Where Past Meets Present

Skilled carpenter Bob Benson and his wife, Marcia, bring back to life one of Chatham’s oldest homes

By Rachel Arroyo
Photography Dan Cutrona

The town of Chatham, incorporated in 1712, was just a couple decades old when the Hawes homestead was built in 1736 along what is now Route 28. Back then, “roads” were just dirt pathways traveled by foot or on horseback, with rural farms sparsely dotting the landscape. The town had yet to open its first formal schoolhouse and the American Revolutionary War was still a few decades away when Captain John Hawes built the traditional Cape house for his new bride, Abigail Doane, of Eastham.

Today, you are more apt to spot a fishing vessel or a pleasure craft than a working farm in the town of Chatham, which is known as much for its tourism as its fishing industry. But for the Hawes homestead, which is now considered to be the oldest home in Chatham, time has (almost) stood still.

“We love the antiquity of it,” says Bob Benson, who bought the home in 2010 with his wife, Marcia. At the time, no one had lived in the house since the early 1980s. “And it was getting to the point of disrepair,” Bob explains. Marcia even recalls roses growing into the windows where the kitchen now stands. Most homebuyers would be daunted by the amount of work the antique home needed, but not the Bensons. “Part of the reason why we bought the house is because we knew we had the skill set to bring it back to life,” says Bob.

Even though the couple has always had a hand in building and restoring, this is the first project they’ve undertaken from the ground up. Thanks to the previous owners, John Miller and his wife, all three original fireplaces had already been restored in the 1980s. The house also has all of its original hardware on the doors as well as the handmade trim and molding. “We painted [all the woodwork], and scraped it and smoothed it, but it is all original,” Bob says, proudly. “Bathrooms to bedrooms, from painting to plastering,” he says, “we’ve pretty much done it all ourselves without a lot of extra outside help.”

For the parts of the home that needed to be replaced, the couple took great pains to replicate what was there before: The roof was reconstructed using wood shingles and the wide-plank flooring was remade from antique, reclaimed wood. The “new” windows were built the same way they were in the 1700s, all by hand, with mortise-and-tenon joinery. “They are things of beauty themselves,” Bob remarks, as he gives this writer and a photographer a tour through the home.

As we enter the rarely used, even in its heyday, minister’s parlor at the front of the house, Bob marvels, “This is quite the room because it has not been messed with at all.” He points out: “It has all the original hardware, and the mantel is all original.” He also shows us the faded and chipped blue paint inside of a closet in the gathering room. “The original paint is still in evidence inside the closets,” he exclaims. “Talk about originality!” There are also built-up layers of paint in the buttery (or pantry, as it is now more commonly called). Taking notice, the Bensons replicated these original hues, “colonial blue” and “barn red” throughout the home.

Bob’s industrious woodworking and keen attention to detail, however, are best on display in the kitchen. When the Bensons bought the house, there was no kitchen, just a stray iron tub where their future kitchen would eventually be.

“There was no refrigerator, stove, nothing,” says Bob. So, he built a small kitchen—designed to look like it is from the 1800s—that opens to the adjoining gathering room and main living area. The kitchen has a soapstone sink, open shelving and handmade cabinet doors and knobs, while the modern-day dishwasher, refrigerator and freezer all have been hidden behind wood paneling handcrafted by Bob. The counters are made of antique chestnut, one of Cape Cod Colonial Tables’ most popular wood choices for their custom handcrafted pieces. “It is beautiful, it’s hard, and [chestnut] is no longer being grown,” says Bob. Wiped out by blight in the early 1900s, Bob explains, “It only exists through reclaimed wood.”

Not original to the house, but necessary to meet building code, is an updated plumbing system and a new bathroom on the first floor, which replaces a tiny “borning” room formerly used for births. To make the home more habitable for modern-day living, the Bensons also had an addition built just large enough to include a first-floor master bedroom with a walk-in closet and en suite bath off the back of the house, opposite their former bedroom facing the noisy street.

“We can only imagine what it was like in the early 1800s, late 1700s,” says Bob, who often thinks about what daily life might’ve been like in the Hawes homestead at that time.