ZENAS COFFIN - DONALD CHAPIN
Preservation Institute: Nantucket
THE ZENAS COFFIN MANSION
Being a study of the building, its occupants, and
its effect upon Nantucket's history.
Robert C. Giebner
N . \ \\
it'l OMAN iti
14 A" % �46
We would like to extend our special thanks
to Bob and Paul for their help in the study of
this house and especially to Barbara and Donald
Chapin and their family for their patience in
coping with us, "the ants," who were always under-
This report on the Zenas Coffin mansion is
the fruit of research done by a team of students
studying at the Preservation Institute:.Nantucket.
This was the house of a wealthy and prominent
member of the Nantucket community who lived
during the height of the whaling trade and who
was a descendent of one of the original pro-
prietors. It has provided a field laboratory
where the students could learn first hand about
buildings with such a rich historic and archi-
In order to capture as many facts as
possible, this report is divided into three main
categories with measured drawings and biblio-
graphy following. The three parts include:
descriptions of the neighborhood, the interior,
and the exterior of the building; a short history
including social historical and physical aspects;
and a maintenance report. The measured drawings
are an integral part of this report because
they serve to explain and augment the interpre-
TABLE OF CONTENTS
DESCRIPTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Exterior Description . . . . . . . . .
Interior Description . . . . . . . . .
HISTORY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Social (deed, chain of title,
genealogy) . . . . . . . . .
Physical . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . 14
MAINTENANCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
DRAWINGS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
BIBLIOGRAPHY. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ... 34
The Zenas Coffin house is a two and one
half story, dual chimney, Federal style house.
The main facade on Pine Street faces the east,
with the roof ridge running north and.south.
All exterior walls are finished with white cedar
shingles, which this summer have been totally
replaced. Wood shingles were most often used
after 1700 as exterior covering for Nantucket homes.
They offered a practical approach to the harsh,
damp weather of the island then as they do today.
The shingles weather well and can easily be re-
placed. They are exposed 5" to the weather.
Within a brief period of time, they weather to
soft, gray patina. White cedar was used in most
cases on Nantucket.
The basic layout of this house is four
rooms on the main floor and four rooms on the
second floor with a central main hallway, running
east and west. There is an ell addition to the rear,
or west side, which according to our historical
studies and preservation consultant, Paul Buchanan
of Colonial Williamsburg, was later added to the
initial house. This theory was backed up by the
discovery of an old well located in the southwest
corner of the crawl space beneath the ell. It is
difficult to see the structure of this addition
because it has been recently re-decorated inside.
The foundation walls are constructed totally
of brick, they are visible 3' above ground level
to the shingle line, so the space inside is termed
as a cellar. As is typical here on Nantucket,
the foundation walls butt up to the public sidewalk
almost always in the front and sometimes on the
side. This makes the front entrance into the
house very important.
The main entrance into the Zenas Coffin house
is located directly on Pine Street. The front door
is entered by what is termed "hospitality" stairs.
This terms refers to the custom that all visitors
entering the stairway from either side were totally
welcome. These stairway entrances are also very
typical on Nantucket. Since the houses are located
so close to public ways these entrances are very
important in providing a person the transition
from a public way into the privacy of a home.
The front doorway is very simple within the
Federal vernacular. The door frame has a simple
moulded cap which echoes the caps of the nine front
facade windows. It includes the typical transom
with four panes.
The windows are original to the house
proper and new in the ell addition. The window
lights are numbered 12/12, 6/6, 6/9 depending
upon the facade faced. The front facade facing
Pine Street consists of 9 windows, each of which
are 12 over 12 lights measuring 9" x 7" individual
panes of glass, the typical size for all of the
house windows. The two side facades are typical
as far as the windows are concerned. The first
and second floor windows are all 12/12 and all
attic windows are 6/9. All windows throughout
the house have fixed upper sash. Windows on the
rear facade are similar to those of the front
facade, being 12/12. The rear addition has 6/6
modern aluminum double sash windows. All founda-
tion wall windows are 12 lights in a single sash.
The upper fixed sash windows began to be used in
the first half of the 1700s and are characterized
by plank frames which project beyond the wall
surface. The upper sash was rabbeted into the
frame--making it fixed. The frame in which the
sash fits, has its jambs joined to the head by
means of mortise and tennon fastened with wood
pins. The frame was secured to the building frame
by mortising the projecting ends of the heads and
sills into the studs on either side.
The trim of this house has been painted
grey, including the cornices, drainpipes, windows,
doors, corner boards, rake boards, entry stairway,
and foundation wall. Running along the roof is a
boxed cornice which continues around the corner
over it. Included within the box are the gutter
and the leads. Each of the four exterior corners
of the building are finished with wood corner
boards with the wood drain spout running flush
against them. The ell addition has single corner
boards. The rake boards running along the roof
line are tappered two inches wider at the bottom
than at the roof ridge.
