Mansfield House WPA Architectural Survey

Some of you might be old enough, or sufficiently well versed in American history, to recall the Works Progress Administration (or, WPA). The WPA was a New Deal agency enacted in 1935 to provide jobs for unemployed (often unskilled) workers on numerous public works projects. Many of us are familiar with the relative ubiquity of WPA public parks, libraries, schools, and bridges (you’ll often see bronze plaques or signs posted at these sites, designating them as such). The WPA usually worked closely with state government agencies in getting these improvement projects done.

However, the WPA also sponsored a great many arts and cultural projects, as well. One such project here in Connecticut was the Census of Old Buildings in Connecticut, also referred to as the WPA Architectural Survey. This project was conducted from 1934 to 1937, and documented and photographed close to five thousand buildings of historical or cultural import across the state. In more recent times, the photographs, drawings, and hand-written notes produced by this survey were digitized and transcribed and entered into a Connecticut State Library online archive. The photo below of the Mansfield House comes from this survey. The complete WPA Architectural Survey record of the Mansfield House can be found here.

Manfield House in 1934-1937

Photo of the Mansfield House from the WPA Architectural Survey, taken between 1934 and 1937.

What I like about this photo is it shows the house in its present day location, about a decade after it had been moved there. Comparing this photo with an earlier (c. 1894) photo of the Mansfield House from the Bradley Glass Slide Collection helps me in ascribing some approximate time lines (very approximate, actually) to my home’s more recent material history.

Photo of the Mansfield House in 1894

A photo of the Mansfield House situated at its original location in 1894. From the Bradley Glass Slide Collection. (Photo courtesy of the Derby Historical Society).

Perhaps most noticeable are differences in fenestration patterns. The 1934-37 photo reveals 12/12 sashes in the first floor windows, which is the same light pattern in place today, and the one most historically accurate given the age of the house. However, the 1894 photo shows 2/2 sashes in use in all the first floor windows. The 2/2 windows were popular around this time as something of a “replacement window” for older, multi-light sashes, as they admitted more light and provided a less obstructed view of the outside (their use became feasible around this time, as glass manufacturers were then capable of creating increasingly larger panes).

But what became of those 2-light sashes? And where did the present day 12-light sashes (which appear to have been in place by 1937) come from? Were they perhaps milled in the 1920′s or 1930s as historically accurate replacements for the 2/2′s? That certainly seems possible, as during this time, the Mansfield House was owned by a preservation society, and was more museum than residential home. Also, the present day 12-light sashes are all in remarkably good condition, and seem to have relatively thin and finely milled sash bars (though I have yet to precisely measure them), and few wavy or bubbled panes. I’ve also found four pristine 12-light sashes of similar construction stored away in the attic. So, all of this suggests to me that they might be creations of a more recent time.

Also of interest to me are the transom lights atop the front entry, which were still there around 1934-37, but no longer exist today. Where did they go? Were they simply replaced with solid panels? Why? (Recently, I  discovered, in the attic, what appears to be an older pediment that stood above the front entry, as also seems evident in both photos).

Finely milled paneling above fireplace

The fireplace of the south bed chamber of the Mansfield House, which is described by the WPA Architectural Survey as having "deep bolection moulding, two squat five-fluted pilasters surmounted by elaborate entablature...with double Tudor rose and..another higher up."

The survey record also cites three dates (along with their sources) for construction of the Mansfield House: 1748, 1740-1760, and 1672. We know that the date 1672 comes from the fact that “1672″ had been scribed onto an interior post, but it’s more likely indicative of a post coming from an older structure.

To me, 1740-1750 (not 1740-1760) would be a reasonable estimate: We know Reverend Mansfield was most likely already living there by, or shortly after, 1748, and the house’s lack of both summer beams and substantial exterior overhangs are simplifications that were widely embraced by New Haven Colony housewrights, prior to about 1750. I’m not quite sure how or why the year 1700 was attributed to the Mansfield House in more recent accounts. I think it’s arbitrary and inaccurate.

However, I will say that all of these dates are purely speculative. What’s really needed is a comprehensive dendrochronological survey of the house timbers, a technology that simply wasn’t available before, not even in the recent past. That would go a long way in tightening up the house’s possible date(s) of construction.

Wide plank flooring

"Old floors c. 7" wide", as described by the WPA Architectural Survey. Cutouts like the one in the far corner above always spark questions as to why they're there.

The WPA Architectural Survey also describes “4 new floors over old floors”, which is useful to me, because I was curious as to when the more modern flooring in several rooms of the Mansfield House was installed. I know now that this was most likely done prior to 1937.

Finally, from the 1934-37 photo, it also appears that an attempt to stabilize the cladding, via face-nailing the clapboards, had already been done by 1937 (this was clearly not the case in 1894). You might recall from a previous posting that I was likewise curious as to more-or-less when this detail might’ve been applied.

Although the WPA Architectural Survey record of the Mansfield House is brief, it’s remarkably accurate in its descriptions, and has provided me with quite a bit of useful information that will go along way toward my goal of establishing a highly accurate, material history of my home.

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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5 Responses to Mansfield House WPA Architectural Survey

  1. What an interesting resource you have in the WPA survey. We have a lot of those projects around here. Most of the small towns got a park with a Band Shell. Some of the Bridges on state and US highways. Most obvious is all the hedgerows planted on along the country roads and quarter section lines. Osage Orange and Evergreens. The idea was to stop the Dust Bowl. What a wonderful wildlife habitat it has turned into. Do you have Hedge apples back there?

    • John Poole says:

      Hi John,

      Yes, the WPA accomplished a great things in the relatively short period of time it was in effect. Many communities benefit to this very day, as you’ve pointed out with a number of great examples. Hedge apples are something I haven’t heard of before. I don’t think we anything like that around here, but I’ll look into it, because my curiosity’s been piqued. Thanks!


  2. Great post John and the other thing that I noticed that had changed was the topography in the two photos.

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks, Todd!

      The topography looks different because in the early 1920s, the house was moved from its original location to a new location, just on the opposite side of the road. The 1894 photo shows the original location, while the 1934-37 photo shows the new one. What the 1934-37 photo does reveal, however, was how undeveloped the new location was at the time. There seems to be just one other house. Now, we’re surrounded by a good many houses. But all the old stone walls are still there, and there are some portions of the property nicely terraced with old stone walls, as well.


  3. John Poole says:

    Indeed we do, my fair sleuth. For all we know, the missing transom is being held for ransom. (snort!) We better get right on it… :-)

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