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"That house wants to be saved" The Tilden House in Canton

Storytelling is an integral part of history. Stories teach, they inspire, they motivate, they caution. Stories tell where you have been and where you are and where you hope to go in the future. Through Storytellers we share local preservation stories that can serve to educate and inspire others, and ourselves. This edition encompasses the dedication, time and sheer determination that goes into saving the historic buildings that are "living manifestations of our heritage and culture". The story of the Tilden House in Canton and 16 year mission to bring it back from the brink speak to the perseverance (and frustration) that many in preservation can relate to. And how in the end "lost causes don't have to be lost".


The Tilden House Submitted by George T. Comeau, Canton Historical Society Photographs courtesy of the Canton Historical Society

The David Tilden House in Canton, Massachusetts was purchased as part of a very large land acquisition program in 1970. By 1973 the house was deemed ripe for demolition. Built in 1725 – with portions that were constructed even earlier, had fallen into disrepair. A group was formed and called the Friends of the Little Red House. Money was raised and the house was repaired, with no use planned. Eventually, by 2003, the house was once again slated for demolition. The “friends” group was resurrected, and dozens of volunteers raised $25,000 to help save the building. The advocacy led to the creation of a National Historic District with the Tilden House as the oldest contributing structure. But, as anyone who has done this work will tell you, volunteer fatigue sets in and the group dwindled to less than five supporters after several years of preservation efforts. The work to save the house would take hundreds of thousands of dollars and a public commitment.

The Tilden House in 2015. It would take four years to actually begin the preservation work.

A small group of people set forth to use the Tilden House as the cause celebre for the passage of the Community Preservation Act in Canton. It took three tries, but in the effort was successful. Soon, a $414,000 grant led to the creation of the historic structures report and money for Phase One structural work. And, while it looked like all would move forward smoothly, this was not the case. Eventually, it was decided to ask the town for a long-term lease so that work could be done privately by the local Historical Society. Permission to lease the property had to come from Annual Town Meeting. And still, after a lease was negotiated, a third Annual Town Meeting vote was needed to transfer the CPA money to the local historical society. In the meantime, a grant was written through the emergency projects fund of the MHC. A $50,000 matching award was made in exchange for a preservation restriction which took over six months to negotiate. Finally, a $100,000 earmark from the Massachusetts Legislature was vetoed by the Governor, and the veto was overridden by the House and Senate – which led to the successful award that completed the financing for Phase I.

This was, by every stretch of the imagination a lost cause. There were days when I personally could not drive by the house. Tears would well up easily when talking about the building. And yet, the building had a soul, could speak for the men and women that lived there over the course of three centuries. I can attest that houses like the Tilden, are living manifestations of our heritage and culture. And, they want to be saved. These historic buildings channel their voices through preservationists. The spirit of a house sounds rather ludicrous, but I can find no other explanation for the power of success than to attribute it to the story of the past embodied in the timber and ancient beams of this house.

On Christmas Day 2018, at 3:42 in the morning, the alarm company called my house. The fire alarm had gone off and a fire was tearing through the house. It was an incredible feeling that coursed through my being as I got dressed in the dark. Driving to the scene, I tried to sniff the air for embers. I craned my head through the trees in the meadow looking for the telltale signs of firetrucks. It turns out that it was a false alarm. A spider perhaps had crossed the beam of light and set the detector off. Arriving back home hours later, rather joyful, I explained to my wife what had happened. She smiled knowingly and simply said “that house wants to be saved.”

And so, after sixteen years of advocacy, bake sales, raffles, auctions and countless meetings and debates, we sit on the cusp of a resurrection from the dead. The days of local building officials playfully toying with a lighter in my presence have long passed. The days of begging and apologizing for process and cost are now gone. Last Monday the first load of white oak timbers arrived and the preservation carpenters began hand hewing the notches for the support beams. Not very much on this project comes from Home Depot, This is pure preservation suing time honored materials and techniques that will far exceed what the building code calls for in materials alone.

(L-R) George Comeau, Wally Gibbs, Sepp Bergschneider and Paul Mitcheroney, the local preservation team.

What Was The Biggest "Lesson Learned"?

That lost causes do not have to be lost. That bringing a historic resource back from the brink of extinction is a critical mission. The lesson of perseverance and having a strong story to tell is extremely important. And, that one or two people can move an entire community to action with the proper tools, demeanor and strategy.

What Sort Of Assistance Or Resources Did You Find Helpful?

Guidance came from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and other preservationists who helped counsel the process. Also, the folks at the North Bennett Street School – Preservation Carpentry Program were always an invaluable resource.

What Advice Would You Give Others Facing A Similar Project?

Find friends regionally to consult with. Visit other projects that are in-progress or completed, or also at the edge of loss. Make sure the Community Preservation Act is on the agenda in your community. Work on “friend-building” as much as you work of fundraising. Be bold, Be Aggressive, And always speak and be the voice for the house (historic asset.) Tell a story!!! Be wary of naysayers, and be bold in your commitment.

Is There Anything Else To Share?

It is inspiring to work with fellow preservationists who have a passion to save critical parts of our Nation’s history. Even in small towns, there are historic sites worthy of a fight. And, much of preservation is rooted in championing seemingly lost causes. (Side note: I won a Massachusetts Preservation Award when I was very young, and that has fueled my personal story for over thirty-five years.)


Thank you to George Comeau, the Canton Historical Society and everyone involved in the project for their dedication, belief and hard work on behalf of preservation in their community. The Canton Historical Society is willing to answer any questions about their project. If you have a question, please email us and Preservation Massachusetts will facilitate its answer.

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