HARWICH — What do Squanto, Henry David Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt and General Motors have in common? They’ve all dealt with the movers and shakers who came from the one-mile stretch from the Herring River to the Dennis town line. known as Captains’ Row.
The old Indian or cow path that drew some of the first settlers of the town in the mid-17th century soon became the home to mercantile giants, ship builders and sea captains, and as wealth grew primarily through maritime trade, it was manifested in the unique architectural characteristics of the homes they built, said Duncan Berry, an architectural historian and a descendant of one of those families.
An exhibit at the Harwich Historical Society this summer focuses on many of these homes, their architecture, and the story that is told by the history of the village. “The Houses of Captains’ Row” exhibit is the work of West Harwich resident Berry, the people who have been working along side him to preserve the structures, and the historical society. Berry, who has a Ph.D. in architectural history from Brown University and has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and Roger Williams University, will speak about Captains’ Row at the historical society’s lecture series at the Brooks Academy Museum on Sunday at 2 p.m.
Over the past couple of years, there has been a lot of energy directed at preserving the captains’ homes and other historic buildings in the corridor through a National Register Historic District. Interest in changing zoning with that goal intensified following a proposal to demolish the circa 1878 Captain George Winchell Baker’s House and construct a retail outlet at the corner of Route 28 and Depot Street. Proponents withdrew the plan a week ago, but a demolition delay moratorium is due to expire on the Baker House in September.
Berry said he’d like to address historic preservation through zoning and a District of Critical Planning Concern via the Cape Cod Commission, and he hoped some steps toward that end can be taken by the end of August.
Barry said he agrees with Winston Churchill's quote that “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” He is a 12th generation Cape Codder, and there have been a number of sea captains in his family. He lives in the Captain James Berry Jr. House along Captains’ Row, built circa 1850, and he believes the voice of community history is told through these structures.
“The exhibition is about the architecture and the houses, and the talk is about the people, the sea captains,” Berry said. “The homes are actually the witnesses of this unfolding conversation in time.” A Captains’ Row historic district would make sure those conversations continue.
Conversations about the captains and their families personalizes the stories, he said. There are log books, family photographs, letters, family silver and artifacts to help bring to life these stories, which have a global reach and touch on heroism and the romance of seafaring families.
At the opening of the exhibition the family of Captain Gustavus V. Crowell gave him the captain’s log book. Captain Crowell’s house is listed as one of the 23 houses considered significant structures on Captain’s Row. Berry said all of the houses in the corridor have been inventoried at the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Two dozen have been identified as core historic structures and have been recommended to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Berry said the houses built between 1740 and the 1940s represent a veritable catalog of American domestic architecture. The exhibit focuses on a handful of these and reveals the deep cultural heritage and the ambitions of their owners.
“Altogether this epitomizes an old Yankee colonial village,” Berry said. “It’s an unusual slice of history.”
The exhibit focuses on eight specific historic homes along Captains’ Row, each in differing architectural styles, most built by sea captains in the mid to late 1800s. But there are even older homes, such as the Kelley House, a half Cape built circa 1740 and the Colonel Caleb Chase House originally built by Job Chase Jr. circa 1800, later inherited by his son, Caleb Chase (of Chase and Sanborn Coffee) and refurbished in the shingle style.
There is the Job Chase Sr. House, a Georgian design, circa 1780, which once served as the Bishop’s Terrace restaurant, but now sits abandoned. Job Chase bought the stretch of land from the Herring River to Dennis in the 1770s and used the lumber to build coastal schooners along the river.
Berry’s lecture will focus on the sea captains who lived in the homes. Of the 23 structures considered historically significant, a dozen of them were built by sea captains. Over 150 years this was an area of merchandising, commerce, ship building and herring fishing.
“It became a place where people could settle and hack out a living,” Berry said of the West Harwich settlement.
“I’d like to thank the people of the Harwich Historical Society for bringing this material forth in such an important and critical time,” Berry said. “This is a role the historical society can play as an impartial advocate through civil discussions to protect the future of our town.”
On Sunday, July 28 at 2 p.m., Barry will lead a walking tour of Captains’ Row. He said the gathering spot for the walk is the parking lot of the historic Baptist Church, circa 1840, on Route 28 in the village.