Falmouth Field Guide

Edward Barrett House

At the corner of Lower Harbour and Market Streets, the Barrett House was one of the largest and finest houses in Falmouth. The building footprint was approximately 50 feet wide x 60 feet deep, more than twice the width of houses nearby. The keystone above the main entrance bears the date of 1799, a clue to the date of construction.1 The house has long been associated with Edward Barrett, who owned much of the land that became Falmouth and who laid out the lots in the grid that extends south and west from this house. Edward Barrett died in 1799, so it might have been him who initiated the construction of this house, but records show that his primary residence was on the plantation called Cinnamon Hill in the parish of St. James. If not built by Barrett, the house might have been built by his son-in-law Charles Moulton, who leased the wharf across the street from Barrett in 1786.2 Charles Moulton was missing from Edward Barrett’s will, which bequeathed his Falmouth lots and his wharf to his grandson Samuel Barrett Moulton (Charles’s son), under the condition that Samuel change his last name to Barrett. Samuel conceded; in later documents, his name appears as Samuel Barrett Moulton Barrett.3 Whoever built it, the building was closely associated with the important Barrett family and was one of the most spectacular examples of the distinctive Falmouth merchant house type.

During the early nineteenth century, two story merchant house/stores with covered, colonnaded porches developed as a popular building type in Falmouth, deeply connected to changes in consumer culture in the Atlantic world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Architectural evidence suggests that the wood-framed upper level housed the merchant family and the masonry lower level was the location of commercial activities. Overhanging upper stories sheltered potential customers, which extended along building fronts, collectively creating a shaded sidewalk down the entire street. The living space on the second story extended over the porch, supported by columns or piers. The porch was a transitional space, providing a sheltered walkway connecting neighboring buildings and inviting passersby to linger in comfort around the doors and windows of the ground floor shop.

The seven-bay lower level originally had three doors placed between four windows, although later changes to the façade mean the ruin now has two doors and five windows. The six columns that supported the frame upper story and provided the sheltering porch were turned from the whole trunk of a Caribbean hardwood tree, likely bullet wood, a dense indigenous material able to withstand rot. Inside, the ground floor was entirely open with only a longitudinal row of interior columns to support the structure above. This colonnade divided the room into zones for merchandise display and sales in the front, and storage in the rear. A small staircase at the southern end of the porch, probably added in the nineteenth century, may have led to a store office. Double doors in the central bay welcomed the public and likely permitted the convenient delivery of goods. The walls of the first floor were limestone, with stones carefully laid in jack-arches over the street-side doors and windows. Practicality dictated the use of masonry on the ground level: the stone was flood-proof and windproof in a hurricane-prone area; it kept the goods inside cooler than a frame structure; masonry construction protected the valuable merchandise in the store from theft; and stone was rot-resistant, serving as an extended foundation.

The merchant and his family lived on the upper level, accessible from another interior stair in the rear of the ground floor that lead directly into the primary circulation space above. Much of the interior architecture was lost during a storm in the 1990’s and by exposure to the elements in the years that followed. Five tall, elegant windows on the main façade were triple-sashed and old photographs showed intricate ironwork balconies adorning them. Evidence visible in the ruins suggests these windows lit the formal reception rooms at the front or eastern end of the house, allowing guests and passersby below to observe each other. The upper story woodwork was well-crafted with apparent bead and bevel molding on the exterior siding. Most of the original studs were pit-sawn, using the common method of the era.

At various times since its construction, the Barrett House has been painted with pigments of ochre and limewash, or covered with stucco and scored to suggest ashlar masonry. Most of the surface treatments on the ruinous masonry walls have fallen away, allowing glimpses of the rough stone. This sturdy underpinning is why the house has survived so long in its abandoned state.

The Barrett House is no longer functional as a living space, but nonetheless holds the distinction of being the grandest of its kind on a street filled with similar structures. It is worthy of preservation as an example of a nineteenth-century Falmouth merchant-house.

1 Description of the building materials, construction techniques, and interior spaces from Edward Chappell’s site report on the Barrett House (May 25, 1997, March 7, 2003, and December 6, 2009)

2 Deed between Edward Barrett and Charles Moulton, 1 January 1786. Deeds, Island Record Office, volume 348, folio 65.

3 Edward Barrett Will, 12 March 1799. Wills, Island Record Office, volume 65, folio 169.