Maine Farmhouse Journal

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Those Curious Curved Walls

February 25 - 29, 2000

"Speculation plays a large part in the study of folk...buildings, and it is a large part of the fun of such a study"

Allen G. Noble, "Wood, Brick & Stone; The North American Settlement Landscape, Vol I, Houses".

Restoring The Curved Wall to Prominence

Two of the most interesting features of the Farmhouse are the curved walls. One is located in the living room, and another in the upstairs southeast bedroom. We have scratched our heads wondering how and why they they got there - curved walls are not standard features in New England farmhouses.

The mystery is deeper, though. The curved wall in the living room has been eclipsed by another, straight wall which nearly hides it. If the walls could talk, they would be arguing with each other! When were these two walls built, and why?

The curved wall was not part of the original layout of the Farmhouse, but it predated the conflicting straight wall. We speculate that the curved walls were installed as part of an 1870's renovation, while the straight wall is newer, installed ca 1919. One of the first things that we decided to do when we bought the Farmhouse was to restore the curved wall to its original prominence - that meant removing the "new" (ca 1919) wall.

Paul and Russ set to work removing the "new" wall last week. They were suprised to find that it had been built of odd sizes of rough boards, rather than the stud construction we all expected. The wall had the look of being built roughly, almost in haste. It certainly was not built with the care and craftsmanship of every other work we've seen done at the Farmhouse. The rough boards were only loosely attached at top and bottom. Sawn lathes covered with horse-hair plaster covered the boards. Traditional studs and lathing were not used. The wall was not load-bearing, and didn't line up with the carrying beams in the ceiling.

Removing the "new" wall
really opens up the living room

When Penny and I first saw the living room with the "new" wall removed, it was as if we had a brand new room! Before, the living room was dark and uninviting - now, it was light and had an inviting, airy feeling. The stairway to the upstairs is now a focal point of the room. The curved wall adds depth to the room, and invites your eye from the front door through the house to the gardens in the back yard. Whoever designed the curved wall had a great idea, and we are happy that this unique feature of the Farmhouse has been restored.

The "new" wall closed in
and hid the curved wall

The curved wall revealed!

These photos show the "before" and "after" with the "new" wall in place, and removed. The first set is taken from the front door looking east, toward the back of the Farmhouse. The second set of "before" and "after" photos is taken from the door to the back of the house and the garden and pool, and show the way that the opening has been enlarged by the removal of the "new" wall.

Passage to garden door


19th Century New England Farmhouse Design

The design and layout of New England farm buildings evolved over the years, influenced by the customs of the region and the exchange of ideas and plans through architectural "plan" books and plans shared through agricultural magazines. Most floorplans of the 19th century, however, showed square or rectangular rooms built for function and practicality.

According to Donald Berg, in his "American Country Building Design", the design and building of a farmstead was a fairly straightforward process in the early 1800's when our Farmhouse was built:

"...The property owner would contract a framer and discuss room size and layout. If external appearance was a concern, their conversation might turn to similar homes built in the neighborhood. The framer was a skilled tradesman, with the tools and experience to turn trees into the tightly mortised posts, beams, sills and joists that formed the structure of most houses and barns. He would calculate a list of timber species and sizes that the owner would then provide. Most frames came from their site. The owner would cut trees to length and, if he was skilled or had access to a saw mill, might dress the timbers to size. He'd store them to dry, turning them so that they would keep straight.

The framer would return to cut the joints and supervise a frame raising that would usually require a good-sized crew of the owner's neighbors and relatives. The owner would then cover the frame with wood clapboard or shingles and hire a mason for any stone or brick work. Fine woodwork like doors, windows and cabinets was contracted to another tradesman, a carpenter or joiner. The process was very much the same, throughout most of America, for our first two hundred years."

Building and Remodelling the John Meserve Farm

Samuel Meserve built the Farmhouse in about 1830 (See "The John Meserve Farm" for a history of the Farmhouse and the people who have lived there for the last 170 or so years.). Local folklore has it that a crew of 30-40 men labored to raise this heavy timber mortise-and-tenon building. In two of the early Sebago histories, a local framer was mentioned who erected many of the barns in town. He may have been employed by Samuel Meserve to build his new farm. Trenches were dug in a square for the stone foundations, and then the earth in the center of the foundation was removed after the stones were in place.

