Ann Baker was interviewed by Mary Giles on November 15, 1976. She spoke in great length about her work as an architect and her fascination with history.
Tell me Ann, why are you working as an architect on the building you are now restoring in New Bedford?
Because I never feel as if I’ve had enough of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so I never did anything of this period before.
We’re working in New Bedford in “Whale” on the nineteenth century, in the period of the whaling. I never wanted to do it, but I find that getting more and more into it, it’s totally fascinating. This is a building that is in the Waterfront Historical District. It’s a fantastic concept to bring to life what was happening in New Bedford, in an urban situation, between 1800 and 1900. This is what I am totally unused to and which I find completely exhausts me. It’s very exciting. I find it’s very challenging; I just get completely drawn back where I feel a wild bunch of stuff that’s real because it is before the industrial revolution. People were really touching and relating and handcrafting to a more true sense of values. The whaling industry development was very hard and beginning to get into what we’re in now—push – push.
This building was built as a warehouse in 1818, “The Sylvia Building,” 81 Union Street, and it was then later changed. The façade was changed to pure Victorian. All that Victorian architecture was moving into New Bedford and the guy who owned it must have felt he wanted to get on the bandwagon, a “social trip” or what have you, and he raised the building. It’s kind of fun to work with because you can see that he was influenced by what had been before him, and by the whaling industry, and you can see the concept of what he was doing to help the whole trade in New Bedford. It’s fascinating. You get very involved with the whys and the wherefores. The people, you try to feel and actually you can do it. The 1976 cars and trucks go by and you sort of fall back into a time—you really do. The atmosphere and the people and then you can begin to feel the structure and the structure you’re likely to fall in love with because you feel responsible to it. You feel that it’s stood there and gone through all this stuff, so you kind of respect its age and you figure the least you can do is respect it for that. You try to give it another hundred and fifty or two hundred years.
Various people in the area felt that the building had no hope because I don’t think they understood the meaning of wood and what hope it does have. They figure that they would buy it and condemn it. “Whale” thought that by buying it and fixing it up, that then whoever bought it couldn’t condemn it, because it would be structurally sound. Think of the houses that have fallen down here, the Waite-Potter House and the Coggeshall House.
Tell me Ann, a little bit about this interesting house of yours here on Drift Road.
Our house is known as the James Tripp House and was just a little bit north of where it is now, and was closer to Drift Road. It was moved in 1970 and then the addition onto it was moved from Westport Point, so it’s been moved three times. The other buildings here came from Dartmouth; Padanarum; Chepatatuck, Rhode Island; Marshfield, Massachusetts; and from Johnson, just west of Providence. All of them just perfect, so much good wood in them, so that by doing this, not only did they get saved, but they are put to very good use.
But the James Tripp House is interesting. Again, I go on record, having been told this, that John Goddard was born in that house. His mother was Mary Tripp, who was James Tripp’s daughter. She had come to have him, though the Goddards had moved to Portsmouth. Another indication of a Goddard here in town and he lived, you know that great green house that’s near the high school? At some time, it was the Court House. It, or the property next to it, was the only other Goddards I could find in town, so they must have been here before they went to Portsmouth. They went from Portsmouth to Newport and they were carpenters, and John Goddardd’s father died by slipping off a roof he was shingling.
This is good-I want to put this on record so somebody can challenge it as I do this research, but I do believe that Southern Massachusetts, across to Portsmouth, and a little bit down toward south county and Rhode Island were—. This is a new thing I am just developing. I find the architecture, what we call stone enders kind of follows the same vein that the Quakers did. Not that all the houses looked alike, but they (the carpenters) had their trade; somebody obviously knew how to build houses and I have a feeling that there is some connection. The house that we took down in Portsmouth, was known as the Adam Mott House. Adam Mott was one of the first founders of Newport and Portsmouth in 1634. He was a freeman and he came from Hingham, Massachusetts. He moved down here, and in a short time (Quaker religion dates back to the latter part of the seventeenth century). George Fox preached in this house that we dismantled in Portsmouth. It was the main part of the house, a fantastic house, a stone ender, and I keep picking this up—and you know that Adam Mott’s son, Jacob, came over and established the Apponagansett Church. Then we have some stone enders here and even as far as Fairhaven—I don’t know yet, I’m not going into this more deeply than other, there are those of us who—.
I think like in any culture, people who are cultured, appreciate fine arts. They appreciate the finer things; they have time to appreciate the things that other people, perhaps don’t have the time to, or aren’t interested in, or they have no opportunity to. I think there are many people in the past, thank God, who have taken houses and turned them into museums or historical societies or something, but I think they had no concept except for their own little group, the meaning of what they were really doing was going to influence other people.
Then the other side of it; there is suddenly the responsibility behind what they were doing. They saw that they could no longer be doing this after hours, the cocktail party sort of thing. They suddenly realized that it was serious; it was our history. There is so much, I suppose, we haven’t had time for until leisure time is given us, to think about and care about. Before (leisure), we didn’t care about a lot of things to the extent we do now. When you have a plastic door, what have you?
