The Saunders House
The Saunders House is an outstanding example of a mid-nineteenth century home built in Gloucester. It has been the home of the Sawyer Free Library since 1884. The house was constructed in 1764 by Thomas Saunders, a successful merchant and a representative to the Massachusetts General Court. The plans for the house were probably acquired from England as many prominent houses from that time were. It reflected Saunders’ success and status in the community and was one of the grandest dwellings in Gloucester.*
The house had seven owners before Samuel Sawyer purchased it for the library. Before this generous donation, the library had a series of different locations including the residential parlor of F.G. Low, 135 Front Street, City Hall, and the Baptist church. As the library grew in popularity all of these sites became unsuitable. It was clear that the library needed its own building. Samuel Sawyer showed interest in buying the Saunders house but he missed his first opportunity in 1878 because he was abroad. His second attempt was successful, buying it from William A. Pew in 1884 for $20,000. The library finally had a permanent home.
Before Samuel Sawyer’s purchase, the house went through many owners and two major renovations. Captain John Beach, an Englishman who purchased the house in 1784, was the first owner to make major changes. His addition of two stories was unprecedented in Gloucester at the time. The top story was an octagonal observatory which no longer exists, nor is there a visual representation remaining.*
General Pew, the seventh owner, added a four-story Italianate Victorian tower to the front of the house. The base of the tower exists today, but was reworked in 1934 to its current configuration as the front entry porch. He also added piazzas and roof balustrades creating a beautiful Victorian mansion.
The house has remarkably retained some of its original features despite 245 years and many owners. The front facade is original, built with rusticated board intended to look like dressed stone. The pedimented window frames are original, as well as its elaborate denticulated cornices. There are areas in the interior that have retained some of their original detail, including the paneled wainscot in the center hall on both floors, the spiral twist turned balusters, and the arched and pilastered compass head window at the upper landing.
For years the Sawyer Free Library has dreamed of repairing and preserving this well-loved house. Finally this process has begun thanks to a generous donation from the Dusky Foundation. We hope our patrons and citizens are as thrilled as we are to see the years peeled away to reveal its former grandeur.
*Fish, Prudence Paine, Antique Houses of Gloucester (Charleston, SC: History Press) 29.