One of the largest challenges preservationists face is taking the time and effort to carefully document old structures that may not last forever despite their current owner’s best intentions. There is never a guarantee that a historic structure will stand the test of time and remain for future generations to study and explore.
The building known as the Old Trup House, number 72 in the Connecticut file of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) list that was generated in 1939, is a perfect example. Located on Rock House Road in Easton, this 1700’s building still had “good bones” when it was documented in the late 1930’s. It’s owner, Rudolf Trup, seemed to have every intention of restoring the structure to its original state. But it never happened. In the end, the old house was torn down and the land it sat on was sold and developed.
Without the photos, floorplans, and the descriptive letter seen here, it might be a distant memory for a few who might be old enough to remember it, or it might be forgotten for all time.
The Great Depression brought with it many hardships. But it also brought some innovative thinking by a federal government that was looking for ways to bring the nation back to the economic prosperity it had enjoyed after the Great War – WWI. With so many talented people not having enough work to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads, the Roosevelt Administration enacted a series of projects that provided many of these people a way to continue in their chosen profession and earn them enough money to survive.
Some of those projects employed artists, photographers and writers. Others, like the HABS program described below, employed professionals like the architects who participated in that project. In a time when little to no residential construction was going on, it kept those people busy and allowed them to use their expertise for the public good. In addition, it recorded many buildings of historic significance that were eventually lost to “progress” during the boom building years following WWII.
Organizations concerned with preservation, like our own Historical Society of Easton, work diligently to carry on some of the work started by HABS. By working closely with municipal officials, we help craft demolition delay ordinances that give us the opportunity to document those older buildings that can’t or won’t be saved. Then, through our careful research, written reports, and photography, we can save at least part of what we will ultimately lose.
From the National Park Service: The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) is the nation’s first federal preservation program, begun in 1933 to document America’s architectural heritage. Creation of the program was motivated primarily by the perceived need to mitigate the negative effects upon our history and culture of rapidly vanishing architectural resources. At the same time, important early preservation initiatives were just getting underway, such as restoration of the colonial capital at Williamsburg and the development within the National Park Service (NPS) of historical parks and National Historic Sites. Architects interested in the colonial era had previously produced drawings and photographs of historic architecture, but only on a limited, local, or regional basis. A source was needed to assist with the documentation of our architectural heritage, as well as with design and interpretation of historic resources, that was national in scope. As it was stated in the tripartite agreement between the American Institute of Architects, the Library of Congress, and the NPS that formed HABS, “A comprehensive and continuous national survey is the logical concern of the Federal Government.” As a national survey, the HABS collection is intended to represent “a complete resume of the builder’s art.” Thus, the building selection ranges in type and style from the monumental and architect-designed to the utilitarian and vernacular, including a sampling of our nation’s vast array of regionally and ethnically derived building traditions.
In addition to being able to study those structures that no longer exist, the detailed drawings and photographs done by HABS serve as a terrific model for those who might want to take an historic home that has been modernized to better accommodate a 21st century lifestyle and return it to something much closer to what it had been 200 years earlier.
Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, rural communities in Fairfield County began to attract urbanites who were looking to escape the noise and heat of the city during the summer. With some farms abandoned and many others for sale at extremely attractive prices, Easton soon became a mecca for these part-time residents. Many of these people were in the arts. Either actors, writers, early radio and film personalities, or artists. They were often folks who could get away into the country for days and weeks at a time. The journey to rural Easton from New York City was only a few hours even at the turn of the century. As the years progressed, that travel time became less, and more and more people came north seeking the pastoral pleasures that Easton had to offer.
Some, like Edna Ferber, built luxurious homes, while others, like Ida Tarbell, bought older homes that offered a true taste of New England history. Pharmaceutical mogul Gustav Pfeiffer bought several historical homes and then had them renovated to match his own vision of what a colonial era home should look like. But there was one summer resident who wanted her home to look as authentically 18th century as possible.
She was radio personality and male impersonator Jane Dillon. She purchased one of Easton’s oldest houses. It was a saltbox built around 1710 at 245 Rock House Road. While she did opt to install a bathroom on the second level and a modest kitchen that included an electric refrigerator in one of the smaller rooms at the rear in the first floor addition that had been added by Isaac Beach in the mid-1800’s to accommodate his growing family, she wanted the rest of the house to look just like it did in the early 1700’s. Luckily, the home had seen only a handful of previous owners, remaining in the Beach family for nearly 100 of its first 200 years, so very few alterations had taken place and the building looked and felt almost as it would have some two hundred years earlier.
When the HABS architect and photographer showed up at the house in April of 1939, they examined the structure, made multiple drawings and took several photographs that documented both what it looked like just before WWII and what it would have looked like when it was first built based on a careful study of the method of construction and the original framing that was exposed in both the basement and the attic. Finally, a short report was written and filed with the drawings and photographs.
When renowned architect Royal Barry Wills was commissioned to do a faithful restoration on the Rock House Road property later in the century, he needed to look no further than the folder that was created by HABS. Records like these are priceless and the photography presents details that could never be seen in ordinary period photos. Drawings of millwork and detailed photos of the masonry were most helpful when the interior of the building underwent period correct renovations. Wills’ restoration also removed the dormers and brought the exterior back to a more authentic look of how the structure would have appeared nearly 300 years ago.
Today, much of the material from the HABS program can be found online at the Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/collections/historic-american-buildings-landscapes-and-engineering-records/about-this-collection/. There are thousands of photographs, drawings, and reports on historic buildings that this program has generated over the years.