Archive for February, 2017

The Noah Blake Outhouse, Part II

February 19, 2017 |  by  |  Comments Off on The Noah Blake Outhouse, Part II

The Noah Blake Outhouse, Part II

     It was my intention to repair the outhouse following the  recommendations set forth by the architectural firm hired by the state of Connecticut to provide building assessments for those structures that constitute the Eric Sloane Museum of Kent. Unfortunately, the outhouse was more substantively degraded than it appeared in situ. I don’t believe that, in its current condition, it could have been repaired following the plan set forth in the architectural overview document.  It will prove far more cost effective to replicate it.

The underside of the Noah Blake outhouse reveals the substantial degradation of the bottom support structure.  Much of the wood shows signs of wood destroying insect infestation.

     A preliminary examination of the outhouse shows a lack of concern for historical accuracy in the construction of the outhouse.  Some of these inaccuracies include the use of modern dimensional lumber, 20th century steel hinges and nails, as well as sawn lumber employed in siding. These inaccuracies present an interesting set of challenge, posed as questions, below.

Interior framing of the Noah Blake outhouse, showing modern dimensional lumber and framing nails.

     The first question is one of purpose. Why did Sloane have the outhouse built in a manner that suggests a lack of concern for historical accuracy?  Eric Sloane knew as well as anyone what would materials would have been used, as well as what construction methods would have been utilized, to build an outhouse that was standing in 1805. I suspect, but have no direct evidence, that the cabin and non-functioning outhouse were built for two purposes.  It seems obvious that the primary purpose of constructing the outhouse and cabin on museum grounds was to provide visitors with the experience of visiting “Noah’s cabin” as depicted in Sloane’s Diary of An Early American Boy:  Noah Blake 1805.  I surmise, again with no direct evidence, that Sloane’s second purpose in building the cabin was to use it as a movie set.  Recall that prior to the construction of the cabin and the outhouse, Sloane had been approached by representatives of the Walt Disney Corporation seeking to purchase the rights to the story for the purpose of turning it into a Disney movie. When Disney’s awkward offer failed, I believe Eric Sloane had in mind to somehow work a deal with a producer and make the movie independently.  Again, I am not working from any evidence.  Both reasons, however, provide a framework for understanding why Sloane chose to build the cabin and outhouse the way he did.  Outwardly, they appear historically accurate enough to satisfy most viewers (those in person and those in front of a television or movie screen).  In many ways, this kind of thinking for Eric was not unlike his approach to his art – it was best to provide viewers with a glimpse – a mood – rather than to try to include every last detail.  The construction details of the cabin and the outhouse suggest that Sloane was not envisioning a professional, Williamsburg type of creation.  Rather, the cabin and outhouse seem to be more purpose-built for visitation and perhaps for a future movie set.  Perhaps information in the archives at the museum may yet shed light on this hypothesis.

Detail of the framing used in the Noah Blake outhouse

     The second question that the cabin and outhouse raises is where was it supposed to be?  Sloane’s Diary of An Early American Boy provides no location for the cabin.  Sloane does provide some tantalizing clues, but nothing solid enough to pinpoint the location of the cabin.  He does reveal that the Blake homestead is near a fairly large village, as it is described as having a ropewalk, a meetinghouse, a cooper, and a millwright. Of course, the cabin was put on museum grounds for obvious reasons, but where would have it been located?  1805 would have been a period of time in New England in which disparities in technology and building techniques would have been evident depending upon geographic location, so the point is not a minor one.

Detail of hinges and hardware used on the door of the Noah Blake outhouse.

         These issues are challenges because of the opportunity to reconstruct the Noah Blake outhouse. An argument can be made for one of several approaches:

  1. Reconstruct the outhouse using modern tools, lumber, and techniques,
  2. Replicate the outhouse to conform to how it was found,
  3. Replicate the outhouse to conform to how it would have been constructed if it was standing in the Kent area prior to 1805.
  4. Replicate the outhouse to conform to what is known or surmised from Sloane’s Diary of An Early American Boy.

