Professor restores historic Timothy Dexter mansion

  • William Quill with “Daily News” clippings of the 1988 fire that damaged the Dexter House, which he had been restoring. Bryan Eaton / Newburyport Daily News

  • The Lord Timothy Dexter house on High Street in Newburyport has been under restoration since 1984. Bryan Eaton / Newburyport Daily News

Newburyport Daily News
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Whether it was through working with his hands or his mind, William Quill has spent his life as a builder.

With his hands, he built various things while working as a machinist. It was before pursuing a college degree and working as a psychology professor at Northeastern University for about 50 years.

Then, he said, “I was still building. I was building curriculum and I was building graduate programs.”

Quill, 78, who was raised on Johnston Street in Newburyport, has long sought to relate the practical and intellectual.

But perhaps his greatest achievement – and perhaps the clearest intersection of the two worlds – is Quill’s work in restoring the Dexter House, a High Street mansion that in the 18th century was home to one of Newburyport’s most bizarre and famed entrepreneurs, Lord Timothy Dexter.

The house was in shambles when Quill purchased it for $200,000 in 1984, and he set out on a seemingly impossible journey to return the landmark Federal-style home to its former glory.

“It was kind of a death wish but it was too good an opportunity to pass up,” Quill said. “The key to restoration is to start with a good building, one that has some inherent character, and this one, of course, did.”

But in 1988, just as his restoration was coming to a close, disaster struck in the form of a fire that gutted the house, leaving Quill and his family with little more than the clothes on their backs.

It could have been the end of the road for the Dexter House but Quill pushed forward, spending years resurrecting it nearly from the ground up.

“I couldn’t afford to give up. All the equity I had was in the house,” Quill said. “It’s one of the most distinctive Federals on the East Coast, and to think that it burned down under my supervision was not a happy thought.”

While Quill is now retired, he has passed on his skills in bridging the gap between practical and intellectual work to his sons, Mike and Doug Quill, both filmmakers and co-founders of Quill Films.

Mike Quill, who is enrolled in a graduate program at Emerson College, recently shot a short film depicting his father and his work on the Dexter House. The son said he has been inspired by his father’s tenacity and strength when faced with tough challenges – his work on the house being a prime example.

“It’s such an incredible building, and it’s so impressive that they were not only able to renovate it but bring it back to the best condition it’s probably been in since it was built,” said Mike Quill, who created the film with his production partner, Andrea Miller.

“Making films is no easy endeavor but thinking about my parents rebuilding the house gives me the courage to take on such a big task,” he said. “It kind of gives me that incentive and that encouragement.”

And when his father was hospitalized for congestive heart failure during the holidays, Mike Quill said he and Miller were shaken and felt all the more inspired by his father’s spirit.

“He’s a fighter who came from humble beginnings and he achieved everything through hard work,” he said. “He won’t quit.”

William Quill attributes his achievements to persistence and good fortune, which have allowed him to continue to maintain his home to this day. Still, though, Quill admits he is occasionally haunted by memories of the building’s daunting challenges.

“You have to be a problem solver, and if you stay with it and keep going, solutions will pop up in ways that you didn’t expect,” he said.

“And a big part of it is luck,” Quill said. “Once in awhile, though, I still walk into the house, look up at the hallway and have that moment of panic thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ”