Emily Dickinson's conservatory gets new life: Museum to put dismantled glasshouse back up at Amherst home

Wednesday, June 04, 2014
AMHERST — A conservatory filled with plants brought the natural world into Emily Dickinson’s home and served as a means for her to remain in touch with others.

Nearly a century after this conservatory was dismantled, the Emily Dickinson Museum plans to bring it back to further recreate the environment in which Dickinson flourished as a poet.

“We’d like to reconstruct the conservatory as a restoration of the home in which Emily Dickinson lived and more particularly because it had such intense interest and meaning to her,” said Jane Wald, the museum’s executive director. “This is part of an effort to draw out her life and help her readers today to be in greater touch with the art, beauty and meaning of her poetry.”

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The effort started Saturday, when a five archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services began a three-day project to locate the conservatory’s original foundation and discover artifacts buried in the soil.

Such a survey is a requirement of the Massachusetts Historical Commission whenever subsurface work is done at the historic site.

“Our task was to see if the foundation was actually there,” said Tim Barker, field director for the archaeological team. “We have identified that the lower course of foundation is still there.”

Wald said the conservatory was added to the home in 1855, when Dickinson’s father, Edward, bought back the Homestead. Flora and fauna had been an important part of Emily Dickinson’s childhood, Wald said, and the conservatory, with its shelves lined with plants, was something she appreciated.

“The conservatory was a special gift to her and her sister Lavinia from her father,” Wald said.

But the small structure, likely measuring no more than 6 feet wide and 18 feet long, was removed when new owners bought the property in 1916. The museum retains the three window sashes that faced Main Street, the shutters and a door, as well as the granite slab on which the conservatory was built. Wald said the hope is to rebuild the conservatory within two years.

Using a photograph of the conservatory taken the same year the structure was removed, the archaeologists projected where the foundation was likely located, based on features of the house, such as the position of windows and a crack in the foundation. Then, using pink string, they outlined the perimeter of the conservatory and used a probe to determine if the stone foundation remained below the surface.

Trenches excavated to depths of about 70 centimeters revealed the foundation stones, far enough down to be below the frost line, Barker said. The archaeologists were also able to find additional stones that appear to have supported granite steps to access the conservatory from outside the home.

Barker said the team uses a methodology to survey sections of the site by digging in 10-centimeter increments,

Sifting for history

At a small test pit, senior field technician Jessica Jay carefully removed soil using a shovel, trowel and a dust pan, and then brought this material to a quarter-inch screen, where field technician Michelle Pope shook the dirt and periodically found shards of ceramics, rusted nails, bits of brick and mortar, pieces of wood and household refuse.

Each item she discovered is placed in a plastic bag and marked with its location. These will be brought to the lab for washing, drying and re-bagging.

The ceramics, in particular, are interesting, because their manufacture dates can be determined based on the patterns and styles. “We hope to match the patterns with some of the china in their house,” Barker said. “That would be pretty cool.”

Green-edged pearl-ware shards, for instance, were made in the 1830s, which indicates they may have been disposed on the property at a later date.

Among other items found were a shutter latch and a hasp.

The entire site of the dig is also being photographed and drawn to scale in maps and plans, including the formation of the rock foundation.

Jill Zuckerman, a field technician, uses graph paper and a measuring tape to plot this information.

“We need to know where all the rocks and bricks are,” Zuckerman said.

“Everything is painstakingly recorded,” Barker said.

Dan Zoto, a senior field technician, said nothing unusual turned up, a sign that the area near the conservatory has been relatively untouched over the years. “Artifacts and fill match the period,” Zoto said.

Barker said it’s possible the existing stones in the foundation could be used in the reconstruction, depending on current building code.

“We need to analyze what we have and in coordination with the Dickinson Museum determine our next course of action,” Barker said.

The team, which does work at sites throughout New England, said being in Amherst is rare. But it offered an opportunity to Jackie Monsell, a junior at UMass majoring in anthropology. She got to observe archaeological methods first hand and work alongside professionals as part of an independent study.

“It’s been really good to see how things work,” Monsell said.

Monsell said it is remarkable how every time the screen is used, some artifact appears.

Though nothing unusual was found, Wald said she is delighted the foundation remained intact. “That is exactly what we were hoping for,” Wald said.

The conservatory project will be entirely supported by gifts and is part of a larger restoration of vegetable and perennial gardens, Wald said there is no cost estimate yet.

The archaeological work, which could be observed by visitors to the museum, comes at a time when the museum has its garden days, which begin Sunday and run through June 11. Volunteers can work under the direction of a landscape historian, Marta McDowell. To sign up, contact program coordinator Lucy Abbott at labbott@emilydickinsonmuseum.org or 542-2034.

A garden celebration will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. June 11, with a pottery demonstration by Guy Wolff and a reception for the garden volunteers.