Historic building of the week – The Powder House

The Powder House has a storied history. Photo by Massachusetts Historical Commission

When I hear the words “powder house,” my first thought is not Marblehead. My mind immediately goes to Powder House Square in Somerville, the home of, of course, the Old Powder House, built circa 1710.

While it was originally a mill built by John Mallet, in 1947 it was deeded to the “Province of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of New England.” At this point, it became a gunpowder magazine and during the Siege of Boston, a critical munitions depot.

But I have been researching Marblehead long enough to know that if there is something to do with the American Revolution or other colonial happenings, there is probably a Marblehead connection. Naturally, powder houses and Marblehead are linked.

On present-day Green Street stands Marblehead’s very own powder house. The structure was built in 1755 on what was then Ferry Road.

According to Samuel Roads’ The History and Traditions of Marblehead, after catching wind that the French and Indian War (as it would eventually be known) had broken out in modern-day Ohio, Marbleheaders wanted to take precautionary measures to build their own defense in town. 

The defense they chose was to be a “Powder House or Magazine suitable for securing ammunition.” The construction of this building was approved by a town vote and members of the contemporary building committee, including Col. Jacob Fowle, Col. Jeremiah Lee, and Major Richard Reed.

Owned by the town since its construction, the powder house served as a place for munitions throughout the French and Indian War, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution.

Today, the Powder House is closed to the public, but the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) drawings give us a peek into the building. The survey, which includes Arthur C. Haskell’s photographs, field measurements by Frederick H. Bond, and delineation by James R. Hanlon, was completed and approved in 1934.

The squat, bullet-shaped building was built on a stone foundation and is 16 and a half feet across. It has a flemish-bond brick exterior, meaning that the brick is laid in a short-long-short-long pattern.

The top of the building is a wood-shingle dome with a three-foot tall, eight-inch diameter post at its pinnacle. Above the door is a stone fixture which reads “Built 1755.” There are two sets of doors, an inner door and a slightly wider outer door. The inner door has a wrought iron hinge.

Inside are seven sections of shelves along the circular walls. The shelves are a little over eight feet tall and are backed with sheathing. Above the shelving, going up into the dome, is more brickwork. 

To the right of the inner door is a “ventilator,” which from the drawing appears to be a hole bored through the one foot and 10-and-a-half inch thick walls to the outside. On the exterior drawing is an apparent missing brick where the ventilator likely exited the structure. The drawings also include a representation of the key to the Powder House.

This building, however peculiar and out of place it may seem next to the classic boxy Colonials around Marblehead, is yet another example of Marblehead’s involvement in some of the United States’ earliest revolutionary moments.