Lessons from my Crawlspace, and my Contractor

Trigger Warning: extreme change orders

Here you have the 1st floor kitchen at my house when I found it:


It looks kind of cute to me now.  I kind of think I should have just kept it that way.

So, I didn’t keep it that way.  I pulled out all these finishes – the dropped ceiling, the old pantry doors, the vintage appliances, the bathroom behind the partition to the left of this photo, and the archway.  oh, the archway…

Finally, I pulled up the linoleum floor and started to work pulling up the wood floor underneath.  Things were going fine, I was working my way along the floor, prying up salvageable wood flooring with a flat bar, when something happened I will never forget.  As I made my way across the floor, it became harder and harder to get the top layer of flooring up, because the subflooring was being pushed down under the pressure of my pry bar.  Ruh Roh.

Here’s the very same view, minus the whole kitchen:


We demo’d this space completely, and found that there was no foundation under it.  Now, I don’t have high standards for what I’ll consider a foundation.  Dry-laid fieldstone, I’ll take it.  Large rock sitting on some compacted soil – if it holds up for a couple hundred years, it’s good enough for me.  But this section of the house, which would be the “5” on a telephone keypad, wasn’t even built on rocks.  There were four large logs laid down on the bare dirt, and the floor was just framed on top of that.

The subfloor and the framing was mushy and rotted, which you’d expect it to be after 150 years sitting on cool, damp soil.  And the shallow crawlspace – how should I describe this – was full of the remains of at least 6 different kinds of animals that I could identify – their poop, their nests, their skeletons, their fur, their decomposing stink glands – I’ll just leave it there.  It was a really, really nice place for animals to live.  and die.  The smell is something I will never forget.

Clearly, this part of the house was not meant to stand the test of time.  I’d like to think that this addition was built as a temporary structure – maybe a porch or something.  But over time, no one remembered about the lack of foundation, and they just kept adding additions, piling on around little number “5” until it was smothered in other additions, namely the numbers, 2, 4, and 6, which all had totally reasonable foundations.  It’s amazing that the house did not collapse on itself like a giant doughnut.

When we got to this stage, that’s what I called it, my doughnut hole.  Here it is with the old stairs removed, and with a view clear through to the North side of the house:


This was about the time things got very, very serious.  It became clear that the renovation was going to be a much bigger, much more expensive job than we meant to do.  If you take nothing else away from this blog, take this. If you insist on renovating an old house, this moment will come. Lesson #1: People say you should set aside maybe twice as much time and money as you thought you would need.  I will tell you it’s more like three times as much.

This was, maybe not coincidentally, also about the time that my contractor began to lose his mind.

My contractor, who at this point would rather remain nameless, is a wonderful guy.  He does great work, he is a pleasure to be around, and he tried everything he could to charge me as little as possible.  That’s where we went wrong.  If you take a second thing away from this blog, take this.  Lesson #2: Things cost what they cost.  You may think you are saving money by hiring your friend/cousin who is giving you a great price.  The tradeoff is, they won’t be able to work full time on your job, because you’re not paying full price.  They will need to work on other, full price jobs, for most of the time to make their living, and they will work on your job on nights and weekends, or between other jobs.  That means your job will take a lot longer than it needs to, and if you are paying for another place to live, or were counting on rental income from that space (I was doing both), that means it’s costing you lots and lots of money.  I would have been better off paying my contractor a lot more money up front to bang out the job.  And my contractor would have been better off as well.

As it went, while my contractor was trying heroically to get the work done for a price we both felt I could afford, he got sick, very sick.  A lifetime of smoking, hard work, unhealthy eating, and most likely the stress of working on this house caught up with him about halfway into this work.  He was out for weeks, sometimes months at a time, dealing with treatments for skin cancer and other serious health problems.  He managed, over an excruciatingly long period of time, to lay down a thin layer of concrete (aka a “rat slab”) that would keep animals out in the future, and to frame up the first floor of the rear section of the house.



With an insulated gravel base for the rat slab:


And with the cement finally poured:


I can’t tell you how much better this place smells now.  Here we are with a new 1st floor, thank goodness.  In the back of this photo, you can see this original roof line of that part of the house:

Camera 360

After this, things went all to hell.  The photo above is also what the job site looked like the day my contractor laid down his tools, made his favorite joke (again) about the one-eyed mason (he makes really beautiful circular brick paths), told me he would see me on Monday, and never came back.  It was devastating, and I went through all the regular stages of grief, which took a few more months.  I mean, I really loved the guy, as much as you can love a person you’d like to strangle on a daily basis, which most people will understand, is quite a lot.

