JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
AN ARCHITECTURAL ANALYSIS
Fred Harley Huddleston
The Nantucket Institute/
The University of Florida
This study is directed toward determining the evolutionary processes
of the Joshua Coffin House. The history of the structure contains the
account of its being constructed on the site of the old town of Sherburne
(Sherborn) C.1720 and reconstructed on its present site in 1756. The
validity of this account has been disputed for many years while an analysis
of the structure has never been proposed or executed. This study is an
attempt at undertaking that analysis, to present a possible origin of the
structure and subsequent changes.
101 Entry Hall (porch)
Exposed structure posts and beams are beaded. Beam on the north
wall has been extended with a newer section which suggests an
enlargement of the entry hall and stairwell.
Stairs Style is common to the 1750's period with tall, slender,
square, and tappered spindles andnewel post.
Windows One on west wall which lets light into "secret" room (209)
on second floor.
Wall Plaster on lath, papered.
102 Sitting Roao (hall)
Exposed structure posts: northeast is rough hewn and remainder
are beaded. Beams: all are beaded.
Windows three six over six
Wall Plaster on lath and papered.
103 Bath and Kitchen
Exposed Structure Beaded beams and corner posts.
Windows Two small six over six windows
Wall Plaster on lath, painted.
104 Bedroom (Kitchen or Keeping Room)
Exposed Structure Champered post with bracket top in center of west
wall. Rough hewn post in northwest corner. Ceiling beams and
joists added for support of second floor.
Windows two nine over nine
Wall plaster on lath. Flush wainscoating 3' in height. Sealer door
in north wall.
Fireplace for cooking, beehive oven, mantle shelf.
105 No Access
Exposed Structure beaded beams and posts, no exposed summer beam.
Windows one in bath (c.1940) on north wall; two on west wall,
six over six.
Walls entire south wall is paneled; others are plaster on lath.
Fireplace matches size in 102.
Exposed Structure none
Windows one nine over- nine on north wall and one six over six on south
Walls plaster on lath except stairwell which is vertical paneling.
Staircase enclosed with cellar access underneath.
108 Bedroom (shed)
109 Secret Room
Exposed Structure plaster on brick
Exposed Structure rough hewn post in northwest corner; beaded beam in
Windows one six over six in east hall
Walls plaster on lath, papered
Staircase see 101
202 Sitting Room (Hall Room)
Exposed Structure ceiling beam in south wall is rough hewn. Two
corner posts (on east wall) are rough hewn gunstock. Beaded
Windows two six over six on west wall and one six over six on south
Walls Plaster on lath. Fireplace wall (north) had no paneling
originally; present paneling is C.1940.
Fireplace larger than 102.
Exposed Structure one corner post (beaded)
Windows one six over six
Walls plaster on lath north wall has a row of early wood pegs.
Exposed Structure post in center of west wall is rough hewn gunstockk).
All beams are beaded. Post in the northwest corner is a
gunstock post with early paint (grey-blue)
Floor replaced boards around hearth suggest a larger hearth at one
Windows Two six over twelve on west wall.
Walls plaster on lath except for the stairwell which is surrounded by
Stairs to garret space
Structure beaded corner posts, beams, and summer beam.
- two twelve over twelve in east wall
plaster on lath, wainscoating on all walls
Exposed Structure corner posts and beams are all beaded
Windows Two six over six in east wall
Walls south wall fully paneled with bolection molding surrounding
the fireplace. All others are plaster on lath, papered.
Fireplace matches those in room 102 and 106 in size.
001 Vegetable Cellar
Now dismantled, whitewash on wood plank and plaster on lath walls.
Adjoins chimney base which has a raised platform at this point in its
structure which is below 109.
002 Summer Kitchen
Exposed Structure summer beam is rough hewn, with cambered ends.
One post probably once used as a beam; cambered edgqs, mortise
and tenon connections, and is seven feet three inches high.
Windows two, eight lights each
Walls west wall is vertical plank and one 6" wide beaded board chair
rail. The first fifty inches of the exterior wall is stone with
brick extending it to seven feet seven inches.
Floor brick, hearth outlined in bricks laid vertically
Garret Only rafters A. B, C, and D, have roman numeral markings. A
carved purline exists on the east side between rafters C and D.
