The Gingerbread House, Norway, Maine

The Gingerbread House, Norway, Maine Not just a house--it’s our history The meaning of place is derived from the natural and the built environment. T...
Author: Lynn Miller
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The Gingerbread House, Norway, Maine Not just a house--it’s our history

The meaning of place is derived from the natural and the built environment. The places we live embody our social, cultural, and economic history. In downtown Norway’s historic district, every building is a thread that keeps the whole intact. Saving the Gingerbread House is an investment in our community, fostering civic engagement and building economic prosperity.

Built in 1851, the Gingerbread House is also known as the Evans-Cummings House for two notable residents of Norway: Richard Evans, who built it, and Charles B. Cummings, who later owned it. The house is at the western gateway to Main Street. The house was sited perpendicular to Main Street and faced a lovely landscaped yard.

The house is one of 64 buildings in downtown Norway’s historic district. Photos taken from the Gingerbread House tower show the First Universalist Church of Norway (left), the Grange (below right, background), the Increase Robinson house (with green shutters) and the Mark Poole Smith House (below right), which now houses the Norway Historical Society. Described as “a living museum,” the historic district is one of the largest and most intact of any village in New England. It’s important that none of its buildings be lost.

Richard Evans built the house Richard Evans was a master carpenter and house builder who moved to Norway from Portland with his wife Mary in 1833. Besides the Gingerbread House, Evans also built the Nash house on Pleasant Street, the Norway Liberal Institute, and the original passenger station in South Paris. When Evans died in Norway on October 23, 1871, his obituary in the Portland Transcript read, “Long will Norway retain improvements which were made by his skilled hand.” Two of Evans’ sons, Warren and George, designed and manufactured the Evans Repeating Rifle, which was a great innovation in gun mechanisms. The gun was patented in 1868 and 1871. It was manufactured in Mechanic Falls between 1875 and 1879, the only firearm mass-produced in Maine during the 19th century. Today the gun is highly collectible.

C. B. Cummings bought the house in the early 1880s and hired Norway architect John B. Hazen between 1885-1892 to remodel the house. Hazen added the gingerbread adornments for which the house is now known. This view from Water Street shows Pennesseewassee Stream flowing behind the house.

Charles Bradley Cummings, 1834 - 1899 C. B. Cummings was born in Norway and was one of the leading entrepreneurs of his day. He started as a cabinet maker, became a furniture dealer, then went into lumber. In 1860, he built a mill at at the edge of town along Pennesseewassee Stream that produced wooden dowels and boxes. After his death in 1899, C. B. Cummings and Sons was run by successive generations of the Cummings family, providing employment and a local market for lumber until 2001. The Great Fire of Norway started at the Cummings Mill on May 9. 1894 and swept through the eastern end of the village, devouring houses and 80 percent of the business district. Almost all the buildings were rebuilt within six months, many of brick. Located to the northwest, the Gingerbread House did not burn.

Fred Cummings, C. B.’s son, and his wife Cora lived in the house until the late 1940s. While remodeling the house, they found one of the Evans’ rifles behind a partition. The gun must have fit right into Fred’s extensive collection of curios. His collection included a large stuffed peacock perched at the top of the stairs, delighting the schoolchildren who came to tour the house. They probably liked Teddie and Laddie, Fred and Cora’s dogs, too.

“Carriage House in Winter” viewed from the Pike’s Hill Bridge By Duncan E. Slade

Painting used with permission, © 2008 Duncan E. Slade

Fred Cummings was quite a character, as fitting for an owner of such a house. He played Santa Claus for many years at the Primary School next door (now the Matolcsy Art Center.) After Fred purchased his first automobile in 1916, he had a hard time backing his car down the long drive-way from the carriage house to the street. He had a mechanical turntable installed inside the building. He could drive onto the turntable, use a mechanical lever to turn the car around, and drive out facing forward.