The two chimneys have been reconstructed
since the original structure was built. We
have no record of when this was done, but there
is evidence of this in the attic space. Both
chimneys are constructed of brick which have been
The interior plan is of the central passage,
double pile type with interior chimneys, situated
between principal rooms to the North and South
of the central hall. Typical of the Federal style,
the dual-chimney house has a transverse stairhall
extending east/west through the depth of the
building with an easily ascendable staircase that
has no winders. Back stairs are all winders
leading from cellar to attic. There are four
squarish rooms on both first and second floor
levels, each with a centered fireplace and each
with two outside walls allowing lights and ven-
tilation. Circulation is facilitated by the
central hallway which allows direct entry into
each room. The house faces east.
The central entry hall is entered from the
east through the front door, with the main stair-
case to the left, and an open, painted wood
balustrade exposing the second floor landing to
view. The simple balustrade is comprised of
square newel posts and caps; turned handrails,
round in shape; and thin, rectilinear balusters.
The stair is of the open string type with de-
corative carving on the individual step ends.
The stairs themselves are painted wood, pre-
sumably white pine. Flooring in the central
passage zone (i.e. entry hall and second-floor
landing) is natural finish white pine planking,
of widths ranging from 6" to 16", running in an
east-west direction. Treatment of the walls is
plaster with painted wood picture-molding and
wainscoting, which includes chair rail, panelling
and baseboard, and the ceiling is plaster.
The four main rooms on the first floor
are similar in detail, with the exception of the
northwest corner room, which has been cosmetically
altered to accommodate a modern-day kitchen. Each
of the two front rooms has a fireplace centered
on the wall opposite the two front windows. To
one side of the mantelpiece is a doorway leading
into the room behind, and on the other side, a
built-in cabinet. The mantel, doorway and
cabinet are all painted woodwork, as is the wains-
coting (i.e. chair rail, panelling and baseboard)
that occurs around the room. The plastered wall
above is terminated by wood cornice molding at the
ceiling, which is also plastered. All of the 12/12
paned sash windows have interior wood trim that
splays back from the wall to the window frame,
and includes some simple decorative molding.
Across the head of each interior doorway is a
four-paned glass transom; structural corner
posts are partially exposed in each of the first
floor rooms. All ceilings are plastered with the
exception of the kitchen, where the beams are
exposed. White pine floor planks of varying
widths run in a north-south direction.
The milled woodwork of the ell addition at
the west end of the house is limited to the door
and window frames--the walls having been treated
recently with a white, vertical plank panelling.
The ceiling is painted gypsum board, and the
flooring is wood plank.
The four main rooms on the second floor
have the same general characteristics as those
on the first floor, with the exception of the
platered walls which have no cornice or wains-
coting--only baseboards. Most of the woodwork
is confined to the mantelpiece, door and window
frames and built-in cabinetry. The mantels
throughout are painted woodwork with simple
decorative details--a pilaster on plinth "sup-
porting" the shallow mantel shelf on either side
with an inner trim framing the opening. White
pine floorboards vary in width and run in a north-
south direction. A bathroom has been located at
the west end of the second floor hallway.
Directly behind the central staircase are
the winder stairs that descend into the cellar,
dividing it into two sides. Located on the south
side are the chimney mass with fireplace, and a
bake oven constructed of pargetted brick in a
beehive form. The oven is presently bricked in,
and thus inoperable. On the opposite side is
located the other brick chimney mass. The floor,
probably dirt originally, is now concrete. All
wood posts, columns, beams and joists are ex-
posed. Each wall of the cellar has single 12
paned windows, with the north and south walls
having double wood doors.
The wood winder stairs ascend to the
floor level of the attic where there is a 2 X 4
wood frame handrail. The flooring is a white pine
planking in widths of 8" to 18". To the north is
a wood ladder-type stairway leading to the scuttle
on east slope of roof. The chimney mass is lo-
cated to the north side of the ladder, and beyond
it are two small rooms with bare, plastered walls
and minimally framed wood doors. The other
chimney mass occurs on the opposite side of the
attic. Windows occur in both gabled ends of the
attic. The exposed roof structural system is one
of common rafters pitched to form the gabled roof
with collar or wind beams parallel to the floor.
The rafters are pegged. There is no ridge beam,
and the horizontal sheathing is wood planking
in various widths.
The house at number 9 Pine Street, on the
southwest corner of Pine and Summer Streets, in
the town of Nantucket, appears to have been built
for Zenas Coffin in the early 1800's. Zenas
Coffin (June 3, 1764 - July 6, 1828) was the
fourth child and youngest son of Micajah Coffin.
