By Joyce L. Faiola
GROTON — With over 30,000 cars racing down Groton’s Main Street every day, its difficult to imagine life or Main Street 100 years ago. Days at the kind of pace that invites peaceful walks and talks, the planting and smelling of your roses, and cooking everything from scratch while neighbors share their summer tomatoes.
On Saturday afternoon in late July, I took a stroll down Main Street and toured the Boutwell house, owned and managed by the Groton Historical Society, which retains offices on the second floor.
Built in 1851 and registered on the National Register of Historic Places, this charmer has recently reopened to the public after a 2-year restoration.
George Boutwell was a doer and an abolitionist. He was a Governor, a state senator, the Secretary of the Treasury under President Grant (who came to visit Boutwell in Groton), worked for the IRS under President Lincoln, and helped to draft the 14th and 15th amendments.
He built this Italianate-style home as his impressive oasis and the meticulous planning and positioning of this home tells us much about the man. Al Collins, who headed its recent restoration, was my enthusiastic guide. With over 40 years of extensive construction experience, Al’s true passion is older homes.
“What I love most about working in older homes is the ability to discover their evolution from its original construction to what it is today. The rehabilitation uncovered many mysteries at Boutwell,” he said.
Originally, the house had no running water and the house’s cistern well was inside what would have been a small wood shed addition to the rear of the house. Once town water was available, a bathroom was introduced and the old cistern was covered over with floor boards and is now under the back entry hallway. The rock-lined cistern is still there and appears to still have water in it.
George Boutwell obviously built the house to impress his guests, positioning the house centered at the head of Station Ave. Most of his guests came to Groton via the rail and would have come by carriage from the rail station, up Station Ave. to the Governor’s house. There is a special floor to ceiling window above the front entrance portico that allows a bird’s eye view down Station Avenue to what was then the train station. My belief is that Boutwell could go out on the portico to greet his guests as they came from the station, making a memorable impression before guests stepped inside his door.
The public rooms of the house were constructed to be very ornate but as you move into the less public rooms, simplicity was used in all the finishes. I think he was frugal in what he spent when building the house and probably had simple tastes but knew he needed public rooms that could impress. By uncovering a building’s past, it allows a step back in time to wonder what life was like living within these walls.
The rehabilitation has allowed the house to move forward into the future for hopefully another 75 years or so without any major work needed. “We updated all the electrical components, installed all new plumbing pipes, upgraded the heating system to a state of the art highly efficient gas-powered boiler and installed a fire suppression sprinkler system to help protect the society’s collections,” said Collins. Ceilings and some walls were re-plastered with the building being made accessible to the physically challenged by adding a new entrance walkway and an accessible bathroom.
Funding came from various sources; some from Groton residents through the Community Preservation Act (CPA), some came from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, a program of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, some from Historical Society members and donors, and some from local organizations such as the Groton Garden Club, Groton Women’s Club and the Groton Friends of the Trees. The rehabilitation was truly a collaborative effort reinforcing the importance of protecting Groton’s historic heritage. “I do believe in preserving our past as a living testimony to our community’s culture,” said Collins, “which is like a beautiful piece of cloth made up of many beautiful tiny threads.”
In addition to period furnishings, portraits and maps, the home has a mesmerizing collection of Indian artifacts and pounding stones (and a tomahawk head found in 1906), all found throughout Groton. Beautifully tooled diminutive arrowheads were discovered along the Nashua River.
Currently featured is a display focused on food, cooking and dining in the period in which this house was alive with important people involved with George Boutwell and his family.
The lovely garden has been restored and planted by the Groton Garden Club, which recently won two awards for the work at the Boutwell home. (Visit www.grotongardenclub.org for details.)
On this surprisingly peaceful and cloudy Saturday afternoon, as I stood just inside the entrance where George would stand as he awaited the train, I gazed across the street to the Town Hall, wrapped in its patriotic buntings and I could almost hear the whistle of the train.
Boutwell House is at 172 Main St., Groton. The Groton Historical Society can be reached at 978-448-0092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.