The early elements are located on the southern half of the house but
does this mean that the form of the original house is intact? Certainly
not. The haphazard arrangement of the earlier structural elements reveals
that ifacomplete structure was moved, many elements were not kept in the
The Joshua Coffin house was more than likely a total new structure in
1756 containing members from an earlier structure which was taken down.
There is no way possible to take certain structural elements from the Joshua
Coffin house and come up with a reasonably logical and truthful reconstruction
of an early Nantucket residence. Of course, the approximate size of the
original building can be determined from the rafter placement and what did
exist on Nantucket at that time but room placement, detailing, etc.,
would become an exercise in guessing.
HISTORIC AMERICAN BUILDINGS SURVEY
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
No. 52 Center Street, on west side of
Center Street at the corner of Gay
Street, formerly Coffin's Court,
Mildred Coffin Edgarton (Mrs. Lewis S. Edgarton)
Mrs. Edgarton (Great-great-granddaughter of
One of the best examples of the mid-eighteenth
century ship-masters' houses; a full house
plan, central chimney and door, frame, gable
roof with lean-to.
PART I. HISTORICAL INFORMATION
A. Physical History:
1. Original and subsequent owners:
1756 -- Joshua and Beulah (Gardner) Coffin. The land
on which the house was built was given to the
young couple by Beulah Coffin's father, the
deed reading in part as follows: "Grantor,
Peter Gardner, of Sherborn, County of Nantucket,
Massachusetts, in consideration of the love
and affection I have and bear unto Beulah,
my daughter, now the wife of Joshua Coffin
of Sherborn aforesaid, mariner, and for
divers other weighty, lawfull and reasonable
causes and considerations."
1785 -- Joshua Coffin, son of the above owner. This
deed mentions a consideration of 96 pounds.
1796 -- Enoch Gardner (ownership now out of family)
1838 -- Henry F. Coffin, grandson of first owner.
(Described in first deed as the mansion
house of Joshua Coffin)
1851 -- Elisha Doane
1852 -- Nancy W. Doane. She died in 1875, leaving
property to two sisters:
1875 -- Lydia Capen and Mary G. Hatch
1895 -- Mary G. Durfee (daughter of Charles Hatch)
1916 -- John B. Coffin (great-grandson of original
owner), Bertha R. Coffin, Adelaide B. Coffin.
1955 -- to date -- Mildred C. Edgarton, sister of
Adelaide B. Coffin, and great-great-grand-
_ __i __ __
HABS No. IMASS-1004
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
HABS No. MASS-1004(Page 2)
daughter of Joshua Coffin, first owner,
(Abstract, Old Deeds and Records in
Possession of Mrs. Edgarton and Registry
of Deeds, Nantucket, Massachusetts
2. Date of erection: 1756 or probably earlier. The
main part of the house was built at Sherburne and
moved to its present location in 1756, when the
adjoining ell and woodshed were added. A beam
in the front entry helps to date this house in the
3. Architect: None,
4. Original plans, construction, etc.: No plans
known. The adjoining ell with its chimney was
added after the house was moved, and soon after
the woodshed in the shape of a lean-to completed
There is at the top of the stairs leading to the
"walk" a small space in which to store the tele-
scope which was used when looking out to sea.
5. Notes on alterations and additions: The entrance
with its sidelights is not the original one.
Previous to the Revolution a section was taken
out of the front of the chimney to allow for a
capacious storeroom which Captain Coffin
designed as a concealed safe deposit for his
valuables in the event of an anticipated British
raid on the Island. The steep narrow stairway
rises, as usual, apparently against the chimney
stack and the presence of the storeroom would
not be suspected if it were not for a window
which has now been let into the front wall on
the second floor which discloses the inner
stairway running from the cellar to the attic,
terminating at a trap concealed in the attic
floor. The secret room or storeroom has generally
been referred to as the "secret chamber" or the
"cellar in the attic."
Parts of the balustrade which extended across the
front of the roof are carefully preserved at the
present time, while the characteristics of the
roof-walk may be studied in old photographs in
possession of the family.
The house at the present time contains several
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
HABS No. MASS-1004(Page 3)
B. Historical Events Connected with the Structure:
Center Street was laid out in 1678 when the Wesco
Acre Lots were divided and so was one of the first
to be opened within the present limits of the Town.
It was always popular as a residential locality,
but south of the location of this house most of the
houses were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1846.
