The best of us roll with the punches. We adapt and change with the times. If we do so regularly enough, we gain reputations as survivors.
Houses can be survivors, too.
The Conant House is Falmouth’s survivor. Although its construction date is disputed, it’s at least 241 years old, and homes in New England don’t make it that far without embracing change. The earliest possible construction date is 1724, according to records that state the house was built that year for the Reverend Josiah Marshall. The plaque on the building says 1730, representative of the occupancy of the Reverend Samuel Palmer, but the interior architecture says 1775, without any written documentation. “However,” says Meg Costello, on behalf of the Falmouth Museums on the Green, “the typical Colonial framing and spare, half-Cape layout point to the style favored by the early settlers.” We may never come to a consensus.
The survivorship of historic buildings can mean one of two situations has occurred. In some instances, economic depression freezes construction in a community, meaning that without money to build anew, homes had to remain standing. In others, their real estate values—driven by location, location, location—gave them advantages not offered to structures on quiet back roads. The Conant House, among the first buildings to greet visitors transiting Palmer Avenue as they head for the town’s downtown business district, has always been in a high-profile area. And so it has been given those extra opportunities. When it was built, it played the role of homestead to local holy men. When seafaring was king in Falmouth, sea captains called it home. When the Industrial Revolution separated economic classes and created a vacation and tourism culture in the late 1880s, it became an inn. As Falmouth changed, so too did the Conant House.
In 1966, the house took on its latest challenge, sold by Conant heirs to the town’s historical society. And even that role has been played for a half-century. The Conant House has had many lives, and many masters.
And now, at either age 241, 286 or 291, the Conant House is in need of attention. It wasn’t the result of any single punch, which is quite amazing, when one considers the long list of natural disasters through which it has stood: the Great Hurricane of 1815, the Triple Hurricanes of 1839, the Minot’s Light Gale of 1851, the Portland Gale of 1898, the Hurricane of 1938, the Blizzard of 1978 and so many more. Instead, it’s the inexorable march of time that has brought this mirror of Falmouth history to its current state.
Repairs are needed, from the foundation to the roof. Every window needs replacing, as do the siding and all doors. The historic well will be restored with the main house, and a new addition off the back will stand in the same footprint as the one that’s there now. Many of the changes will be on the interior, addressing everything from universal accessibility to the creation of a better campus-like feel for the Museums on the Green, with a new visitors entrance to the museum that faces the other structures.
More subtle changes, like the shifting of drainage away from the building—water can be the root of all evil when it comes to the survival of historic wooden structures—will help push the need for the next wave of restoration well into the future. The lighting system needs upgrading, as does the plumbing. The septic system needs to be brought up to code. The security system is outdated.
The restoration and renewal as currently designed includes refurbished exhibit space, a new, climate-controlled archival facility and a new research library. The Conant House will be better equipped than ever before to fulfill its latest mission as the keeper of Falmouth’s history.
The Falmouth Historical Society is the oldest such organization on the Cape, formed in 1900, during the town’s tourism heyday. It, too, has rolled with the punches and survived. It’s now seeking support to bring the Conant House triumphantly into its fourth century of usefulness. For it’s one thing to survive, and quite another to thrive.
MUSEUMS ON THE GREEN
55 and 65 Palmer Ave., Falmouth