Micajah Coffin (1734 - 1827) was the great-great
grandson of the original Tristram Coffin who
came to Nantucket in 1659. Micajah Coffin began
his career as a carpenter, apprentices to Elihu
Coleman whose daughter Abigail he married in 1757.
From carpentry, Micajah went on to become a
"marriener," and later a prosperous merchant,
establishing a packet service between New York,
Philadelphia, London and Navre.1 A highly re-
spected member of the community, he represented
Nantucket in the state legislature from 1792
to 1813. His wealth appears to have increased
considerably during the American Revolution
due to his skill in running his ships through
Zenas Coffin worked for his father's
company of Micajah Coffin & Sons along with
his older brothers Gilbert and Isaiah. In con-
nection with the business, Zenas shipped out of
Nantucket on the "Greyhound," eventually ending
his voyage in France, where he remained as his
father's agent. He returned to Nantucket on
October 29, 1790, on the "Lydia" with Micajah
as master. In subsequent years, Zenas as the
captain of the "Lydia" made two more voyages,
first in 1791-2 to the Cape of Good Hope and then
in 1793-4 to Brazil. He returned home from
Brazil in July 1794, and spent the last 34 years
of his life as a merchant, running a prosperous
family concern in whale oil, rather than as a
Zenas married Abial Gardner on September
28, 1786, and they had seven children: Eunice
born March 13, 1788, Lydia born February 16,
1793, Mary born February 15, 1799, Charles born
October 23, 1891, and Henry born March 17, 1807.
Frederick born February 14, 1904 drowned at the
age of 13 when his sailboat was upset in the
harbor, and another son born in 1790 must have
died quite young for there is no record of him.
During the War of 1812, Zenas held out for
high prices on such oil as he had on hand, and
unlike his father, he refused to risk any ships
during the war, and did not send out another
ship until 1815. Apparently, he found local
affairs a safer investment of his time and money
at that period than whaling.
It was perhaps at that time that his house
on Pine and Summer Streets was built, although
he had the title to the land before 1806, when
he bought a parcel of land adjoining it to the
south from James Barker and Joseph Chase. How-
ever no evidence for exact dating of the house
has yet been found. Zenas had apparently
been living in another house on Pine Street
across the way on the corner of School Street,
before he moved his family into the new larger
The Coffins already owned considerable
property in this area of Nantucket before Zenas
built his house. Both his father Micajah (whose
house still stands at 14 Pine Street) and his grand-
father Benjamin, had owned land and lived near this
location. Zenas himself bought large quantities
of land during his lifetime. From December, 1813
until his death in 1828, Zenas' name appears no
less than 53 times in the Grantee index of the
Registry of deeds, and many of these purchases were
adjoining land already in his possession.
Zenas Coffin died in 1828, leaving no will.
He was survived by his widow Abial, his sons ''
Charles and Henry, his daughter Eunice and
various grandchildren. At Abial's request,
her sons and her sons-in-law Thomas Macy
(husband of Eunice), Matthew Crosby (husband
of Lydia), and Henry Swift (Mary's husband)
were appointed by the Probate Court as joint
administrators of the estate.
Zenas Coffin was a very rich man when he
died. The inventory made in 1828 shows his
estate as worth more than $250,000, apparently
excluding unsold oil which could have doubled the
value of the estate. In addition to considerable
real estate, Zenas owned seven ships at the time
of his death, and the newest and best of which,
the "Zenas Coffin" valued at $130,000 was given
to Abial in the division of the property, along
with the "Mansion house and land, barn, chaise
house, and outbuildings," valued at $2500.
Abial Coffin died March 4, 1856. "Abial
lived to be ninety-two years old, and her son
and sons-in-law had to deal with her twenty-
eight years."6 In her will she named her sons
Charles and Henry as executors, and divided her
estate into fifths, one each to Charles and
Henry and the other three fifths to be divided
among the seven children of their deceased
sisters Eunice, Lydia and Mary.7
The earliest deed to 9 Pine Street is
dated October 25 of the same year, at which
time, Charles and Henry Coffin, their nieces
and nephews, Henry Swift and Thomas Macy,
sold the house and land to Matthew Crosby
(husband of Lydia Coffin who had died in 1827),
for the sum of $1025. This deed shows a
sketch of the house on the plot of land, describ-
ing exactly the dimensions of the house and the
boundaries of the land as still held in the cur-
rent title to the land. The sketch does not
however show the extension on the back of the
house which appears on the town map drawn by
William Coffin, Jr. in 1834.