I finally had to hire someone else to finish the work, and finish it they did.  My new friend Daniel Madri came in with a crew of 4 guys, I paid them the money I should have paid my original contractor in the first place, dammit, and they finished up the work, based on the drawings and specs they found lying around – my contractor had drawn them on pieces of 2×6 lumber, as carpenters will do.


I basically handed them this.  They looked at it, laughed, looked closer at it, and said OK, and built it.  Finally, finally, no more doughnut hole.  I had floors in all the places where floors should be, and stairs in all the places stairs should be.  The framing inspector came and treated me gently, signing off on all the permits pulled by my original contractor.

While I’ve been dealing with the demo and framing portion of my remodel, I have friends who have bought, renovated, and moved into houses.  I have friends who have built houses from scratch in less time than this has taken me.  There is a 5-story development around the corner from my house that has gone up in less time than it’s taken us to get to this point.  I also have friends who have lost homes to foreclosure since I started this project, and that is not lost on me.  I’m not going to pretend that any of this is cute or fun, because it sucks.  I was so fed up and exhausted, I didn’t even take any photos of the new staircase before piling it all up with building materials again.  Hopefully there will be some “after” photos some day, but right now I’m too exhausted.

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In the meantime: the oldest house

It could be that you are a little confused about where I’m actually living while all this work gets done on my house.  You are not the only one, I’m living a confusing life right now.

It just so happens that, up the street from my house sits the James Blake House, aka the oldest house in Boston, built in 1661.  Actually, it’s not a coincidence at all, since this part of Dorchester was where colonists from England set up their little village.  Mr. Blake was a neighbor of Mr. Jones, the person who first built a house on what’s now my little corner lot.  But that’s a blog post for another day.

my house (Anna Clapp Harris Smith House) on the left, James Blake House on the right

my house (Anna Clapp Harris Smith House) on the left, James Blake House on the right

Different houses, same neighborhood.  I’m currently responsible for both.

The coincidence was that, just when it became clear that my house was going to need a much more extensive renovation than I banked on, the James Blake House was between caretakers.  Through the historic house circles which I now find myself in, I ended up becoming the temporary caretaker for the Blake House, which is owned by the Dorchester Historical Society.  This gave me a convenient place to stay, just a 10 minute stroll down the street so that I can pick up my mail, empty the dehumidifier, and harass my contractor on a daily basis.

Part of my job at the Blake House is to give a tour once a month, on the third Sunday.  Here are the kinds of things you will learn if you come to the tour.

This is an artist’s drawing of what the Blake House probably looked like originally.  Note the triple windows and the two gables in front:


The Blake House is a rare American example of West Country [English] timber framing.  Apparently most of the early carpenters who made the journey from England were from the East.  Here’s an amazing model of the Blake House timber frame:


Contrary to popular belief, I enjoy creature comforts here such as electric lighting.  This is a big improvement over my own house at present.


Of course there are many opportunities for old house jokes, like how modern my 1804 house is going to feel after living here.  I find them all very funny.  Keep laughing, go on.


I keep a musket at the ready, just in case.


And no, I don’t have to cook over the fire, in fact there are no fires allowed in the oldest house in Boston.  Not candles, not incense, and definitely not roaring fires in the hearth.  I have met some previous caretakers, though, and apparently back in the 80s this house was heated primarily with a wood stove.  Now there’s an oil-burning furnace and forced-air system.

And look!  Stainless steel!


The massive timbers are oak.  Those trees started growing in the early 15th century.


One fun thing I do at the Blakey is project movies onto the plaster walls.  I’ve turned the spare room into a little movie theater.  Here is my cat, Ebeneezer, watching Harry Potter.  It’s fun to watch movies like this in what’s essentially a medieval building.  It’s like you’re right there in the Leaky Cauldron.


One thing you might not see on the tour is the attic.  Partly because there is a janky stair that I’m afraid someone might fall through, and partly because I have an agreement with the ghost that lives up there that I won’t go up there if she doesn’t come down here.  Here is what you would see if you ventured into the attic:


It looks like the inhabitant of this room left her nightie on the bed and went about her day.  I try not to think about it.


“The Blakey”, as the neighbors call it, is a cozy and pleasant space, 3 seasons out of the year.  However, I have now experienced all 4 seasons at the Blakey, including two of the snowiest winters we’ve had for many years, while I am responsible for shoveling out two houses.  Just luck, I suppose.


In addition to two houses to shovel out in the winter, I have had two yards to mow in the summer, and two yards to rake in the fall.  But you won’t find me complaining.

Here is my Mom helping with the end of year leaf cleanup.  Great work Ma!  Now let’s do the other house!


Out in front, what look like grave stones are actually mile markers.  One says 4 miles to Boston, and the other says 6 miles to Boston.  That’s how you can tell they both weren’t here originally.  Prudence, my other cat, is not impressed.


I let the weeds get away from me a bit last summer, but only partially out of exhaustion.  I wanted to see what all these plants were around the garden.  Turns out someone had planted quite a few medicinal plants, including motherwort, comfrey, feverfew, and lemonbalm.  There were also mugwort and burdock volunteering around the yard.

I was very curious about this plant I didn’t recognize at first:


It turned out to be soapwort!  A plant that you can make a gentle soap out of.  Apparently some textile preservationists still use it on old fabrics.  I put my little sister to work harvesting it:


And drying it:


And separating the flowers and leaves from the stems:



I also got a little excited about my three sisters garden.  Here it is in early summer.  Miss Zipp’s class from Edward Everett Elementary school came for a visit, and they already knew about the three sisters, and how the beans grow up the stalks of the corn.  You don’t see the beans yet, because the corn was getting a head start.


And again a little later on.  I grew flint corn, red kuri squash, and scarlet runner beans.  The yield was impressive for such a tiny plot.  It turns out the next door neighbor Sarah had donated the compost for this little garden bed.  Nice work Sarah!


Next door is a neglected orchard with apple, pear, peach, plum, and apricot trees –  varieties chosen for their historical interest.  One day when I’m not renovating a house I’ll come back and give those trees a good pruning.  At one point, this part of Dorchester was a rural farming village with pastures, orchards, and fields.  And from the Blake house, it still kind of feels like that.

Here are Prudence and Ebeneezer keeping a look out for squirrels.  I got them when I moved in here and named them after people who used to live in the house.  Now I walk around calling for Ebeneezer and Prudence, and I’m afraid one of these days my cats’ namesakes might answer me.



It’s a pretty good life.  But a very strange diversion.  I could get comfortable here, if I wasn’t so anxious to get comfortable in my own house!

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Stuff we found in the house

I’ve been looking forward to this for a while – the post where I tell you about all the weird, cool, and gross stuff we have found in the house so far.

Most of these things came from under the floor of the back additions of the house.  We brought down the ground level by 6 inches or so, to make room for a new cement slab in the crawl space.  At first we were very careful and treated it like an archaelogical dig – we even sifted the dirt, looking for artifacts, which is how we found most of the small stuff below.

That method quickly got old though, when it became clear that we had a huge quantity of dirt to move.  My archaeologist pals Joe Bagley and Jen Poulsen will cringe to hear me say this, but toward the end we were just shovelling dirt into a wheelbarrow and dumping it in a pile outside, only pausing to pick out larger pieces of pottery and the occasional shiny thing.  Don’t tell them I said so!

Here are some highlights of what we found…

Forks, spoons, and other metal stuff.  One of these spoons has a “W” monogram on it. Or is that an “M”?  I have a pretty complete record of everyone that has lived in this house, and there aren’t any W’s or M’s.

What looks to me like an ink well, and what I thought might be a pen?  I’m no expert.


We have buckets full of hand-cut nails.  Here are a few choice samples:


an old leather shoe…


lots and lots of broken pottery….





What looks like an old bean pot (or is it three?) – here we are holding the pieces together:


I will have to ask Joe and Jen if  I allowed to superglue this back together.




A sweet little play teacup and saucer – found in two different piles of dirt and reunited in our sorting…


Joe and Jen tell me that these are likely playing pieces from some game, made out of pieces of broken pottery:


Various bottles of unidentified substances.  Is that…. tumeric?  Is that one…  iodine?  Our tests have been inconclusive.


a bunch of coins from the 1820s-1860s.  These are “Liberty Head” cents, in pretty bad condition.  There were other coins (or were they buttons?) that were in worse condition, and not recognizable.


