WEYMOUTH — It’s been cut in half and moved twice — once pulled by oxen — threatened with demolition, and chewed by termites. But on June 30, a newly renovated Abigail Adams birthplace will reopen to the public, whole and in better shape than it’s been in years.
And for the first time in its 328-year history, the building will have heating and air conditioning, making it possible for the Abigail Adams Historical Society to hold programs there year-round.
“It means a tremendous amount; it’s allowing us to really expand our efforts,” said society president Judith Alukonis. With the building’s integrity restored, “we can concentrate on the second phase of our mission, which is to educate people and commemorate the extraordinary life and times of Abigail Adams in Weymouth and her service to the country.”
The private nonprofit society owns and operates the historic site, where the nation’s second first lady was born in 1744 and lived until she married John Adams in the parlor 20 years later. Set on a triangle of land near the intersection of Norton and North streets, the house backs up to the bucolic North Weymouth Cemetery, where Abigail’s parents are buried.
The birthplace was last open in summer 2011. That was when Cathy Torrey, the society’s past president, tried to lift a window and took up the windowsill, as well.
An architectural analysis revealed other, less obvious but worrying structural problems, and the town authorized spending $150,000 in Community Preservation money to restore what has been called Weymouth’s hidden historic gem.
Essex Restoration of Wilmington handled the carpentry and structural work and found that the Colonial saltbox was in “surprisingly good condition,” with one exception, according to company president Walter Beebe-Center.
“When we were doing the clapboard siding, we bumped into a surprise: Two of the main structural 8-by-8 [foot] posts had been severely attacked by termites, and in two spots were almost completely gone,” he said. “If those termites had eaten one more meal, they would have been on the inside. We got there just in time.”
Work started in the basement, with a new foundation laid under the kitchen, Beebe-Center said. He said his crew took care to preserve the original structure — which included the building’s frame, floor joists, and most of the flooring — while adding new material for strength.
“You have to preserve, but you have to make it safe,” he said.
Carpenters removed all 17 of the house’s windows for repairs. Beebe-Center said the windows weren’t original but were excellent reproductions done in the mid-20th century, the last time the house had any major renovations.
The outside clapboards also dated from that time, and were replaced with new ones “that would give the visual appearance of what would have been there” in Abigail’s era, Beebe-Center said.
“Right now they’re brand new, but they’ll fade to a grayish brown. It’ll take a few years to get ratty and look perfect,” he said.
Beebe-Center’s firm has worked on numerous other historic renovation projects, including the Josiah Quincy House in Quincy and Oakes Ames Memorial Hall in North Easton. The crew also repaired the damage done in 2011 when a massive black oak fell on the Milton home built by the widow of Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher.
But the Abigail Adams birthplace project was particularly enjoyable and gratifying, he said.
“The building is safer — [visiting] school kids won’t go through the floor,” he said. “And if they get the [heating and air conditioning] right, the collection is safer because they’re reducing dramatic temperature and humidity swings. So they’ve given it a shot in the arm.”
The building’s history predates Abigail’s. Built in 1685 by Samuel Torrey, minister of the First Church in Weymouth, the two-story, six-room, 1,334-square-foot building is small by modern standards, but was considered a mansion for its time.
Abigail’s father, the Rev. William Smith, who was also a minister at the First Church, bought the house for 45 pounds in 1738, and he and his wife, Elizabeth Quincy, raised their four children there. Future president John Adams courted Abigail at the house and they were married there in 1764.
Abigail’s sister, Mary, inherited the house and rented it out before selling it to another First Church minister, Jacob Norton, who later married Mary’s daughter. The church eventually bought the building as a parsonage, but by 1838 it had fallen into disrepair and was slated for demolition to make way for a new parsonage.
Only a newer addition was razed, however. A local farmer, Nathaniel Ford, bought the original structure and towed it on an ox-pulled cart to a new location on Bridge Street for use by farmhands and their families.
In the 1940s, the US government bought the farm and surrounding land for federal housing — offering the historic birthplace to anyone who would move it.
Weymouth’s Town Meeting declined, for financial reasons. Former Boston Globe writer Amy Hill Duncan formed the Abigail Adams Historical Society and successfully championed the cause. In 1947, the house was cut in two and moved to its present site — about 100 yards from where it first stood.
The house gradually was restored and turned into a house museum with reproductions and artifacts from Abigail’s time. Four first ladies — Edith Wilson, Grace Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bess Truman — donated commemorative bricks for a hearth. The building was opened to the public on Nov. 11, 1954 — the 210th anniversary of Abigail’s birth.
Most of Abigail’s original possessions are in the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, which includes the birthplaces of both John and John Quincy Adams and the grand Peacefield estate where the family later lived.
“We have a very good relationship with the National Parks people,” Cathy Torrey said. “They told us, you don’t need the stuff to tell the story.”
“Our biggest relic is the building,” Alukonis said. “The birthplaces in Quincy are all urban, but here you get a sense of what it might have been like when Abigail was alive. Here are the things that Abigail saw.”
The sights include a white York rose at the building’s side door. “It’s a slip from a rose that Abigail brought back from England to Quincy. The National Parks gave us a cutting,” Alukonis said.
“We’re just very excited to be moving on and to welcome people to come to the birthplace again — and hopefully have them learn more about Abigail and her world and her impact. It’s more than just a building; it’s how we interpret Abigail and her world,” she added.
Future plans include a “dig into Weymouth’s past” program in August with the Weymouth public libraries, candle-making and soap-making workshops, and tea parties. The society also is working with South Shore Hospital on a program related to breast cancer care in the 1700s.
The medical-themed program was inspired by John and Abigail’s daughter, another Abigail, who died at 48 of breast cancer, according to Michelle McGrath, who does public relations for the historical society. “She was living in upstate New York and came here to die. She had a double mastectomy without anesthesia.”
McGrath said the society, which has an annual budget of about $12,000, is looking for new board members and volunteers.
The free grand reopening of the birthplace is scheduled for June 30 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; members only are invited from 1 to 5 p.m. The birthplace will be open on July 13 and 28, and Aug. 10 and 25. Admission is $5 for adults and $1 for children under age 12. Guided tours also are available by appointment for $25, plus admission.
The Abigail Adams Birthplace is located at 180 Norton St. in North Weymouth. More information is available at www.abigailadamsbirthplace.com.
Johanna Seltz can be reached at email@example.com.