Between 1857 and 1862, there are 21 entries
under Abial Coffin's name in the Probate records,
beginning in March 1857 with a petition to the
court from William H. Crosby, Matthew Crosby,
Valentine Hussey, Jr., Mary Swift Hussey, Mary C.
Coffin, Ann C. Macy and Lydia C. Burnell, for
the removal of Charles and Henry Coffin as
executors of Abial's estate. The inventory
and accounting of the will showed a total value
of $40,223.01 for the estate, and the Crosby-
Swift-Macy heirs contested this figure.9 Their
protest was based on allegations that during
Abial's lifetime Charles and Henry had "had
the control and management of her property and
the conducting of all her business affairs,"
and they also stated in their petition that
Abial was "a person of Frugal and economical
habits of living and expenditure," that she had
never spent more than $1000 a year and that they
were unaware of any "serious loss of property"
which could have caused the more than $130,000
she received from Zenas' estate to diminish so
Their petition was dismissed in May 1857,
and appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court for
its July session. Meanwhile, Charles and Henry
had stated to the court that Abial had "from
time to time. . .placed money in their hands for
safekeeping. . .not as an investment," and they
stressed that all money had been accounted for to
her during her lifetime. They further accused
Thomas Macy of having removed a trunk containing
Zenas Coffin's papers from the vaults of the
Pacific Bank, and that there was the evidence
in those papers to support their case.
Finally in 1862, the case appears to have
been .settled peacefully, since and entry dated
dated December 17, 1861, states:
It is agreed that all the claims
made by Hussey, Macy, Crosby, and
others for the accounting by the
Executors of the oil, loan, and
interest. . .shall be and they are
hereby waived. It is agreed that
all the expenses of the Petition-
ers. . hall be paid out of the
Matthew Crosby died in September 1878, and
in his will he left the use of all his "Real and
Personal Estate" to his second wife Elizabeth
for her lifetime. After her death, the property
was to be divided among all his children by 13
Elizabeth and by his first wife Lydia Coffin.
Of all these children, Lydia C. Burnell, widow
of Barker Burnell, is the one on whom we must
focus our attention.
No information is readily available on
Lydia herself, the granddaughter of Abial and
Zenas Coffin, although she seems to have had
at least two children, Barker Burnell (Jr.)
who moved to San Diego, California, and Mary C.
Burnell. Whether Lydia ever actually occupied
or considered herself the legal owner of 9 Pine
Street, is not apparent in the records, however,
Mary C. Burnell was living in the house at the
time of her death in 1904.
Her will names her brother Barker as her
executor and trustee although she also left "to
Mary Ella Mann, M.D. of Nantucket, the income
of my Personal Property during her life." On
Dr. Mann's death the "Property" was to be
equally divided among Barker's children. The
will also left to Dr. Mann "the use of my
house and its contents during her life," with
the same provision to divide the house and
its contents among Barker's children later.
Mary did however make several exceptions to
this bequest, specifically:
I give to my dear brother Barker
Burnell of San Diego, California
the family silver and all the old
fashioned furniture belonging to
me that is in said house that he
wishes to have. Also the old china
belonging to me.15
After Barker's death in 1928, the Pacific
Bank took over the administration of the6estate
at the request of the Burnell children. This
is hardly a surprising move, since they were
living in California, and since their father had
appointed Albert C. Brock as his local agent as
soon a� he became the executor of his sister's
will. At this time a partial inventory of Mary
Burnell's estate listed the "House and land Pine
St. Nantucket" as having a value of $6000.18
Mary Ella Mann presumably did occupy the
house until her death in September 1936. The
second existing deed to the house is dated September
1, 1937. At that time Gardner W. Russell, "com-
missioner," acting on powers conferred to him by
the Probate Court is recorded as selling the pro-
perty to one Christin Zaremba of Nantucket.19
It would seem reasonable Barker Burnell's children,
living in California, had no interest in sharing a
property in Nantucket left to them by a spinster
aunt and that they asked the court to sell it
for them when Dr. Mann died and the property re-
verted to them.
Christine Zaremba's deed refers back to the
deed of 1856 but lists as grantee Lydia C. Burnell
and not her father Matthew Crosby, to whom it was
actually sold. The fact that in 1937 Lydia's
name is associated with the house is an indication
that she did most likely occupy the house after
her stepmother's death.
