A Brief History of Sycamores and Rawson House

 

Sycamores is the 1788 home of Col. Ruggles Woodbridge, a man of many parts.  He was a physician, shop-owner, owner of a potash refinery, a sawmill, a still, and the town’s only chaise–all by the age of 33. He was our representative in Boston for 12 years, and led a regiment at the Battle of Bunker Hill.  He was a bachelor and South Hadley’s wealthiest resident.  Upon his death in 1819 the house became The Woodbridge Scientific School for 40 boys from well-to-do families living in New York and Hartford.  (See “A Letter from Sycamores, 1832” on these web pages.)  At that time the house had so many wings it was said it could fly.  The school closed in 1835 when the property passed to the Montague family who lived here for the remainder of the 19th C. In 1900 Sycamores was purchased by a wealthy Bostonian, Rose Hollingsworth who undoubtedly had the recently renovated (by the Adams Family Foundation) water tower constructed.  She also planted renowned gardens and probably was responsible for many interior renovations, such as new fireplaces.

Joseph Skinner, partner in his father’s Holyoke silk mills, purchased the house in 1915.  He made it into a private dormitory for Mount Holyoke College students.  The College purchased it in 1937; it continued to be a dormitory until 1971.  For the majority of this time it was inhabited by 15 women, usually sophomores, a housemother, a maid and a cook.  It then became a home for inner city girls who attended South Hadley High School under the A Better Chance program and then it became accommodation for the male guests of College students. It was a warehouse and then in 1996 stood vacant and neglected, unpainted, with holes in the roof.

The Sycamores Committee purchased the house and the 3.7 acre lot on which it stands from Mount Holyoke College in 1999 for $50,000.  Simultaneously a $107,000 grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission was matched with $157,000 from the Sycamores Committee and the Frank Stanley Beveridge Foundation.  The stabilization and restoration of the exterior was completed in 2001.

            In the first decade of this new millenium much work has taken place inside Sycamores and its attached ell.  A rental apartment has been constructed with a kitchen above the old dormitory kitchen, a living room above what was once the maid’s room, a den above the connector leading to Rawson House, and two bedrooms and a bath on the 2nd floor of Rawson House.

            The maintenance men of Mount Holyoke College ran for several years a program called “A Day of Giving” during which they devoted their services, free of charge, to non-profit organizations like Sycamores.  They removed 400 ft of rusted chain link fence from the southern and part of the eastern borders of the property, then, the next year, removed the badly overgrown vegetation in that southeast corner.  In another year they hauled away all the green indoor/outdoor carpet that the previous owner had seen fit to glue to all horizontal surfaces.  Our chemist, Ken Williamson, could find no inexpensive solvent to remove the glue, so we had the floors sanded.  The hearths of the many fireplaces are still coated with glue.

            We decided that the four-foot fluorescent lights that lit every room and hallway in Sycamores had to go.  We told the maintenance men on their last Day of Giving in 2008 that we would buy anything at Home Depot and it would look better than those fluorescent lights.  To our surprise and delight the College electricians said they had stashed away the beautiful brass chandeliers that once graced the dining rooms and some living rooms in dormitories throughout the College, and would donate them to us.  So they now hang in most of the rooms, the halls and the stairwell at Sycamores.   Few, if any, 18th C houses would have had such a plethora of chandeliers, but they certainly beat fluorescents.  We will leave it to some future sleuth to tell us which dormitory each one came from.           

            The original sink, labeled Nathan Straus, and quarter round corner cupboard are still in the dormitory kitchen, but a  new six burner cooktop, hood, double wall ovens and cabinets, along with a reach-in refrigerator have turned this into a kitchen for catered events.  The countertops are Italian serpentine, rescued from Carr Laboratory just before it underwent an extensive renovation in 2001.  The first catered event, a dinner for 50, was on April 13, 2009, the 75th birthday of Ken Williamson.  The first commercial event was a dinner meeting of the South Hadley Lions Club on October 7, 2009.

            In 2008 and 2009 all the ceilings throughout Sycamores were buttoned up and given a skim coat of new plaster, or, on the third floor, new drywall by an expert plasterer, Ray Crane. He and his brother also did the same to all the walls in the three-story stairwell, after Ken Williamson and Katelyn Perchak removed all the old wall paper.  Those walls, like all the walls of the first two storeys in Sycamore, were never painted; they were always covered with wall paper. 

            Mike Goodrow, our painter, painted the outside of Sycamores and did such a good job we hired him to work on the interior.  He scraped and sanded all the woodwork in the entire stairwell and then gave it several coats of paint, ending with a coat of antique white, semi-gloss.  The walls were sized and papered by the expert paper hanger, Mike Carlisle, used by Historic Deerfield, whose services were donated by Barbara Cummings of our committee.  He has recently finished painting all the new 12 over 12 windows, a very big job.  And in early 2014 gave the outside a new coat of paint.

            On the third floor, where we intend to devote the four rooms to a unique museum of typical Mount Holyoke College dormitory rooms work has already started.  The A Better Chance girls painted the walls in wild colors and then the owner of Sycamores at that time adopted an interesting method of painting the rooms: apparently the painter stood on the floor with a spray gun and painted all the ceilings, light fixtures, light bulbs and all!  Ken Williamson has removed all the paint from the fixtures, many made of brass, and polished and lacquered them.  The old metal fire escape ladders are still in place in each room.  In 2013 Carolyn Chesebrough Foster, ’58, donated a treasure trove of articles that were in her room at Sycamores in 1966: the rug from beside her bed, her little suitcase, her red gym tunic, the fountain pen and bottles of Skript ink and the clock that her mother gave her to go to college, her slide rule with instruction book, the blotter from her desk, her favorite record, South Pacific, a Harris tweed overcoat, plaid wool skirt,....

            In July, 2010 volunteers from the Holyoke Rotary Club removed the old wallpaper from the NE room,  which was the dormitory parlor, on the first floor and from the SE room on the second floor in preparation for our next decorative effort.

            In the spring of 2010 Linda Young of South Hadley donated a large number of pieces of furniture and other decorative items as she broke up the local home of her great aunt.  Among these were a very nice Wing and Sons upright piano (with five pedals), dated 1907, with the original bill of sale.  A recamier, 10 side chairs with woven reed seats and, most recently, a melodeon (a reed organ)  are among the donations of Cindy and David Morrel. We have a new Wilton carpet in the Housemother’s room and five newly upholstered sofas and chairs, some of which are in the Parlor.  Sycamores is beginning to look like a home!  

            In late 2011 Bob Szklarz’s company, Colonial Renovations, replaced most of the windows in Sycamores with 12 over 12’s, the design it would have had when constructed.  The only small-pane windows that had survived are in the three dormers on the third floor.

            Throughout 2011 and 2012 Betsy Bergen has made a number of donations as she scouts local antique stores.  Her cousin Carrie Lee Henderson, a retired antique dealer from New Hampshire, has made several generous donations, chief among them a bonnet-topped highboy and a banjo clock made by Simon Willard, Jr. The dining room table with eight chairs and the sideboard are also from Carrie.

            The Committee in 2012 purchased, with the help of the South Hadley Historical Society, an embroidery made by Sophia Morgan in 1806 in the Abby Wright school in South Hadley.

           


Rawson House. 

The eight mile trek to Hadley for church was too much for our townspeople, the majority of whom did not have horses.  So South Hadley was allowed to split from Hadley (founded in 1659) on the completion of three requirements: that they build a meeting house which they did in 1732 (it is the former Woodbridges restaurant, now called The Yarde House), that they hire a minister, Grindal Rawson, and that they build him a house, Rawson House.  It was built in 1733 from logs felled in the winter of 1732, as proved by dendrochronology, on the lot now occupied by Sycamores. Disgruntled parishioners removed Grindal from the pulpit in 1741, to be replaced by John Woodbridge.  Grindal was too conservative for them; he did not embrace the Half-Way Covenant. 

            Ruggles bought the house in 1787 after which the Rawson House was moved up the street and attached to the rear of 40 Woodbridge St (built in 1787).  Sophie Eastman, author of In Old South Hadley, lived in the house in 1884.  When she died in the early 20th century Joseph Skinner bought the house and divided it into three units.  The back (west) ell, Rawson House, was used to house his extensive collection of Americana, now housed in the Skinner Museum.  Mount Holyoke College acquired 40 Woodbridge St with Rawson House attached in 1948.  Joseph Brodsky, Mount Holyoke’s only Nobel laureate, lived there.  It was sold to Kay Bernon in 2004 who generously gave it to the Sycamores Committee on the condition it be moved within three months. It did not fit into her plans for the renovation of the remainder of the house at 40 Woodbridge St.  It was moved on Oct 19, 2004, when it got stuck in the mud as it was coming on to its present location.  A week later it was in place on cribbing; a foundation was poured under it and it was subsequently lowered into place.  My son-in-law and our intern, Katelyn Perchak, helped me remove 14 radiators from Rawson House and the red ell of Sycamores as well as demolish the interior of the ell in preparation for the construction of the apartment.  I personally filled two large dumpsters with debris.

         When we removed the west wall of the red ell we found three shoes in the wall, now on display just above where they were found.  They were put there for good luck.  We also found in Rawson house half an ox shoe, and a clay pipe bowl, but the only indication of who once lived there is found in an upper bedroom where someone has incised into a purlin “A Brodsky.”  This could be Alexander or Anna, both children of Joseph. 

        I had the timbers of Rawson dated by dendrochronology by Bill Flynt of Historic Deerfield.  All the logs were felled in the winter of 1732 except one that dated 1712.  Extensive rot in the places where Rawson was attached to the 40 Woodbridge house necessitated new timber framing.  We moved windows and doors, made doors wider and I built two windows for the south side of Rawson.  Boards donated by Phil  Marois and colored by Tom Kuklinski give the south room you see today.  Most recently I have reproduced a pine settle to go near the large cooking fireplace.

        Two  professional carpenters from Marois Construction built the 12 foot connector and installed the kitchen cabinets for the apartment and all the drywall.  A new shake roof, and new heating and plumbing systems were installed by professionals as well as completely new wiring, including fire and carbon monoxide detectors, cable, TV and all new 110 and 220 V lines.   Much interior painting and the kitchen floor were done gratis by prisoners from the Hampshire County House of Correction under their work-release program.

        Meanwhile Barbara Cummings, master guide at Historic Deerfield, donated the reproduction wallpaper in the southeast room of Sycamore which was professionally installed on walls that were prepared by Katelyn Perchak and me.

        In 2010  new wallpaper, a reproduction of an 18C design, was installed in the stairwell on all three floors.  The installation of the 49 rolls of untrimmed, silk-screened paper was a generous donation from Barbara Cummings, of the Sycamores Committee.


Landscaping

In the summer of 2006 the town of South Hadley undertook a major highway project aimed at improving traffic flow in the town center.  The Common was reshaped and a traffic light installed.  In addition many utilities were buried, including those directly in front of Sycamores.  Wayne Boulais oversaw the removal of five utility poles from the Sycamores property, and the burial of all utilities leading into Sycamores.  We acquired a new sidewalk in front of Sycamores, new stone steps, and a renewed brick walk leading to the front door as a part of this project.

            One contractor was allowed to park his equipment on the south lawn during the highway construction in return for donating fill around Rawson House and the tacit understanding that the lawn would be restored.  But the lawn was not restored and he killed several of the trees on the south lawn.  Our garden committee, Ellie Klepacki and Wayne Boulais, engaged the services of a local landscaper, Earthscapes, who installed a new crushed stone driveway, brick sidewalks around Rawson House, and a whole new lawn.  In the summer of 2009 Earthscapes planted three new sycamore trees, holly bushes, and a shad tree.  The terrible October 29, 2011 snow storm brought down one of the new sycamores and did extensive damage to many of our trees.  The sycamore nearest the southwest corner of Sycamores was struck by lightning and will soon need to be removed. But overall the vista that Sycamores presents as approached on Woodbridge St. from the College is once more a magnificent one. 

           

                                Click to Navigate:                                                                  Ken Williamson

                                                                                                                                   revised 2014

                                       
Sycamores_Committee.html
Outline_History.html
 
Reunion/Graduation 
Weekend, May, 2014

A Brief History

Montagues at Sycamores
1848-1900

Joseph Brodsky

Brodsky Exhibit

The Sycamores Committee

Outline History of Sycamores and Rawson House
	
Mount Holyoke Alumnae of 
Sycamores

Sycamores Restoration 

Parlor Wallpaper

Wallpaper and Paint

Concealed Shoes

Rawson House

Water Tower
  
HABS, Historic American
Buildings Survey

Reflections from the House

Letter from Sycamores, 1832

Bark of the Tree
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