A House with History
Storied Captain Elijah Cobb House begins a new chapter as the Brewster Historical Society’s home and museum
Like novels, houses have chapters. The story of the Captain Elijah Cobb House begins on the cusp of the 19th century and takes place in Brewster. It includes narratives of love and family, of hardship and struggle, of adventures and homecomings. Like those long Victorian novels written during the first century of this home’s existence, this story is also serialized. With the home’s recent sale and restoration, its newest occupant, the Brewster Historical Society, has taken up residence, and so its newest chapter has begun.
The tale opens in 1799 when the globe-traveling sea captain Elijah Cobb returned home from one of his many voyages to find, he writes in his memoir, “that my pertner [sic] in lifes [sic] voyage had run me in debt for a Cape Cod farm.” The property his wife, Mary, had purchased from a widow named Thankful Freeman was, he wrote, “destitute of a suitable building for the accommodation of our little family.” He contacted architect Phillip Burrill, who designed for Cobb and his growing family a handsome Georgian colonial with twin massive chimneys flanking a rooftop widow’s walk.
Before he retired to his farm in 1820 (where he would live until his death in 1848), Cobb was away from home much of the time, sailing around the world transporting rice and flour, rum from the West Indies, and gold and ivory from Africa.
Cobb first went to sea as a young teen to regain his health after breaking a “vessel in my stomack,” [sic] he writes, and as a way to support himself after his widowed mother, left with six children under the age of 10, could no longer care for him. His chapters include such adventures as getting caught up in the French Revolution when the French confiscated his cargo and his paperwork. He obtained a private audience with Maximilien Robespierre, who offered his help and who would be among the 1,000 people Cobb claimed to have seen beheaded by the guillotine.
During the War of 1812, Cobb was seized at sea and held captive in Canada. Upon his return to his Brewster sanctuary, he writes, “The doors flew open, and the greetings of affection & consanguinity multiplied upon me rapidly. Thus in a moment, I was transported to the greatest earthly bliss a man can have, viz to the enjoyment of the happy family circil.” [sic]
The home Cobb had built remained in his family’s hands for 141 years. In 1941, when his great-granddaughter Caroline Atherton Dugan, known as Caro, died on her 88th birthday, the home passed to Josephine Duveneck, once one of the children Dugan had taken care of when she was a governess in Boston. In her autobiography, Duveneck recounts that her husband, Frank, had “made it possible for her [Caro] to retain the property,” explaining Dugan’s decision to will it to Duveneck. Artist Howard Gibbs owned the home from 1945 to 1986. In the 1990s, it ended up in the possession of Frances Chapin, who began renovating and restoring the neglected house. She added a back porch and French doors and windows to the keeping room. She also removed a dilapidated ell that had been added in the mid-1800s. Much to everyone’s surprise, preserved food found in the cellar beneath the ell was still edible, a museum brochure notes.
In 2013, the Brewster Historical Society, then nearly 50 years old, was tired of setting up in borrowed spaces like the old town hall. When members saw that the Cobb house was for sale, “We knew it would be great,” says Sally Gunning, the society’s vice president and author of several historical novels, three of which take place in Satucket, a town fashioned after Brewster, where Gunning traces her family back three centuries.
During the purchasing process, though, Chapin died, and the house was in limbo long enough for the pipes to freeze. When the historical society took possession, having raised funds through Mass Cultural Council and Community Preservation Act grants as well as through more than 1,000 private and business donations, there was much work to be done. Though the value of the renovations is estimated to have exceeded a million dollars, the work was completed for less than $400,000. “We hired skilled craftsmen to do the work,” Gunning says, “but a lot of time was gifted by skilled people.”
Among those who donated their talent was Brewster native Paul Daley, one of the society’s directors and the head of the building committee. “The house was in tough shape when we bought it,” Daley recalls, but he was undaunted. “I have probably worked on every old house in town at one time or another.”
The society hired the architectural firm Brown Lindquist Fenuccio & Raber to provide an existing building code review so the structure could be transitioned from residential to commercial use. The actual restoration work started outside. Clapboards, sills, and quoins were repaired or replaced; the old cedar roof was replaced; the two massive chimneys were repaired, with new cast stone installed; and the original widow’s walk was re-created exactly as it had been when Mary Cobb had stood up there, scanning the bay for her seafaring husband. In addition, trees were taken down, and the property was regraded, with walkways and a parking lot added.