On the same date as the signing of her
deed, September 1, 1937, Christine Zaremba
mortgaged the property to Eva J. Dyer of East
Orange, New Jersey for $8000 at an annual interest
of 52%, payable semi-annually after March 1, 1938.20
This mortgage was duly discharged on April 6, 193821
at which time a second mortgage for $9000 was
secured, again from Mrs. Dyer, and at the same
annual interest tate.22 This time however, Miss
Zaremba was apparently unable to repay the mort-
gage, and lost her title to the property. On
April 29, 1940, Eva J. Dyer became the legal
owner of the property,23 although Miss Zaremba
did continue to occupy the house. The photograph
dated 1948 in Will Gardner's Coffin Saga, shows
the house on Pine Street and identifies Mrs. Dye
as the owner, but Miss Zaremba as the occupant.
On November 2, 1962, Mrs. Dyer's son George
L. Dyer of Washington, D.C. sold the house and lot
to John Macrae and his wife Ann of Greenwich
Connecticut.25 John Macrae in turn sold it to
the present owners Barbara and Donald Chapin in
Date Location of Deed
Eva J. Dyer
Before October Nantucket
Charles G. Coffin October 25, 1856 Nantucket
Will of Mary C.
George L. Dyer
April 29, 1940
May 26, 1978
Deeds Book 19, p. 458
Deeds Book 53, p. 186
Nantucket Probate Records
Nantucket Deeds Book 108, p. 353
Nantucket Deeds Book 109, p. 226
Nantucket Deeds Book 124, p. 99
Nantucket Deeds Book 164, p. 39
Zenas and family,
His widow Abial,
His widow Elizabeth,
Lydia Crosby Burnell,
Mary C. Burnell
Mary Ella Mann, M.D.
Mary Ella Mann, M.D.,
Barbara Chapin and
1. Will Gardner, The Coffin Saga, Cambridge,
Riverside Press, 1949, p. 65.
2. Ibid., p. 190.
3. Ibid., p. 64.
4. Ibid., p. 194.
5. Ibid., p. 195.
7. Nantucket County Probate Records, Vol. 19,
8. Nantucket County Records (Deeds), Book 53,
9. Probate, Vol. 19, p. 272
10. Ibid., p. 352.
11. Ibid., p. 405.
12. Ibid., Vol. 20, p. 302.
13. Ibid., Vol. 28, p. 347-9
14. Ibid., Decker #977.
19. Deeds, Book 108, p. 353.
21. Ibid., p. 443.
23. Ibid., Book 109, p. 226.
24. Gardner, op. cit., Chapter X.
25. Deeds, Book 124, p. 99.
26. Ibid., Book 164, p. 39.
The physical history of the Zenas Coffin
Mansion is in part told by various written ac-
counts and photographs. Examination of the
building fabric can expand the knowledge of the
physical history of this early nineteenth century
house. The intent, therefore, of this portion
of the report is to provide a date for the build-
ing, for changes to the building and the build-
ing's constituent parts through discussion and
study of maps, surveys, building surveys materials,
details, and remnants of various stages of the
The basic massing, the plan form, the
structure, the orientation, and the details
provide a framework for discussing the develop-
ment of the building.
The houses of Nantucket's original pro-
prietors in the late seventeenth century were
the "English House" style.1 Later, lean-to
additions were made to the "English Houses."
Still later, the lean-to idea developed into
the integral lean-to or salt-box style houses.
The early "English Houses" were situated to
face south, and the lean-to or salt-box houses
had two storys on the south to catch a maximum
of warm sun. Meanwhile, the long slope of the
roof of the salt boxes faced the cold north,
leaving only one story to face north. Coupled
with orientation, the early houses of Nantucket
were rectangular in form, approaching cubic
proportions to conserve precious heat.
As the settlement moved from Sherburne to
what is now Nantucket Center, house styles changed
giving way eventually to the later "upright" form
which features two two-story facades. Early
houses in the Nantucket settlement, because of
the increased density of buildings in the town as
opposed to Sherburne, generally face the main
street rather than the south, as in Sherburne.
In the case of the Zenas Coffin mansion, this
rule holds true. The eave faces Pine Street to
the east and the gable end faces Summer Street
on the north. Also, as a rule, eighteenth cen-
tury roof pitches were calculated by a proportion
of length of slope to width of attic floor joist.
