17th Century New England: Part I

16 Sep

Last week, my LA history class took a “historic walking tour” of downtown Los Angeles. Overall, it was rather underwhelming. The ‘old’ buildings featured on the tour almost all dated from the early 1900s. The oldest, the Avila Adobe on Olvera St., only dated from 1818. I’ve come to realise that most Americans have a very limited perception of what constitutes something “old.” Everytime I go home to New England from LA, I always think to myself, “All the houses here are so old!” Granted, not nearly as old as some homes in Europe and other places in the world, but no place in America has such an abundance of surviving homes from the 1700s as New England does.

And so I felt inspired to do some research into the oldest (and most historic) homes in New England, and I uncovered mounds of fascinating information. Since it would be impossible to write about all of them, I’ve decided to write exclusively on the oldest houses – those dating from the 1600s. I really love the English Late/Post-Medieval and New England Colonial (pre-Georgian) architecture from this period, and I’ve included pictures of the homes as well. I excluded any homes that were built in the 1600s but underwent significant changes or additions over the centuries, or any houses that were built in the 1700s in the Post-Medieval style (surprisingly, it still hadn’t died out in the early 18th century). A lot of these homes have been very well-preserved; a few have been restored, but most have changed little over the past 300-350 years. I’ve chosen to break down this feature into five parts to cover all the homes. There may be a lot of them, but it’s a shame there aren’t more that survived. They’re truly beautiful structures.

The goal of this feature is partially to remind my American brethren that our country did indeed have a rich history well before the Revolution (and certainly before the 20th century…), but also to encourage my friends in New England to seek out these historic treasures and learn more about them. So, without further ado…

John Balch House (c. 1636) – Beverly, MA

While this house is certainly one of the oldest in America, there has been a bit of debate over which is the oldest. A house in St. Augustine, Florida has long advertised itself as “The Oldest House in America,” but it has been discovered that the current house is a mere 300 years old (dating from the dawn of the 18th century). While there may have been an older house on the same site, it’s not there anymore. The other “Oldest House in America,” and probably truthfully so, is this one in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Like some of the oldest houses in New England, it has been renovated, but is rumoured to have been built in the 1500s. However, in reality, the oldest section of the house was probably constructed around 1610.

At any rate, we can at least assume that the John Balch House is one of the oldest English homes in America — although there is some debate over this as well. The right section of the house was probably built before the left section. The left section, certainly not built in 1636, was nonetheless built by 1700. The style of the house originated in the late 1400s in East Anglia, an area that was home to most of the Puritans who settled New England. The characteristic diamond-pane windows are small because glass, which was scarce even in England, had to be shipped to the colonies.

The original colonial dwellings built by the Pilgrims at “Plimouth Plantation” in 1620 had no glass windows at all, but rather windows consisted of oiled linen. Houses were constructed of timber, had wooden chimneys and thatched roofs (the Plimouth Plantation living history village contains faithful reproductions of these simple dwellings, which can be seen here). However, these unsturdy homes were prone to catching fire and wouldn’t last long. In 1628, more experienced builders arrived from England and revised common building practices among the colonists, who did not know how to replicate their homes in the motherland. Thus the East Anglian Late Medieval style became commonplace by the 1630s (the living history “Pioneer Village” in Salem, which represents life in the 1630 colonial settlement, contains a fine example of this architecture).

While we may not know precisely when John Balch built his house in Beverly, we do know that it’s pretty old. And it’s a great reminder of New England’s architectural history. The house stayed in the Balch family until 1916. It’s now owned by the Beverly Historical Society.

Henry Whitfield House (c. 1639) – Guilford, CT

This beautiful home is the oldest surviving stone house in New England. Oddly enough, despite the abundant supply of stone in the region, very few colonial homes were built using masonry. While brick homes had emerged in East Anglia (and were still unheard of in Western England), they were relatively new when the Puritans left for the New World. Brick and stone houses might seem characteristic of England today, but prior to 1600, the vast majority of English homes were frame structures. Moreover, masonry was difficult in New England because of the lack of lime, used to make mortar.