Change over time After the Cummings’ sold the house, it became an apartment building. Later, the James Newspapers used the house for storage and built a large brick extension that covered the lawn and ruined the lovely siting. The house began to decline when it was no longer inhabited. The Costello Family became the new owners when they purchased the Advertiser-Democrat in 2005. They thought the house was beyond repair and planned to tear it down.

By 2006, the house was looking worse than ever. Many saw the broken windows, the trash filled rooms, and the sagging porch and asked, “Is the Gingerbread House worth saving?” Some said, “Tear that old thing down!” Others saw it as a safety hazard, a lost cause. But many believed it was a unique building worthy of being saved. That somehow, with will and determination, the money could be found and the house could be restored to its former beauty.

The house is structurally sound Norway Downtown, a group working to bring Main Street back to life, and Maine Preservation, the statewide organization working to preserve Maine’s cultural heritage, arranged to have Les Fossel tour the house. Les is an expert in historic buildings and the owner of Restoration Resources in Alna, Maine. Les discovered the house is structurally sound. He said, “Despite its dilapidated appearance, the house is superbly crafted and has many unique attributes.”

These floor joists, under the kitchen floor, are as solid as they day they were built.

Some of the house’s unique attributes

The oak mantelpiece in the living room is original.

The curved trim around the windows and doorways is consistent throughout all three levels.

The stair banister is handcarved.

More curved trim, and a built-in cupboard

Built-in cupboards in the upstairs apartment’s kitchen

The floor plan has been altered very little over time. This is the entry foyer, which is the first floor of the tower.

The entry foyer has curved walls and faux painted wood trim. You pass into the house through this great, curved arch.

The third stage of the tower (left) has round arched windows. The fourth stage (below) has a mansard roof with cresting. All the window surrounds are hand-carved with different designs on each floor.

Porch Detail The porches have unusual turned columns connected by arched brackets with pendants and lattice work.

The Gingerbread Task Force moves into action. October 2008-January 2009 The Costello Family, owners of the house, made an offer to the Town of Norway and the Norway Historical Society. They said, “Come up with a plan to move, stabilize, and readapt the house, show us you have the money to sustain the project, and we will give you the house.” Pat Shearman, Norway resident and past president of the historical society, stepped forward and offered to chair a task force to attempt to save Gingerbread House. The historical society accepted Pat’s leadership and took on the challenge to save the house.

Many partners work to save the house. February – November 2009: The task force consists of seven members who represent the Norway Memorial Library, the Norway Historical Society, Norway Downtown (Revitalization), the local construction industry, and concerned citizens. Members work with many partners, including the Costello’s, the Town of Norway, Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Maine Preservation, Coastal Enterprises, Inc., Main-Land Development Consultants, Inc., other local businesses, and area residents to develop a plan in three phases.

The Plan • Phase I: preparing for the move, finding a new site, clearing the legal and logistical hurdles involved with the move, soliciting bids for all work to be done, developing a fundraising strategy. • Phase II: moving the house and transferring ownership. The task force hasA new foundation is excavated. Work to stabilize the structure begins. Fundraising continues. • Phase III: Adapting the house to a new use. Fundraising continues. The plan was presented to the Costello’s on April 15, 2009. They accepted the plan and the task force continued its work.

November 2009: The Gingerbread House Task Force officially incorporates as a nonprofit organization with a new name:

Norway Landmarks Preservation Society dba Friends of the Gingerbread House

Our mission: to preserve the historic architecture of Norway, Maine and develop resources for the promotion of traditional building arts. We believe that historic preservation is an economic development strategy to revitalize Norway, creating jobs, attracting investments downtown, and fostering small, independent businesses. We see historic preservation as common sense economics, a cost-effective reuse of existing resources.

How you can help? • Become a Friend of the Gingerbread House. • Make a donation! • Volunteer your time and talent. Send your donations and inquiries to

Norway Landmarks Preservation Society dba Friends of the Gingerbread House P.O. Box 525 Norway, Maine 04268 [email protected]

Thank you for your interest. This is a big project for a small town, but we have imagination, vision, and the will to succeed.