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18th-century house offers historical time travel

The restored Durant-Kenrick House is painted in an authentic 1700s color, and its kitchen has period herbs and its grounds, heritage trees.

Wendy Maeda /Globe Staff

The restored Durant-Kenrick House is painted in an authentic 1700s color, and its kitchen has period herbs and its grounds, heritage trees.

After eight years of determination and a fund-raising effort by Historic Newton that netted $4.9 million, the Durant-Kenrick House and Grounds on Waverly Avenue in Newton was officially opened last week as an educational center giving visitors a view into 280 years of American history.

Inside the grand home completed in 1734, visitors will find rooms where conversations were held by people debating the Boston Tea Party in its immediate aftermath. On the grounds there will be heritage trees of the same species that once populated one of the earliest commercial nurseries in the region, where the bosc pear was developed.

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The family-friendly exhibits take visitors from the days leading up to the Revolutionary War through the growth of horticulture in New England, while teaching about freedom through the history of slavery in the home and in the city.

And the building’s eye-catching, vibrant green paint is an exact match from the late 1700s.

As part of Historic Newton’s agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the house had to be painted an authentic color.

To find the truest representation, Historic Newton hired Brian Powell, an architectural conservator at Building Conservation Associates who took core samples from clapboards at 50 locations on the house.

After uncovering layer upon layer of paint, he settled on one of the earliest identifiable colors he could find as representative of the era. The bright green, called verdigris, is the same shade used by George Washington in one of the rooms at Mount Vernon.

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“The paint had copper in it, so the owner was making a real statement about his wealth and position in the community,” said Cindy Stone, director of Historic Newton.

The architecture of the house, which was owned by three prominent families over the years, is also remarkable, according to Jennifer Hance, manager of the Durant-Kenrick property.

As an early example of the Georgian style, Hance said, the house’s rooms have a forward-looking layout and high ceilings not typical of the period in which it was built.

“From the outside, Georgian characteristics are represented in the gambrel roof, the symmetrical front façade, and the architrave surrounding the front door,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “Inside, the rooms have high ceilings and a grand central stairway.”

Visitors can walk through the rooms and see the functional kitchen with authentic herbs that would have been grown in the garden. They can also walk through sitting rooms and bedrooms.

The volunteers and staff of Historic Newton, however, went to a variety of design experts to make sure the educational center would be more than an old home that visitors could tour.

The home is filled with interactive games and exhibits that show its “architectural bones” and how its inhabitants lived, and others that allow visitors to listen to reenactments of actual conversations.

“The use of technology is so counter to the age of the house, it’s really interesting,” Stone said.

Historic Newton volunteers and staff worked to raise $2.2 million for restoration and an endowment to run the facility, and secured a $2.7 million grant from the city’s Community Preservation Committee to pay for preservation and restoration work after the property was donated by the Durant Homestead Foundation.

“And it was all done through one of the toughest economies we’ve faced,” said Peter Dimond, a Historic Newton board member.

The group also credits Mayor Setti Warren, saying the acquisition couldn’t have been made without leadership from City Hall.

“This is incredibly important for the city,” Warren said, citing the public and private partnership needed to make it happen. “History, culture, and the arts are a vital part of the city, and a vital part of the future of our city.”

He said the home speaks to the diversity of the city, and the historical significance of Newton and its inhabitants.

Members of the Durant family, the first owners of the home, marched with others from Newton to fight in Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1776, and they fought in the Revolutionary War. They were also community leaders, and chaired Newton’s Committee of Correspondence, which was part of a network formed before the Revolution as a means of communication between colonies.

The Durants were also slave owners, as were 33 households in Newton between 1643 and 1783, according to an exhibit in the home that shows an example of a simple bed that would have been used by a slave.

“Titus is the name of a slave who lived in this house,” said Stone. “The fact that slaves lived here may be a surprise to people in Newton, and for Northerners who think it was just a Southern thing.”

It’s also an interesting combination with the city’s other historic property, the Jackson Homestead, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But as visitors walk through the home, experiencing the interactive exhibits, and seeing the portraits on the walls come alive with information about the time in which their subjects lived, they’ll also see that some of its 19th-century residents were vocal abolitionists.

An exhibit in an upstairs bedroom plays excerpts from Sarah Jackson, a stepdaughter of William Kenrick who had moved South to live on a farm, voicing her dismay at the slaves’ treatment.

The home was built by the Durants, who owned it until 1790, when it was sold to the Kenrick family. The Kenricks ran one of the area’s largest commercial nurseries on more than 90 acres; their property included what is now the Farlow Hill Historic District and the Newton Commonwealth Golf Course. They owned the home until 1900; it was bought and sold by two families before it was purchased in 1923 by Arthur Stone Dewing, who was a professor at Harvard Business School, and his wife, Frances, who restored the home and were leaders in New England’s preservation movement.

An addition on the back of the building was built to serve as a classroom for schoolchildren and other groups, and construction on the house included adding support structures needed to make the house safe for visitors, as well as updating heating, cooling and ventilation systems, and an elevator to allow people with disabilities to reach parts of the second floor.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@ gmail.com.

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