Smedley House rises anew after painstaking effort


Photo Gallery | 1772 Smedley House in Williamstown restored

Related | Smedley House: A pit stop on the way to capture Fort Ticonderoga

WILLIAMSTOWN — On May 6, 1775, a weary traveler stopped at Smedley Tavern, a place for respite tucked away in the small, dark, smoky cellar of a partially built wood-plank house on the eastern end of town.

That traveler was Col. Benedict Arnold, recently commissioned by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to recruit and outfit an armed regiment to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British.

Arnold's stay at Nehemiah Smedley's tavern was one of a series of events that led to the liberation of Boston from British rule in March 1776.

Since then, as occupants have come and gone, the tavern closed and the cellar devoted to other uses, such as basement storage. And the basement entrance to the Smedley Tavern disappeared as the home was modernized.

Today, after about of year of painstaking effort, Smedley Tavern is visible again, and the rest of the Smedley House is nearly completely restored to its colonial roots in its original location on what is now Main Street, with period fixtures, materials and colors.

Real estate developer Bruce MacDonald of Williamstown, owner of MacDonald Construction, bought the 4,400-square-foot house and 1.3 acres of land about a year ago for $180,000, knowing full well that to do the job right, he would have to invest another $650,000 in the structure.

But MacDonald also knew that most other developers would rather have taken the building down and built anew on the parcel for much less.

"They would have known that restoring it would be way more expensive than taking it down and building a new house," MacDonald said. "But it's a historic house that was in trouble. Now it's good for another 250 years."

He said he expects to lose nearly $200,000 on the venture. But he has done pretty well on other real estate ventures in the Boston area, he said, and this project is about more than turning a profit.

It's about the past.

MacDonald and his team have taken great pains to preserve as much of the original structure as they could, down to the floorboards and fixtures. What couldn't be saved or was missing was replaced by locally sourced wood and period reproductions of fixtures like hinges, door handles and lights. He even re-created the carriage house that once stood next to the main house.

Meanwhile, he had to design the home's new mechanical systems, like heating and electricity, so that they provided modern convenience and efficiency without getting in the way of the Colonial aesthetic.

Of course, in Colonial times, construction codes were non-existent and insulation wasn't much. So the building's structural envelope had to be exposed and sealed to conserve heat, while exposing and modernizing the five original fireplaces, two of which once served as cooking fires and baking ovens.

In the basement, the fireplace provided warmth and cooked food for the tavern guests. MacDonald had to remove materials added later to the basement and fireplace to expose the original stone work on the fireplace, walls, and the exterior door.

"My goal is to restore this tavern to what it looked like in 1772," MacDonald said. He surmised that part of the tavern held tables and chairs, and part was divided off for cots used by overnight guests.

The restoration project required extensive work from the ground up, including lifting the structure off its foundation to replace rotted sills.

Utility cables that once ran to the house from poles were relocated underground through conduits, so no wires are visible inside or out. The entire house is now insulated with four inches of foam and a exterior insulation wrap. The period cedar clapboard siding is stained and sealed on both sides, and the boards are attached with invisible fasteners as well as period reproduction square-head nails.

Inside, original beams have been used throughout to enhance the period decor, and original doors have been re-hung. The windows are modern custom-made, double-paned and insulated reproductions of the originals.

MacDonald wants the finished product to be "sound, comfortable and attractive."

"This house has gone 250 years housing families and raising kids," he said. "Let's have it go another 250 years housing families and raising kids. Our grandchildren won't outlive this house."

During the restoration project, MacDonald discovered the original handle to the front door. But for some reason, it has the year 1781 etched into it. MacDonald reasons that, because Smedley was opposed to British rule and had reportedly vowed not to finish building the house until he knew who would govern the area, he left the structure up, but unfinished, until 1781, the year the Revolutionary War ended.

In 1800, two of Smedley's sons added a three-bedroom, two-story section on the north side of the structure, allowing it to serve as a two-family home, MacDonald said. The building was sold at auction in 1937 and the new owner removed the 1800 addition.

Not including the basement tavern, the house has three stories, with the master bedroom and bath on the third floor. There are two other bathrooms, one on each of the first two floors. There is also an unattached two-car garage. A deck soon will be attached to the back of the house. Completion is anticipated in a few weeks.

Today, MacDonald has the property listed for sale at a price of $685,000. He anticipates the total cost of the project, including the purchase cost, at about $850,000 "to save the house."

But the fun of the project is in the details — something that MacDonald has cherished.

"It's been tremendous," he said.


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