Perhaps no other house in the City of Gloucester has gone through as dramatic a metamorphosis as the mansion built by Thomas Sanders, Jr. in the pre-revolutionary days of 1764. It was located on a prominent piece of land next door to the First Parish meeting house on Middle Street consisting of 3.5 acres. The seller was William Ellery, Jr. The date was May 5, 1764.
In this deed Thomas spelled his name without a “u”; Sanders. When the Gloucester Preservation Committee provided a historic plaque for the house in the 1980s it was called the Thomas Sanders house. The Registry of Deeds in Salem refers to Sanders when you look for Saunders. However, when the house was sold to Capt. Beach in 1784 the name on the deed was Saunders.
Middle Street was laid out in the 1730s. It was originally called Cornhill Street but by the time Thomas Saunders built his house it was called MiddleStreet. Middle Street was midway between Fore Street now called Main Street and Back Street or High Streets, the old names for Prospect Street.
Most of the houses on Middle Street were built in the Georgian period, 1730-1790 approximately. In the Harbor Village, especially on Middle Street, Georgian houses were built with gambrel roofs. This was not necessarily true elsewhere but on Middle Street gambrel roofs prevailed. True to form, Thomas Sanders’ house had a gambrel roof looking much like the neighboring houses including the William Dolliver house next door at 90 Middle Street.
The interior of the Sanders house was as good as they come. It had a pair of twin chimney which meant that inside the front door was a commodious, front to back center hall not possible in a house with a central chimney. The staircase was a great staircase with three balusters to a stair. It had a very gradual ascent with wide treads and low risers. The undercut spiral newel post was very beautiful and of the type only found in the best houses.
The design for the house probably came from an English pattern book. There were no American pattern books; they would come later. The colonists still looked to London for style and American housewrights were still using English pattern books when building the finest houses in America.
On the southeast corner opening right off the hall was a formal parlor. This room was superb. There had paneling on all four walls with bolection moldings. It had window seats. The interior chimney was flanked by alcoves. The paneling in these alcoves has the ability to be opened so that when entertaining these two rooms can be joined and communicate with each other, allowing a free flow between the two rooms. The room in the rear may have a hidden fireplace but it is covered, most likely allowing the boiler in the cellar to be vented through that flue.
The other side of the house once had a matching chimney but alterations have obliterated most of the features on that side of the house and the chimney has been removed. There is no sign of the original kitchen or cooking fireplace that was probably part of the missing chimney or perhaps in a kitchen ell off the back of the house.
Thomas died and his administrator sold the house to Capt. John Beach in November of 1784. John Beach was a very flamboyant individual and under his ownership, the stately Georgian house began to change drastically.
In 1802 Capt. Beach hired Gloucester’s best builder, Jacob Smith, who would soon be building the Universalist Church, to build a major addition to the top of Beach’s house. This addition was like none that we have ever seen on a house, in Gloucester or anywhere in New England or beyond.
Off went the gambrel roof. A third story was added to the house that had a footprint that was slightly smaller than the footprint of the original house so that the house was now tiered, with more tiers to come. The house probably acquired a balustrade around the roof at the top of the second floor.
Most dramatic is what Beach did next. He built an observatory at the fourth-floor level that reached a height of five stories and more. What follows almost defies credibility. One story of an unknown source claims that Beach made these changes because of being perturbed that the newer three-story house across the street, built by John Stevens Ellery, circa 1790, was blocking Beach’s view of the harbor. He overcame that problem in a big way.
This observatory was an octagon 22.5 feet in diameter. It filled the space between the two twin chimneys. In the attic, the footings for the observatory can still be seen. One side still has a threshold indicating that someone in the observatory could go outside onto the roof and probably walk around the observatory protected from falling by a balustrade.
A newspaper clipping from Friday, May 31, 1878, provides a description of this incredible observatory.
“It was an octagon two stories high having five large elliptical windows in the lower story. The second story was circular and had five circular topped windows. The whole thing was “surmounted by a dome, like the State House in Boston.” It must have resembled a tiered wedding cake or maybe it resembled a church steeple with a dome instead of a spire.
These new levels added to the house was reached by a beautiful staircase that was the epitome of the new Federal style with slender square balusters and a rather dainty handrail, a big departure from the heaviness of the Georgian period and its grand staircase below. The lovely staircase is there but now terminates in a windowless attic. Perhaps Beach was inspired by Jefferson’s Monticello or the more modest but spectacular belvedere atop Lord Timothy Dexter’s house in Newburyport.
The flat roof surrounding the observatory is still covered with roofing material but it wasn’t enough to keep the flat roof from leaking to the extent that in November of 1827 it necessitated removal of this incredible addition. The description of this addition has survived but there was no photography at that time and no paintings or drawings have yet been found to show what this really looked like. If not for the octagon footings still present in the attic as evidence of what had been there, the extent of this addition might have been lost for all time.
