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Who Designed Our Old Doorways?

From a paper written by Frank Smith and read before The Dover Historical Society in 1920

There are no existing examples of the doors made by the first Colonial settlers. From the very nature of the case we know, however, that the doors built by Henry Wilson, James Draper, Andrew Dewing, John Bacon, Nathaniel Chickering, Thomas Battelle, Eleazer Ellis, and Ralph Day, the first settlers in the town, were made from green wood which naturally warped and shrunk. The cracks admitted wind, snow and rain and for protection the skins of the bear, the deer, and perhaps lesser animals, were hung to curtain these rude doors, and protect the family from the elements.

In this connection we will review the building of homes in Dover. While clay suitable for brick making was found in the river and brook bottoms of the town, yet previous to the close of the nineteenth century, brick was never used for building purposes, except in chimneys and the brick ends of the houses of John Brown and Ebenezer Smith on Farm Street, both of which houses are still standing. Several attempts at brick making were made in the years long since passed but building in Dover was from the first of wood because it was everywhere found and lent itself to the design and workmanship of the local carpenters.

“These men were masters of their crafts and moreover were men of artistic sense”. So it is an interesting question as to whom we are endebted for the simple beauty found in several Dover doorways.

In some of the early houses there was the button door, consisting of two or three vertical planks nailed firmly to a solid backing of horizontal boards held together by rough hand made nails. I remember such doors in Dover houses which always looked to me as though they were made to keep the Indians out.

The evolution in building is well illustrated in the reproduction of the James Draper house on Springdale Avenue in the Genealogical History of Dover. We find this style of house, the low one story cottage giving place to the two story lean-to, early in the eighteenth century, as illustrated by the Joseph Draper house on Farm Street and still standing. The first houses were simple rectangular lines. Their doorways opening arranged for convenience. They were openings offering passage through outside or inside walls.

When the two story design was adopted, there was often an element of beauty introduced in the front door, which is well illustrated in the front door in the Caryl Parsonage and the pictures that have been preserved of the Whiting-Williams Tavern which was built in 1761.

These traces of beauty we are told are found in houses all the way from Maine to South Carolina, which fact argues some common origin for them. The early homes, as already said, were of simple rectangular lines and carried out Lord Bacon’s saying that: Houses are built to live in and not to look on, so that these old type houses are in demand today for occupancy by persons of good taste. Now that the Caryl Parsonage has been bequeathed to the town, to remain in the custody of the Dover Historical Society, it is hoped that we shall sometime see it put in thorough repair even to the old martin house under the eaves.

The early architects in this country, like early surgeons, were all men of other callings. Washington and Jefferson were statesmen; Thornton and Bulfinch-physicians; Alexander Hamilton a lawyer; and Simbert a portrait painter; yet these men were the leading amateur designers, before the Revolution, who did the best work in architectural design. Peter Harrison, who designed Kings Chapel in Boston, was an architect of standing but he was born and educated in England.

The best illustration of Thomas Jefferson’s ability as an architect is found in the design of the University of Virginia, with its serpentine walls, long rows of one story dormitories, which extend for a long distance on either side of the campus. When visited some years ago by President Eliot, it was pronounced by him the most beautiful campus in the United States. It certainly is unlike any other college campus.

The carpenters who designed our doorways got their suggestions from books on carpentry published in England, of which Langley was the leading author. His books appeared at various times from 1726 to 1756. They were intended for the use of carpenters and gave measured drawings of columns, pilasters, architraves, etc. It has been found by those who have made a study of old doorways that selections were made from these publications by the local carpenters who followed the designs with exactness or modified them to suit their own tastes and judgment. “They knew the importance of proportions and their work shows their close attention to this feature vital in all good architecture”. A recent writer has said: The leading architects of the present time can produce nothing in doorways superior to many of those produced by master artisans of the eighteenth century, and few give to the matter of proportions the careful attention that was given by the carpenter builders of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

We know that Hezekiah Allen, the first carpenter of the town, was the chairman of the Committee for building the meeting-house in 1748. I have always suspected that the doors to the meeting-house were more ornamental than the town seal would suggest; the central figure of which represents the first meeting-house of the town, drawn in its exact proportions. The Draper House, on Farm Street, built in 1724, was without doubt designed and built by Hezekiah Allen. The town is to be congratulated that this old house is still standing and has recently been put in excellent repair. The house, in style and proportions, is much like Mr. Allen’s own house, built about the same time on Pegan Hill, which was removed only a few years ago when the late Mr. Fuller built a new house on the site. As the style of doorway in the Whiting-Williams Tavern, built in 1761 is different from the doorway of the Caryl Parsonage, built in 1777, it is fair to assume that they were not the work of the same carpenter. I incline to the belief that Hezekiah Allen built the tavern doorway and that Ralph Day built the one in the old parsonage. Hezekiah Allen was not living at the time the parsonage was built while Ralph Day, one of Mr. Caryl’s deacons, was in his prime as an active citizen and carpenter of the town. It is known that Ralph Day built the Fuller House on Strawberry Hill Street in 1756, (John A. Sullivan house) and continued as the carpenter of the town for many years thereafter. Other interesting doorways are found in the homes of Jabez Baker, on Dedham Street and William Tisdale on Walpole Street but these designs must be credited to the carpenters of a later period. The front door in Dr. Evans house on Farm Street, the home of Fisher Allen, was built in 1808. When the house was remodeled, some years since, the door was taken out and set in one of the buildings connecting the house and barn. This doorway was designed by Daniel Mann, the son-in-law of Mr. Allen, who previous to 1835 was for forty years the leading builder in Dover.

It is hard to account for an entire absence of knockers on the old doors of the town. Hardware has been been termed “the jewelry of the house” and little if any has been found in Dover houses in the shape of brass hinges, latches and knockers. Surely the knocker is a symbol of welcome and it always a pleasure to think of the hands that lifted it. The absence of a hardware store may account for this neglect but surely the latch-string was always out to welcome guests.

The Dover Historical Society
PO Box 534
Dover, MA 02030