top of page

Hancock House, an icon of colonial architecture

The Ticonderoga Historical Society for the last forty years has made the Hancock House, located at the Moses Circle, Ticonderoga, NY its home.  Over those years one of the many recurring questions about the Society and the House ~  why here in Ticonderoga and how did the Society become its steward.  Depending on the particular occasion the answer may have been stated with a brief overview, or in more detail if given as a formal presentation – say on the history of the building.   In just a week’s time the Society will be celebrating the Hancock House’s  90th anniversary of its dedication here in Ticonderoga.  So, to answer this question for those not familiar with its origins; or,  as a “refresher” to others, we offer:

Our Hancock House is an enduring icon of historic preservation.  With its construction beginning in 1925  it has been a reminder of  its Georgian architectural heritage in  America since the original Boston Manor was begun in 1736, making it prototypical in historical preservation.

nn 90 9 hh

The House

From an architectural standpoint, the Hancock House is the most splendid of the mansions of Colonial New England.  Until the building of the Boston Manor,  the finest example of this sort of residence were the old planation houses in the south, where the owners were men of wealth and did not have to scrimp on their homes and their style of architecture was well adapted to southern colonial lifestyle.  Unlike the south, the colonial architecture of the north reflected the severe taste resulting from the need for economy and an outgrowth of Puritan poverty and simplicity.  The Hancock House was the exception to the rule and was probably the most architecturally advanced house of its time in the colonies.

Thomas Hancock, the original builder and owner,  had obviously given every aspect of his house’s construction considerable thought.  At the time he was planning the his Manor House Boston  was the largest city in America; however, the Beacon Street area was undeveloped, it was in fact considered to be “way out in the country.”  He must have had the intuition that this area would develop and chose a location with a beautiful view of the town, the harbor and surrounding countryside.

Construction began in 1736 and the house was first occupied in 1741. The floor plan was typical of a mid-century floorplans with the staircase hall bisecting the building front to back for the first two floors.  The central block of the house was a rectangle 56 feet wide and 38 feet deep.  (Later flanking wings were constructed.)  The walls were of squared granite ashlar from Medford.  The Medford granite was chosen for it’s quality of creating an illusion of changing color tones with different atmospheric conditions and weather, sometimes green, rose, or a deep warm gray.  The granite was enhanced with details of Connecticut sandstone (brownstone) the very same sandstone that many years later formed the famous brownstone fronts of the houses in our eastern cities.

It was however the interior details that gave the house a pronounced elegance.  Many of the parts were imported from England, the caps of the four pilasters, glass for the windows, wallpaper, Dutch tiles and many of the furnishings.  The Colonial stairway with double twisted balusters of different patterns on each step was the first of its kind and first seen in the Hancock Manor.

(“In the great entry were displayed landscapes, prints and portraits.  the work of American artists as well as foreigners was represented.  Paintings by Badger, Smibert and Copely, Bostonians and near neighbors of the Hancocks, hung on the walls.” )

The House was located on one of several leveled hills of Boston’s heights (Beacon) on  a five-acre plot.  It is belived that Thomas Hancock consulted with John James, a well-known architect, who published books on the theory and practice of gardening.  One of the ealiest flower garden references of 1736 concerns Thomas’ plans for flower gardens in a letter to a London nurseryman.  He created an orchard filled with choice fruit trees, terraced gardens and through his import/export business ordered peacocks, squirrels, birds, fruits and flowers.  And wrote –“Neither do I intend to spare any cost or pains in making my gardens beautiful.”  (Gardens during this era were referred to as “Gardens of Pleasure.”)