An old cistern at the back of the house near the
steps was discovered about 1965. It was found to
be 22 feet deep and to have 7 inches of water in
it. The present owner has had.a housing placed
over the cistern with the old pump in place nearby.
This cistern was used by the neighborhood for their
water supply. The deed to the land on which the
house stands reads at the end: "Provided neverthe-
less I the said Peter Gardner do hereby reserve unto
myself, my heirs and assigns a lane or alley of 4
feet wide from the aforementioned south hieway to
pass threw the aforementioned piece of land unto
Captain Henry F. Coffin, when he was thirteen years
of age, shipped on the whaleship Ploughboy, of
which his father was part owner, for a five year
cruise. He bore the mark of this voyage to his
dying day -- a scar on his leg made by a splinter
from the whale-boat in which he was serving which
was crushed by the jaws of a whale.
In the attic of the house record remains, in chalk
on the beams, of sundry voyages including the names
of many famous whalers of which the Coffins were
masters and part owners, such as the Ploughboy of
1827, the Lima of 1828, the Rose of 1829, the Swift,
Lopez, and Conqueror of later dates.
Henry Coffin, in spare moments in the forecastle
and later, as a petty officer, educated himself by
the light of his sperm oil lamp so successfully that
when he came to take his examination in New York he
was given an A.A. rating as both Pilot and Ship's
Master at the first trial.
C. Sources of Information:
1. Old Views: photograph showing roof-walk and
balustrade in possession of Mrs. Lewis S. Edgarton,
Duprey, Kenneth. Old Houses on Nantucket.
New York: Architectural Book Publishing Co.,
__ ___ *1.___
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
HABS No. MASS-1004(Page 4)
Mixer, Knowlton. Old Houses of New England.
New York: The Macmillan Co., 1927.
Prepared by Mrs. Marie M. Coffin
PART II. ARCHITECTURAL INFORMATION
A. General Statement:
1. Architectural character: Typical eighteenth century
Nantucket house, two and a half stories with an ell,
wood frame with shingle exterior, central chimney,
irregular hidden space between fireplaces and behind
front stairhall, projecting plank window frames,
carpenter classic doorway.
2. Condition of fabric: Excellent; minor modification
of the original building, including addition of ell,
changes in partitions and fenestration to accommodate
small apartments, roof-walk removed.
B. Description of the Exterior:
1. Overall Dimensions:
a. Original structure: Built in five bays with
central bay at chimney mass, 37' 7" front
by 30' 9".
b. Ell including shed 12' 4" by 32' 10".
2. Foundations: Stone and brick foundation walls built
in stages; brick above grade at street elevations
with exterior surfaces stuccoed and scored to
simulate coursed ashlar, painted black, fixed lights;
chimney foundation below grade; fireplace foundation
of brick masonry and wood lintels with first floor
hearths supported by half-round brick vaults and sills
let into adjacent beams.
3. Wall construction: Wood frame, 1" by 14" average
horizontal sheathing with beveled edges, 3" by 4"
studs at 29" o.c. where exposed; shingles weathered
grey, 5" average exposures; cornerboards, base
trim, cornice, door and window trim painted white.
4. Structural system: Large oak and pine timber, braced
frame post and lintel platform system, mortise and
tenon with peg (treenail) fasteners where exposed;
"gun stock" posts in walls of early structure first
and second floor, posts appear to extend from sill
to plate, beams and girts exposed and finished with
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
HABS No. MASS-1004(Page 5)
beaded edges; beams are perpendicular to the long
dimension of the house; variety of framing in
first floor indicates extensive modification of
original fabric when it was moved from Sherburne
a. Central chimney, brick, seven flues, corbelled
necking, leaning 1" out of plumb to the north
and east (local tradition insists that this
improved the draft), painted white.
b. Chimney in ell removed above roof, enclosed below.
