Local developer restores historic Smedley House

February 24, 2016 by Mairead Toms, Staff Writer

Developer Bruce MacDonald recently restored Smedley House, which was once visited by Benedict Arnold, to a livable condition. Photo courtesy of zillow.com

Developer Bruce MacDonald recently restored Smedley House, which was once visited by Benedict Arnold, to a livable condition.
Photo courtesy of zillow.com

Most students at the College have passed the former Smedley Tavern dozens of times and, unless they’ve stopped to read the plaque out front, have little idea of its significance. Located on the right side of Main St. coming east from North Adams and just before the bridge over the Green River, Smedley Tavern, as its plaque boasts, housed Brigadeer General Benedict Arnold in 1775 on his way to take Fort Ticonderoga. It is also one of the oldest homes in Williamstown and, until recently, it was in a state of disrepair.

“[Smedley House] was clearly on its last legs. It was deteriorating. The work that needed to be done on the house was extensive to say the least,” Bruce MacDonald, the developer who took on the project of restoring Smedley House to a livable state, said. “It was economically not worth saving.”

After initially touring the house and discovering the extent to which it would need repairs, MacDonald was not interested in taking on the project. He credits his wife, Julie MacDonald, and his friend, Ann Greenwood, with convincing him that Smedley House was worth saving. Now that the restoration is complete, MacDonald is glad he acquiesced.

Despite losing money as predicted, MacDonald still sees the process as worthwhile. “It has been an extremely emotionally satisfying project, and I love to see people taking an interest. We had an open house back in the end of October and 300 people from Williamstown and the surrounding area come through the house. The outpouring of gratitude has been wonderful,” MacDonald said.

Sarah Currie, the director of the Williamstown Historical Museum, echoed this sentiment when describing the newly redone home. “[MacDonald] restored the historical character while making it a really comfortable home to live in. Now it’s a nice blending of past and present. It has architectural details combined with historical elements,” Currie said.

Making the home livable was MacDonald’s goal all along. After considering turning the home into a museum once the restoration was complete, he decided that the best way for Smedley House to function in Williamstown would be as a private residence. “I thought, ‘Well, this house has survived for 250 years housing families and if I can make it sound, then comfortable – something that the house never was, not from the day it was built – people will want to live there and raise their families there. Then it will continue to exist for another 250 years,’” MacDonald said.

As an experienced developer, MacDonald is used to the restoration process. However, most of his previous work has been less extensive and on less antiquated properties, so turning the dilapidated structure into, as he put it, a “sound, comfortable and attractive” home was still a challenge. Some challenges included raising the entire home and replacing the sill in certain places. In the basement, the actual site of the old tavern, the wooden beams in the ceiling had become detached from the sill and were simply sitting on the foundation, meaning that the house itself was essentially just floating above the basement, not actually attached to anything.

With the goal of fixing these structural issues while also maintaining historical accuracy in mind, MacDonald began to search for historical records on Smedley House. After initially coming up short, MacDonald eventually found an engineering study commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in 1934 that proved instrumental in recreating original aspects of the house. From this study, MacDonald was able to recreate the door with its exact dimensions and return the fireplace, which had been altered, to its original shape.

Throughout the process of resurrecting Smedley House, MacDonald uncovered the answers to some interesting questions. He noticed that the entrance to the tavern was dated 1772 while the doorknob at this entrance was dated 1781. For Arnold to have stayed there, the tavern must have had to have been open by 1775, indicating that 1772 would need to be the correct date for the completion of Smedley House. MacDonald decided to verify this by using the technique of dendrochronology to date the timbers in the house. Enlisting the help of Bill Flint, the historic curator of Deerfield, Mass., MacDonald was able to verify that these trees had been felled in 1770 and 1771, meaning that the house would have indeed been completed in 1772.

MacDonald found the answer to the question of why the doorknob was dated with 1781 in Origins in Williamstown, a book published more than a century later by Arthur Latham Perry. “I found a quote from Nehemiah Smedley, and he said ‘I am not going to finish my house until I find out who will own it.’” Since 1781 is the year that the American Revolution ended, MacDonald surmised that Smedley did not want the British to own his home. “It became obvious to me that [the doorknob] was indicating that if it was going to be King George III ruling, [Smedley] wasn’t going to finish his house,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald looks back at the process of restoring the Smedley House with positivity. He described the project as akin to peeling an onion. “Little things have been revealed,” he said. “The early mason kept saying, ‘Oh, you know we’re going to find the gold. You know the gold is hidden.’ Well, there was no gold there. We just found these wonderful things like [the mystery of the doorknob], which I find terribly intriguing actually.”

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