Touring the Abel and Mary Nicholson House with Ralph Harvard

Nov 17, 2020

On Tuesday, November 10, the Trust headed to Salem, NJ, to enjoy a private tour of the Nicholson House with Ralph Harvard. The house was built in 1722 by Abel Nicholson, a Quaker who settled in the area in 1675 with his father and John Fenwick. They established one of the earliest Quaker meeting houses in America and were well-known in colonial America for their efforts. 

No one is better suited to share the incredible brickwork that makes this house a truly remarkable survival than Ralph. According to Ralph, “The glory of the house is really its brick end. It has these 40 diamonds and the date boldly at the top 1722. You get this feeling of Quakers that they were very plain. Well no, they liked well-built buildings, and they were proud of craftsmanship.” 

Pattern brickwork was a popular architectural detail in early-18th-century homes in the region. This house was revered from the earliest days and has been preserved in an incredibly authentic state. 

Bricks on both sides of the front door bear inscribed initials, including those of Mary and Abel Nicholson, the brick masons William Petty and John Mason, others that Ralph believes could be craftspeople or members of the local Quaker community. These initials would have been carved when the bricks were wet prior to being fired in a kiln. Ralph interprets the presence of artisans’ initials as an illustration of the Quakers’ deep appreciation of craftsmanship that creates a powerful connection to the past. 

Ralph’s ultimate question was how do you protect an 18th-century house that is in the middle of a wetland? How do you preserve and honor the unique legacy of this incredible house while protecting it and making it accessible to visitors? While we can’t see the future, we are thrilled that we were able to share this house and look forward to when we can visit the site together in person. 

To see other incredible details including an impressive mantel, cut-out hearts, 19th-century bedrooms, and much more check out the program recording on our YouTube channel:

Due to the remote location of the house, we could not answer your questions live. However, Ralph was happy to answer your questions below:

Q: What type of wood are the floors? 

A. They are a soft local yellow pine, very wide!

Q: When did the decorative glazed brick become common? 

A: In Britain early on, diamond patterns, etc. were created by using shiny flint stones mixed in with the bricks. The vitrified bricks appear in the late 17th century in America with some regularity, but rarely in New England, where there were so few brick houses. They were used rampantly in southern New Jersey, occasionally in Pennsylvania and early New York, heavily in Maryland and Virginia, and sometimes in North and South Carolina.

Q: Were there cornices in any of the rooms? 

A: No cornices were used inside the house, and this is true of so many early—pre-classical—houses. Originally there were no baseboards, either. A black stripe was painted on the falls above the floor to act as protection. The exterior cornice was originally a deep plaster cove. 

Q: Did the house originally have wood shingles on the roof? 

A: Probably wood shingles, but maybe stone tiles, which Bacon’s Castle, Shirley, etc. had. Archaeology will tell.

Q: What kind of cellar or foundation is under the house? 

A: There is a full brick floored cellar with over 7’ clearance under the 1722 section of the house. It is well-lit with large windows but damp.

Q: How big is the house? 

A: The old house has four rooms with two more in the attic. The wing has five rooms.

Q: Fireplaces seem to shrink around 1830 or so, as in the Nicholson House’s wing. Why is that? A stylistic or technological change? 

A: Because of the increasing popularity of coal.

Q: Will you abandon the raw white exterior paint? 

A: The house has had raw white paint for 100 years, and I am trying to preserve it as it. The trim on the 1722 house was of course originally deep red.

Q: What is the purpose of the cut-out circle in the fireplace in the main room? 

A: The cutouts in the fireplaces were for stove pipes.

Q: Were the brick masons left or right-handed? 

A: Right-handed. 

The Trust’s calendar of events shows upcoming Trust Talks and other virtual and in-person programs. For updates on registration openings, sign up for our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. The Trust is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that appreciates the involvement of members and donors who make programming like this possible. 

About The Decorative Arts Trust Bulletin

Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.


Subscribe to receive an email when the Decorative Arts Trust publishes a new post.


Join our mailing list to receive the latest news, tour and symposium announcements from the Decorative Arts Trust.

Thank you for subscribing!


Join our mailing list to receive the latest news, tour and symposium announcements from the Decorative Arts Trust.

You have Successfully Subscribed!