The Henry Whitfield house was constructed using mortar of yellow clay and crushed oyster shells. Innovative, eh? Be they made of stone or wood, many colonial New England homes tended to be large, simply because stone and wood are both so abundant in this region. The size of the Whitfield house might also be considered a status symbol — its original owner, Henry, was perhaps the most important figure in the Puritan village of Guilford. He was its first minister. His house was also used as the town’s defensive garrison, as well as its meeting hall from 1639 to 1643. Additionally, it may have served as an inn.

Following the English Civil War, Henry Whitfield and his family returned to England, where Henry assumed a position under Oliver Cromwell. Their property in Guilford was sold to another English family, who rented it out to New England farmers until the Revolution. The house was subsequently owned by the Griffing and Chittenden families, and remained under their ownership until 1900, when it was sold to the state of Connecticut.

Richard Sparrow House (c. 1640) – Plymouth, MA

Richard Sparrow arrived in Plymouth in 1633, along with his wife Pandora and their son, Jonathan. He began construction on the existing house (on the left side of the above picture) in 1636 and finished by 1640, although it’s possible that the house was completed well before then. If the construction date of the John Balch house is inaccurate, then Richard Sparrow’s house could indeed be the oldest surviving wooden home in America (although there is, naturally, some debate — see the Fairbanks house below).

Given that the three-member Sparrow family was, for its time, rather small, Richard and Pandora hired a young woman named Mary Moorecock to assist the family with the daily duties of colonial life. She was paid in food, lodging, clothing, and a ewe lamb for a service of nine years. Richard himself was an active figure in the colony, serving as Constable of Plymouth in 1640-41, and as a juror for a total of 28 trials. He was a surveyor by profession, being appointed to “View of the Meadows” in 1640, and later being instrumental in creating roads in Plymouth Colony.

In 1653, the Sparrow family sold their house to George Bonum, and moved to Eastham, where Richard served as the town’s representative to Plymouth, and deputy to the General Court. He died on January 8, 1660. His Plymouth home has been remarkably well-preserved, and is a testament to the historical significance of the first town in New England.

Fairbanks House (c. 1641) – Dedham, MA

The Fairbanks House is remarkable in that it is one of the few surviving homes from the early 1600s whose age has been scientifically verified through analysis of its wood. We know that the main section of the house was definitely completed in 1641, and that its builder, Dedham townsman Jonathan Fairbanks, was felling trees in 1637 on his newly acquired property. At least one of the felled trees used to construct the house was over 150 years old — it had been growing since at least 1487.

Although side additions were added later, the original structure remains intact and unrestored. The diamond pane, leaded glass windows were replaced with the larger rectangular windows typical of New England houses by the 18th century. It is uncertain whether the clapboard siding — which would later also become characteristic of New England architecture — was placed during the initial construction, but it was definitely placed before the end of the 1600s. The result is a highly aesthetic example of the architectural transition from Post-Medieval to a unique New England Colonial style, all the while retaining its status as one of the oldest homes in the country.

Judge Jonathan Corwin House (c. 1642) – Salem, MA

Salem, Massachusetts contains the largest number and highest concentration of 17th century homes of anywhere in New England (and certainly the United States). The reason is simple — it was the second-largest settlement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, after Boston. Unlike Boston, however, Salem never developed with such density that it was forced to demolish its colonial homes. Jonathan Corwin’s house, a great example of Late Medieval English style, was built in 1642 by an unknown colonist, and purchased by the judge in 1675.

The house bears the judge’s name because of his fame — or perhaps infamy. Jonathan Corwin was one of the magistrates on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which condemned 19 women accused of witchcraft to their deaths in 1692. In fact, the house is often referred to simply as “The Witch House.” However, it is worth mentioning that Corwin was at least partially sceptical of the accusations against the women, and later expressed remorse for having condemned them. His house remains a popular tourist attraction in Salem.

The home was owned by the Corwin family until the mid-1800s. In 1944, the structure was in danger of being demolished, but citizens raised over $40,000 to save the building. Since 1948, it has contained a museum dedicated to 17th century life in New England and the Witch Trials of 1692.

