The residents of Williamstown, MA are thanking a certain gentleman who has made sure a historic home in which Benedict Arnold once slept will endure for another 245 years.
By Yankee Magazine
Dec 17 2016
The Smedley House after $650,000 worth of repairs and restoration.Photo Credit : Ann Ugast Greenwood
As we moseyed along Route 2 in Massachusetts, not far from the Williams College campus, we came upon what we immediately recognized as the historic Smedley House, as it’s known, built in 1772. And we also guessed correctly that the tall, rugged-looking man watering the shrubs next to the beautiful old front door was its savior, Williamstown resident Bruce MacDonald, who with one of his four sons (he and wife Julie also have a daughter) owns and operates a successful construction business in the area.
A few minutes later we were sitting with Bruce (Julie was unable to be with us that day) at a gorgeous dining room table made from wood that was harvested, he said, in 1799. How did he know that? Well, after Julie and their friend Ann Greenwood, now their real estate agent, convinced him two and a half years ago to buy the Smedley House in order to save it from the wrecking ball, Bruce engaged architectural conservator Bill Flynt, from Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, to determine which parts of the house were original and which were not. He also unearthed detailed plans of the house created in 1934 by the WPA, that Depression-era federal program that put people to work and did many worthy projects nationwide back in those days. Bruce paid $180,000 for this nine-room garrison colonial on 1.3 acres even though it was, as he described it, “in need of everything.” Then, over the next several months—with the guidance of the old WPA plans, a number of historical experts, and a whopping additional $650,000—the old Smedley House and Tavern (yes, it was once a tavern) became a better, more comfortable, more beautiful home inside and out than it ever was. Bruce is now asking $595,000, which includes furniture and a garage and barn. “We feel very fortunate to be able to afford the financial loss,” he said.
As we sat there at that beautiful old table—“This table,” he said, “will never leave this house”—Bruce went on to describe some of the restoration work covered by that $650,000. For instance, he actually had the building lifted off its fieldstone foundation to make necessary repairs and replacements. He spent $40,000 replacing the old steam-heated-radiator system with a hybrid five-zone electric-heat-and-gas-fired-air installation. All the single-pane, six-over-six sash windows were replaced with insulated, double-pane wood units in the 12-over-12 style used in the 18th century. And on and on. Today the Nehemiah (yes, that was his first name!) Smedley House is in truly pristine condition, and we could tell that Bruce is familiar with every square inch of it.
He eventually walked us through all three floors, including the lovely new kitchen with modern appliances. We admired the five restored fireplaces and the samples Bruce showed us of the outside planks—3 inches thick, thus qualifying the place in olden times as a “fortified residence,” meaning a place where nearby residents could take refuge in the event of an Indian attack.
“It’s amazing to think,” Bruce said to us at one point, “that this entire house was built without using a single nail.” Everything, of course, was instead secured with pegs, mortises, and tenons.
Saving the best for last, we finally headed down to the cellar. This was for many years known as the Smedley Tavern, and it was here, in front of the massive brick-and-stone fireplace, that Benedict Arnold sat warming himself on the evening of May 6, 1775. He was on his way to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British, which of course was before he became probably the most infamous traitor in American history. We also inspected the little room where he slept that night, in back of the fireplace, and admired the fireplace’s huge oven, in which more than 300 loaves of bread were baked before being sent by carriage to the soldiers fighting in the Battle of Bennington in 1777. We should also mention the huge beams in the ceiling of the tavern area, some bearing traces of 18th-century paint and some with bark still on them. All in all, the history involved with this place is mind-boggling.
It’s obvious that the residents of Williamstown truly appreciate what Bruce, Julie, and their family have done (and sacrificed) in restoring the old Nehemiah Smedley House and Tavern. More than 300 of them expressed their gratitude at a recent open house there; we would love to have attended and done the same. Maybe next time … with a new owner?
Contact Bruce MacDonald at 508-930-1850 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ann Greenwood at 413-441-9631.