“Accessibility improvements were done in order to minimize the impact on the site,” says Maria Raber, the architect on the project. “It was a pleasure working with the Brewster Historical Society. They understood what needed to be done to restore the house properly.”
Remnants of the past surfaced during the excavation in the form of a Spanish real coin, a thimble, and some keys, Daley says. A more relevant find was made in the back barn: all of the original exterior shutters, which were repaired and hung back on the house.
The home’s interior reads like a palimpsest, with reminders of the past everywhere. The staircase once used by the servants testifies to centuries of footfall with the smooth bowled dips in the center of each tread. Remnants of stenciling applied during the Victorian era to doors and walls shadow forth. The fact that Captain Cobb and his wife were up on the new technologies of their time is evident in the home’s Rumford fireplaces, with their shallow boxes and angled sides effectively moving the heat outward. The “family parlor” has a Franklin-style fireplace, also designed to be more efficient, and the master bedroom door still shows signs of a faux grain painted to make the wood appear more expensive.
Some aspects of the recent past were erased during renovations, including the French doors and windows Chapin had added to the keeping room in the 1990s. Gunning is quick to note, “We didn’t change anything that hadn’t been changed already.” Today visitors enter through that keeping room, where in addition to the gift shop they can see the original beehive oven. The keeping room’s one original window served as the model for the replicas, made by Boston Sash and Millwork using restoration glass.
The “best parlor,” so called because of its fancy dentil and reed moldings, is now the shipmaster’s room, paying tribute to 19th-century seafaring. Among the items displayed are an exploding whaling harpoon, three sea captains’ portable desks, charting tools, and a ship’s medicine cabinet with such cures as spirits of hartshorn and Turkey rhubarb. Among the oil paintings on the walls are portraits of Captain Cobb’s son Elijah and his wife, Caroline. Gunning shares a story about one of the room’s artifacts: An early museum visitor, on seeing the painted sea chest against the wall, remarked, “I know that chest. It used to be my grandparents’ wood box.”
In the less formal “family parlor” resides the artifact that historical society curator Leslie Aberle says may be her favorite: an 1803 block desk where the paperwork to officially separate Brewster and Harwich was signed. “It is one of our most unique items,” says Aberle, “and it is in excellent condition.”
She is also proud of the textiles in the upstairs master bedroom, where among the items on display is an evening gown from 1828, a late-19th-century wedding dress, and a tea dress. Another bedroom is now home to more recent Brewster artifacts, including a bank of post office boxes and a barber’s shop pole and implements.
Among his many tasks, Daley oversaw the restoration of the floors, now painted in “wooden nutmeg.” The color was selected by Gunning and Aberle, as were the various wall colors, with the advice of many, including Historic New England. He also saw to the repair of the first-floor interior window shutters, which stow neatly into the sides of the frames. To protect the interior and the museum’s artifacts from UV rays, blinds were added to the windows. Another change to accommodate the present was the transformation of a bathroom and laundry room into a kitchenette for the historical society staff, who also have research and archive rooms in the rear of the upper level. Here they are always reminded of the home’s craftsmanship since the pegs and beams used in its construction are exposed, as is the original brick of the chimneys.
While the property once stretched all the way to the bay, over the years its acres were sold off. Beautifying the remaining one-and-a-half acres are flower gardens re-created using heirloom seeds and Dugan’s diary as a guide to look as they did in 1875.
When Dugan lived in the home with her mother, they took in paying guests. Among them was Cornelius Chenery, who shared Dugan’s passion for photography. Between the two, they took 400 photos of Brewster at the turn of the last century, documenting life and land. The historical society owns the original photographic glass-plate negatives, and prints of many of the photos are available. Also on the grounds is a massive anchor, found in a field in North Carolina but believed to have been made in Gloucester sometime between 1750 and 1850 and to have adorned a 1,000-ton ship.
The historical society’s museum at the Captain Elijah Cobb House opened its doors to the public in August of 2016, beginning its most recent chapter. But as with every great book, it only makes you want to go back and reread the beginning. Once you step inside this home, you venture back into the past and to the story of the illustrious Captain Cobb, whose spirit lives on. For more information, visit brewsterhistoricalsociety.org.
Laurel Kornhiser, an English professor at Quincy College, is a former editor of Cape Cod HOME.
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