In 1824, prosperous gunsmith Asa Waters II set out to build the stateliest residence in the country. It took two full years to amass the necessary materials for what is now known as the Asa Waters Mansion and Mr. Waters spared no expense. Asa Waters II (1769-1841) was born in Millbury in 1813 to Asa Sr. and Sarah Waters. Asa earned the art of gunsmithing from his father, and in 1808 the junior Asa and his brother Elijah opened the Waters & Co. Armory along the banks of the Blackstone River, in what is now Millbury Center. Following the untimely death of his brother in 1814, Asa Waters carried on the business solo and secured lucrative arms contracts with the United States government. His invention of a lathe to turn gun barrels into the first seamless barrels revolutionized the manufacture of guns throughout the world, and provided his company a stockpile of cash. As a result, he hired Boston-based architect Asher Benjamin, to design a country house suitable of his stature. The mansion features two prominent facades with the primary distinguished by a colonnade of fluted two-story columns with composite capitals. The mansion remained in the Waters Family until 1929, when it was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester, as a rectory of a local church. In 1977 the Town of Millbury acquired the Asa Waters Mansion, and with little funding to maintain the property; in 1994, the Asa Waters Mansion had fallen into quite a bit of disrepair. The town proposed to demolish the mansion for a parking lot, but a group of locals worked together as the Asa Waters Task Force and petitioned to save the house: funds were raised, tradesmen in the community donated materials and labor. Saving the architectural landmark for generations to come.
Located on Beacon Hill, this house, built in 1843 some of the richest history. The home was built for John P. Coburn (1811–1873), a 19th-century African-American abolitionist, civil rights activist, tailor and clothier, and was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Boston of his time. This house is believed to have been the last commission of renowned architect Asher Benjamin and is an excellent example of a brick Greek Revival townhouse in Boston. Coburn sold cashmere clothing, doeskins, tweeds and vestings in two shops in downtown Boston, the area which was razed in the 1960s with Urban Renewal. Limited evidence suggests that Coburn may have ran a gaming house for wealthy Bostonians in his house; however, his community activism is far better documented.Coburn served as the treasurer of the New England Freedom Association, an organization dedicated to assisting freedom seekers who escaped slavery and came to Boston on the Underground Railroad. Formed in the early 1840s, this group sought “to extend a helping hand to all who may bid adieu to whips and chains, and by the welcome light of the North Star, reach a haven where they can be protected from the grasp of the man-stealer.” In 1854, after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act , Coburn founded the Massasoit Guards, a black military company, to police Beacon Hill and protect residents from slave catchers. He served as the company’s captain. Coburn died in 1873 and left most of his belongings to his son Wendell Coburn, including the family home. The house is privately owned today and is a stop on Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.
Set back from tree-lined Main Street in Suffield, the Phelps-Hatheway House is but one of many handsome eighteenth and nineteenth century homes in the town. The house began construction sometime between 1732-1762 as a modest gable-roof Georgian home built by Abraham Burbank. In 1788, the home was purchased by Oliver Phelps. at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Phelps joined the Continental Army and fought in the Battle of Lexington. He left service in 1777 and, relying on his experience as a merchant, became Massachusetts Superintendent of Purchases of Army Supplies, a Deputy Commissary of the Continental Army. He was introduced to Robert Morris, the great financier of Revolutionary times. He supplied troops and received commendation from George Washington for his efforts. After the war ended, he became a prominent businessman and was elected to the Massachusetts Senate in 1785 and served on the Governor’s council in 1786 (Suffield was still a part of Massachusetts at this point).
Upon returning, Phelps hired architect Asher Benjamin (when he was in his early 20s!) to redesign the home into a gambrel roof mansion and construct numerous additions to make the house a suitable home for a wealthy, sophisticated man such as himself. Phelps was a principal in the Phelps and Gorham Purchase of six million acres of land in upstate New York, making him one of the nation’s largest landowners. Phelps lived here until 1802, when he moved to Canandaigua, New York, to more closely oversee the development and sale of his holdings. Phelps or his heirs sold the house, which was purchased by Asahel Hatheway and it remained in the Hatheway family for a century. It is now owned by Connecticut Landmarks and operates as a house museum.
Similar to the Charles Leonard House a block away, the Colton House on Main Street in Agawam remains as a historically and architecturally significant Federal style home in Western MA. The home was built in 1806 for Rufus Colton (1776-1862), a couple years after he married his first wife. The home was likely constructed by a local builder who took inspiration from Asher Benjamin’s early plan books and Captain Leonard’s home nearby. The house was later owned by Martin Luther who operated the home as a tavern for travelers along the route from Hartford to Boston. It was later owned by Isaac Cooley and documented under the Historic American Buildings Survey. Architecturally, the house features a stunning broad entry surround which incorporates a generous elliptical fan-light with leaded glass above a paneled door. Directly over the main entry on the second floor is a Palladian window with the side panels showing the urn and leaf pattern, seen only in high-style Federal homes.
