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The roofers are coming, the roofers are coming

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / July 6, 2008

LEXINGTON - The architecture of the Hancock-Clarke House looks a lot like it did in the Colonial era - clapboards, wood-frame construction, and lots of rooms filled with furniture and trinkets from that period.

The roofing, support beams, and some framing are starting to go. That's not bad, considering the house is more than 270 years old and once housed a dozen children.

But local history buffs think the house can be much more. They've begun a $1.1 million restoration, digging into history to try to replicate every detail from bedroom wallpaper to the original color of the exterior walls of the house, which is expected to reopen sometime next year.

"We're very excited to be restoring an important building not only in Lexington his tory, but in American history," said Susan Bennett, director of the Lexington Historical Society.

The home was built as a parsonage in 1737 by the Rev. John Hancock. The Rev. Jonas Clarke took over as minister in Lexington in 1755, bought the home in 1760, and raised his 12 children there. On April 18, 1775, Clarke was hosting two leaders for independence who were fearful of their safety in Boston: Samuel Adams and John Hancock, grandson of the original owner.

Shortly before midnight, Paul Revere rode into town, alerting them and others that the British regulars were coming. A few hours later, just steps away on what is now the Lexington Battle Green, the Revolutionary War began.

The historical society purchased the home, which had fallen into disrepair, in 1896 to save it from demolition. They purchased the house, but not the land, so the society moved the house across the street, restored it, and opened its doors to history-hungry visitors.

Around the same time, the historical society took over two important taverns in Lexington, the Buckman Tavern, which served as a meeting place for Colonial militiamen before the Battle of Lexington, and the Munroe Tavern, which the British used as field headquarters as they retreated from Concord to Boston after the fateful battles of April 19.

The two taverns were completely redone in the early 1900s, and there hasn't been a comparable renovation in Lexington since then, Bennett said.

In the 1960s, the original site of the Hancock-Clarke House was donated to the historical society, which moved the house back to its original spot in 1974. Since opening the house to the public, over a million people have come on tours, Bennett said.

The current restoration was launched with a structural and building-use study two years ago. The money for the repairs and updates is coming from several sources, including: $600,000 from the town's Community Preservation Act funds, $50,000 from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, $250,000 from the Lexington Historical Society's capital campaign fund-raising; and $200,000 from its endowment fund.

In a letter of support for the funding of the project last year, historian David Hackett Fischer, author of "Paul Revere's Ride," called the Hancock-Clarke House "truly of national importance in this history of the United States."

He wrote, "I can think of few sites that bring to life more vividly the drama of the American Revolution."

The goal of the restoration, Bennett said, is to make the house look lively and lived-in - as it did when so many children were raised there.

The original charm and architectural style are to be preserved, while updating mechanical systems and providing access for the disabled.

To accomplish this, the society brought in Deane Rykerson, an architect who specializes in preservation projects, and Anne Grady, an architectural historian.

A huge problem is that the house is splitting in two, the result of an 18th-century construction error that left half of the building at one height, and half at another. Over the years, that led to "some makeshift means of joining [the halves] that plague the house to this day," said Rykerson.

Moving the house back and forth over the last century didn't help matters.

In addition to securing the halves, workers will repair several weakened structural supports. Asbestos roofing shingles installed in the 1930s will be removed, electrical wiring will be brought up to code, and a climate-control system will heat and cool the house inconspicuously.

The exterior will be painted to match the oldest known color of the house, which Bennett and other historians are still researching. Interior shutters, exterior sheathing, clapboards, and trim will all be repaired or replaced as well.

The many rooms will be decorated with period-accurate pieces, such as dark wood table on which Hancock and Adams dined, pewter kitchenware dating from the Colonial era, and 18th century beds with elaborate coverings.

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