By William F. Hanna
Throughout its almost 400 year history many of Taunton’s most celebrated houses have fallen victim to the wrecking ball, most claimed by avarice or indifference. Because so few of these treasures have lasted over the centuries, let’s begin the New Year with a story of a great Taunton house that has not only survived, but prospered — even though it had to move 100 miles away to do so.
In January 1930, the Phillips House left Taunton forever. Built in 1767, it was a six-room, gambrel-roofed dwelling that exemplified both fine workmanship and artistic design. It stood at 40 High Street and even in its worst days, at more than 160 years of age, it was evident that Edward Phillips had spared no expense in its construction. Every board in the house was hand-hewn; every nail was hand-forged. Each windowsill was cut by hand and each brick in the chimney and five fireplaces was hand-shaped. There were no studs, just planking from the foundation to the roof; all of the partitions were of plank and hand-split wood.
Among its most striking interior features were its hand-carved cabinets, which included a beautiful pine corner cupboard. In 1930, as the house was being dismantled for transport to its new location, a writer for the Taunton Daily Gazette suggested that the corner cupboard alone would be worth twice what the entire house would have sold for when it was built. Antique dealers said that it was one of very few which could be found in this region.
Several of the home’s pine panels, for example those over the fireplaces, measured more than three feet wide and were of perfect grain, showing never a knot or imperfection.
The house also carries a historic and well-travelled pedigree. In 1770, three years after its completion, Phillips sold the house to Dr. William McKinstry, one of Taunton’s best-known physicians. It’s likely that McKinstry bought the property as an investment because he already lived in one of the town’s most beautiful homes, still standing as the present-day rectory of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The doctor owned the Phillips House only until 1775, when he sold it to William Russell. Things were getting hot for McKinstry at the time of the sale because he and his wife were outspoken Loyalists in a decidedly Patriot town, and within weeks of the transfer the doctor and his family fled to Boston for their own safety.
From 1777 to 1785 the house was owned by Revolutionary War veteran John Thurston, who then sold it to William Seaver. His stoneware pottery business on Ingell Street made him one of the area’s most successful merchants. Within a year Seaver passed the house on to Captain Timothy Foster, another veteran of the Revolution, and his family lived there for forty-six years. The property was sold again in 1831, but after an interval of seventeen years the Fosters reacquired the house and kept it until 1866. It was finally bought by Charles Redfern and it stayed in that family until 1929.
By December of 1929, with the country sliding into the Great Depression, the old Phillips House was showing its age. Badly in need of exterior repairs, its clapboards and roof required immediate attention, and sadly, the house now sported three dormer windows that had been added at the end of the nineteenth century. It appeared that this once-beautiful building might soon go the way of so many others in Taunton’s history.
Into this dismal picture stepped G. Holden Greene, of Bridgewater, a dealer in old houses, paneling and interiors. Greene wasn’t put off by the outward appearance of the house because on the inside he saw a well preserved treasure trove of colonial workmanship. He bought the building from the Redferns and to no one’s surprise announced that he intended to dismantle the structure.
It made perfect sense to expect an antique furnishings dealer to sell off a building’s most valuable paneling, cupboards and pine flooring, and then demolish the shell. But that’s not what Greene intended for the Phillips House. Instead, under his direction, the house was to be carefully “dissected,” piece by piece, and then rebuilt and restored, minus the dormers, at a different location.
Somehow, and we wish we knew more, Greene had come into contact with Helen O. Storrow, the widow of a Boston lawyer. At 65-years of age she had lived an amazingly full life as a philanthropist, social reformer, suffragette and advocate of the settlement house movement. She was also an early champion of the Girl Scouts of America. In 1929, Mrs. Storrow was the chairwoman of the home department at the Eastern States Exposition, an annual autumn fair held in West Springfield, Massachusetts. She had agreed to purchase the Phillips House from Greene and have it transported out to West Springfield, where it would be reassembled on the fairgrounds. That monumental task was accomplished during the winter of 1930.
This was not Mrs. Storrow’s introduction to the world of historic preservation, nor would it be her last. In 1927, the year following her husband’s death, she had purchased the eighteenth century Gilbert House and had it moved from West Brookfield to a spot not far from where the Phillips House would stand in 1930. In fact, between 1927 and 1930, Mrs. Storrow invested more than a half million dollars in finding, moving and restoring historic buildings on the Exposition’s grounds. The effort which she began almost a century ago has resulted in today’s Storrowton Village, a collection of nine historic structures that is operated as a living history museum.
So the Phillips House thrives and is visited by thousands of people each year. Today it serves as Storrowton’s gift shop and administrative offices, and while we may regret that Taunton lost one of its most historic houses, there is virtually no chance it would have survived here. The building which replaced it at 40 High Street, and indeed that entire neighborhood, was obliterated as part of an urban renewal project in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.