Colonial Craftsmen

The Hancock House’s status as a national architectural icon can also be attributed to, and stands as a great monument to the “Colonial Housewrights.”   The attention to detail is responsible for the house being dubbed “The Wonder House.” The house’s exterior demonstrated architectural features such as a double  pitched gambrel roof with carved modillions at the cornice, scroll pediment, ornate engaged columns and ornamental door head with an elaborate balcony.  The sandstone was cut at Middletown, Connecticut, a small town on the Connecticut river.  Word spread about the stone work for the wonder house, and drew a lot of attention because works of such an ornate fashion had never been seen in this region.  After the construction of the Hancock Manor interest in the Middletown sandstone escalated and regional master carpenters translated the stonework of the Hancock Manor into wood.  It serves as an example of how colonial craftsmen took old world styles and adapted them to local living conditions and surroundings, creating a style of their own.

Publicity Associated with Famed Owner

The Hancock Manor was more than just a building, it was a home.  It has secured it’s place in historic preservation with it’s association to it’s residents.   The completed house was as distinguished as its owner.  It was ideal for “The exercise of hospitality and the enjoyment of home life.”  It’s building and extravagance, being the center of social gaieties in Boston.  Thomas Hancock was a member of a group of men who were in the mainstream of commercial success of the busy Boston Seaport.  As merchants, these men were sophisticated and wealthy, and their business with Europe, as well as the other colonies, made them aware of new ideas and fashions.  This new and rising class of Americans introduced new ideas on lifestyles.  While it was Thomas Hancock’s vision of a new architectural ideology that created the house, it was his nephew John’s residence that the house received notoriety.  Thomas’s financial success allowed him to promote his nephew politically.  Following Thomas’ death in 1764 the property was inherited by his nephew John Hancock, who became the richest man in New England, president of the Continental Congress, first signer of the Declaration of Independence and first governor of Massachusetts.

Demolition Controversy

John died in 1793, in 1795 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts purchased the pasture just to the east and by 1863 the estate had fallen into hard times with taxes on the remaining property due.  Plans were being made to extend Hancock Street south to Cambridge Street to Beacon, directly through the site of the Hancock House.  One of the first great battles of the historic preservation movement was over the demolition of the Manor House on Beacon Street  in 1863.  Public attention was divided between the Civil War and battles in the State Legislature.  The legislature refused to buy the Manor and restore it for use as the Governor’s Mansion.  On June 26, 1863 at 4 PM the interior details and stone were auctioned.  When demolition seemed inescapable, Arthur Gilman, one of the most important architects in Boston suggested that measured drawings be made of the one hundred and twenty six year old mansion.

While the battle to save the Manor from destruction was lost, the resulting measured drawings by Sturgis, made in the face of controversy, launched this country’s historical preservation movement.

Sturgis’s Measured Drawings

Sturgis’s measured drawings and their utilaztion in his architectural design and work have all combined to draw continual attention to the house’s design.

The measured drawings that Sturgis made of the Hancock Manor are the first known set of measured drawings to have been made of an American House.  There were seven known drawings made just prior to the house’s demolition by John Hubbard Sturgis.  It is possible that these drawings may have been part of a larger series.  These drawings consisted of plans for all four elevations and the full ground and chamber floor plans, all scaled 1/4″ to a foot.  There is a final drawing of the house’s interior, which features the details of the staircase and hall window.

Sturgis had been trained in England and was a pupil of one of  England’s finest draughtsman, James K. Colling, who had published a book on measured drawings.  Interest in England’s historic architecture steadily grew and later in 1876 William Morris founded the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings in England.  Sturgis returned to Boston in 1861 and brought with him theory, design and specific elements of building from England, as well as his interest in historic preservation.  His measured drawings can be said to have influenced the course of design for new construction in the first quarter-century after the demolition of the mansion.   By 1888, the year of Sturgis’s death the movement of influence of the Hancock Manor accelerated and by the end of the 19th century it had become an institution, copied over and over again as a model for both houses and public buildings.

Architectural measured drawings are the primary documentary tools of the Historic American Building Survey, established in 1933.  It has been suggested that measured drawings should be called measuring drawings, because they are created after the fact of the edifice.  A measuring drawing is drawn to scale from an existing structure and requires a complex set of calculations and attention to detail.  The demolition controversy and the historical importance of the structure provided the impetus for creating the measured drawings of the Hancock House here in Ticonderoga.  It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that a new conscience arose for the importance of Colonial structure.  This change in consciousness was indicated in the number of architects who traveled up and down the east coast sketching Colonial buildings as well as the number of books published on Colonial architecture.

