps repaired the sills and some of the studs, as well as some of the studs, as well as the exterior base and corner boards, and added new front steps at this time. The clapboards along the front wall were replaced, and the whole house was painted.

The alteration most visible on the exterior of the House is Isham’s replacement of the windows. There are two components of this restoration which have been questioned:  the type of window and their location. No evidence has been found which explains Isham’s choice of sliding sash windows with diamond panes. There is, however, photographic evidence for his choice to locate the second story windows below the cornice level of the building. The photograph may also explain his choice to change the central second story window from a single sash window to double casement windows. The key evidence is the two short spurs protruding into the upper corners of the window opening. Isham interpreted these as the remains of the window header which once spanned this opening. The height of the header remains was used to locate the top of all the new windows. The width of the window seems to have led Isham to conclude that it was a casement window and not a sliding sash window as he had previously thought. The question which is left is why Isham, after finding the evidence of casement windows in both the back and front of the House, did not change his plans on the other windows in the facade of the building. Perhaps it was because the replacement windows had already been built.

One interesting aspect of Isham’s restoration work is that he made two discoveries which he could not interpret. These remain mysterious today, in part because Isham re-covered them during the final phases of work. The first was series of mortises discovered over the front door of the building. While William Sumner Appleton hypothesized that these mortises may have been for a balcony, it is difficult to tell. The front corner posts were also found to have unexplainable mortise holes in them. Another explanation may be that these were for a hood over the door. Finally, Isham discovered what he called “rails” or “ribbons” in the front walls; their function is unclear.