6. Stoops, bulkhead:
a. Stoop front entry: "T" shaped front stoop; three
risers each 6 3/4" average, 8" riser to threshold
recessed in doorway; square newels capped, molded
handrail, cylindrical balusters, mortise and tenon,
dowel fasteners; treads and platform on 1 7/8"
thick boards, round nosing; trim and face of stoop
painted white, treads and floor are grey.
b. Wood stoops at three rear entrances are modern.
c. Bulkhead to cellar: sidewalls are wood above
grade, stone below; stone and brick steps; wood
board door hinged at edge.
a, Doorways and doors:
1.) Front (Center Street) doorway has carpenter
classic trim, bold flat cornice, two pilasters
at each side, louvered panel each side suggest
sidelights (frame and glass stored in cellar
appear to match these openings. Placement of
door to center below second floor window causes
hall-parlor partition to block left sidelight;
sidelights probably never installed for this
reason), flush panel below each louvered panel;
base mold of entablature 1" above molded caps
of pilasters, cornice of flat cyma reversal and
ovolo moldings; door of six panels with top two
2.) Rear doorways and doors: Modern.
b. Windows: Windows in street facades are six-over-
six single hung, 10'1 by 14" panes, 3/4" muntins; '
windows in other elevations and off garret are
twelve-over-twelve, six-over-nine with 6" by 9"
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
HABS No, MASS-1004(Page 6)
panes, 1"" muntins; projecting plank
frames, mortise and tenon joints with
wood peg fasteners; louvered wood shutters
(Center Street facade only) painted black,
pintles in other window frames, shutters
stored in cellar; head trim of second
floor windows of east and west elevations
extend into cornice holdings.
a. Shape and covering: 'Gable roofs on house
and ell, shed at west end of ell; grey
asphalt shingles; roof sheathing of wood
boards 1" by 14" 20" parallels roof slope
and nailed to purlins between rafters;
wood gutters, sheet metal downspouts;
b. Framing: Five bays 5" horizontal by 7"
vertical rafters, three 3" by 4" purlins
in each slope supplemented by modern
construction, one purlin at center space
set at diagonal; mortise and tenon, peg
or treenail fasteners; joists of cock's
loft and collar beams mortised into
c. Scuttle in west slope of gable provides
ventilation, formerly access to roof-walk
(late nineteenth century photographs show
roof-walk and wood balustrade at lower
edge of east slope).
C. Description of the Interior:
1. Floor plans:
a. First floor is rectangular with ell at
southwest corner; front doorway opens into
small entry-stairhall with doorways to parlor,
double parlor and staircase to second floor
opposite entrance; closet under staircase
provides access to hidden chamber between
fireplaces; double parlor (modified c. 1940
as apartment including living room, bedroom,
bath, and kitchen) formerly divided by
sliding doors; doorway from entry left to
parlor, hall to ell and to winter kitchen,
doorway between parlor and winter kitchen
closed but in place; bath, closets, and kitchen,
at southwest corner of winter kitchen; doorway
between winter kitchen and double parlor;
staircases to second floor and to
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
HABS No. MASS-1004(Page 7)
cellar; laundry and exit to stoop; ell
modified as apartment including living
room, bedroom, bath, and kitchen-dining
(ell originally built as large kitchen
with coal and wood bin in shed).
b. Cellar: Stairway from hall in ell to cellar,
a large space defined by chimney mass and
wood board partitions; portion used as summer
kitchen with cooking fireplace; bins for
wood and miscellaneous storage.
c. Second floor: Front staircase and hall, two
bedrooms over double parlor, bedroom left
from front stairhall, bedroom and hall to
kitchen, staircase to garret, access to ell,
staircase to first floor, bath and bedroom
d. Garret: Large unfinished space except for
room at south east corner screened with
vertical board partition, board ceiling with
exposed joists, gable wall and roof slope
plastered; work bench with wood vise at
north end of garret; ladder to scuttle; trap
door in garret floor and ladder down to "secret"
chamber at second floor level defined by rear
wall of front stairhall, back walls of fire-
places and corbelled dome below central chimney;
window set into rear wall of front stairhall.
2. Stairways include front from first to second floor,
staircase from second floor to garret, stairway from
first floor to cellar.
a. Front staircase: "U" shaped staircase with two
landings, string decoration in modified cyma
recta profile, rectangular balusters, tapered
square newels, molded handrail, wood wainscot.
b. Rear staircase from first to second floor: "L"
shaped with winders at first floor, rope
c. Stairway from second floor to garret: "U"
shaped stair with winders.
d. Stairway between first floor to basement:
straight run, wood handrail.
3. Flooring: Wood boards 1" by 14-19" boards painted
light grey or white brown, linoleum and miscellaneous
coverings, cut nails; attic floor boards 3/4" by 20"
average; cellar floor of cobblestones.
