Walls that Talk: Preservationists Seek to Uncover Architectural Secrets of a 19th Century Landmark
“If these walls could talk….” whispers a guest on a guided tour of the Pavilion, the house built by William Ferris Pell in 1826 below the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga.
As a matter of fact, these walls can talk, or they will talk, at least to those who have been trained to listen, once a study of the structure now underway is completed.
In the interim, Fort Ticonderoga curator Chris Fox has been leading tours of the building, and although the team from the firm of historic preservation architect John G. Waite started work only recently, the walls are already yielding clues about the building’s history.
“We’re finding that we don’t know as much about the Pavilion as we thought we did. Behind the lathe and plaster, the building is telling us its own story,” Fox told a group taking the tour last weekend.
According to Fox, Pell built the Pavilion in 1826, a few years after he had purchased the Fort Ticonderoga ruins and surrounding lands from Union and Columbia Colleges.
Pell soon realized, however, a hotel was needed to lodge the increasing numbers of tourists visiting the fort or transferring from Lake George steamboats to those plying Lake Champlain, and by the 1840s, the house had become a hotel.
Some of the guest registers have been preserved, and according to Fox, the hotel lodged a number of notables, including Francis Parkman, Seneca Ray Stoddard, Robert Todd Lincoln and U.S. Grant, Jr.
“Whether it was a good hotel or not, we don’t know. There’s conflicting evidence. Some letters say it was good, others say it was the worst hotel they’d ever visited,” said Fox.
“By 1900, the building had fallen into disrepair; it was no longer habitable, as either a home or a hotel. Farm animals were living in one wing,” said Fox. “It was in worse condition than it is now.”
It was at this point, Fox said, that the Pell family “stepped back into the picture.”
In 1909, William Ferris Pell’s great-grandson, Stephen Pell and his wife Sarah G.T. Pell began the reconstruction of the fort and the restoration of the Pavilion. It was the family’s summer home until Stephen Pell’s death in 1950, when it passed to his son, John H. G. Pell. He and his family occupied it until his death in 1987. It has been vacant ever since.
“We know a lot about the uses to which the Pavilion was put over the years, but we’re just beginning to sort out its structural history, trying to learn what has come and what has gone,” said Fox. “We’re now in the process of studying the archaeology of the building, the history you can’t see until you get inside the walls. That’s where the real story is.”
Among the mysteries of the building’s history, said Fox, is one that has long intrigued him, namely, the possibility that the Pavilion was built upon the remains of an older building, one that reportedly burned in 1821.
“The big questions concern the chronology of the building’s construction,” said Fox.
Analyzing everything from paint and wallpaper samples to the age of the attic timbers, the architectural preservationists will have a much better understanding of what the Pavilion looked like in the 19th century, said Fox.
“Was it the same house in 1826 that we see today? What might it have looked like in the 1820s and 1840s? Was it even white? We’re teasing out its history as we never have before. It may turn out to be a far more important structure than anyone imagined. My head is spinning with possibilities,” said Fox.
While some members of the tour said they were saddened to see the deterioration of the once grand house (it was, for instance, redecorated in the early 1960s by legendary interior designer Sister Parish), Fox said its current condition made it ripe for research.
“If the building were in good condition, much of the evidence of the changes that took place over time would have escaped our notice. There wasn’t much renovation, just a fresh coat of paint now and then to make things look good,” said Fox.
In any event, the Pavilion will be fully restored, although no date for construction has been set, said Fox.
“The purposes for which the Pavilion will be restored will be guided by a strategic master plan that will tell us what its best uses are, for Fort Ticonderoga and for our visitors,” said Fox.
“There are a lot of ideas on the table. Should it be used for catered events? Accommodations? A 19th-century hotel experience? If it becomes a historic house museum, it would probably be multi-faceted, reflecting more than one era. This building has more than one story to tell,” said Fox. “
The last guided tour of the Pavilion of the year took place on October 20. The tours will resume in 2014.
“Next year, it will be a different tour because we will have learned much more than we know now. Coming to understand a historic building is an evolving process,” said Fox.