The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 16, 2008


Surveying Carlisle's historic properties


Preservation consultants Gretchen Schuler (left) and Anne Forbes survey the Town Common on a windy day. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

If you happen to see two middle-aged women snapping pictures on your street, don’t call the police. They are Anne Forbes and Gretchen Schuler, preservation planning consultants, efficiently surveying historic properties in the town.

At the 2006 Spring Town Meeting, voters approved $41,000 from the Community Preservation Act Historical Fund for an inventory of historic properties, including buildings, town boundary markers, burial grounds and historic landscapes. This lengthy process is now well underway, and Forbes and Schuler paused in their research to talk about their work in Carlisle.

“We are in the long, second phase of the survey,” says Forbes. We’re doing all the research, field work, photographing and drafting of all the pieces of the survey. Then it goes to the Massachusetts Historical Commission for review and finalizing.” Preceding this phase was the production of a Survey Plan and a master street index with a preliminary list of Carlisle properties that are worthy of documentation.

“Right this minute [on May 1] we’re scrambling to take photographs before the leaves come out,” adds Schuler. “We like to get as clear a photo as possible.” She pulls out a photograph of a Baldwin Road farmhouse with a huge tree in the front yard – only the bare limbs are visible. In all its leafiness, the tree would have obscured the view.

Why undertake a survey?

In the words of the Mass. Historical Commission, “The continuing presence of historic properties in Massachusetts immeasurably enhances the quality of our lives; they help to establish our sense of place and to define the very character of our communities.” In Carlisle and neighboring communities, the survey establishes a database of information for ongoing research and the protection of historical properties.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” notes Schuler, referring to buildings as well as altered landscapes. “It’s fragile, non-renewable.” The survey is basically a record of what is here now. “In some cases,” she says, “it’s actually finding something that is here now that once was another building.” As an example, she cites “an old barn hiding inside what looks like a newer barn.”

Scope of the survey

The budget for the survey limits the scope to “about 210 or 215 forms, not necessarily homes,” says Schuler. The Mass. Historical Commission has forms for all types of properties surveyed. The form for buildings, for example, requests information on date of construction, source [of that information], outbuildings, major alterations and acreage, and more. It asks for “architectural description” and “historical narrative,” both of which can be several paragraphs in length. Photographs of the building and outbuildings are attached, as is an aerial view of the property.

Structures built prior to the early 1960s are part of the survey. Of interest are buildings at least 50 years old, which now reaches back to those built before 1958. However, Schuler explains, the Mass. Historical Commission “likes to add a few years to stay ahead of the game.” This explains the cut-off date of the early 1960s.

Forbes and Schuler do not record forms for every house that fits within the time frame, but they do look for “certain house types, [such as] good examples of 1950s ranch houses or Cape Cod cottages,” says Forbes. “We look for examples that haven’t been much altered, so that we don’t do a form for every house of that description.”

Another example of a property that does not require individual forms for each structure is a farm complex like the former Swanson Poultry Farm on Curve Street. It consists of two houses, five poultry barns, another large barn across the road, an unidentified (as yet) stone structure and pastureland. The entire farm is documented on an Area Form, designed for complex properties

Sources of information

For a study of this depth and scope, what resources do the consultants rely on? They are grateful for the documentation done by Martha Fifield Wilkins in the 1930s, the valuable set of hand-written notebooks called Old Houses and Families of Carlisle (1941) housed at the Gleason Public Library. (See “Martha Wilkins: Carlisle’s Unique Historian,” Mosquito, November 23, 2007) The Wilkins volumes are the main resource for many of the older homes, since the information gathered includes a list of owners and genealogical data, as well as architectural details of the property.

Forbes points out, however, that, “Wilkins doesn’t cover everything” and that modern-day researchers use different methods when surveying properties. Forbes and Schuler rely heavily on historical maps, town directories and census data. For earlier properties both the decennial censuses and the agricultural censuses from 1850 to 1880 are very important to a town like Carlisle, says Forbes. She regrets the lack of time and budget to delve into archives such as old deeds – “another reason to be grateful to Wilkins, who did include deed research done in the 1930s.” Schuler refers to the various resources as a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces eventually form the final product.

Present-day property owners often supply information on physical changes to the property, including dates, and sometimes have old photos and data on the history of families who lived in the house. Information on houses and families of the early 20th century is especially hard to find, say Forbes and Schuler. They point out that they are not just interested in buildings, but how they were used by the families living there.

Historic landscapes and burial grounds

Buildings and families are not the only historic properties to be included in the survey. Historic landscapes, such as the Town Common, that have man-made features are also part of the research. Other open lands examined by Forbes and Schuler include Towle Field, Foss Farm, Estabrook Woods, Two Rod Road and the West Street lime kiln. Green Cemetery and the Central Burying Ground will also be documented.

Forbes underscores the importance of vanishing agriculture lands, “not just aesthetically but in the development and history of a community. “Agricultural land can be viewed as man-made or man-influenced and can be described in the same way as a building,” she says. “Alterations over time can be described. We look for places in a community that still show decades or centuries of farming, and we try to record their evolution.”

The National Register

One requirement of the historic survey is that properties be evaluated for eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government’s official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects worthy of preservation. The National Register was established in 1966 by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). There are more than one million properties on the National Register and each year approximately 30,000 properties are added.

At present two houses in Carlisle are on the National Register – the George Robbins House at 523 Curve Street and the Zebulon Spalding House at 1044 Lowell Street. They were part of a group of 138 “first-period homes” – built before 1725 – in Essex and Middlesex Counties that were nominated for their architectural characteristics and structural features.

The Zebulon Spaulding House at 1044 Lowell Street is one of only two homes in Carlisle that are on the National Register. It is thought to have been built in 1716 and is one of the oldest residences in town. This historic photo is undated. (Photo courtesy of the Gleason Public Library)

Forbes has recommended that the Highland Building and the Brick School on School Street be nominated for the National Register. This is merely a preliminary step, however – the actual nomination process can be a lengthy one and can cost $2,000 to $3,000 for a single building. However, Forbes points out that funds are available through the Community Preservation Act to cover the costs; the official nomination must be written by a preservation specialist, she adds.

The role of the Mass. Historical Commission is vital. If it approves a nomination to the National Register, it is sent on to the federal agency. “Mass. Historical has a long-standing policy of not approving National Register nominations in a community where the historic survey has not been done,” says Forbes. “They need to see buildings in the context of the rest of the community.” Once the survey is completed, the Carlisle Historical Commission or individual property owners can move forward with National Register nominations.

Once the survey is completed late this fall, one set will go to the Mass. Historical Commission and the town of Carlisle will keep another set. Eventually, the information will be available online, but “we’re not there yet,” cautions Forbes.∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito