O’Kane Notebook XI: Demeritt Notebook?

Weather-joined Sheathing

Weather-joined Sheathing

When I embarked upon a career in wood, I wondered whether I should become a furniture-maker, and construct finely joined objects of beauty, or build houses, which provide a lot more utility to people.  I soon found that it was a false dichotomy; working in preservation, I can work on buildings that are constructed like furniture.  On the building we’ve been referring to as “The O’Kane House,” I’ve written previously on the finely-proportioned trim, and the stoutly-joined frame.  Even the sheathing is weather-joined, creating a water-tight envelope, and the windowsills are grooved on the bottom to sit down tight over the sheathing.  The carpentry employed at O’Kane isn’t ostentatious, but every day I am inspired by the craftsmanship employed at each phase of its building.

Given this gushing, we think that carpenter deserves some credit.  “The O’Kane House” is a bit of a misnomer.  For a long time, the building UNH now calls the O’Kane House was referred to as “The Demeritt House” in reference to the Demeritt family who built it, and lived on the land for more than 200 years.

In July of 2001, Jim Garvin*, the New Hampshire state historian, wrote an Individual Inventory for the NH Division of Historical Resources for the Demeritt House, one of the steps for applying for its placement on the National Register of Historic Places.  In reading the report, I expected a bureaucratic list of dry historical attributes, but discovered instead a well-crafted narrative exploring the house’s former residents and their relationship to its architectural significance.  I encourage anyone who has been interested in the O’Kane House to read the whole report, here.

The house was built for Israel Demeritt in 1808, on land that had been granted to his Great-grandfather, Eli Demeritt, before 1700.  Israel inherited the land from his father, Captain Samuel Demeritt, and replaced his father’s two story house with the one we so recently dismantled.  It was likely built by his brother Nathaniel Demeritt (1751-1827), a joiner who is known to have built a neighboring house with his son, the Rev. William Demeritt in 1819.

If Nathaniel was indeed the builder, there were architectural consequences.  First of all, by 1808, Nathaniel would have been 57 years old, which explains why the house is so conservative in its layout and plan.  The center chimney and first floor layout resembles other houses that began to appear in coastal Maine and New Hampshire shortly after 1700 (pg. 98 A Building History of Northern New England).  

Floor Plan, two-room deep house, by James Garvin

Floor Plan, two-room deep house, from A Building History..., by James Garvin

Conversely, the interior trim is far more contemporary and heavily influenced by Asher Benjamin.  The casings in the front entry are elaborate, and Garvin’s report cites Plate 1 of The Country Builder’s Assistant and Plate 11 of The American Builder’s Companion as possible influences.  I found a couple other possibilities in my copy of The American Builder’s Companion: in the top left corner of Plate 27 of  is an example of a cornice that is very similar to the crown in the second floor front hall, and Plate 35 illustrates an example of reeding similar to that found in the Blue Chamber.  I don’t own a copy of the Country Builder’s Assistant, but Nathaniel Demeritt did!  His name is written in a second edition housed at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord.  Concord readers (Hi, Mom and Dad!) go check it out.

First Floor, Demeritt-O'Kane House

First Floor, Demeritt-O'Kane House

Nathaniel Demeritt’s age and life experience determined the design of his brother’s house.  His commitment to traditional techniques determined that the house was stoutly built, but his openness to Asher Benjamin’s new forms and proportions allowed him to trim it out in a style that was lasting.  People often ask me to define “preservation carpentry” and my stock answer cites our use of traditional joinery and appropriate techniques.  I mention that as Preservation Carpenters, we still get to work on houses (and barns, and steeples) that are built like furniture, which is something that can’t often be said of contemporary buildings.  But one of the best parts of preservation, and something that I have tried to express through the O’Kane Notebook posts, is the connection to builders like Nathaniel Demeritt.  He faced so many of the choices and challenges we still face today, and it is satisfying to uncover tangible examples of his decisions in the Demeritt House.  Demeritt relied upon proven tradition to help him design a sturdy, lasting frame, and watertight sheathing, but he also made room for innovation, and style, and took inspiration from the pages of Asher Benjamin’s books.  In rebuilding the Demeritt House, we will face a similar dilemma.  We have committed ourselves to using traditional techniques to repair and rebuild the remaining 85% of original material, but we face choices with regard to those couple of rooms that contained no original material, and will be needed for modern conveniences.  We can only hope that we will be as successful as Nathaniel Demeritt in building new rooms of lasting style.

*Jim Garvin wrote A Building History of Northern New England, which I previously referenced here, here and here.  Meeting him was a real thrill for me.  He is as nice as he is a great writer, two things that don’t always go hand in hand.


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