Architectural investigation at Castle Tucker

Aug 6, 2010

Castle Tucker, a unique structure among Historic New England’s properties, holds many mysteries. We have been working for the last several years to expand our knowledge of the structure and its past uses so that we can improve our overall interpretation of the site. Over the past year, two tour guides, Rose Marie Ballard and Cathy Messmer, have volunteered to research the evolution of the building, looking at as many primary source documents as they could find. Their extensive written chronology on the building evolution of Castle Tucker is quite impressive. On July 16, 2010, their research was merged with a physical examination of the building.

Jim Garvin, state architectural historian for New Hampshire, Historic New England properties committee member, and author of A Building History of Northern New England (get your copy at our online shop), led staff through the house in search of architectural evidence. Among the many things we wanted to determine were the configuration of the original 1807 chimney, the ages of wood work throughout the building, and the specific renovation campaigns with which they were associated. 

Garvin, in his written report from the site visit, noted:

The most unexpected overall conclusion of the inspection was that much of the interior joinery of Castle Tucker is original to the period of construction of the house circa 1807 by Judge Silas Lee (1760- 1814) rather than reflecting changes made either by short-time owner Franklin Clark (who held the property from 1848 to 1857 and made some major changes) or by Capt. Richard H. Tucker, Jr. (1816-1895), who with his descendants held the property from 1858 to 2003. The original interior joinery was highly unusual for its time, and Captain Tucker’s interest in aesthetics and interior decoration complemented the original detailing of the house. Thus, the degree of surviving original fabric has been hard to discern, and still deserves much closer scrutiny than we could carry out in a brief inspection.

The trim that is the most puzzling is the Gothic-inspired joinery found in the southern parlor. Garvin discusses that detail:

This unorthodox molding has the appearance of dating from the 1850s or 1860s and therefore representing one of the redecorating efforts of Captain Tucker. The molding would have been regarded in the nineteenth century as “Gothic” in nature. Indeed, (Andrew Jackson) Downing illustrates comparable profiles when discussing the finishing of rooms in the Gothic style. Yet the Gothic style was known and occasionally employed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The moldings in the parlor should be examined carefully for evidence of their age. If these casings and chair rails prove to date from 1807, as does much of the other unusual detailing of the interiors, they will further define the remarkable character of Castle Tucker as Judge Lee built it and will shed light on the intellect of a man whose personality permeates the house, altered though it is.

We also spent time investigating the chimney placement. It is believed that in the 1850s the chimney and fireplaces were moved from a more central interior location to the outside of hemisphere wings on either side of the main block. Evidence from the basement to the attic was studied and two scenarios have been offered for further review: 1) that the two chimneys merged in the third floor and attic into a single large stack with six fireplace flues or 2) that the two chimneys were brought close together at the top of the house, but remained as separate stacks. In either case, the original design was impressive.  As Garvin notes:

In Lee’s original conception, the fireplaces radiated heat toward these outer curved walls, rather than inward toward the center of the house as is common in most federal-style dwellings. The decision to locate the fireplaces in this unorthodox position, and then to make the chimneys converge and exit the roof in a single six-foot-wide structural bay between the king posts of the roof frame, is remarkable. Such a design reveals a highly original mind, either of Judge Lee or of the builder-architect of the house, or both.

Even though we raised new questions in the process, the day was a complete success and our knowledge of Castle Tucker has grown deeper. We thank Jim Garvin for his support of our efforts.