We’ve accepted the writing of what other people have said and now more and more, as each year goes by, we’re trying to understand really better what it is, — it’s not just a matter of writing a book and saying what we did in 1690. I think we feel a responsibility to record it too. Not only what they did, but to understand it also. For us, too, because I think we’re trying to relate to whom we are today, and the values of where we’ve come from. But I respect that fact that there are many people who are deeply trying to learn this as a scholar. They are traveling to England; there are courses now, extensive and good. People are going back, researching what people thought and wrote in books. They are trying to change it and update it through archeological study. That’s why I was really interested in this. We haven’t had enough time to update and to correlate how people were really living in the different centuries; what we find in the dates with the architectural structures. The combination of these two things will tell us a great deal about the average person, ‘cause that’s what we all are. We have diaries on George Washington; we know how certain people lived and what they ate, etc., but the average person—we know so little about that person, what his desires were, why he got up in the morning, what he was really after and I think that our architecture, if we can understand it and correctly have the artifacts that go along with it, then we can read into them the social changes that come through. Such things as changes in standards of living, new discoveries, wars, what have you.
People are always looking for freedom—people came here looking for freedom, for another way out. I think that through the demands of society, people very quickly lose that initial pure feeling, that; — sometimes I wonder if I know what I’m talking about or whether it’s just a romanticized idea in my mind.
The common man in this country – the common man then needs certain leaders—he knows right from the beginning you had created communes—not a new thing. A bunch of people got together and they figured out who was going to build the common road and the common place where they could keep their animals and what have you, because he has to work with other people, but our government falls back into a very basic need among people. We all are individuals, but we need to have help from it. We need to have those who can guide us who know more about something—but very quickly it gets out of hand and we lose track of the simplicity of what it is we want. Maybe that’s inevitable in all cases, but I think our interest now in our history, because we have time now to do it—we are searching for that meaning today and our individuality. That’s one of the things I think we’ve lost more than anything else. Our ability to go out and look at the sky and say “Hey! It’s going to rain in three hours.” We go to the radio to find out the weather report and that’s a tragedy to lose touch with our own selves and our own common sense and judgment. I think we all begin to feel this and I think that’s why there’s an interest in getting back in touch with a hand made house with old furnishings because we know that one person made it, that a machine didn’t make it. At least I hope we can find the answer as to how to get to our own individuality and away from mediocrity – this is what we are into in this century.
The idea of loving your work could be a romanticized idea, too. I often wonder whether some of the people who lived two hundred years ago are rolling over in their graves and saying “Oh, Baby, if you only knew how I hated it.”
We can just say that all the time man is trying to prove himself. This is what has brought us to where we are now. The craftsman, I believe, even though he understood the wood of the chair he was carving, he was saying to himself, all the time, how can I make this so that the second chair I can do faster.
I find that in my studying, which I’m getting into more and more, I find that joints in houses in the fifteenth century through the middle of the sixteenth, that then the joinery system for building houses, let’s say the major timber had reached its height of sophistication. I find that the carpenter had reached the point where he really understood the wood, the stresses on the wood and how to refine his joint in order to get the most out of the two pieces of wood that were going to be connected. He had to use mortice and tenons, — right? Shortly after the middle of the sixteenth century, the joints began to digress, the reason being that it was beginning to cost more money and they wanted to be paid to do it. So way back then it all started.
Man gets greedy and he says as he looks at that chair, “How can I make the second one faster?” That’s why we have the machines and the methods we have today. They are a product of this kind of thinking. When he does this, he’s going to lose that little bit of touch of his own sweat and blood in that chair.
Goddard did what no other follower of Chippendale did because he was a free man. I don’t know enough about Goddard’s work to know whether it deteriorated as he grew older. He was probably better able to create better than those in England because he didn’t have the political influences bearing on him. I think that today we have the political influences. The reason his family came here was to get away from that and today we’re getting right back into it.
I was not born in Westport; I was born in Rhode Island and I feel very strongly that I am a Rhode Islander way back; I grew up in Providence, went to school there and then went away to boarding school and went to one year of college in engineering—that’s it. I grew up using my hands, mostly with wood, just doing dumb things and everybody kept saying to me, “Come on, you’ve got to get out of the workshop and go to the beach.” I didn’t have too much guidance, but I just liked it a lot. My sister, who was two years older than I was, was very popular and I kept thinking, “Wow, why aren’t I popular?” Two cross sections of me, one, not wanting to be where there were people and the other, two, wondering how come there weren’t people. I got lousier grades in school than she did.
I came to Westport because I was married to someone who had lived in Westport and he wanted to live here. That led to this beautiful house that we were talking about. Let me tell you a little big about the house because this alleviates some of my responsibility to document it on a piece of paper.
It was supposed to be built in 1720, the way it looks now, it was supposed to be 1720—I don’t know who decided that, but definitely there are indications.