The original house was laid out following the local pattern, with four rooms down and four up (see Hubka's "Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn). Downstairs were a parlour, a common or living room, and in the back the kitchen and woodshed. Upstairs were four bedrooms. There was a large central chimney, with fireplaces for heating and cooking.

The Farmhouse has been remodeled several times. The first renovation was probably done in the 1870's when the curved walls were added and several other features updated. The kitchen ell and Batroom were added in 1889. Finally, we speculate that the "new" wall was added to the living room around 1919.

Floor Plan
showing "new wall"

Floor Plan
with "new wall" removed

This is the layout of the downstairs showing the 1919 renovation (left plan), and the plan after the "new" wall was removed last week showing the 1870's renovation features.

The upstairs floor plan
- curved wall in upper right bedroom

The lower floor plan shows the upstairs bedrooms, and the 1870's curved wall.

Old buildings have their history written all over them - you just need to take the time and patience to look for the clues. The different kinds of studs and timbers, lathes, plaster, heating ducts, wiring, paint and wallpaper all tell a story.

A house built in the 1830's would have had a large central chimney with fireplaces - our previous 1810 house in Canterbury had one, with a wonderful brick support arch in the cellar. The central chimney and fireplaces are no longer present at the Sebago Farmhouse, but a few clues are found in remnants of the stone base in the cellar, and changes in the timbers and boards on the second story that were made when it was removed. We do not find, however, evidence of timbering in the cellar that would show where the chimney went, so this conclusion is a bit more speculative than some of the others we are making.

We do believe, however, that the central chimney was removed and a new chimney with a massive iron wood furnace installed in one of the renovations. The cast iron grates installed during this renovation to carry heat to the first floor are still in place, although the ductwork has been replaced with a newer system and they are not used. This type of central heating generally became available in the 1870's and later period. A cast iron grate was installed in one of the upstairs bedrooms, to allow heat to rise and provide some sort of comfort to the upstairs - New England bedrooms were traditionally unheated.

Curved wall
in the upstairs bedroom

We believe that the curved walls and stairs were added after the Farmhouse was built, primarily because they were built of different lathing and plaster. We are comfortable that they were not part of the original Farmhouse construction. We have found that hand-split lathes were used as a base for the plastered walls in the original construction in 1830 - they are still in place on the exterior walls and in the wall of the southwest room downstairs (what used to be the kitchen, and is now a bedroom). The stairs and curved walls were constructed using sawn lathes, which generally didn't come into existence until the 1850's or 1860's in Maine.

We speculate that the stairs were widened and relocated, and the curved walls in the living room and upstairs bedroom were installed, all about the same time. This was probably done after John Meserve returned from the Civil War, and after his marriage to Matilda in 1866. By then, his mother, Elzira was dead (1862), and his elderly father Samuel had turned the running of the farm over to John. It may have taken place after Samuel died in 1875.

At the same time, we believe that the parlour wall was moved to make this room larger - it may have been a downstairs bedroom. The wall between the living room and the old kitchen (now a bedroom) was not moved - it is built of hand-split lathes and was apparently built when the original house was built.

The "new" wall was clearly constructed after the curved wall in the living room. First clue is the location of the cast-iron heating grates in the floor on either side of the "new" wall. When the "new" wall was built, it effectively blocked off the grate that was located next to the stairs. A second grate was installed on the other side of the "new" wall to bring heat into the living room, and the one next to the stairs was disconnected. The second clue is the construction of the "new" wall itself - not load bearing, not lined up with timbers above or below, and using an entirely different form of construction (boards placed flat and loosely secured, rather than studs and traditional framing). We speculate that it was built around 1919 based on the story of the Farmhouse inhabitants. Fred Meserve's father, John Meserve, died in 1917. In 1919, Fred and his wife Edith were divorced and Edith and the children moved out. Only Fred and his mother Matilda were left, and I can almost hear the conversation:

"With only the two of us, mother, it makes no sense to heat the whole upstairs. I'll put in a wall so we can close off the stairs, and you can have your bedroom down here."

Since his mother would have been 78 years old at that point, she probably had the room behind the curved wall that used to be the kitchen. We have a sense that this room was for a woman from the shelves and layout. The kitchen had been moved into the ell built in 1889.

I can't imagine that this wall was received by Matilda well - after all, we speculate that either she came up with the idea for it, or it was done for her by her husband John. Certainly the "new" wall completely changed the character of the living room, and, practical or not, it must have been unpopular with her.

Where Did The Idea For Curved Walls Come From?

America was growing in the early 19th century, and different building styles were being introduced into the rural countryside from many different cultures and ethnic groups. Berg comments that practical ideas that improved the efficiency of the farmstead, and also made life easier, were shared across the country, including such concepts as these:

"The sturdy, English medieval timber frame was retained for the skeleton of many houses and most barns. Following the Louisiana French, foundations were raised to allow dry houses and usable, well vented cellars. Foundation stone walls were chinked and mortared, like German barns, to keep out vermin and moisture. Wraparound verandas, which had ancestors in India, Africa and tropical America, cooled and shaded living spaces and allowed rainy-day work areas.

Closed wood stoves from Sweden and Holland eliminated the dangerous, drafty, inefficient open fire and freed the home interior of the mass of fireplace masonry. The German bake kitchen and Southern summer kitchen translated to a separate kitchen ell with an open porch where an iron cook stove would serve in hot weather..."

This period in the mid-1800's was characterized by an increase in interest by country folk in style. Several things contributed to this influence - the growth of popular and agricultural magazines, the development of architectural "plan" books aimed at the country marked, and writings that described farmstead layout, landscaping and the value of an orderly farmstead. Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) and his partner Calvert Vaux, wrote and lectured extensively on the Gothic Revival and Italianate style of architecture. Downing introduced the concept of "plan" books to America in 1842, with home designs, landscaping advice, and his own philosophy about country design and layouts. While the Italianate style is commonly associated with the exterior design of a dwelling, the concepts of an open, airy interior where the interior of the house can "flow" to the exterior, are all Downing-like concepts. The curved wall in the Farmhouse living room seems to be intended to do just that - provide an open, friendly tone to the living room, while inviting the viewer to the backyard and it's gardens.

Although unique, curved walls are seen once and awhile in the region. For example, the Beard Morgan House in Fayetteville, NY, built in 1830, is an excellent example of Italiante architecture and features curved walls in four of the major rooms downstairs.

Roxanne Eflin, Executive Director of Maine Preservation in Portland, sent me an e-mail when I queried her about curved walls. She has curved plaster walls in her 1838 vernacular Greek Revival connected farmhouse in Buxton (not too far from Sebago), and other homes in her area have similar curved walls as well. Hers appear to be original, and several professional architectural historians that she has shown them to have failed to discover any shred of evidence to support a later remodeling. The owners of the other homes in the Salmon Falls National Historic District also can find no proof that the curved walls were a later addition in their homes.

Roxanne passed along this good advice:

"I think this demonstrates what we continually discover about historic buildings in Maine: things don't always fit the norm. Isn't it nice? Therefore, the application of interior curved walls in residential buildings could have a period of significance well beyond the typical Victorian era. I urge you to keep these curved walls intact and in good repair."

The clues in our Farmhouse all point to a later renovation, after the original Farmhouse was built. But it is still interesting that other places in the area have the same feature. We'll probably never know for sure which of the people who have lived in the Farmhouse came up with the idea of the curved walls, but we suspect that it was Matilda Meserve. She may have seen them in another home in the area, or perhaps she saw a picture in a magazine. In any event, Matilda made a profound influence on the entire character of the living room with this simple step.

Paul will now work on the floors and ceiling, and repair the rough edges from where the "new" wall was removed. We are looking forward to finishing the living room to showcase Matilda's wall. And, we will eagerly take Roxanne's advise to keep the curved walls intact and in good repair.

Information on old farmhouse designs comes from:

Berg, Donald J., American Country Building Design. Sterling Publishing, NY, 1997.

Downing, Andrew Jackson, The Architecture of Country Houses, Including Designs for Cottages, Farm Houses, and Villas. D. Appleton, NY, 1850.

Hubka, Thomas C., Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of Rural New England. University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 1984

Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Augusta, ME, (207) 287-3132

Maine Preservation, Portland, ME

Noble, Allen G., Wood, Brick & Stone; The North American Settlement Landscape, Vol I, Houses. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 1984.

The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities

Allen and Penny Crabtree

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Last updated March 19, 2000

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