The Hancock Manor was first copied a year or two after its erection in the Colonial House at Newport, Rhode Island.  In 1893, using the measured drawings of Sturgis, Peabody’s Massachusetts State Building at the World’s Colombian Expostion in Chicago was constructed, and became the archetype of Colonial Revival design in the late ninetieth century.  Peabody stated his affinity for colonial design in an article for American Architecture and Building News, “There is no revival so little of an affection on our soil, as that of the beautiful work of Colonial days.  It’s quiet dignity and quainteness, its coziness and elegance, always attract us.  It is our legitimate field of our imagination and we have much of it to study right in our own neighborhood. ”  He chose the Hancock Manor as a mdoel because “the valuable quality in the design of the original Manor was the air of aristocratic distinction and reserve and dignity that it bore without losing a homelike and comfortable appearance.”  The Hancock Manor moved from its role, as a model for houses to a symbolic structure considered also appropriate for public buildings.

hh old 1863 auction poster-800

1863 Auction Poster

Public Auction and Distribution of Artifacts

The public auction of the Hancock House detailing also served to promote the “Hancock House” legacy.  Bits and pieces of the stonework and interior details were purchased at the Auction in 1863 and scattered across the country.

Sturgis bought the staircase and it remained in storage until 1866.  He may have also purchased the twelve stone steps and stored them at the same place, a stone mason’s shop in Boston.  The steps became apart of “Pine Bank” in Jamaica Plain in 1869.  The staircase was badly cut up and reversed in run in order to fit in an existing space for a great house at Manchester-by-the-Sea.  Balusters from the stairs and roof and two carved capitals are in the Essex Institute in Salem, a modillion from the cornice is at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the front door is housed at the Bostonian Society, the balcony at the John Hancock Insurance Company as well as many other elements.  These elements are legacies to the most important stone house in New England.  The artifacts remain long after the destruction of the house, reminding us of the importance of historic preservation.

nn 90 2 moses-800

Horace Moses – 1926 Dedication


Ticonderoga’s native son and philanthropist Horace Moses, who resided in Springfield, Mass., chose Max Westhoff a revival-style architect and preservationist to prepare the designs for  today’s Hancock House and the Town of Ticonderoga’s Community Building – both erected at the westerly-easterly  axis of Montcalm Street.  Westhoff spent 18 years residing and practicing architecture in the Adirondacks.  His work in this area consisted mainly of camps, cottages in the Lake Placid, Saranac Lake region.  Ironically his two most important projects were undertaken after he left the area.

In the early 1920’s Horace Moses, a trustee of the New York State Historical Association, (NYSHA) who had  no home for itself, presented at their Annual Meeting in Lake Placid a case to the Association to establish its headquarters in Ticonderoga – a place of significant historical heritage going back centuries.  Initially, there was some question about its remoteness, the state’s road system was just beginning to be built in this region and the early advent of directing  tourist to designation points in the Champlain Valley had just begun.  However with Moses’ lobbying and his willingness to finance not only its construction, furnishings and then providing a generous endowment, the Association officer’s and membership relented.  Horace developed specific requirements for the new  building, he wanted to reproduce a historic building that no longer existed, it must be of stone and built to be as fire resistant as possible so it could protect the valuable furnishings and records that it would contain.  On a bright and sunny day – August 21, 1926  – 3,000 people attended the dedication ceremony including state representatives from New York and Vermont and from Canada, England and France.

