Rediscovering the Oldest House in Greenwich
By Christopher Franco
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Connecticut Explored and is being used with permission.
In July 2014 the Greenwich Point Conservancy (GPC) embarked upon an unexpected journey when, together with representatives of the Greenwich Historical Society and the town’s historic district commission, the conservancy intervened to save a little antique saltbox house.
Many in town recalled that the house at 181 Shore Road was one of the “early” houses on that section of Shore Road where Greenwich was first settled. The house had become overgrown, ill kept, and mostly forgotten. When a sign went up indicating it would be demolished, town residents learned that it was to be purchased by a local developer and replaced with a large new house for him and his family.
After discussions with the developer, the GPC was successful in delaying the demolition and set about to determine the true age of the house and its history. A preliminary investigation yielded conflicting theories about the house’s provenance, but one thing was certain: the house sat on the original homestead of Jeffrey Ferris, one of the town’s earliest settlers. Ferris had purchased the house and lands in 1650 from Elizabeth Winthrop Feake, niece and daughter-in-law of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop. Feake and her husband Robert Feake are celebrated as among the founders of Greenwich. Elizabeth is the subject of Anya Seton’s famous historical novel The Winthrop Woman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1958).
GPC’s board felt that the house was worth saving. It worked with the developer to find a solution. The resulting “Strategic Alliance Agreement” allowed the developer to build a house adjacent to the antique saltbox; the GPC would restore the historic home and it would be open it to the public on a limited basis. The GPC was named as beneficiary of a preservation easement that would ensure the historic house would be protected in perpetuity.
At the time, the parties to the agreement did not know just how important the house would be to the history of Greenwich. A thorough and scientific analysis, including dating of the timbers through a process called “dendrochronology,” computer modeling of each individual post and beam in the structure, and carefully peeling back layers added throughout the centuries, together with research regarding the deed history of the property, have revealed the amazing history of what we now accurately call the “Feake-Ferris House.” The GPC learned that the house was constructed in three phases between circa 1645 and 1689. This makes it both the oldest house in Greenwich, by almost 100 years, and the first house built in Greenwich.
The earliest part of the structure was the west side. It was a “one-over-one” (meaning one room over one room), and was constructed circa 1645 as the home of Elizabeth Feake and her family. In 1650 Jeffrey Ferris purchased the house from Feake (who was recently married under dubious circumstances to William Hallett), and around 1660 added the lean-to to the rear of the house. In 1666 Ferris died and left the homestead to his son James. Around 1689 James Ferris renovated and expanded the house to become a “two-over-two” by adding the east section and the lean-to on the remaining rear section and by reworking parts of the house, including adding new windows throughout.
As the work has progressed, the GPC discovered that the house is substantially intact and retains its original post-and-beam frame, original floors and ceilings, and much original wall paneling. The GPC also discovered a window dating to about 1689 that had been encapsulated within a wall for more than two centuries. The window retains its original glass and is among the earliest known examples of two-sash windows in America. It was used as the model for the house’s new windows
The GPC further found that the cellar is the very earliest part of the house. When settlers first arrived in the new world, it was common to “dig in” to create shelter while preparing to build a house. The cellar was built into a hillside, which made it easier to create quick shelter. The cellar’s stonewalls are believed to date to the settling of Greenwich in 1640.
Other important discoveries include original clapboards and hand-wrought nails from the c. 1660 expansion and original wood shingles from the c. 1689 renovation and expansion. The clapboard was used to replicate new siding. The shingles will be retained in place and will be visible through an interior “window” that will show them and the original chestnut “skip sheathing.”
The restoration of the Feake-Ferris House by the GPC is funded by private donations, and when it is complete the community will have successfully preserved an invaluable link to the history and the founding of Greenwich. Such an opportunity to rediscover and significantly contribute to our shared history is very rare, and the GPC is grateful for this amazing journey.
Chris Franco is president of the Greenwich Point Conservancy. Connecticut Explored is the state’s non-profit magazine of Connecticut History. Celebrating its 15th anniversary, it works with the Greenwich Historical Society and other arts, history, education, and preservation organizations across the state tell Connecticut’s stories.