Tuesday, April 21, 2009


So now that we have a bunch of questions, it's time to start looking for some answers. Yesterday, I began digging through some of our own archives here at the Historical Society, and found some photos and descriptions that help clarify things a bit...

In a 1938 address to the Garden Club of Wilmington, Mrs. Caleb Layton describes the reconstruction of the bake oven at the Amstel House (below). Based on her chronology leading up to the following excerpt, it sound like the bake oven was reconstructed just prior to May 1938.

"Originally Amstel House had a Dutch oven which extended from the kitchen wall into a space paved with cobbles. We decided to attempt to reconstruct the oven while the expert bricklayer was at hand sent by Mr. [Charles] Gillette from Williamsburg. The oven is not very large, but it has one feature that is not often found. Instead of an iron dorr [sic], it has a small brick shelf upon which a heavy oak cover is supported. The opening is not into the room, but over the hearth, inside the chimney breast itself, the space for the fire being slightly to the left. There is no connection between the oven and the chimney, and no chute for ashes. Apparently embers were taken from the fire and banked in the oven. Later when the oven was hot, they were raked back, and the heat was kept in by the thickness of the plank cover. Since Mr. Gillette was not accustomed to ovens [Gillette was a landscape architect from Richmond, VA.], we took the findings to Mr. [Erling] Pederson, who is the expert in charge of restoration for the Pennsylvania Museum [Philadelphia Museum of Art]. He made a sketch with proper dimensions for oven and dome, and thus the oven was restored."

Bake oven just after reconstruction, c. 1938:This above passage confirmed for us the date of the reconstructed bake oven - about 1938. From Mrs. Layton's description it sounds as if the reconstruction was a relatively unplanned decision, but in fact Gillette's landscape plans from 1932, 6 years earlier, show the bake oven in its current location. Another thing Mr. Layton's decription tells us is that the 1930s restorers did not know that the squirrel tail flue existed ("There is no connection between the oven and the chimney..."). This is confirmed in the reminiscences of Bruce Gordon, a local contractor that worked on the Amstel House frequently between 1932 and 1968. Gordon remembers that he "opened the fireplace also. Fireplace appeared sound but wasn't opened all the was because of possible draft. Found beehive oven but did not work on it." So Gordon states that the earlier restorers did not go as far as we have by removing masonry added after the fireplace's original contruction date. They left the squirrel tail flue covered by masonry added at some earlier time.

Gordon also mentions that a "timber was taken from barn at 6th and New Castle [does he mean Delaware St?] for mantel (1930)." This confirms for us that the roughly hewn timber that was spiked to the lintel was definitely added during the 1930s restoration process. It reflects the colonial revival ideal of what a colonial kitchen fireplace should look like, i.e. pewter plates on the mantel and musket on the wall above.

Gordon's memories of working on the house also tell us that the fireplace was closed in prior to the 1930s and that the opening was narrowed at some earlier date. It also indicates that they were aware that enlarging the opening might throw off the ratio between flue size and opening size and result in problems with the fireplace drafting correctly. My guess is that the chimney had already been reconstructed from the roof up. The reconstructed chimney, as noted in an earlier post, included a kitchen flue that was reduced from its 18th century size.

The chimney was probably reconstructed in 1905, when the owner of the Amstel House, Henry Hanby Hay, was making other alterations to the house. At that time, he added a second floor alcove that projected out of the back of the house next to the chimney. Probably at that time, the gable of the house was substantially rebuilt. When we opened the attic to gain access to the chimney for this project, we discovered that the inside of the gable wall was made of concrete block (with a brick veneer on the outside). This alcove was removed in the 1990s due to structural problems (see below):

As I'm writing this I realize that another thing that we discovered when we opened the attic is that the roof rafters are sawn timbers rather than hewn timbers. The beams in the attic floor, however are all hewn as expected. Was the roof rebuilt in 1905? Or sometime earlier? I'm supposed to be finding answers not developing more questions!

More on what kind of information the archives are producing tomorrow.

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