Detail of circular saw marks, found throughout the Noah Blake outhouse.  Aside from the historical ambiguity concerning the date for the invention of the circular saw, these marks were made by a saw deriving it’s power from electricity or other constant source of power.

     The approach I would prefer to take with respect to the outhouse is one that places it in context with the Diary story, not necessarily in context with what was happening technologically in and around the Kent area in the early 19th century.  Given what Sloane includes in the Diary book, I would prefer to use lumber that has been dressed with an adze throughout the construction of the outhouse. Currently, the outhouse is constructed with a curious mix of modern, pressure treated dimension lumber, and sawn lumber from the early 1970s. Likely, some of this lumber was added through the years in an attempt to reinforce the structure.

Unfortunately, most of the sawn lumber is rotted and displays obvious signs of being cut with a circular blade.  Ironically, Sloane himself wrote of the invention of the circular saw by a Quaker woman in 1813.  Others have pointed to an earlier date for the invention, but either historical possibility makes it difficult to believe that an outhouse supposedly standing in 1805 would be clad in boards that were cut by a circular saw in a commercial saw mill.  One technological aspect of the cuts that render them impossibility prior to 1805 is that they are uniform in appearance, revealing that the power used to move the machinery was constant, e.g. electric.  A circular saw blade deriving it’s power from water would not show uniformity in the distance between each mark.  A practical consideration that reduces the possibility of circular saws having been employed prior to 1805 to cut the lumber for the outhouse is that it is much more likely that boards for an outhouse would have simply been cut down and adzed from a local tree, not commercially purchased.

Detail of roof, showing modern roofing nails used to affix commercially available cedar shakes to the roof decking  

     My approach would be to re-frame and clad the structure in new lumber, dressing that lumber with an adze to make it appear appropriate to the intended period and purpose.  I will re-use all of the 18th century nails found currently in the structure, and will procure additional nails as needed of the same type.  The modern hardware store hinges will be replaced with blacksmith made strap hinges, which also would have been more appropriate.  Roof shingles will be of hewn Cedar, and the interior will be whitewashed as most outhouses of the time were. In Part III, I’ll provide a written and visual overview of how these components will be made and used in the Noah Blake outhouse.

Eric Sloane and the Noah Blake Cabin Outhouse

February 14, 2017 |  by  |  No Comments

     This is the first in a series of articles to outline the efforts underway to refurbish the Noah Blake homestead on the grounds of the Eric Sloane Museum, in Kent, Connecticut.

The Noah Blake Outhouse: Part I

By 2010, it was apparent that the Noah Blake cabin, outhouse, and ash hopper had been neglected to the point that all three structures needed substantive work. A master plan was developed by a Massachusetts architecture firm for the “repair and modification” of each of these three structures. Unfortunately, the recommendations contained in the master plan were tabled indefinitely and it was not until a new administration occupied the offices of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development that interest in the plans was renewed. Unfortunately by this time the state – like most other states – was financially strapped, and did not allocate financial support to follow through with the recommendations included on the master plan.

It was in early 2015 that the founder and President of the Friends of the Eric Sloane Museum, James Mauch, forged a relationship with Kristina Newman-Scott, the new Director of Culture for the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, the organization tasked with day-to-day operations (among a myriad of other things) of the four state-run museums in Connecticut.  Kristina understood immediately the importance of the four museums and worked diligently to create an environment in which the state could work cooperatively with the Friends organization.  Catherine Labadia, Staff Archaeologist for the DECD, worked tirelessly to create an innovative and creative framework whereby the Friends of the Eric Sloane Museum could assume responsibility for the rehabilitation of the Noah Blake Cabin. In the summer of 2016, the State of Connecticut and the Friends of the Eric Sloane Museum entered into a formal agreement to have the Friends assume responsibility for restoring the Noah Blake Cabin.

It was during this time that Barb Russ of the Eric Sloane Museum was made aware of an estimate to have the Noah Blake Outhouse refurbished, the low estimate coming in at over $7,500. Mauch conferred with Catherine Labadia concerning the willingness of the state to have the Friends assume responsibility for the outhouse, and it was agreed that he would either restore or replicate the outhouse based upon an assessment of the structure.