In the case of the Coffin mansion, the proportion
is 3 to 5. If the calculation were done by the
more modern system of rise to run, for example,
the roof could never had had this pitch. There-
fore, this evidence shows that construction was
done in the eighteenth century of shortly there-
after, before the new system came into use.3
The house is a two and a half story, five
bayed double pile structure, and has two chimney
masses which are centered on the party wall of
the pairs of rooms which flank the central passage-
way. This is a later development from the cen-
tral stairway/central chimney/two room plan which
is a mutation of the salt box plan and which is so
commonly found on Nantucket. Clay Lancaster
calls it the typical Nantucket house, and dates
it between the 1760s and the 1830s. Having a
double pile layout, this house is probably late
in that period, because it achieved a higher
level of refinement. Therefore, we know that
the Zenas Coffin house was built late in the
1 2 3
The structural system in the house is
largely hidden from sight. In the cellar, the
posts, beams and girders are exposed. The main
spanning members (girders) and the sills are
oversized, hand adzed (except where replaced),
and in some cases chamfered. The secondary
spanning members are pit sawn. Both of these
cutting and finishing techniques were commonly
used in the colonial period. Empty mortices
and chamfers on the girders and numbers on the
beams could indicate salvage of those items from
another location, a common practice in the
eighteenth century. Also, some earlier walls
were morticed into the girders at one point, but
The cellar plan has changed. Originally,
the cellar was not bricked in, and the house
stood on posts on a stone foundation. At some
early point in the house's history, the present
cellar was created by infilling american bond
brick stem walls on the stone foundation.
Remnants of the original posts still show; they
are built into the wall. The brick and mortar
are soft and are early brick but the bonding
pattern is american bond which has five stretcher
courses and only dates this brick work as post-
On the first and second floors, little
structure shows. Seventeenth century houses
exposed much more of their structure, but as time
went by, builders began to hide the structure
more and more. In the eighteenth century, this
covering up of structure had developed to the
point where often little was exposed save the
posts, which might have been "L" shaped and
completely concealed, or which might project
into the room slightly and be covered, often
with decorative chamfers or mouldings. The
latter is certainly the case with the Zenas
Coffin house. Two posts were removed from the
first and second floors at one point in the
history of the house, which accounts for the
sag in the central portion of the house.
The attic has exposed structure also. The
dovetail joints of stringers into rafters and
the mortice and tenon, pegged joints of the
rafters at the ridge are clearly visible. These
connections were common in pre-revolution times,
and continued to be used into the nineteenth
century. The roof planks span the rafters
horizontally, parallel to the ridge rather than
vertically, as would be the case in a three
The study of the building's details should
do two things: it should pinpoint the possible
building date of the house to a more precise
date than already ascertained, and it should
uncover some later additions and alterations made
to the house. An example of this study is the
following: because of the asymmetrical nature
of the Pine Street facade and plan, special in-
quiry was made into the possibility that the
house was built in two separate campaigns (the
possible division being between the door and one
of the windows on either side of it). Study of
the attic and cellar spaces was the most profit-
able in determining this was not the case.
Study of photographs of the main facade with
its exposed wallboards makes it clear that the
house was built in one campaign. The attic
rafters are the same on both sides of the possible
dividing line. Below, in the cellar, no nail
marks were found on the girders which would have
served as the end structural member of the build-
ing if it were originally a half house. No nail
holes means no wallboards on which shingles could
be hung. Furthermore, due to the uniform age of
the wallboards and, due to the lack of an appar-
ent seam on the facade, .it is clear that the
house was built all at once, with only com-
paratively minor changes and additions happening
to the building in its history.
A number of details help support the
thesis that the main portion of the house was
built all at once. The double corner boards
on the exterior of the main house have a bead
near the corner. This bead type came into use
in about 1805. Earlier beads had simply a "V"
shaped groove, and were used throughout the
colonial period. As styles began to change, so
did the carpenter's tools, including his planes.
The new shape of plane which came into use in
1805 had a "U" shaped groove rather than the "V"
shaped groove of earlier times. One rare detail
found in the cornerboards of this house is a
blade of wood which projects behind the shingles
in such a way that it functions as flashing.
Some of the window frames also have this variety
of flashing while other windows were added later
and do not.
The windows of the main house are in 12/12,
6/9 and 9/9 configurations, with normal 7" x 9"
panes.. Smaller panes were characteristic of earlier
periods, but were made by the same process. A
few panes of the early hand-blown glass still
exist in the building, though they are mixed
with modern sheet glass. The muntons are 5/8"
wide so they are slimmer than earlier muntons of
the pre-1805 period when muntons were anywhere
from 7/8" to 1-5/8" in width. Muntons began to
slim down in time, and in the 1805-1830 period
measured 5/8" to 3/4", and after 1830 were 5/8"
in width. Therefore, the muntons in the Zenas
Coffin mansion are post-1805.
The mouldings on the exterior window
frames are in the Federal style. Again, as
styles changed, carpenter's planes changed.
These mouldings are characteristic of the planes
that were popularly used in that period. These
mouldings are more complex than mouldings of the
colonial period, when most of the work was done
by a few planes and when the grooves were gener-
ally shallow. In the 1805-1830 period the mould-
ings became more complex, but were still easily
drawn by a compass as were the colonial mouldings,
before. Still later, in the Greek Revival
period (1830-1860), mouldings became more com-
plex, involving conic sections, which cannot be
drawn with a compass.