Putnam House (c. 1648) – Danvers, MA

While the Putnam House’s current appearance dates from the early 1700s, with a distinct New England colonial style, it still warrants mentioning because of its notable inhabitants. Joseph Putnam lived in the house in 1692, and spoke out against the absurdity of the witchcraft hysteria afflicting the residents of the area. His son, Israel Putnam, would become a famous American general — he commanded colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The house remained in the Putnam family from 1648 until 1991, when it was handed over to the Danvers Historical Society.

James Blake House (c. 1648) – Boston, MA

While the Blake House’s external appearance has been altered slightly over the centuries (in other words, it hasn’t been restored to its original look), it retains two important distinctions: 1) being the oldest surviving home in Boston, and 2) being one of only two existing houses in New England that were built with Western England framing techniques (rather than those of East Anglia). The house is located in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston.

James Blake, born in 1624 in Pitminster, England, emigrated with his parents to Dorchester in the 1630s. He most likely built the house in anticipation of his marriage to Elizabeth Clap in 1651. Today, the house is a museum of early American home construction. It is studied by students of architectural history.

Alden House (c. 1653) – Duxbury, MA

The Alden House is the oldest existing home that was inhabited by passengers of the Mayflower. John Alden and Priscilla Mullins were among the original Pilgrims to land at Plymouth — they were also possibly the third couple to marry in the colony, in 1621 or 1622. By 1632 they had moved into a traditional English cottage in Duxbury, where they lived with their ten children. It wasn’t until 1653 that they built a more spacious abode, which is the house that still stands today.

Like many of the original houses on the storm-prone New England coast, the Alden house has shingled siding. The windows were eventually enlarged and modernised, but other than that, the building has changed very little since its construction. The house is still without plumbing or electricity, and the kitchen has not been modernised.

John Alden was highly active in the colony. The positions he held included Assistant Governor, Deputy Governor, Treasurer, Magistrate, and a member of the Council of War. He was also the youngest person to sign the Mayflower Compact. The land which was granted to him in 1627 by the colony, on which sits the 1653 house, is still owned by the Alden family. It is probably the oldest property in America continuously owned by one family, followed by the Tuttle Farm in Dover, New Hampshire, which has been operated by the same family since 1633.

Tristam Coffin House (c. 1654) – Newbury, MA

Along with the Blake House in Boston, the Coffin House is the only surviving example of Western English framing in New England. The original Post-Medieval dwelling was expanded sometime around 1700 so that multiple generations of the Coffin family could live in the same home. Aside from these additions (and of course, the obligatory window upgrade), the structure has remained largely unchanged.

The house remained within the Coffin family for seven generations, but is now owned by Historic New England.

And there you have it — my first installment in this 5-part series. The rest of the sections won’t be consecutive — it takes a long time to prepare them, and I’m sure you’re not dying to read another one right away.

That said, keep in mind that this is in no way an exhaustive list of 17th century structures in New England. Also, the chronological ordering of the houses is partially arbitrary, simply because we don’t know exactly when each home was built until we do an analysis of the wood.

Thanks for reading. 🙂

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24 Responses to “17th Century New England: Part I”

  1. toMM3 19 November 2006 at 10:52 #

    Lupus,

    Nice work you FANNEL you. I hope you got some school credit for this? Just started watching a movie about RFK. The actor had the most pathetic accent you would have puked. I had to change it. Love ya baby. See you Wdnesday. Can’t wait. hope you read this.
    toMM3

  2. Tom Pieragostini 22 November 2006 at 05:53 #

    Great work, can’t wait to see the rest of the installments. So, how many houses would you say are still standing in New England from the 17th Century? I’m curious because my house in Trumbull, CT is presumed to have been built around 1683-1690. 20 years ago we carbon dated one of the main beams & the report concluded the tree died c. 1710. This new ananlysis of tree ring comparison would be a better way to date the felling of the trees used, etc., right? Is that what you mean by the analysis of the wood in the Fairbanks house? Are you doing this type of work? Seems to be a good future in it. I’d like to have that analysis done on our house when it’s possible. Well, good luck to you. Thanks again for a very interesting article.

