The Penniman House was built at the end of the Victorian Age and styled after the French Second Empire Period (1855-1870). The house was designed by an unknown architect, built by local artisans using the finest available materials, and sited on land purchased from Captain Penniman’s father.
Completed in 1868 for the family’s use while the Captain continued his whaling career, the house included every known comfort and many innovative ideas. The foundation was laid on the existing ground, the basement walls built up, and fill brought in to raise the surrounding land by eight feet. This provided excellent drainage, ensuring a dry basement, and raised the windows of the cupola high enough for the Captain to observe the ships passing in both Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
The first floor contains a parlor, sitting room, dining room, kitchen and pantry. A center hall divides these rooms and contains the stairs to the second floor. A rear door gives access to the kitchen and the back stairs.
Upstairs, four bedrooms are separated by a center hall. A small bathroom and stairs to the attic and cupola are at the rear.
Two chimneys served the wood/coal stoves in the eight rooms. By 1897, a coal-fired furnace was installed in the basement, with pipes running to the parlor, sitting room and dining room. Floor grills are still visible in each of the rooms. The stoves continued to be used as supplementary heat in the spring and fall. About 1915, all the stoves except the kitchen range were removed, and the three-pipe furnace was replaced by a central coal-fired warm air furnace in the basement with a floor grill in the center hall. By 1940, the coal furnace was replaced by the existing oil furnace.
A novel water collection system supplied the kitchen and bathroom. Drinking water came from a deep well in the rear yard. This house had the first kitchen and bath with indoor plumbing in Eastham and the first indoor flush toilet in town.
Carpeting, stained glass windows, fine woodwork, running water and an efficient heating system made it one of the finest homes in town.
The Penniman family occupied this fine home for nearly one hundred years, except for when the captain was at sea or when Mrs. Penniman took one or another of the children along on one of the whaling voyages.
Mrs. Penniman’s family occupied three homes adjacent to the Penniman house. Her parents’ home was located where the parking lot is today. Sylvanus Knowles owned the house across the road from the Penniman house, and Seth Knowles had the big house at the bend in the road where the road ascends Fort Hill. The Knowles family farmed the land between Fort Hill and Skiff Hill to the north. Some of this land was originally given to Reverend Treat, the first minister in Eastham, and before that, had a long history of Native American use.
After the Captain’s death in 1913, Mrs. Penniman and their daughter, Betsey, continued to live in the home. Mrs. Penniman’s died in 1921. Betsey Penniman, who never married, stayed around and raised her niece, Irma. Upon Betsey’s death in 1957, the home was left to Irma Penniman Broun. Irma and her husband sold the house with twelve acres to the National Park Service in 1963 when the Cape Cod National Seashore was formed.
After the sons, Eugene and Edward, had completed their careers, they retired to the home in Eastham until they died. All are buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Eastham.
ArchitectureThe Penniman House was built by Captain and Mrs. Edward Penniman in 1868. The most conclusive documentation for this date of construction is the entries in Captain Edward Penniman’s account book for the expenses he incurred building the house from June 17 through December 8, 1868. Original drawings and specifications for the house also exist; unfortunately, they bear neither the signature of the architect nor a date. The last two pages of the specifications, where the date and name of the architect probably were written, have been lost.
The Penniman House is a 2.5 story, wood-frame structure with a mansard roof. The mansard roof is the characteristic feature of French Second Empire style architecture in mid-19th century America.
Although the architect of the Penniman House remains unknown, it seems likely that a Boston architect prepared these drawings and specifications. The theory that the plans for the house were either brought by the Captain from France, or ordered by him directly from France, is not supporte by any evidence. There are no records of Captain Edward Penniman ever traveling to France. From September 11, 1864, to April 2, 1868-the years immediately preceding the building of the house-Penniman served as Captain of the Minerva, and was on a whaling voyage around the world.
The master builder of the Penniman House was Nathaniel Nickerson. His name is written on the back of one of the original drawings of the house, suggesting that they were the drawings and specifications from which he worked. Nathaniel Nickerson was also the most highly paid of the men who worked on the construction of the house.
SettingThe property that Captain Penniman purchased from his father in 1867 consisted of approximately twelve acres of land, on which were located a dwelling house, two barns, and several outbuildings.
By 1880, however, all of the pre-1867 structures had disappeared. The earliest photograph of the property shows only the present house and the mansard-roofed barn built by the Pennimans in 1880. The old house, barn, and woodhouse thus must have been taken down between 1878 and 1880.
Soon after the barn was built, a greenhouse was constructed along the north wall of the courtyard. It was a rectangular structure of wood and glass that extended along the full length of the courtyard’s north stone wall. With the building of this greenhouse, Captain Penniman appears to have completed his master plan for the property; all of the old buildings had been demolished and three new structures erected.
In the 1920’s, the greenhouse was destroyed in a hurricane; it was not rebuilt. With this exception, the property retains its late 19th-century site plan.
InteriorThe interior layout consists of four rooms on the first floor, two on each side of a central hall, four bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, a finished bedroom in the attic, and a cupola above. The interior woodwork and finishes are ornate and of high quality. Windows in the southwest parlor, northwest parlor, and dining room have molded, recessed panels below them extending from window apron to baseboard. The front stair has a handsome mahogany newel, handrail, and turned balusters. Doors on both the first and second stories have fine, hand painted grained finishes. The northwest parlor retains the design scheme applied when the flocked wallpaper and ceiling paper were hung in 1885.
The house was built with interior plumbing. The kitchen contained two sinks, and a full bath was located on the second story. Water was supplied to this system by two cisterns, one located in the attic and the other underground at the northeast corner of the house. The kitchen retains its original marble sink and cabinet. The original heat source for the house was eight wood or coal stoves. They stood in front of the marble mantles in each of the rooms, and were piped directly into the two chimneys. In the 1890’s, a three-pipe, coal-fired furnace was installed to supplement the stoves. Floor grills are still visible in the parlor, sitting room and dining room. In the early 1900’s, the furnace and all the stoves (except the kitchen range) were replaced by a central coal-fired warm air furnace with a floor grill in the center hall. Later, the coal furnace was replaced by the existing oil furnace.
When first built, the house was lighted with kerosene lamps. Electricity was introduced in the 1930s, but most of it was removed when the house was restored.
In the 1980’s, the National Park Service installed reproduction wallpaper based on original designs documented by photographs and physical remainders. A collection of some one hundred glass plate negatives of turn-of-the-century scenes of the house and family serve to allow visitors to the house to envision how rooms were furnished and life was lived in the Penniman family days.
Last updated: May 1, 2017