The rake boards, at the gable ends, along
the roofline, taper to a dimension almost two
inches smaller at the bottom than at the top.
This taper was highly valued up until the Greek
Revival and was done for two reasons: it re-
flected the rafters within the attic space which
tapered similarly, and it forced the perspective
for a visual effect. Later, after the Federal
period, rake boards were not tapered.
Eighteenth century rose head nails were
used throughout the house, and are clearly seen
holding the attic floorboards in place. Gener-
ally, the flooring is original, white pine, one-
inch thick boards. The flooring pattern in the
attic is different from the first and second
floors: the attic floorboards all run in the
north-south direction. The first and second
floors' floorboards run north-south in the four
rooms, but east-west in the central passage
zone. The cellar floor was probably dirt origin-
ally, but now is covered in modern concrete with
only a small portion of that concrete missing
from around the fireplace/bake oven, namely
where a previous closet with shelves and hearth
The bake oven is built of brick and is in
the cellar for winter use as was the custom in
early Nantucket houses. The bricks are par-
getted in order to prevent sparks from leaving
any of the chambers, and in order to retain the
head. The addition to the north of the main
fireplace mass was used to hold a copper bowl
for warming water used in cleaning, dyeing, and
other kitchen functions. The actual baking
chamber is a later addition added within the
main firebox. To heat the bake oven a fire was
made within the oven itself. When the chamber
was sufficiently hot, the ashes were scooped
out onto the main hearth and swept into the
fireplace.6 The fireplace has been successively
changed since the addition of the bake oven. It
is now bricked in and is inoperable. The original
parts such as the hearth and the original brick-
work arch which is supported by the wooden
structural system are still in place. Restoration
Rose Head Nails
of this bake oven would be hard work, but worthy
of the effort, because it is a fine example of
each of the three main elements discussed.
Other fireplaces in the house have keen
changed in the house's history. Federal style
mantles grace the fireplaces in a way that they
would not have in the Colonial or Greek Revival
periods. The mantles in all but the present
kitchen were perhaps added late in the 1805-1830
period along with other extensive woodwork and
paneling. This work may also be dated by study
of the moulding shapes characteristic of the
Federal period, and by the hand planed wall and
Early plastering was always done after the
woodwork and abutted it. Modern plastering is
done before the woodwork trim is applied in order
to conceal the joints. We know then that the -
plaster is not modern, but it is not original.
If the woodwork were added in place of the
original, and if early plastering always abutted
that woodwork, then the plastering was added
at the time the new woodwork was put in. Further-
more, a study of the lath which holds the plaster
to the wall and provides a "skeleton" for it,
shows that it is cut rather than split. The
earliest lath was split, the later was cut.
Sawn lath was evident at the second floor window
during the removal of the window frame for repairs.
In the attic space, lath still shows on the back
side of the walls of the rooms there. Therefore,
those rooms are not original with the building,
but were added.
Another important element of the interior
which has undergone change is the stairway. The
original stairways would have had little ornamenta-
tion because stairways were seen as purely func-
tional elements. The rear winder stairway is
likely to be an original staircase, because it
has little ornamentation and occupies a minimum
A pattern has developed which indicates
that some major remodeling was done to the interior
of the house. The plaster is new, the woodwork
is new, even the hardware, for the most part, is
new.8 Most likely, the remodeling of the house
took place late in the 1805-1830 period. It is
also likely that in that period the two missing
posts were removed.
The ell was added at a date later than the
construction date of the main house. A part of
the early door frame leading from the central
passage to the rear of the building projects
below the floorboards of the ell. A few shingles
also project below the floorboards. These items
were never removed when the addition was made,
and leave a record of the building sequence.
The nails that hold the remaining shingles are
too deteriorated to identify the period in which
they were applied. We do know, however, that
an ell was built after 1834, and shows in the Wm.
Coffin Jr. Map of 1834.9 Whether the ell which
now exists is the same building is still not
certain. The deed of 1854 does not show the ell,
but it was often the practice in those days not
to include out buildings in such documents.
The ell was traditionally used as a
service building; for storage and kitchen
functions. A well is in the crawlspace beneath
the ell, and the floorboards in the ell were
probably removed for easy access to the water
for those kitchen functions. New foundations
were built for the ell in recent history, and
the interior of the ell has likewise been re-
cently remodeled. Little remains of the original
detail work in the ell, but some details merit
mention. For example, in the bathroom of the
ell, Henry Coffin's signature is scratched on
the central pane of the lower sash. Other in-
terior details have been covered by the remodel-
ing efforts, but exterior details show. Single
cornerboards and window frames in the bathroom
are evidence that the ell is newer than the main
Most recently, the house has been fitted
with a new kitchen, and efforts to make the house
more comfortable are underway. New shingles have
replaced old ones damaged by vines and rotten
with age. Old floorboards have been sanded.