This is a pretty interesting thing, it took me a little while to figure out what it was.  This is called an embossed shell card, and was kind of token made to advertise businesses or commemorate events.  This one has the date 1776 on it, but it’s actually from the mid-1800s.


the “coin” is only one-sided.  It’s a thin sheet of metal that would have been pressed to a wooden backing, which is now missing.  Here’s what it looks like from the back:


I have also, unfortunately, learned a lot about the kinds of things that rats will steal and hide in their nests.  We found cozy little spots in the walls filled with insulating materials like chewed up newspaper, bits of cloth and pantyhose.  In the midst of finding all these treasures from the mid-1800s, I pulled out a chewed up Reader’s Digest magazine from 1995, buried about a foot deep in the dirt under the crawlspace.  That one was a real head-scratcher.  The only way it could have gotten there is for an animal to drag it down there to use for bedding.  I didn’t snap a photo of it.

There were also remnants of snacks, like clam shells and crab or lobster claws.  Rats apparently like seafood.  The other thing they like?  Shiny things.  Mixed in with the bedding and crap were shiny baubles presumably stolen from inside the house, including plastic Mardi Gras beads, and this sparkly cat toy:


And amazingly, this pretty blue glass necklace.  I imagine someone missing this off their dresser and never finding out where it went!  I put it in my pocket while we were working, and then ran it through the washer and dryer with my pants.  I broke off a little chip of the blue glass in the wash, but at least it’s clean now.


there were many, many animal bones, skeletons, teeth – some were butchered scraps of home cooking, and some, obviously animals that died under the house.  How nice.


All the animal life under the house did result in one happy accident. There was a problem of what to do with all the dirt we were excavating from the former crawlspace.  I sent off a sample to be tested for lead, along with soil samples from around the yard.  The test results were incredible.  The “dirt” from under the house was off the charts on every kind of soil nutrient important in the garden.  I will leave it up to your imaginations how it got that way.  Fortunately, it didn’t contain any more lead than the rest of the garden soil, so we treated it like fertilizer and spread it over the front lawn.  I now have the greenest patch of weeds on Pleasant Street.

Up in the attic, while pulling out the old insulation and vacuuming up the mouse droppings, I came across many papers and pieces of things, including stuff like this:


There was also a pretty giant pine cone – can anyone identify the tree that grew this?


Among the papers I found in the attic were these letters.  They were folded up and too delicate and brittle to unfold, so I gave them to Joe, who is also Boston’s City Archaeologist.  He unfolded the pieces and scanned them for me.  I can’t really tell who they are from or to, but one page at least is dated 1881.  The topic seems to be the construction of a town house in New York, complete with a floor plan – exactly the kind of letter my own brother might write to me!

Scanned Document Scanned Document Scanned Document Scanned Document

Buried somewhere under the construction debris are a pile of very old newspapers, which were tacked down under floorboards and behind walls, every time a room was changed.  In the 1930s, an upstairs room was divided into a closet and a bathroom, presumably when the house was divided up into 3, then 4 apartments, reflecting the financial hardship of the time.  The partition itself was built not from lumber, but recycled antique doors from elsewhere in the house, and lined with newspapers under the paneling.  One of the articles I could read described the new chancellor of Germany as kind of a disagreeable fellow – understatement of the century?

Maybe my favorite find was this big, heavy piece of a grinding wheel that my contractor found among the foundation stones of the rear-most addition.  The stone is carved on both sides with the name R. Walker and the date of 1867. Could Mr. Walker have been the one that left behind that spoon with the monogrammed W or M?  This stone settled one mystery: it seems to be pretty good evidence of the date of the last addition.  Nowadays carpenters just sign their names on the the back of drywall with a sharpie.


When my house was built in 1804, Thomas Jefferson, our third president, was in office.  When the last addition went up, Abraham Lincoln had just been killed, and Andrew Johnson was president.  Kind of boggles the mind.

Things we haven’t found:

– Anything dating the foundation to the original 1630s Jones house.  Apparently most of this pottery and stuff is from the 1800s, or 1700’s at the latest.  Since this is thought to be the site of an earlier house built in the 1630s, we are interested to see if there are any artifacts from that time.  Once the dust settles from the renovation, Joe and Jen might come by to dig some holes on the south of the house, and see if we uncover anything interesting there.

– The big pile of money that I know must have been left behind here somewhere!  We’re still looking!

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Visualizing my someday house

It’s been 15 months now since we started renovating, and there are still some months to go.  It’s been a long, difficult, often discouraging process.  When I look at and walk around the house, I am looking at and walking around the house that will be, not the house that’s there.  Once I even walked into a wall, because I planned to put a new doorway there, and in my mind it was already there!

The extended construction period has given me time to visualize every little detail of the house, in my mind.  I’ve designed tile layouts, arranged furniture, determined the correct height of the toothbrush holder over the bathroom sink (you think I’m exaggerating), and naturally chosen paint colors for every room.

But after this much time, even I can lose sight of what the house is meant to look like when it’s done.  Sometimes when my field of vision gets crowded with the dusty construction site that’s actually there, I need a little help visualizing the finished product.  That’s when I turn to a certain interior design website for inspiration.  Over these months, I’ve collected images there of the kinds of things I see when I look around my construction site, and thought you, my faithful readers, might like to see what I see:

Let me know what you think.  And send me encouraging comments.  And cash, if you’ve got it.  Lots of cash.

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Discovering Cousin Anna

According to Massachusetts Town & Vital Records 1620-1988, Anna Clapp Harris Smith’s given name was Ann Sarah Harris.  She was born on July 23, 1843, and was known as Anna all her life.  Her brother Samuel was 3 years older than she.  The family lived at 65 Pleasant Street in Dorchester MA, the house which her mother, Anna Larkin Clapp, had inherited from her father, Samuel Clapp.  Anna’s father was the printer William Harris, who moved into his wife’s parents’ house with her to start their family.

Barbara Burg of Harvard’s Widener Library tells us this about her childhood:

“While few details are known about her childhood, Anna Harris Smith once revealed that when she was seven, she had exclaimed, ‘When I’m grown-up… I’m going to turn my daddy’s big barn into a nice, warm home for all the kitties and the doggies in the world.’  Educated primarily in the public schools, Anna Harris Smith studied French and music with private teachers and became a music teacher as a young woman.”

Anthony Sammarco paints us a picture of her childhood in his article in the Dorchester Community News:

“As a child, she was intelligent and developed both a flair for music and a deep abiding feeling for animals and nature. It was said that her father was a strict and religious man and that these values, instilled in his daughter, gave a deep spiritual devotion to her great cause of later years…

“Anna Harris completed her education in Boston, after attending Miss Popes School on Meeting house Hill. She became an accomplished musician, and taught music, giving informal recitals with her brother Samuel who was a talented violinist. She also composed music for several songs. The Harris family, comfortable and well-established, were among the leaders of local society.”

This photo was taken sometime after 1867, when the last of the rear additions was built on the house.  The 1870 US Census lists the following people as residents of the household at that time: Anna L. Harris (64), William Harris’ sister Susan Harris (48), Anna S. Harris (27), and Samuel C. Harris (30).  Anna’s father William had died in the previous few years.  We can make some guesses then about who the adults in this photo might be, although there is nothing to identify the children – none were listed as part of the household in 1870.

Anna Harris didn’t marry until relatively late in life, at the age of 41.  She had been a young woman at the time of the US Civil War, and it could be that there was a shortage of marriageable men at that time.  Like her mother, she inherited the house from her parents, and after their marriage her husband, Huntington Smith, came to live with her there, as her father had done.  They married in 1884, and seem to have been very involved in each others’ working lives.  Huntington Smith was an 1878 graduate of the Chandler School at Dartmouth College, and was listed in the 1906 alumni directory as engaging in “literary pursuits”.  He was the editor of a newspaper called The Beacon, and among his literary credits are: A Century of American Literature and An Emerson Calendar, as editor; and My Religion by Tolstoy, as translator.

Burg reports that Anna worked at The Beacon with her husband.  She is also credited for a few different literary calendars: Longfellow Day by DayA Tennyson Calendar; and Golden Words for Daily Counsel.  I have a copy of this last one, and it’s a nice little book with a bit of literature, poetry, and a bible verse for every day of the year, each day having its own lesson or theme.  The title page says it was “Selected and Arranged” by Anna Harris Smith, and “Edited” by Huntington Smith.  It was published in 1888 by T. Y. Crowell & Co., New York.

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In addition to her literary pursuits, Anna was active in an organization called the International Sunshine Society, serving as the president of the Massachusetts Chapter.  Burg says, “The members of this organization would visit homebound people, offering assistance to those who could not leave their homes due to illness, or other difficult circumstances.”  According to Sammarco, she was also a member of the First Parish Church Benevolent Society.

Anna Harris Smith is mostly known as the founder of the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

“Distressed at seeing the many stray and abandoned cats and dogs suffering cruelty and starvation in the streets of Boston, Mrs. Smith wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Evening Transcript in January, 1899, vividly describing acts of cruelty toward animals and the need for a centrally located shelter for the rescue and care of homeless cats and dogs.  Her fervent appeal for support received over 60 enthusiastic responses, and on February 9, 1899, 110 people attended the first meeting of the newly formed Animal Rescue League of Boston.

