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Reading 4: The Penniman's House
In 1868, after his fourth whaling voyage, Captain Penniman returned home to Eastham, Massachusetts. He decided to build a home for himself and his family on 12 acres of land he purchased from his father. The site is on the west side of Town Cove in the Fort Hill section of Eastham, an area of Cape Cod that is about 3 miles wide from the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Cod Bay. The landscape was gently rolling with freshwater ponds and a noticeable lack of trees, since earlier settlers cut down the hardwood forests. Homes were scattered about rather than grouped around a village green. The main occupation of Eastham residents was agriculture, specifically wheat, corn, and other grains for export and local use. There were maritime related industries as well, such as shipbuilding, saltmaking, shore whaling, shellfishing, and cod and mackerel fisheries. As the fisheries and saltworks declined, many residents reverted to farming.
The impressive home Captain Penniman built was French Second Empire style. The plans and drawings for the house are of high quality and indicate it was "designed by an established architect" whose identity remains a mystery. The house is a 2-½-story wood frame structure and is symmetrical in design. It is set on a stone foundation with a characteristic mansard roof; a unique roof that is steeply pitched usually providing extra living space. The exterior is covered with clapboards and "exuberant millwork trim" painted in their circa 1890 colors: yellow clapboards, white trim, black window sashes, green window blinds, brown and red roof shingles. Captain Penniman kept a detailed account book for all the expenses related to building the house. For example: he paid James Rodgers $15 for digging the cellar; it cost $24.99 for 238 pounds of nails; he paid Thomas Nickerson $21.60 for 8 days of exterior painting; and it cost $17.88 for 511 feet of hard pine lumber.
The house interior is also symmetrical with 2 rooms on each side of a central hall. The woodwork and finishes are as "ornate" and of the same high quality as the exterior. The Penniman House was the first house in Eastham to have indoor plumbing. The roof had a water collection system that led to a cistern, a large tank for storing water, in the attic. A gravity flow water system piped water from the cistern to the kitchen and bathroom. The heating and lighting systems of the home were updated as new technologies developed. An oil-fired hot air furnace replaced a coal/wood stove, and kerosene lights were replaced by electrical ones. The house size, its ornate architectural details, elevated setting, and "modern" technology distinguished it from the simple subsistence homes of its Eastham neighbors. The Penniman House is also noteworthy for its "remarkable state of preservation." The interior room plan is the same as it was in 1868 and most of the interior woodwork and hardware, the wall and ceiling coverings, and the "grained" finish on some of the woodwork are original.
The house reveals much about the family's taste and wealth after retiring from whaling. The eight rooms of the house were once filled with arctic bear robes, paintings, scrimshaw, and other artifacts from around the world. In addition, there are over 100 glass plate negatives taken between 1880 and 1913 by Captain Penniman's daughter Bessie. The photos captured the family's smiles, clothing, activities, their home, and the local landscape. The souvenirs that the Penniman family brought back to Cape Cod stirred the imaginations of their friends and excited a desire to know more about the people that made them and places where they lived. At some point, whale jawbones were placed as an arched "gate" to the entrance of the yard further reflecting Penniman's work and travels. It was thought to be good luck to pass between the whalebones.
The historical significance of the house, its unique appearance, and its association with the Penniman family prompted Cape Cod National Seashore to purchase the property in 1963 from Irma Penniman Broun, the Captain's youngest granddaughter. The price at that time was $28,000 for 12 acres of land on Fort Hill, the house, and its barn. Today it is worth millions of dollars, yet it is priceless for its value to history. The National Park Service is committed to maintaining the house as it was during Captain Penniman's time and to interpreting its history so that the public can learn about the exceptional lives of this whaling captain and his family.
Questions for Reading 4
1. Why do you think Captain Penniman kept a detailed log of his building costs?
2. What are some of the features of the house that made it noteworthy for its time?
3. How did the design of the house and the Penniman's lifestyle "complement" each other?
4. Why is this house historically significant? Do you think Cape Cod National Seashore should continue to preserve the house? Why or why not?
Reading 4 was adapted from The Pennimans: A Cape Cod Whaling Family at Home and Abroad, Cape Cod National Seashore, Eastern National, 2001.