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
HABS No, MASS-1004(Page 8)
4. Wall and ceiling finish: Plaster applied directly
to wood board partitions, wood lath and masonry;
wood paneling feather-edged; plaster surfaces
either painted or papered.
5. Doorways and doors: Simple wood trim at doorways,
some four-pane fixed transoms, two- and four-panel
doors feather-edged one side only, dowel fasteners;
vertical board and batten doors.
.6. Decorative features and trim: Typical Nantucket
house noted for its simplicity with decoration
limited to beading of structural members and paneling
of fireplace walls in principal rooms, wainscot in
front staircase; flush board wainscot in several
rooms; parlor fireplace is paneled, partly of re-
used two-panel doors, modified bolection moldings
in pallor and bedroom fireplace surrounds; double
parlor fireplace mantel and surround painted to
simiul ate black marble with white-brown veins;
board and batten door at cellar stairway painted in
tylizced wood grain.
Totable hnarc'are. Iron H and strap hinges; iron
.iuminb latch-_ operate iron and wood bars; brass
L Lciich -it front door operates wood bar pivoted
;oite ni!.: of door moving in wood guide; iron
... .ta and nails for hanging lighting
c'.:. w poes on strips, hooks and other hanging
;: rn electric; hanging devices for lamps,
;M ot water system located in cellar,
I rs 'tors first floor only, second
) i..itL fiLeplaces (closed off in winter),
.* s c .i flow warn air system remain.
a i- : Prainted cement front hearth,
i. i- ri and revwals, iron fireback.
b. p place: Wood .antel and surround
i'd !. : black inair!)le .iti'h brown
v c.: he. I th, 7" by 7" ceramic
t.i ii:ick rc-vLa is and back, iron
fir ,pie. ,tapl fo cooking crane.
c. Kitcl I te.nt hearth, brick reveals
and b,i:kL, .ii'ouind and mantel, two-ponel
wood Cl i .: ovwn ulth storage bin below
at left. o ,; i on st.!ple for. cooking crane.
d. Basement (s i .tchoni fireplace: brick hearth,
reveals ai: ; o~ning is partly closed with
JOSHUA COFFIN HOUSE
HABS No. TiASS-1004(Page 9)
flue to accommodate pipe thimble, ash oven
and bin left of opening, bracketed wood
mantel over opening.
e. Fireplace, north bedroom: Stucco surround,
brick reveals and back, brick rear hearth,
7" by 7" tile front hearth, bolection molding,
staple for cooking crane, wood mantel shelf
(not original), paneled fireplace wall.
f. Fireplace, south bedroom; Stucco surround;
brick hearth, reveals and back; wood trim and
panels above to ceiling.
;. Fireplace, second floor kitchen: Stucco
Muriound, brick hearth and reveal, iron cooking
cranc in place, classic mantel and surround.
Joshua Coffin House faces east on Center Street at the
:h..: corner of Center and Gay Streets, northwest of
Jani l Coffin House; separated from asphalt paved streets
ut- I..:ite curbs and asphalt walks (Early photograph
p! fence and brick walk); garden at west of ell,
a. : .V~e at nouthweft corner of site with access from
*I .:stern constructed of segmental bricks near
Gce .on rcmaiis of wood well head and pump base
if '. .i; picket fence and shed behind Gay Street
Aj -idated photograph shows small lean-to privy
) J- L
Prepared by F. Blair Reeves AIA
August 1, 1969
S PART II. TJ' ; lFORMATTIO
These record --e7 arc, a part of the 1969 Historic
American BuiJ o-, y suhiiie:r project. on Nantucket,
Massachusetts i. :i the: I.;ur[h pro]c.i. o0 a continuing
HABS comprehei-; of ,!.'- y Lrh:ii:. cture and
urban design o .: .i b a ..nt rom the
Nantucket Histc. 1
The project was ii.: ,ner.1 supc:vision of James C.
Massey, Chief of i jic -ic- t .li ng Survey.
,. Project Director I': ." '.s A.I ,A,
of the Universit :'lrida, Student ;:'-iticects who
assisted in the p icn of the reia:~u ( 'awin,; ,ere
John D. Davenport :.; niv:J Edward Bondi
(University of Flo ) A- ,n ... A. ana State
University), and Ro, I. ;:u. (.iv u Florida).
Historical informati I /.; pr i' .!ed Ib/
'rie '.I. Coffin