“As President of the Animal Rescue League of Boston from 1901 to 1929, Anna Harris Smith acted upon a wide-range of animal welfare and humane issues of the time, such as abandonment of pets, work horse abuses, inhumane livestock transport methods, and the humane education of children.  The League flourished under her leadership and gained a national reputation for excellence in large and small animal rescue and health services, animal welfare advocacy, and humane education programs. ”  (Burg)

At some point, Huntington Smith left his profession as a publisher and also went to work with Anna at the ARL.

Bits of Anna’s own words can be found from this time period.  One piece of her writing I found especially relevant is her essay “Why We Need Cats“.  The essay begins,

“IN THE many articles I have read in the papers on getting rid of rats, I have failed to see anything about the help that cats have been in city and country, in houses, stores, factories, barns, chicken yards, in lessening the number of rats as well as mice. This seems to me to savor of ingratitude.”

As someone who has cleaned piles upon piles of rat and mouse nests out of Anna’s old house, I really must agree.  The last resident of 65 Pleasant Street, before I renovated the house, was a Mr. Sheehan, who stopped by one day while we were working to introduce himself.  Among the many things we talked about, I asked him whether he was bothered by rodents while he lived there, and he said no, that he had never noticed a rat or a mouse.  I have to attribute this miracle to Mr. Sheehan’s cat who, according to the neighbors who remember him, was a large and formidable beast.

Anna was also the author of a collection of stories for children, called Four-Footed Friends, written to teach them lessons about being kind to animals.  From the forward to this book:

“If we can teach the young the duty of thoughtful kindness, we are benefiting not only the family but the neighborhood, the city, the state, and the country.  Kindness uplifts the world, and only through kindness shall we ever reach true civilization and Christianity.”

That quote, “Kindness uplifts the world”, became the motto of the Animal Rescue League, which still uses this phrase in all their materials.

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Anna was apparently a big fan of horses, as well as dogs and cats.  As this article from Yankee Magazine describes, the ARL organized an annual event called “Christmas for the Horses”, where members went around serving “meals of oats, carrots, and apples to the working horses of Boston.”


The ARL also installed drinking fountains for working horses, and a rest home for them once they retired.  In an address to the National Humane Association, Anna told the story of one such horse:

“A bay mare, Nellie, was brought to our Home of Rest by her owner, an expressman.  He had let her out to a man who had nearly killed her with starvation and ill-treatment.  She was very thin, very lame, and had raw sores on her legs and shoulders.  Her temper had been so injured that even her owner was afraid of her.  In a month’s time she was a changed horse.  The sores were healed, she had taken on many pounds of flesh, her lameness was better, and her disposition affectionate and kind.  Her owner gave her a vacation of over two months, visiting her from time to time, and then came after her, but promised to bring her back if her lameness increased again, as our veterinary doctor told him it was bound to do on pavements.  In about three weeks she came back.  The caretaker of the Home of Rest heard a loud whinnying and neighing at the gate one day, and hurried down from the barn to see what had happened.  The gates are kept closed.  Outside the gate was Nellie, her owner hardly able to hold her, as she whinnied loudly and struggled to push her way through the gates before they were opened.  In spite of her lameness, she fairly flew up the hill to the stable.  Her owner was so much surprised and touched by her joy in getting back that he said, ‘I guess I’ll leave her for good—‘ and he apparently has.  It can be readily understood that it will not be easy to part with her again as long as she seems to enjoy the Home so greatly.”

Apparently such devotion earned Anna the dubious pseudo-diagnosis of ‘zoophilic psychosis’, as described by Dr. Gary Patronek, ARL’s Vice President for Animal Welfare, in this article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association:

“Animal Rescue League of Boston founder Anna Harris Smith and like-minded women of the late 1800s were derided as suffering from zoophilic psychosis by prominent medical professionals, according to Dr. Patronek. Today, however, it isn’t unusual for pets to be doted on like children and animal abusers counted among society’s chief villains. ‘Over 100 years later, zoophilic psychosis is in the scientific trash heap,’ he said. ‘Animal welfare has proven its staying power.'”