Seated: Mr. Moses, Dr. Severance, Gen Summerall, (U.S Army) Gen. Charlton (England) & Gen. Dumont (France)

Seated: Mr. Moses, Dr. Severance, Gen Summerall, (U.S Army) Gen. Charlton (England) & Gen. Dumont (France)

Historical Footnotes

The Hancock House, was furnished in part from a collection created by the Metropolitan Museum and the library and exhibit rooms were quickly filled making its collection one of the finest in northern New York.  The Association a decade later moved its headquarters to Fenimore House in Cooperstown.  The Hancock House remained a NYSHA branch until 1956, when it was leased to the Fort Ticonderoga Association, which continued to make its resources available to the public.  In the late 1950’s it was the Headquarters House for both Vermont and New York as it prepared for the 350th Anniversary of Champlain’s discovery of the lake named after him.   In 1974 the Association removed the last remaining  contents from the building.  This created an unpleasant situation here, as the Society’s and others’ collections were also removed this leading to a campaign to place the building under local management and have all the building’s original contents and collections returned.   This was a successful campaign and just in time for America’s bi-centennial in 1976.  The Ticonderoga Historical Society re-opened and re-dedicated the Hancock House as a museum and library.   For the last forty years, through the thoughtful and generous donations and contributions the building has been well maintained, its collections have grown and it remains a recognized asset to the community of Ticonderoga and within the Adirondack region.  And the Society has been able to maintain the original intention of its benefactor: to preserve an icon of American colonial building and a place to house and  preserve this area’s collective history and heritage.

(“On the left of the hall was the sitting-parlor or family drawing room.  In this room were half a dozen chairs with leather seats and two “lolling-chairs.”  A small settle and small sideboard, a three-foot table and card table were also among the furniture.  A fireplace cheered the room with heat and light.  In the rear of this parlor was the back parlor or dining room.  The floor was covered by a canvas carpet.  it contained a sideboard and two large tables five and four and a half feet.  A desk bookcase and green armchair were among its furnishings.”)

  1. The Ticonderoga Historical Society was formed in October of 1897 with one of its main purposes being the national ownership and preservation of the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga and to bring to the nation’s attention of the present state of the ruins and the need to preserve this heritage site.  This action was taken as a result of  an August meeting between  John E. Milholland — a well know individual of the era and former owner of the Ticonderoga Sentinel  – met with President McKinley as he was vacationing at the Hotel Champlain near Plattsburgh.  At this meeting John expressed a  great concern of his and many others,  about the status of the old fort at Ticonderoga; and,  to  lobbied for his support to have the War Department purchase the 500 estate and rebuild the fortress.  He noted that for sometime he had been in communication with Howland Pell and other owners of the estate and they had express an interest in selling the property to the government for $30,000.  During this meeting both the Vice President and Secretary of War were in approval of this proposal.

  2. The Society was charted by the Regents of New York State on April 1, 1909 as a member organization.  At the time of Andrew Carnegie’s gift of funds to build the public library here in Ticonderoga, an additional gift was made to include space for the Society’s first home- (1905).  The Society’s large collection of donated artifacts from the ruins of the old fort and area historical sites with other important historical material were then placed there.

  3. Horace Moses (1862-1947) was  born and raised on a farm here in Ticonderoga.  As young man he left his home and went to work for his uncle at the Agawam Paper Company in Mittineague, Massachusetts.  Through hard work he advanced quickly in the ladder of success.    By thirty years old he organized the Mittineague Paper Company from his own savings nd began a long career as notable industrialist.   Every mindful of his roots and associations he used his success to become a prominent philanthropist.  In Ticonderoga his contributions were many:  Valley View Chapel tower, Moses-Ludington Hospital (several buildings), Liberty Monument, Community Building and the Hancock House and many financial assistance and support to advance the interest of  youth and agriculture programs.

  4. The Ticonderoga Historical Society’s archival collection holds no artifacts from the original building.  Donations would be welcomed.

  5. Part of this article was edited from a presentation to PRIDE of Ticonderoga in 1999 for an award given to the Society  in recognition of excellence for its preservation activities and its exhibit of “A Sense of Place.”

Please join us for our “Roaring Twenties” Gala Birthday event on the Hancock House Lawn.

  1. 7/9/16  wgd

214 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page