If these walls could talk

Old New England houses have sheltered generations of families and witnessed centuries of history. If walls could talk, they’d tell amazing stories. Actually, in some cases, walls can talk! The Thomas Lee House in East Lyme is a good example.

Thomas Lee was 6 years old when he arrived in Saybrook Colony in 1645. His father had died of small pox on the voyage from England and had been buried at sea. It was a sad, scary time for a child in a strange new land, but Matthew Griswold, one of Saybrook’s founders, took the boy under his wing.

As an adult, Thomas followed his mentor to Lyme, where he became one of the area’s largest landowners and assumed numerous civic responsibilities. He built his house, married twice, and produced 14 children. (Several generations later during the Revolutionary War, one of his descendants, Ezra Lee, would bravely attempt to blow up British warships from a submarine that resembled a wooden barrel.)

After Thomas’ death in 1704, Thomas’ property passed to his son, Thomas, sometimes known as Mr. Justice Lee or Deacon Lee. He was related to Joshua Hempstead, New London’s diarist, who visited him often and referred to him as “Cuzn Thos.”

Like his father, Deacon Lee was a leader in colonial affairs. He was a justice of the peace and witnessed many legal transactions for the town. He was active in church affairs; today’s Niantic Community Church is the descendant of a church he helped establish. His three sons predeceased him, so when he died in 1757, his grandson, Elisha, inherited the home.

By the late 1800s, the house had passed out of the family. When the East Lyme Historical Society bought the property in 1914, a farmer was using it as a chicken coop and planning to demolish it. Based on available sources, the ELHS estimated that it had been built around 1660. It was a rare example of a 17th-century home that had never been modernized, a time capsule that deserved to be saved.

In the course of the restoration, the ELHS learned a lot about the dwelling’s evolution through three stages of construction. The oldest portion featured what’s known as the Judgment Hall on the ground floor and a single bedroom upstairs. Around 1706, a parlor and another upstairs room were added, mirroring the existing building and doubling the size of the house. The second and final major renovation was made in 1765 when the rear roof line was lowered to form a saltbox and a one-story shed was added across the back. This expansion included a utility room, kitchen, pantry and bedroom. (To picture this, take a virtual tour on the ELHS’s website, or visit in person during the property’s summer hours.)

Brochures published by the ELHS describe many architectural and historical details. I especially enjoyed reading about how the Lees reused building materials during the alterations and how, when the Judgment Hall was built, they gave the room its first and only coat of paint. The house seems to have grown with the Lees’ changing needs, while remaining true to ingrained family values, like Yankee thrift.

Over the years, scholars continued to study the house, but the date of its original construction remained an approximation. In 2017, the ELHS hired the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory from England to perform tree ring analysis on core samples, a technique so precise it can often determine not just the year the timber was cut but the specific season!

The firm wasn’t able to validate the "saltbox" date, but that wasn’t really in question anyway. The parlor addition came in as expected at 1706, but the date of the original Judgment Hall and upstairs bedroom was a surprise. Analysis showed they dated to 1698, not 1660. This raises a fundamental question about an already complicated subject. In 1698, Thomas Lee was 59 years old. Where did he and all those children live before?

The Oxford Labs contacted Cary Carson, formerly with the Research Department at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, for his thoughts about this revelation. Carson, who studied the house in the 1980s, offered this possible theory: the Judgment Hall (now pegged at 1698) may have been an addition to an original structure (date unknown), which was demolished in 1706 so the parlor could be erected in its footprint. In other words, if this hypothesis is correct, what was long thought to be the original home may actually be the first renovation.

We’ll probably never know for sure, but in many ways, it doesn’t matter. This wonderful old house, like an artful storyteller, reveals a lot, but still retains an air of mystery.

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