Capt. Beach left Gloucester for Chillicothe, Ohio. The estate was sold at auction by Thomas Penhallow of Portsmouth, NH on October 23, 1828, just after the removal of the observatory. Penhallow was the son in law of John Beach. The new owner was Dr. William Ferson who paid $1,320 for the property.
Now this great house continues on its journey as this story gets stranger!
After the sale to Dr. Ferson, in the summer of 1828, someone placed a document in the top of one of the gate posts revealing the history of the house. This document was found by Dr. Davidson on June 15, 1850. Dr. Davidson’s mother, Phoebe Davidson, had purchased the house in 1849 for $6,500.
It next became the property of William Pew in 1878. According to the newspaper, “Pew is making marked improvements on the Davidson property. The garden spot will be made very attractive, and when the building is moved 13 feet to the westward, it will make one of the most desirable residences in this city. In order to make this improvement a complete one, it will be necessary to cut down the rise on Dale Avenue, some 18 inches and there will probably be a petition presented to the City Government to make this change of grade.” The newspaper goes on to say that the property is in good condition and will not need many renovations on the interior.
Apparently, its new owner thought that it needed renovation on the outside, if not the inside! It was William Pew who Victorianized the house, once again taking it to new heights so that even Capt. Beach would not have recognized his former home that he, himself, had transformed into a one-of-a-kind property back in 1802. Under Pew’s ownership, it became the ultimate Victorian showplace.
As if this house hadn’t gone through enough already in its first one hundred years, now it was going to be picked up and moved thirteen feet and required regarding Dale Avenue! Will this metamorphosis ever stop? Now, a tower was added to the front almost reaching the height of the long gone observatory of Capt. Beach.
In 1884 William Pew sold the property to Samuel Sawyer who purchased it for future library use. The cost was $20,000.
At an unknown date the tower, piazzas, and fancy portico added by Pew were removed and a much more restrained house, the one we are used to seeing, emerged.
A duplex antique house, which stood across the street from the Saunders house on the corner of Dale Ave and Warren Street, was removed. Here is a rare photo of that house taken by Harold Dexter in 1958. Several other buildings in the neighborhood have disappeared over the years.
By the beginning of the 21st century, it was obvious that work needed to be done on the Saunders house. The old panes of glass were falling out of the window sash of the third floor, and wood used to cover the holes. The outside was badly in need of paint.
Now the house built by Thomas Sanders/Saunders is again at a crossroad. What will happen next? The library, in its enthusiasm to expand with a completely new facility, finds that the money for which they are seeking comes with strings attached. The poor old Sanders house that has gone through so much and survived so long, is not handicapped accessible and so cannot be used for library purposes if they are to get the funding needed to carry out their plan. Therefore, the latest iteration of a plan for expansion completely cuts off the umbilical cord to the house, leaving it an orphan, standing by itself, detached from the library with no purpose on the horizon.
Sawyer endowed the library with $20,000 in addition to previous gifts amounting to more than $15,000. Sam Sawyer, in giving the property for a library stated the following. “No part of the estate shall be alienated, but they shall be held sacredly in trust and in perpetuity”….”which shall be devoted to the use of the citizens especially, and to strangers so far as may be considered advisable by a majority of the Board of Directors, who shall have power to make by-laws and Rules for the government of the corporation”.
In 1913 the Sawyer Free Library was expanded with a new stacks addition added to the rear of the library.
In 1976 a large up-to-date addition was designed by local architect, Don Monell. This addition has been the heart and soul of the library for the last forty years. It is a low-key design, contemporary but reflecting the hipped roof of the Saunders house and with windows that visually link it to City Hall. A recent improvement has been walkways and gardens designed by Hilarie Holdsworth complimenting the new amphitheater.
Don Monell also designed the new Cape Ann Museum building (also attached to an old house) with an eye for having it work well with the library addition and City Hall, the centerpiece between the two newer buildings. It was a good plan providing our city with a group of attractive buildings forming a Civic Center for Gloucester.
So where do we go from here? The next chapter has yet to be written. It is fervently hoped that this more than 250-year-old house is treated gently and with the respect it has earned as it enters a new and uncertain chapter.
***On Wednesday, January 11 at 6:30 p.m., there will be a public meeting on the main floor of the Sawyer Library to get public input on the library’s proposal to build a new facility. Those who attend will be able to view the proposed plan, which includes demolishing the current main structure designed by noted architect Don Monnell and eliminating the new garden, as well as isolating the historic Saunders house to a fate unknown. The library wants those who attend to “ask questions and give their opinions.” This will be an important meeting and we urge all who have questions and concerns about a project that is destined change the face of Gloucester’s civic center to attend and speak out.***
Prudence Fish, of Lanesville, is a published author and expert on antique New England houses. Read Prudence Fish’s blog, Antique Houses of Gloucester and Beyond.