Undeterred, Anna also advocated the establishment of Cemeteries for Animals, writing a booklet by this name for the ARL.  Anna practiced what she preached, purchasing land in Dedham, MA for this purpose.  The pet cemetery is still going strong, and its caretaker insists there are no ghosts.  As a strange and interesting side note, a copy of Anna’s book Four-Footed Friends was discovered in the belongings of Lizzie Borden, signed by Anna with a note to Lizzie herself.  There is an interesting discussion online speculating about how well Anna and Lizzie may have known each other, but it seems most likely to me that they met only briefly, when Lizzie had her dog buried at the pet cemetery in Dedham.

In other random tidbits, a letter written by Anna to Mark Twain is included in a book of letters received by the author from his readers.  In it, Anna asks him if he would please stop by the ARL headquarters while he was in Boston.  His story “A Dog’s Tale” had been published in Harper’s Magazine, and helped to strengthen the anti-vivisection movement of the time.  It seems he didn’t accept her invitation, but might have donated some autographed books to the cause instead.

Finally, and most randomly, Anna and the Animal Rescue League make an appearance in the fictional Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Boston Dromio“, written by Matthew Pearl of Cambridge MA.  The story appears in a modern collection called Sherlock Holmes in America (2009), written in the style of the original novels by Arthur Conan Doyle.  In the story, a savvy Anna Harris Smith helps Sherlock Holmes solve a suspicious murder involving a stray kitten – and manages to get the kitten adopted in the process.

The town of Dorchester was annexed into the City of Boston in 1870, transforming a once rural community into a densely populated streetcar suburb practically overnight.  Between then and 1908 when Anna and Huntington sold 65 Pleasant Street, Dorchester witnessed an extraordinary period of growth and development.  Most of Dorchester’s three deckers were built during this time, including the ones on what had been the Clapp family farm surrounding Anna’s house.  I imagine she must have made a pile of money dividing up and selling the property and, having no children, that the proceeds of this divestment funded the Animal Rescue League and the cemetery for animals.  And I can only wonder what she thought of the change she witnessed in her home town over the course of her life.  I haven’t found any commentary from her on the subject, although maybe the sale of the homestead her family had occupied since 1755 could be interpreted as commentary enough.

After leaving Dorchester, it’s said that the Smiths lived in Dedham, which maybe they did, although by 1928 they were living in Jamaica Plain.  I found a 1928 directory of the town of Dedham that listed Huntington Smith as “Superintendent” of the Animal Rescue League, with a residence in Jamaica Plain.

Anna Harris Smith 1913 with dogs from ARL website

Anna and her Four Footed Friends, 1913

When I first started learning about Anna, I assumed that she must have been just a well-meaning benefactor and volunteer for the causes she supported.  Instead, I now understand her to have been a force to be reckoned with: a real career woman, an organizer and a leader in her field.  Barbara Burg writes:

“Anna Harris Smith wrote and lectured extensively on humane topics, and, was one of the most influential and respected humane leaders in her day. While President of the Animal Rescue League of Boston for nearly 30 years, the League gained a reputation nationwide for excellence, and as a result, Mrs. Smith was in great demand as a mentor to groups around the country who wished to start their own animal rescue organizations.  By 1915, she had helped to organize seven Animal Rescue Leagues in Massachusetts, and at least ten in other states, including Washington, D.C.  In the League’s Annual Report of 1907, Anna reported:

“’The influence of the Animal Rescue League has been felt in all parts of this country.  Our correspondence is very large and many letters are received from other states asking advice or help, or praising the work we are doing.  The name Animal Rescue League, which originated with us and was thought out carefully, has been taken up and adopted by six or more organizations that were evidently inspired by our work.’   (Animal Rescue League of Boston, 1907)

“When Anna Harris Smith died in 1929, the Animal Rescue League received an outpouring of sympathetic letters from around the country attesting to her importance.  The following was sent to the League by the American Humane Association.

“’The passing of Mrs. Huntington Smith removes the outstanding woman in the history of animal protection in America.  She was the greatest because, first, she built up the finest and biggest single organization of its kind in the country; second, because her influence and the influence of that organization extended beyond the creation of any other woman since the day when Henry Bergh initiated the movement in New York City. …So long as humane history is preserved there will stand out among its records the name and fame of Mrs. Huntington Smith.”  (Our Fourfooted Friends, 1929).'”

Anna passed away January 4th, 1929.  I found this obituary in the New York Times:

Anna Harris Smith obit

I have to say, when I first learned that I would become the owner of an antique house named for a minor historical figure called Anna Clapp Harris Smith, my primary interest was in the house, not the woman herself.  But after researching her story, I do feel a real fondness for and connection with her.  Not only can I identify with some of her convictions, experiences, and qualities, it turns out she may even have been a very distant relation of mine.  I was going to explain in this post, but I think I will leave that story for another day.