Olt window frames have been replaced while others
have been painted. In short, this mansion (as
old documents describe it) is experiencing a
modern day facelift.
Some eighteenth century building techniques
and materials are used in this house, but some
early nineteenth century technologies and elements
are also used. Therefore, by carefully examining
the building fabric of the Zenas Coffin mansion,
the original building dates can be traced to
about the first decade of the nineteenth century.
Since then, rooms have changed function, rooms
have been added, an ell has been added, and a
major remodeling took place after the house was
built. The results of that remodeling are still
extant, but the house continues to undergo change
through modern times.10
1. Lancaster, p. .15.
2. Isham, p. 10.
3. Peterson, p. 66.
4. Lancaster, p. 59.
5. Brown/Isham, p. 229.
7. Peterson, p. 72.
8. Isham, p. 42.
9. Wm. Coffin Map of 1834.
10. During his consutlation, Mr. Paul Buchanan
provided a wealth of information which came
to the fore throughout this part of the
The Zenas Coffin house has been generally
well maintained in view of regular attention.
Cedar shingling has recently been replaced. Also
windows and exterior trim were painted. Roof
asphaltic shingling are likewise in good condi-
Landscape materials which often beautify a house
also sometimes cause damage. This section con-
tains some items to be aware of.
1. Item - Grade (slope)
Location - Around the ell
Problem - Slope is toward the building
causing water to be held against
Solution - Change angle by relocation of
2. Item - Vines
Location - Exterior walls
Problem - The enormous weight damages
shingles and other exterior
Solution - Remove vines periodically.
3. Item - Tree
Location - Southwest corner of main house
Problem - Possibility of root system under-
mining the foundation causing
structural damage and water
Solution - Transfer tree elsewhere.
The natural weathering and aging process must be
checked in any building or it will be lost. This
section deals with items of particular importance.
1. Item - Brick foundation
Location - Real wall under deck
Problem - Mortar deteriorated because of water
either running down the face of the
brick and/or water in the soil not
Solution - Flashing placed at deck level above
brick problem and/or a grade change
to encourage water runoff. After
this repoint brick.
2. Item - Stoop
Location - Front elevation
Problem - The stoop needs ventilation to avoid
Solution - Drill or cut vents.
3. Item - Window sash
Location - South side of cellar
Problem - In contact with soil.
Solution - Lower grade and place a drain
in front of window.
4. Item - Brick foundation
Location - Summer Street elevation (north
Problem - Brick spelling.
Solution - Spalling of brick is best remedied
by replacing the brick and re-
5. Item - Chimney
Location - Cellar, south side
Problem - Flue filled with soot and trash
Solution - Chimney sweeping
See Number 1, Future Considerations
RESTORATION IN ORDER TO MAINTAIN - PAST WORK
This section is intended to briefly point out
some maintenance considerations of past restora-
1. Item - Shingle siding
Location - The front and the two side eleva-
tions of the main mass.
Problem - Damage from weather and heavy
vines, eventually would allow seep-
age into the wall.
Solution - Vines removed from shingles and
new shingle siding installed. A
tar paper vapor barrier was placed
under the new shingles.
2. Item - Old windows
Location - South elevation
Problem - Old windows were rotting.
Solution - The windows were removed and re-
3. Item - Chimney .
Location - Southern half of building i
Problem - Probably water damage from leaking /
Solution - Chimney rebuilt from the attic
floor up and fix the leak.
4. Item - Corner board
Location - Northeast corner main mass
Problem - Rot from water.
Solution - Match, splice in, and then paint
the entire corner board.
RESTORATION TO MAINTAIN - FUTURE CONSIDERATION
This section is intended to briefly point out
some considerations for future restoration.
1. Item - Fireplace
Location - Cellar, southern portion
Problem- The fireplace has been bricked up.
Solution- Late brick should be removed and
fireplace restored. .
2. Item - Closet
Location - Adjacent to cellar fireplace
Problem- Partially destroyed.
Solution- Copy remaining trim and framing 7
to reconstruct closet.
\1 " ""
3. Item - Ceiling
Location - The ell
Problem - The ceiling is not original and is
covering up the old timber system.
Solution - Remove ceiling except in the
bathroom area and then extend the
bathroom walls to the roof.
4. Item - The well
Location - In the southwest corner of the ell.
Problem - The well opening in the floor was
Solution - A solution for this situation is
not obvious. If the well were re-
opened it would change the func-
tion of the room considerably.
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