The Mysterious Basements
While there is no historical record of what would become the Penrose-Strawbridge House until a 1798 tax form where we believe it is referenced, architectural historian Herb Levy, AIA, traced the route of Governor Road as originally proposed and this road terminates directly in front of this house - not at the Keith House - so this indicates to us that a building was located at this spot prior to the construction of the Keith House and may have been used to house workers on that project. Several areas of the house have retained 18th century fabric that is consistent with this theory so our story is that the original building was built c1721 and the current dining room and 2 basements are original to the building.
There are several basement rooms underneath the Penrose Strawbridge House with a number of interesting and mysterious features . This page presents our current thinking about these features and will be updated as more research is done. Comments are welcome!
Four areas of the Penrose Strawbridge House show evidence of dating to the early eighteenth century: the room most recently used as a dining room, the basement beneath that room, the east parlor (Penrose Room) in the c1810 section, and the basement beneath that room.
There is general agreement that these areas all possess 18th century fabric and some or all of these date back to c1721 predating the Keith House. There are different schools of thought, however, on which came first and which is the oldest part of the house. There is also some disagreement as to what the openings on the north wall of what we now call the Penrose Room actually are - one opinion is it was windows on the exterior of the southern room, another that it was a door between two rooms, and another that it was an exterior barn door on the southern exterior of what we now call the c1721 Strawbridge Dining Room. The findings of the architects who did a study in 2001 is shown below.
The earliest section appears to have been a building of one, or more likely, two rooms, at the first floor level with a basement beneath. It cannot be determined whether this was a one-story or two-story structure but a tax form from 1798 supports the supposition of a shorter second story. This second floor would have been two rooms located over the first floor c1721 (south - Penrose Room) section. This structure either was not a dwelling, or the cooking fireplace was in the west room, now gone.
There was some type of large opening in the in the north wall of the east room (Penrose Room), which was then filled in and made into a window. Shortly after the initial construction (between c1721 and c1737), the building was expanded, perhaps to make it a dwelling for a tenant and also perhaps to accommodate some type of farm-related manufacture or production. This expansion consisted of the dining room and the basement beneath, a one-story structure, based on the existence of a window in the north wall of the c1810 east bedroom in the second floor,
This evolution is based on the following physical evidence. The two basement rooms are not connected by a door, nor are they the same width, which suggests they were not constructed at the same time. There is a window between the two, which is the first piece of eighteenth century fabric to consider. This barred window is set in the north side of the wall. Basement windows are typically set at the exterior side of an opening, suggesting that the c1721(A) basement pre-dates the separate basement to its north. Next, the rest of the c1721(A) basement contains further eighteenth century fabric and clues to its original shape. The chimney arch support in the southeast corner is typical of eighteenth century construction, but it is not large enough or deep enough for the fireplace above to have been a cooking fireplace. To the north of the fireplace are two original joists, roughly 4" x 6" and spaced more that 2' apart. These joists predate the rest of the floor framing, which dates to the c1810 construction and are in poor condition from moisture and insect deterioration.
This basement also shows evidence in the floor that indicates there may have been a well at this spot at some point. This is now covered with concrete but an outline of an opening is still visible. We do not have any plans to excavate this.
Finally, the opening in the west wall of the room is original to the construction of this wall, with grounds to attach a door frame, a section of which still remains. A large iron keeper for a latch or lock is attached to the west side of this frame. The west room posited for c1721(A) building is based on the fact that the stone wall does not extend above the basement level (the wall above is currently lapped vertical boards.) The opening in the west wall of the east basement room may either have been an exterior entrance or the doorway between two basement rooms. The lack of apparent scars from a bulkhead suggests the latter scenario, The existence of a west room may be confirmed by future archeological exploration with the c1810 large basement room.
On a hunch from architect Herb Levy, AIA, we opened up the plaster on the north wall of the 1810 parlor and found two bookshelves (shown above) more or less centered between the east (outside) wall and the door into the dining room. On the far left of this opening we found whitewash and wood grounds that do not appear to extend to the floor. The two bookshelves are not the same size, depth, or construction type. The opening on the left clearly extended through the wall and the back is constructed of re-used floor boards. The opening on the right is not as deep and the back is constructed from new wood. Both, however, appear to have the same paint layers, with the possible exception of an extra layer on the bottom on the left hand opening. Above both windows is approximately one foot of rubble stone, then a wood lintel extends across most of the wall. The depth of this lintel could not be determined. If it is the full depth of the wall then it could have been a lintel for a large opening at one time. If so, it was then narrowed down to a window (the opening on the left) which was then enclosed when the (north) dining room section was constructed. Whether it was made into bookshelves at that time could not be determined. It is not believed that the framing on the left hand window is original.
The basement under the dining room also clearly contains 18th century fabric. In the northwest corner, there is a chimney arch similar to that in the front basement, but larger and deeper, clearly meant to support a cooking fireplace. In the northeast corner is a second brick arch, the purpose of which is not clear. This arch is taller and the opening lacks the shelf supports found in the other two openings. The brick, which can be seen through a hole in the floor above, is hand made eighteenth century brick. It cannot be determined at this time whether the arches were constructed at the same time or whether they abut each other.