This stunning home on Main Street in Agawam, MA, was built in 1805 as a high-style Federal home. The property was developed for Captain Charles Leonard (1764-1814) who purchased twenty-five acres of land on the eastern side of Main Street at the center of town. Leonard was a graduate of Harvard University who later turned to farming. He attained the rank of Captain while serving in the local militia, and was known by that title thereafter. It was in 1805 that Leonard constructed Agawam’s fourth tavern on the western end of his property to serve travelers as the first stop on the Hartford to Boston stage run. He likely hired a local builder who took inspiration from Asher Benjamin’s early plan books. The home was later converted to apartment units until it was purchased and restored by Minerva Davis, a wealthy citizen from town, who then created a board of trustees to operate the building as Agawam’s Community House.
One of the most stunning homes (even behind crazy bushes) in Chelsea Vermont is the Blake House, a great example of wood-frame Federal house design. The home appears to have been built in the mid-1820s by Amplius Blake, a mill owner, businessman and developer in central Vermont who also built the Old Hood Store nearby in Chelsea (see previous post). The home was possibly owned by Blake who clearly loved the Federal style influenced heavily by Asher Benjamin and his plan books, which brought stunning Federal architecture to builders all over the country. Asher Benjamin’s books inspired the central entrance detail that includes flanking fluted pilasters supporting a full entablature and broken pediment trimmed with a dentilled cornice and filled with a glazed fanlight with radiating muntins and narrow, keystone-topped surrounds. Above the entrance hovers a Palladian window consisting of a 2/2 sash.
The Congregational Church of Chelsea is an outstanding structure in its own right, but also an important component in the village of a well-preserved Vermont hill town. Constructed as the Chelsea Congregational Church in the years 1811-1813, the church’s plan is derived from plates published in Asher Benjamin’s “The American Builder’s Companion”. Notable original Federal style elements include the central pavilion and the steeple, a fine vernacular version of Benjamin’s design. In the 1840s, the interior was reconfigured and the exterior given Greek Revival elements including the wide entablature and corner pilasters. In 1929, the Chelsea Congregational Church merged with Methodist Church to form the United Church of Chelsea. It is now known as Living Water UPCI. The church has remained an important part of the village and region for over 200 years.
The African Meeting House, tucked away on Smith Court in Boston’s Beacon Hill neaighborhood, was built in 1806 to house the first African Baptist Church of Boston (a.k.a. First Independent Baptist Church) and it is now the oldest extant black church building in America. The church was organized primarily by and for black Bostonians, with some financial cooperation and assistance from Boston’s white Baptist churches. The African Baptist Church was officially constituted on 8 August 1805 with twenty-four members, of whom fifteen were women. A building committee was organized of prominent men from the white Baptist churches; these men handled financial transactions and partially oversaw construction, but many of the people who worked to construct the church building were African American craftsmen. Cato Gardner, a native African, led the fundraising effort by personally raising $1,500, out of the $7,700 needed to build the meeting house.
In addition to serving as a spiritual center for the community, the African Meeting House was the chief cultural, educational, and political nexus of Boston’s black community. The African School held classes in a room on the first floor of the meeting house from 1808 until 1835, when it moved into the new Abiel Smith School. Classes returned to the meeting house in 1849 when most African Americans chose to withdraw their children from the Smith School in order to protest against segregated education. Adult education was regularly offered at the meeting house in the form of classes and lectures. Abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Maria Stewart, Wendell Phillips, Sarah Grimke, and Frederick Douglass all spoke at the meeting house. The Massachusetts General Colored Association, which was the first abolitionist organization in Boston, met at the African Meeting House, and in 1832 the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded there. Community celebrations often occurred at the meeting house, including annual commemorations of Haitian Independence (1803) and the end of the international slave trade (1807). In 1863 the meeting house served as a recruitment post for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, which was the first official African American military regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War.
In 1898 the Baptist congregation sold their meeting house and moved to a new location in the South End. The meeting house became the Jewish Congregation Anshi Libavitz in 1904 and was acquired by the Museum of African American History in 1972.
The Meeting House exterior is Federal style and is symmetrical. The building is brick and is three stories high with a mixture of double-hung and two-story round arched windows on the upper floors. The ground floor features some blind arches, typical of the Federal style. While there is much speculation on who designed the building, many accredit Asher Benjamin, a leader in early American architecture, who wrote “The American Builder’s Companion” in 1806. It is also proposed that a contemporary of Benjamin’s, Mr. Ward Jackson, may have been responsible for the design. Jackson was aquatinted with Benjamin and they both were members of the Society of Associated Housewrights. Jackson was also probably familiar with Benjamin’s book before it’s publication. Either way, the African Meeting House stands as not only architecturally significant, but one of the most historically significant buildings in New England!