Investigating Millford’s “Garden” and “Gun” Buildings

Author: Jeff Klee, Architectural Historian

One of the lingering questions about Millford is the date of the so-called garden and gun buildings, the small one-story structures in the rear yard set symmetrically behind the kitchen and laundry. They were not called out in the original contract between John L. Manning and Millford’s Master builder Nathaniel Potter. However, they do appear on the 1924 map of the site and one of them is shown in the 1910 photo album and identified as the home of Ben Pleasant, formerly the enslaved body servant of John L. Manning. It is conceivable that they were the buildings mentioned in Potter’s final accounting of the project as “Servant’s apartments, 2 buildings @ $1,500 each.”

In October 2021, I looked at both with Will Hamilton, Mary Jatkowski, and Brent Fortenberry to see whether the physical remains might help determine their date of construction and whether the association of one of them with Ben Pleasants might be plausible.

Watch Video of Investigation.

Outwardly, the two buildings are similar in form, material, and detail to their better documented neighbors in the Millford yard. Both are built of brick with a stucco exterior, like the original buildings on site, with simple Greek Revival details. They have flat roofs with a low parapet and a tall cornice. In plan, they are laid out with two rooms on either side of a center chimney stack with direct access to each room from the yard. In both, there is a larger heated room facing away from the mansion with a smaller unheated room adjoining. The larger room in both is 12 feet wide by 19 feet 8 inches deep; the smaller was originally 9 feet 8 inches wide by 19 feet eight inches deep but has been reduced in depth for the construction of a closet and bathroom.

"Garden" building

The garden room building on the west side of the yard is set into the side of a low hill above the Jenrette-era pool, so it has an excavated cellar that is accessible from the downhill side, away from the yard. Cellar access is in a narrow dog-house-like entry with brick steps. It leads into a narrow lobby at the foot of the stairs, against the chimney stack that divides the cellar into two small, low rooms. Each of these rooms is lit by a vent window which was originally set into a thin beaded frame in the west wall. The windows have joined sash and are four lights wide and one light high with panes set in narrow muntins. The frames in which they were originally set have decayed but two pieces survive on the northern one. Its headpiece was originally set in place with nails, which are substantially corroded, but one survives enough to show that it originally had a rectangular shank and blunt point and therefore was cut.

The walls of the cellar and the base of the chimney stack are made of wood-molded bricks set in a friable, sandy mortar. The walls and the base are also covered in a thick, uneven coat of plaster, with several coats of whitewash on it. The present floor is concrete. The ceiling has been completely replaced with a new frame made entirely of dimensional lumber. It looks new enough to have been installed in the 1990s, when Dick Jenrette undertook his refurbishment of the property and this cellar was converted into a pool room. No trace of the original framing survives, though the line of the original ceiling is apparent in a hard edge to the plaster on the walls, an edge that indicates that the ceiling of this space was originally plastered, along with the walls. Additionally, the cellar was originally divided into two separate rooms by a short diagonal partition that ran from the northwest corner of the entry to the northeast corner of the chimney base. Given its lack of a heat source, its poor lighting, and its semi-subterranean quality, it is difficult to imagine a function for these rooms other than storage but the plastered walls and ceiling suggest that these spaces may have been occupied, either as work or living space. Critically, the use of handmade bricks, soft, sandy mortar, joined sash and cut nails all suggest that this building was in place by the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Given that the Mannings’ resources did not permit them to make major investments in the property after the Civil War, we conclude that this building, along with its mate across the yard, was built in the 1840s or 50s.

The main rooms on the ground floor have been much improved since they were originally constructed. Both have been refinished twice—once for the Clark family in the early twentieth century and once for Dick Jenrette. The plans of both seem to be little changed, however, with one large room heated by a large fireplace and a second smaller room adjoining it. Both rooms are accessible directly from the yard. They are currently connected to one another by means of a bathroom that was inserted in the Clark era at the back of the smaller room. Little early fabric remains in place in the ground floor rooms in either building but all sash, remarkably, seem to have survived. These have the same narrow muntins as the cellar windows and are likewise joined and pegged. It would be well worth taking paint samples to compare the sash with the other woodwork in each room in both buildings. Additionally, the mantel in the larger room in each building is Greek Revival. In the garden room, it is relatively elaborate, with molded capitals and a deeply cut ovolo bed mold under the mantel shelf; it is very similar to a mantel in the Little Mansion.

"Gun" Building. Historically used by Benjamin Pleasant.

In the gun room, it is plain, with simple capitals and little elaboration, and plausibly may be an original element from the antebellum era. Both fireboxes have been rebuilt with modern, machine-molded brick as part of the Clark-era refurbishment. There are nineteenth century doors to the yard in the gun room, with Italianate panel moldings. If these are original, it suggests a relatively late antebellum date for the building. The mantels are refined for a backstage service building but if they are original and in situ, they contribute to a fuller understanding of how the Mannings understood their relationship with the enslaved workers on the site.

All openings in the garden room are cased with simple moldings with thin cyma backbands. Those in the gun room are more complex but also more unusual, with a shallow Greek cyma and another thin backband. Casings in both rooms have few generations of paint on them, unlike the sash, and have visible chatter marks, consistent with machine planing and a twentieth-century installation date.

Devising a chronology for the changing finishes in each room would be much aided by cross-section paint microscopy, to compare the stratigraphies of the principal woodwork, including the window sash, the mantels, the exterior doors, and the casings of each opening. Pigment analysis might also help to determine an absolute date for some elements. Any opportunity to see behind the present plaster or wall board in the ground floor rooms would help understand the earliest finishes in the building. Finally, if the ceiling joists and rafters are ever exposed, and early framing survives, dendrochronology would be essential for establishing a date of construction precisely.

The most likely date of construction for these structures is in the decade or so before the Civil War. The thin window muntins, large panes of glass, the use of cut nails and the mature Greek Revival trim all suggest that these structures were built by the Mannings, not the Clarks, and were in place by the 1850s. Given this, and given that both resemble contemporary slave quarters in their center-chimney, duplex layout, both buildings must be the structures referred to by Potter as “servants’ apartments” in his final accounting of the project in 1841. Their relatively high level of finish for quarters, furthermore, makes it plausible that one of them was indeed the house for Ben Pleasants, whose elevated status among the Manning’s enslaved workforce is signified by the quality and location of this building.