The large tank shown here was for irrigation.
The second unusual feature in this basement is a stone cistern-like structure, the purpose of which is also unclear. The two features together, however, suggest a specific, non-residential purpose in the construction of this room. The existence of the cistern and the arch led to speculation regarding the original use of the building, since the production of alcohol requires water to be readily available. The purpose of the arch, then, would be to support heavy barrels above. At this time, the actual purpose of these features has not been determined, but the size of the building and the installation of a cooking fireplace are more suggestive of a dwelling than of a malt house.
The two basement windows on the east elevation were constructed with the lintels as part of the window frame, an eighteenth century technique that is distinctly different from the construction of the c1810 basement window on the south elevation at the east end, When the walls of this basement were whitewashed, plaster lath was attached to the window frame and the area around the window was plastered as well. The lath is hand-split and appears to be early eighteenth century. We removed a nail from this location for further dating but the nail was too rusty to be tested, Several other nails remain so we may be able to determine whether the nails are wrought, machine-cut with wrought heads, or simply machine cut, which would narrrow down the date that the window was plastered.
Finally, there is a single, beaded, white-washed joist at the at the north end of the basement under the dining room. This joist, together with the whitewash and plaster on the walls, suggests that this room was given a finer finish than basements usually receive, This finish may have been in some way related to the unusual use of the room suggested by the cistern and arch.
A few changes took place in the c1721 basements no later that c1810. The first floor framing in both basements is consistent with the floor framing in the large c1810 basement room, Most of the changes were in the basement under the dining room. The floor here was lowered anout eighteen inches, leaving a visible mark in the walls and resulting in the need for a foundation bolster to be installed against the south wall, The lowering of this floor may coincide with the installation of a large wooden beam beneath the first floor framing. This beam was retrofitted, according to the structural engineer, who pointed out pockets that had been made in the walls to accommodate it. The beam may have been too long or the pocket at the north end too shallow because the beam sticks out through the wall into the other basement. The purpose of this beam is not clear. It was snugged up against the existing c1810 flooring as far as was possible (suggesting that the floor framing predated the beam installation) and may have been intended to provide structural support. However, it also has large hooks on it, suitable for suspending meat or for other farm related activities. If the floor was lowered at the same time then it may have been for the purpose of providing enough vertical space to hang the meat or other items from the beam.
There was also a stair in the southeast corner of the basement, the age of which has not been determined. Its location in front of the window between the two basement rooms is further evidence that these two basements were not constructed at the same time. It may have been built with the northern (dining room) basement or as late as c1810. The ghost of the stair does extend down to the current floor level which had been lowered by eighteen inches at some point. The flooring to cover the holes in the first floor when this stair was removed does not match the c1810 flooring in the dining room, It is presumed, then, that the stair was installed by the time of the c1810 renovations, if not before, and continued to exist past the 1810 construction. It is also presumed that the stair was removed in 1830 when the second floor above the dining room was added. At that time, a stair was installed from the first floor to the second directly over the basement stairs. When the new stair to the second floor was built, it appears the old stair to the basement was removed and finish flooring was installed, creating a closet beneath the stair. It may be possible to further date both sets of stairs by examining some of the nails, but no nails were easily removable during our investigations
After the stair was removed, the only way to enter this basement would be through the second, taller archway. This doorway was probably at grade when it was constructed so this entrance would take you right outside. The 1856 addition added another basement to the north. Today we use a ship's ladder from the 1856 kitchen down to the 1856 basement where we can then enter the c1721 basement. The 1856 basement also has stairs leading outside through a bulk-head door.
An addition was made to the back, or northern, end of the house. The first floor of this addition was made into a kitchen. There is a small basement under this kitchen plus a crawl space. The cooking fireplace in the dining room previously had a beehive bake oven that extended into what became the kitchen space. The oven was removed when the kitchen was added, plus a series of flat arches was constructed against the north wall in the crawl space. These arches may have been added to buttress the wall, or to support a cast iron stove.
The 1856 basement is in two parts. The eastern section is an areaway provide access to the basement under the dining room and to the outside through the bulk-head door. The western section is a crawl space with finish plaster on the inside walls, and the stone flat arches (mentioned above) against the north wall of the other basement. There is a clear butt joint in the north foundation wall between the two sections and the west wall of this areaway is bolstered, suggesting that the original foundation of the west crawl space section was of earlier construction that was affected by the digging necessary for the creation of the areaway in 1856 when the existing addition was built. The currently inexplicable existence of finished plaster in a crawl space further suggests that there had been an earlier structure located above, perhaps with a lower floor level. The butt joint in the foundation wall does not appear to extend above the first level, suggesting that any previous structure was demolished above the foundation (the walls may have been frame, which would not have been conducive to expansion.
The basements in the Penrose-Strawbridge House are currently in a shape similar to how we found them.
- Added steel supports throughout the basements to reinforce the floor beams above - complete by 2005
- Margaret Choate excavated several feet of rubble stone from the cistern but we found nothing significant
- In 2013 had one of our volunteers point the stone throughout both basements.
- In 2018 we replace the plumbing going to the 1920s powder room.
Nothing further is planned for the basements at this time.