Renovations keep historic house in East Lyme true to its past

Matt Frederick of Brooklyn, Conn., a carpenter for Early New England Restoration, installs a new end girt, replacing the original one of the historic Thomas Lee House (circa 1660) in East Lyme.
Matt Frederick of Brooklyn, Conn., a carpenter for Early New England Restoration, installs a new end girt, replacing the original one of the historic Thomas Lee House (circa 1660) in East Lyme. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

East Lyme - A construction crane lifted a new oak beam to the outside of the second floor of the historic Thomas Lee House last Thursday.

Contractors painstakingly guided the beam, placed on wooden support structures on the outside of the house, to the interior of the second-floor.

East Lyme Historical Society members gathered nearby to witness the replacement of an original beam in the 17th-century home, considered to be Connecticut's oldest wood-frame house still in its primitive state.

The renovation comes 100 years after the historical society purchased the Thomas Lee House on West Main Street, following a tradition of making repairs, while retaining the appearance of the former home of generations of the Lee family.

The historical society had planned to replace the beam, which rotted over time, for several years, said Norman Peck III, the society's president.

"We thought this would be a good year to do it, since this is the 100th anniversary since the historical society purchased the house," he said.

The new beam, cut from an oak tree in Lyme and weathered for two to three years, replaces the original white-oak beam in a second-floor bedroom. The beam is believed to date back centuries to when the house was first built circa 1660.

The sturdy and readily available white oak was a feature of many early homes, according to Wilbur Beckwith, former town historian.

The beam, or "end girt," helps support the side plates of the house, said Erin Murphy of Early New England Restorations, part of The Cooper Group, which is renovating the Lee House. The company has helped restore historic sites, including the Ebenezer Avery House at Fort Griswold in Groton and the North Stonington Dye House.

Contractors will now work to replace the clapboard siding on the Lee House. As a future project, the historical society also hopes to replace the house's roof.

The East Lyme Historical Society had acquired the Thomas Lee House in 1914, after the society helped raise the money to keep the house from being demolished, according to Beckwith in a 2010 book on the Lee family published by the society.

After purchasing the house, the society then undertook repairs to preserve the structure, which now stands as a museum where visitors can see the Judgment Hall of Justice Thomas Lee III and a period-style parlor, bedrooms and kitchen.

Over the years, the historical society repaired the house as needed, including renovations in the late 1940s and in the 1950s said Norm Peck Jr., a former president of the society. But the house was never modernized and remains close to its 17th-century state with a high percentage of original materials, he said.

The historical society is raising money for the beam replacement from private sponsors and grants. Ninety copper tags attached to the beam carry each donor's name, and several of them are descendants of the Lee family, according to the historical society. The tags will be covered with clapboard and remain hidden - until a future generation of renovators, perhaps a hundred or so years from now, will discover them.

k.drelich@theday.com

Carpenter Matt Frederick of Early New England Restorations shows the beam that has to be removed in the Thomas Lee House in East Lyme.
Carpenter Matt Frederick of Early New England Restorations shows the beam that has to be removed in the Thomas Lee House in East Lyme. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
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