  3. kirsty 4 December 2006 at 18:37 #

    i typed in 1700’s and you have nothing on houses from the 1700’s. i think that you should advertize only the things that you have. it is wrong to use false advertizing.

  4. bitch 4 December 2006 at 18:44 #

    this website has nothing that any one can use for homework assignments on the 17 and 1800’s. i think that if you title advertises something, that something should show up somewhere on the webpage. besides it needs more pictures for the people who have to create a modle of a house for an assignment.

  5. me123 7 December 2006 at 07:20 #

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  6. me123 7 December 2006 at 07:21 #

    your all sadoes

  7. Greg Gibson 13 December 2006 at 02:22 #

    Well written and informative article. For those of us who yearn for an earlier, more rustic time this is becoming harder to find.

  8. Alex 25 April 2007 at 09:01 #

    Thank You

  9. Hans 9 May 2007 at 09:44 #

    Wonderful site! I lived in Newburyport Mass. for a number of years which boasts many beuatiful houses from the 18th century, though a few 17th century structures have survived. We lived in a circa 1750 home with low ceilings, paneled walls, and fireplaces everywhere. Our neighbors house was built in 1690, and during renovations, part of an original leaded diamond pane window was found in a wall. One of my favorite 17th century New England houses is the Whipple House in Ipswich, Mass. Hope to see it mentioned here at some point.

    p.s. To those who posted comments about looking for houses from the 1700’s on this site and not finding any: “17th century” in the title refers to the 1600’s. Houses from the 1700’s were built in the 18th century.

  10. Justin 22 June 2007 at 13:03 #

    Very intriguing sight. I recently found my birth father at 28 years of age, and was informed that my bloodline can be traced directly to John and Priscilla Alden. The information your provided on their house is invaluable. Thank you.

    Also, thanks for saying it Hans, I read the two comments above and couldn’t believe it. Have our children lost such a basic grasp of time interpretation?

    JMU

  11. Diane Rapaport 17 July 2007 at 17:00 #

    I too love to visit 17th century New England homes, and I am glad you are reminding people about America’s rich history before the Revolution. But most people still (wrongly) assume that Puritan New England was a dull, dour place, where people never had fun (or sex). Human nature was not so different 350 years ago, however, as I show in my forthcoming book, The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England (to be published Oct. 2007 by Commonwealth Editions, http://www.commonwealtheditions.com). The title story involves a Quaker woman who walked into Puritan Sunday meeting, and dropped her dress in front of the gathering, to protest actions of the colonial authorities. Other true stories in the book offer a surprising glimpse into the daily lives of our feisty ancestors — people who lived in houses just like those shown here in your article.

  12. Miss Nell 23 August 2007 at 15:46 #

    I’m a historian and a direct descendant of John Balch and Jonathan Fairbanks, so this post interests me a great deal. Thanks.

  13. Stu Rider 11 September 2007 at 20:55 #

    A few more 17th century houses – but not as well done as yours.
    Also see http://www.antiquing.com/oldhomes.htm

  14. Joanna Delooze 10 March 2008 at 13:54 #

    Hiya
    just found your great blog pages….it’ll take me weeks to see all of it, BUT HELP PLEASE! Your pages on New England architecture (proper old houses!) is soooo helpful. I’m a transplanted New Yorker living in NW England. I’m trying to write a YA fiction book that incorporates a bit of history of the Salem trials in it…I’m stuck on the question of interior wall construction materials of hosues from the late 1600’s. The house i grew up in in upstate NY was built in 1857, and the interior walls were lath and plater mixed with horsehair, but i need to mention someting about the walls in a house that dates from about 1670-1680 for original construction date, and the web seems a bit empty of any such info! English libraries really aren’t musch more help eithier! Any help would be much appreciated…that is if you even see a comment about a blog you posted so long ago!
    thanks so much!
    Joanna

  15. Thomas Laier 21 January 2009 at 16:34 #

    I enjoyed your article as I share a common interest in 17th century New England and Hudson Valley homes. My ancestors were among the first families in Sandwich Mass. and I live in the Hudson Valley, east of Albany NY. I visit old buildings both on the cape and in the Hudson Valley when time allows. One of my hobbies is building historically accurate inch scale(doll house size) models from this early period. What I ask of you would be do you know of sources that would help me or show me scale drawings or the dimensions of the original leaded triangular glass windows. So many have been replaced by the mid 18th century 12 over 12 windows. Although they evoke a more prosperous time, a century after these homes were built, they do not evoke the primitive and austere times of the homes original construction.

