Window to the past

Conservation work planned at Clemence-Irons House


Only spiders reside in the dark second floor.

Scant streams of sunlight illuminate their few wispy webs, which have been strung between arched banister rails.

The house is dark. The windows are tiny.

Following further historical renovations, the house may be darker. The windows may be smaller.

But the house will be more like it would have been 330 years ago.

The Clemence-Irons House is a rare surviving stone-ender.

The term “stone-ender” refers to a style of architecture, where one end of the home has been primarily composed of a stone wall, and the rest is primarily constructed of wood, according to Historic New England representative Dan Santos, regional site administrator for Southern New England.

“This is a fairly typical stone-ender,” Santos said, standing behind the home. “It’s the type of architecture Roger Williams used.”

The Clemence-Irons House, on George Waterman Road in Johnston, has received grants to renovate the structure’s windows.

“Few of these homes survived,” Santos said. “During the horrible brutal conflict, King Phillip’s War, many of these houses were destroyed.”

Historic New England recently announced a $7,000 matching grant from Preserve Rhode Island and The 1772 Foundation to support window and door conservation and restoration at the home, which dates back to 1691.

“Clemence-Irons House is a rare surviving example of the stone-ender homes once popular in the region,” according to a press release from Historic New England. “The grant will fund conservation work on the 11 diamond pane windows and the historic front door. This includes work on the glass, the lead framework of the casement windows, and repairs to window and door frames.”

In 1654, Thomas Clemence purchased eight acres of meadow along the Woonasquatucket River in a section of Johnston, which was originally part of Providence, according to a timeline provided by Santos.

Clemence bought the land from the Native American Wissawyamake, a member of the Narragansett tribe.

“Over the next few decades, Thomas accumulates more acres, improving the meadowland so that it can be farmed,” according to the Historic New England timeline detailing the major events in the home’s history. “It eventually supports the next two generations of Clemence yeomen.”

In 1680, Richard Clemence inherited the property, and the house was constructed in 1691.

Santos said core samples were carefully taken from the home’s thickest oak timbers. Utilizing dendrochronology, a laboratory dated the samples, confirming the building date.

“It’s really great to use science for history,” Santos said, giving a tour of the home, which is currently closed to the public due to pandemic restrictions.

The rooms are tiny, and there is very little ventilation. Santos said he’s looking forward to opening to the home to the public once again.

Richard Clemence died in 1723 and left the now 300-acre farm to his son Thomas, who sold the property to John Angell, one of Johnston’s most esteemed forefathers.

“The property stays in the Angell family for three generations and increases to 370 acres,” according to the timeline. “Records indicate that, at times, the family leased out the land for farming and lived in Providence.”

The Clemence-Irons “renovation project will improve the appearance of the building and the visitor experience, and help to protect the exterior from moisture penetration,” according to a press release from Historic New England.

Work is expected to start in September.

“This work is part of Historic New England’s ongoing stewardship of this significant house donated to the organization by the Sharpe family in 1947,” according to the press release.

Santos pointed out a cracked window on the east side of the home.

“This could have been caused by a bird, or vandalism,” he said. “We just don’t know.”

In 1807, as industry swept through the region along the Woonasquatucket, William and Abigail Angell Goddard signed a pact with Lyman Manufacturing Company, which granted “limited rights to the use of the water and land along the river’s edge for manufacturing purposes.”

The parcel size around the size was reduced by about 25 percent.

In 1826, the approximately 300-acre property was acquired by Stephen Sweet.

Soon after, Sweet sold about 200 acres to George Waterman, a cotton manufacturer, according to the timeline history of the home.

The road on which the house is located was eventually named for Waterman.

Sweet stayed on to farm the remainder of the property, and died in 1855, according to Historic New England.

Over the years, the size of windows gradually increased, as larger panes of glass became available, Santos explained.

The farm was divided among Sweet’s heirs.

“His daughter, Sarah Manton, wife of Amasa Irons, becomes owner of the homestead (only about 15 acres that extends to the river),” according to the timeline. “The homestead is now surrounded by industry: Lyman Factory with pond and dam to power the factory, Widow Sweet’s Factory, and George Waterman’s Cotton mill.”

The Sweet-Irons family retained ownership of the property until 1937, when Ellen E. Irons died.

“By this time, the property was subdivided and amounted to less than one acre,” according to the timeline. “The house itself had grown to thirteen rooms.”

Santos said the building had blossomed into a “Victorian cottage,” housing a growing family.

In 1938, Norman Isham, a noted preservation architect and authority on colonial Rhode Island dwellings, was commissioned to restore the home, hired by Henry Sharpe and his sisters.

“In keeping with methodology of the era, reproduction furniture is also commissioned,” according to the timeline. “After the restoration, the family opens it up as a house museum.”

The restoration work was extensively documented, with photographs and in a notebook kept by Edward Husband.

“The restoration would likely be done differently now,” Santos explained, pointing out reproduction period furniture, like rope beds, an open-hearth fireplace and the simple, yet swayed railing at the top of the stairs. “Now we want to remember all of the families who lived in a house.”

Historic New England’s own on-staff carpenters will perform the window work.

“In addition to being one of the oldest houses in the Ocean State, Clemence-Irons House is an important record of twentieth-century restoration methods,” according to Historic New England. “The house had a series of owners over hundreds of years … When Henry Sharpe, Ellen Sharpe, and Louisa Sharpe Metcalf purchased the property in 1938, they commissioned Norman Isham … to investigate the structure and restore the house to its seventeenth-century appearance. He used a combination of salvaged and new materials to recreate the original appearance of the house.”

The house has either nine, or 11 windows, depending on whether you count a triple-pane on the second floor as one or three.

In the near future, after the latest round of renovations are complete, visitors will get an even more authentic glimpse into the past when they tour the Clemence-Irons House, entering through a period door, and guided by light streaming through 17th-century windows.