In any case, I plan to honor her legacy by creating a house that is full of music, respectful of nature, meditative on the qualities that make us better people, and of course a home to cats – lots of cats.


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Stacey’s Renovationary Army

It’s almost time to mobilize my friends & family crew for Sunday work days.  Soon, very soon, all the framing and rough floors will be in and we will be able to walk around inside again, thank goodness!

I am keeping an email list called “Stacey’s Renovationary Army” (SRA), for people who have volunteered to come help with the house.  If you’re on this list, you should have just received an email from me.  If you’d like to be on the list so you know about upcoming work days, drop me a line and I will add you!

Thanks for all the material and moral support, everyone!  I am never ever ever going to renovate another house after this one, yippie!


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Happy Place

Are you wondering what’s going on with my renovation?  Oh sorry, I’ve been in my happy place.

So, everyone who’s ever renovated anything knows you should budget twice as much time and twice as much money as you think you need to get the job done.  Don’t imagine that you are exempt from this rule because you work in the construction industry and are a serviceable carpenter, like I did.  The rule always applies.

But that’s not what today’s post about.  While the structural engineer and my contractor Ken deal with what Ken calls the “horror show” of the structural problems with my houses (he’s started referring to the structure as two different buildings that were never really attached to each other properly), I invite you to come with me into my happy place: the yard.

Perhaps you recall when the yard was full of lovely trees.  Actually, the trees turned out to be not so lovely.  Mostly they were seedlings of a gigantic Norway Maple (a beautiful but frowned-upon invasive tree) and a thicket of mulberry trees.  Fun fact: some mulberry trees are indigenous to North America, but a lot of the mulberries you see around were imported in the 1700s in an effort to raise silkworms and provide a source of domestic silk.  The silkworms didn’t take, but the imported mulberry trees did.  They can be very invasive, and my side yard was full of them, like this one:


This large tree was actually the regrown sprout of a stump that someone had previously cut down.  It was leaning precariously, and was one of the first to come down.  Turns out my stepdad is something of a lumberjack.


Looks bigger lying on the ground!



It took some doing, but the tree came down and we chopped and sawed it up into burnable and mulchable pieces.

The back side of the lot had a large ash tree that had been dead for some time, as well as lots of Norway Maples.  These were too big and too close to the house for us to deal with, so we called in Alex from Global Tree Care, who came through and took down all of the weedy and dead trees in one fell swoop.  I got a stern talking to from my neighbors, who enjoy watching the birds in these trees, but I assured them that I had extensive plans to plant nice replacement trees that will provide food and habitat for birds, and they were glad to hear it.  Here is my neighbor Diane feeding me soup in her nice, heated, habitable house:

Camera 360

The real tree heartbreak was yet to come, however.  Toward the front of the lot, there was a giant tree that I did not intend to take down.  Here you can see it towering over the full-grown Norway Maple behind:


Tree people can probably spot the problem – the very deep and very narrow “V” shape of this tree.  Alex the tree guy got up there and reached down into the point of the V, and found it full of water, down a couple of feet.  That’s not a good thing.  He told us that when that water freezes, it will expand and can crack the two main trunks apart.  One was poised to fall on the roof of my house, and the other on the triple decker next door.  So down it came.



We now have lots and lots of firewood.  Now all I need is a wood stove!  All things in time.

A little later, the tree guys brought out the stump grinder to kill those stumps, some of them two feet across.  The stump grinder was a terrifying machine that resembled a green metal rhinoceros, operated by remote control.  It lumbered around the yard with a huge spinning blade where its horn should be, taking out the stumps.

Camera 360

In the meantime, here are the new trees I planted.  A red maple:

Camera 360


A ‘Forest Pansy’ Redbud:

Camera 360


And a baby fall-blooming witch hazel, which isn’t much to look at yet.

Other stuff I’ve planted so far: some hellebores, a strawberry shrub, false indigo, and two native vines to attract butterfiles and other pollinators – a red honeysuckle, and this dutchman’s pipe vine:

Camera 360


Out in front, I planted a combination of perennial flowers and vegetables: echinacea, rhubarb, bee balm, asparagus, and milkweed:

Camera 360

The pollinators are happy:

Camera 360


One day we noticed that this sunflower had volunteered behind the dumpster:

Camera 360


And now you know what keeps me happy in between bouts of wondering whether I will have enough money to finish my renovation.  Stay tuned.



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