Preservation: The Stanton-Davis homestead
May 8, 2013 | By Katrine Ames
Here in this shell of a house,
This house that is struggling to be,
Hope must have been
The first to move in,
And waited to welcome me.
But hope isn't easy to see.
This lovely tribute to the White House in Leonard Bernstein and Allan Jay Lerner's 1976 musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would make a perfect anthem for a house of far humbler origins, but one that predates it by more than 120 years and has a cultural history that very few private residences can claim. In 1670 Thomas Stanton, a native-born Englishman who learned the Algonquin language and became a celebrated translator, negotiator, and friend of both Native American tribes and colonists, built a handsome wood-shingled house near Stonington, Connecticut. Eleven generations of the family have occupied it, and the current paterfamilias, John W. Davis, still farms the fields that his ancestor received as a gift from the Pequots and began working in 1654. "We haven't missed a crop since," Davis says. "I'll be eighty-nine in August, but when I'm up on the tractor, I can do the work of a twenty-year-old."
The house is beautifully sited on what was Indian land, looking down a gentle slope across the fields and marshland almost to the sea. Keeping up the structure, however, got to be too much. It needs a great deal of work, and because it is not just any house, but one that is the intersection of the lives of Native Americans, African slaves, and white settlers, Davis was determined to preserve and protect it. He decided to move out and give up the house where he had always lived and establish a nonprofit corporation that would turn the place into a living museum and educational center. The Stanton-Davis Homestead Museum is far from up and running, but it is underway.
Arthur Liverant, a third-generation antiques dealer who is based in Connecticut, first visited the house with his father more than forty years ago and calls it an "architectural jewel of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century." Among the stunning aspects of its interior are an enormous fireplace, a carved banister made by a local joiner, elaborate wainscoting, paneled room ends, and a corner cupboard so spectacular, Liverant says, "that it could be in the Met. The whole house belongs in a museum." Instead, if sufficient millions can be raised, the house will become one.
An early order of business was to clear out the homestead. Here, the good and bad news coincide: it appears that virtually no one in the family threw anything away. "I think the original pack rat came out of our house," says Davis, the overseer of centuries of accumulations. Volunteers, including students from colleges and universities in the area, culled, sorted, cleaned, and catalogued the contents for storage-pictures, mattresses, baskets of china, books, whaling tools, a two-hundred-year-old shoemaker's kit, a flax wheel, and an 1812 officer's jacket, sword, and hat. Some Indian artifacts and fragile textiles, including numerous quilts, are in climate-controlled spaces at the nearby Mashantucket Pequot Museum until the house is ready to receive them.
The attic was crammed and all but impassable, with trunks buried so far under the eaves, Davis says, "that they hadn't been opened in four or five generations." The most fascinating things in the attic, however, remain, and they are heart-stopping: drawings and carvings by slaves who lived there, just beneath the roof. "There's a swordfish and horizontal lines with a diagonal line through every five. We think the slaves were keeping score of the fish they caught," Davis says. There's a depiction of a Baltimore clipper, a ship that figured prominently in the slave trade and, most moving, a drawing of a pregnant woman who Davis suspects was the wife of the slave Venture Smith, whose children were born there.
Venture Smith was eventually able to purchase freedom for himself and his family, and became a farmer and trader. He was legendary for his strength, and a highly visible reminder of it sits in the driveway of the Stanton-Davis house: a boulder, painted with the words "venture stone 442 pounds." Men were building a stone wall on the property and were going to roll the enormous rock into place when Smith, unassisted, hoisted it onto his knees and carried it to the wall. Generations later, the wall was demolished and the boulder was carted near the house, weighed, and put on display. The letters were fading, so Davis recently had it washed and repainted, and had a ceremonial unveiling at a reunion that included Venture Smith's descendants.
The rock is in better shape than the house. Fund-raising is slow, but last year the corporation was able to take the first steps to protect the homestead. Concerned that a hurricane might do large-scale damage, they had the roof shored up so that it could survive extraordinarily high winds, and work was finished not long before Superstorm Sandy struck. "For once we were ahead of Mother Nature," Davis says. The next project may be to raise up one end of the house, which has sunk about twelve inches, and redo the foundation, and Davis is hoping that work can soon begin on restoring the cheese room and the summer kitchen. "We have to stabilize the building and we're doing everything in fits and starts," says Faith Damon Davison, an archivist and a member of the Mohegan Tribe who recently retired from the Stanton-Davis board. "We need enough for an endowment and that's not chicken feed."
As for how eventually to furnish the interior, she says, "We have a lot of choices about what we can do because this family never threw anything out. Each room will probably have a different era." Thomas Stanton had ten children and John W. Davis hopes that each of the ten branches-"we've found them all," he says-will contribute to one room. That, he says, would make the endeavor deeply personal.
The Bernstein-Lerner song ends:
Take care of this house.
Be always on call.
For this house is the hope of us all.
That sounds a lot like the Stanton-Davis place.
To contribute to the restoration, please visit the website stantondavishomesteadmuseum.org, and click on “Funding.”