The Preservation Society acquired the houses in 2005, after they had been vacant for almost 50 years. That same year, the Society engaged Dell Corporation to complete physical and documentary examination of the houses. The Preservation Society constructed interior fiberglass structural supports within the shell of the houses to prevent their collapse. Documentary research uncovered the connection between the houses and the Black ship caulkers. In 2019, following a Preservation Society-sponsored symposium on the houses, the Friends of the Ship Caulkers’ Houses formed and was tasked with framing a long-term sustainable plan for the rehabilitation and use of the houses.
Architecturally, the houses are important as rare surviving examples of working-class housing. Built ca. 1798, they are a window into the past and display once-common construction methods that have all but disappeared. Historically, the houses are important as a tangible connection to Fell’s Point’s free Black community before the Civil War.
The houses were not built to survive 230 years, yet they have shown incredible resilience, much like the free Black ship caulkers who inhabited these houses long ago. The story of these ship caulkers is not well known but needs to be told. As a physical link to the caulkers, the houses can inspire continuing research into their community and accomplishments.
Built c. 1798, these buildings provided inexpensive rental housing for the rapidly growing population of workers supporting the booming maritime industry in Fell’s Point. These two one-room wood structures, each with a sleeping loft, were originally part of a row of four houses (a quadplex), constructed as a single building with a continuous roof and foundation. Similar to modern-day tract housing, a row of houses was quick and economical to construct. The structure was divided into four equal dwelling units, each with its own first floor fireplace, vented into a chimney pile shared with the adjacent dwelling unit.
The buildings are timber frame, with vertical wood studs and diagonal corner bracing. The exteriors were originally sheathed with wood siding. Brick nogging (brick and mortar infill), applied behind the wood-sided facades, is thought to have provided additional structural stability, some insulating value and would have made the walls more impervious to rodents.
The stabilization and structural work are now complete and the houses are standing on their own, without the fiberglass posts and beams added in the late 2000s. The foundation has been reconstructed and the wall framing, which was carefully dismantled, has been reassembled and reinstalled along with new or stabilized rafters and dormer windows.
Returning the buildings’ exteriors to their 1840s-1850s appearance (the ship caulkers’ period) will continue with Phase 2. Targeted for completion in early 2023, this work is already under way and includes exterior siding, windows, doors, and roofing. The plywood fencing that currently shields the houses from view is expected to be removed in early 2023, at which time the houses will further enhance the well-kept historic character of the 600 block of Wolfe Street. The reconstruction of the chimney will be completed in 2023.