    Thank you Tom

    • 50s gal 25 June 2009 at 03:14 #

      How interesting about the doll’s houses. I had intended to pick up just such a hobby, but since our decision to move back from Boston full time to the cape, my actual house will be my all consuming doll’s house. It is interesting you should mention the 12 over 12, as our 1718 cape indeed has the original mid 18th century windows. I have of late been obsessed with collecting up old leaded glass windows, and while others may be thinking of installing double and triple glazed windows, I will be putting in my additions antique leaded windows. I am also intrigued by the architecture of Maine and NH farm buildings with their connected barn/home styles. As you know, this ‘connection’ oft happens here on the cape in its series of additions and ‘els’. I am so glad to have found this blog.
      I am currently doing an historic ‘project’ this year, by living as much as possible (with the use of computer for research of course) of the year 1955. It is quickly seeming almost severly modern as I contemplate my 18th century home.

  16. 50s gal 24 June 2009 at 16:06 #

    I found this on a fluke and love it. We own a house here in Sandwich Ma built in 1718. My husband is a descendant of the Alden family, as well. Great photos.

    • Thomas Laier 19 November 2009 at 12:31 #

      You responded to my message from January of this year. I hate to say that I had almost forgotten about this site. Fortunately I found it again and how ironic it is that you live in Sandwich as the first Europeans in that area are my ancestors. I am descended from the Nye, Freeman, Burgess and Tupper families from Sandwich Mass. I travel to Sandwich whenever I get the chance. I always stop at the Hoxie House. I think that the reproduction leaded windows in the Hoxie House were made from an original window found in a wall in the Benjamin Nye House.
      I still have family living on the cape, in Sandwich. I believe their last name is Cullity. Where in Sandwich do you live?

  17. gerald vinci 16 August 2009 at 16:13 #

    I just found your wonderful site while I was doing some online research to create a guide to 17th cen. New England houses that are open to the public. There are quite a few. I’m familiar with the houses you featured and I’ll be going to visit some of them this week before going to school in the fall.Once I get the basic courses out of the way I will major in Historc Preservation. I’m an old student (58), but have the advantage of about 40 years of traditional woodworking and boat repair skills.
    I also am building a one inch scale model 17th cen. house. The Waite-Potter House,1677, a Rhode Island style stone ender no longer exists, but plans were drawn of it in the 1930s. I would love to correspond with others interested in similar pursuits.
    Gerald Vinci
    New Bedford,Mass.

    • Paul 19 April 2010 at 07:08 #

      Hi Gerry:
      I have purchased some of your beautiful worke before. Are you still in the New bedford area? Are you still making signs? If so, how do I reach you?
      –Paul Beauchamp

  18. Larry 2 August 2010 at 15:37 #

    Excellent article. I would like to read more. Why don’t you do something similiar for all of the orginal colonies.

  19. Noir 14 November 2010 at 23:08 #

    Stumbled across your site while searching for some late 17th century windows. Love the pictures your have. Served my purposes wonderfully! Thanks for great work. I so miss New England…..

  20. Johnathan Putnam 8 February 2011 at 17:49 #

    Great piece on early american houses for sure! I wish to correct one thing if I may. My familys house in Danvers Massachusetts was in fact built in 1648 not the 1700’s prior to our handing it to the towns historical society. As with many homes of the era it is at times difficult to date them spot on as I woudl say. You have done some great work. If you ever need information on the house or my familys history in the 1692 debaucle feel free to reach out! I have more aged and newer photos of the property as well.

    Johnathan Putnam

  21. page optimization seo 21 December 2012 at 20:45 #

    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is required to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours
    would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet smart so I’m not 100% positive. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Kudos

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