James Tripp (who built the house) was one of the first three real businessmen in Westport. The other two, I can’t think of the names of the other two (Lewis and Trafford?), but they ran some mills up at the Head of Westport. He put together a pretty pretentious house, I suppose, for his time. I believe that it is older than that. There are indications from certain woodwork and certain handwork, that it’s either built of a much earlier house or some of it was taken down and pieces were reused.
If you think about it, in 1720, building a house, you didn’t have a lumber mill. If you wanted a piece of wood, you had to go out and find it and you had to find the right wood too, ‘cause you knew what it was for and what you were going to use it for. You cut it up and shaped it. If there was a piece of wood left over from a house that was falling down or something, you certainly would use it, no question. This house is interesting because there are things in it that are definitely seventeenth century details and when we moved it, a bulldozer comes in and completely circles the house and burrows right underneath it so they have a completely clear place where they can set up their cribbing and roll the wheels under. When they take the fireplaces, they take them at the hearth line, so the chimney foundation is bulldozed away and under that we found iron slag (Bob Baker and I), which was an indication that somewhere in that locality under the foundation, the house was sitting on some kind of a forge or close to a forge, and this had become some kind of a dump or something. This might have been the evolution and the meaning for the house, being in that locality and being older. Maybe there was an older one a few feet away or something.
We’ve never been able to find any indication that there was anything on that site. There’s so much we don’t know, even in our own local history. There’s just so much that isn’t recorded. They say that the transistor, which is very young, that the evolution of the development of the transistor is lost. Someone threw the papers away.
How was it moved? The movers came in and they actually make a furrow the width of the bulldozer around the outside of the house; then they have an entrance, so to speak, so that they can then move in under the house, remove the foundation, save the stones, but remove them. They can totally clean up under the house so that they can set up the cribbing which are criss-cross type of timbers like railroad ties. These are very supportive. On those they set their jacks. On this house I think there were eight or ten jacks at each of the crucial points where you would want a jack. Each of these jacks had a hose that went back to one switchboard. The switchboard had a dial on it for each jack and it had levers. Once you set your cribbing and all your jacks are set up, you could either work one jack or all the jacks. You would work each jack ‘til you get the house completely level. You would jack it up to the master level and to the height that you needed to get it. This means recribbing all the time and setting your jacks up higher because you had to go as far as you could. You’d have to roll the wheels under which you hitched to the steel beams, which they actually used to jack the house up. Yes! It was an interrelating thing. After that, they just rolled their wheels in which hitched on to the I beam and suddenly the underneath part of the house became the trailer so then they are ready to go. It took a week to get it ready. They also tied it with cables just to make sure that they actually drill through the girders. They are on the second floor going in one direction and then on the third floor they make sure they are going in the same direction. Then you’re ready to go. I’ve moved a lot of buildings this way and have taken them down and put them back up again.
The first thing you want to do if you have to move a house because it can’t stay where it is, the first thing you want to do is make sure it can’t stay where it is. When it can’t, when everyone says no way, then you figure OK—you’ll move it on wheels because by doing that you will preserve it most intact by doing it that way. If you can’t do that because of bridges or too many wires, you consider taking the roof off and moving it on wheels. If you can’t do that, and it’s worthwhile saving, then you take it down and mark it piece by piece. You measure, you draw. Each of our pieces are drawn on a piece of paper including all of the finish trim and you take it down, you give each piece a number and you record that on the paper. It’s a beautifully simple structure on early buildings, they are so simple.
Do you really want to know how I learned all this—I had an old house once that had been in my family since 1690, but over the years the old part of it had become like the back sheds sort of, and when it came my turn to live in it, I wanted to bring that back. A lot of the door and flooring and mantelpieces, etc. were missing and I lived in Rhode Island and I guess I must have had a natural interest in wood, so I went out in the woods and found a lot of old, fallen houses and just collected the stuff for my house. I needed only three or four doors, maybe, but I couldn’t leave anything behind, so I started bringing it all home. I had a barn full of old pieces of houses. Someone heard I had the stuff, they were restoring old houses and they came and wanted to know if they could buy some from me. I said, “No, I can’t part with it.” But I kept collecting more to the point where I began to feel selfish, and once I did that (It’s like taking the first dollar out of the savings bank), then it’s easier after that. Also, it went on to saving everything that’s about to be torn down. When you start saving, you take them apart. When you take them apart, you learn.
Ann, tell me about your work as a potter.
My potting relates in some way to old houses—I wanted to pot because I wanted to touch in some way that part of what the people were doing and somehow pots were very real, as much as chairs and benches.
I love Westport, but I am a Rhode Islander local wise. This is more beautiful and I don’t feel—I don’t see how a boundary line can make a difference. I would like to have a Rhode Island license plate—dumb things like that, but I—when anyone asks me where I’m from, I say I’m from Westport, but I’m a Rhode Islander. It’s something to do with backing up your family heritage, I quess.
If you could help to make people more aware of what they have here in Westport—that is the change I would like to make.