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Old Houses

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THERE is an indescribable charm surrounding colonial houses, especially if historic traditions are associated with them. Many of an early date of erection are still to be found throughout New England towns, where the Puritan and the Pilgrim first settled, and not a few have remained in the same families since their construction. Some are still in an excellent state of preservation, though the majority show weather-beaten exteriors, guiltless of paint, with broken windows and sagging sills, speaking forcibly of a past prosperity, and mutely appealing through their forlornness for recognition.

These are not, however, the first homes built by the colonists, and, indeed, it is doubtful if any examples of the earliest type are still standing.

These were rude cabins built of logs, kept together by daubings of clay thrust into their chinks, and showing roofs finished with thatch. Great chimneys were characteristic of all these cabins, built of stone, lengthened at the top with wood, and best known by the name Catted Chimneys. In the rude interiors of the old-time fireplaces hung soot-blackened cranes, while on cold, cheerless nights the blaze of logs on the hearths

"Made the rude, bare, raftered room Burst, flowerlike, into rosy bloom."

The next type was the frame house, built large or small according to the means of the owner, and constructed through the influence of Governor John Endicott, who sent to England for skilled workmen. Generally, these dwellings were two stories in height, the more pretentious ones showing peaks on either side to accommodate chambers, and their marked superiority over the first type soon resulted in their adoption throughout New England. In design they bore some resemblance to the Dutch architecture of the period, the outcome doubtless of many of the early settlers' long sojourn in Holland. Many of the frames were of white wood brought from the mother country in the in coming ships, and the low ceilings invariably present were crossed with the heavy beams of the floors above, projecting through the timbers.

The lean-to, characteristic of some houses of this type, did not come into vogue until about the middle of the seventeenth century, and its adoption is generally believed to have been for the use of the eldest son of the family, who, according to the law of England, would inherit the homestead, and until such inheritance, could remain, with his family, beneath the ancestral roof.

The third type, the gambrel-roofed house, was at the height of its popularity about the time of the Revolutionary War, and continued in favor until the tide of commercial prosperity sweeping through the land brought in its wake the desire for more pretentious dwellings. Then came into fashion the large, square, wooden mansion, later followed by that of stately brick, excellent examples of both types being still extant.

Like the Egyptian Isis who went forth to gather up the scattered fragments of her husband Osiris, fondly hoping that she might be able to bring back his former beauty, so we of to-day are endeavoring in New England to gather and bring into unison portions of the early homes, that we may eventually restore them to their original charm and dignity. Outwardly these dwellings appear much as they did when built, more than a century ago, but inwardly sad changes have been wrought, leaving scarcely a trace of their old-time beauty. Yet beneath this devastation one versed in house lore can read many a tale of interest, for old houses, like old books, secrete between their covers many a story that is well worth while.

Among the carefully preserved specimens, none of the earlier type is more interesting than the Pickering house at Salem, Massachusetts, built in 166o, more than a hundred years before the Revolution. The land on which it stands is part of the twenty acres' grant which was a portion of Governor's Field, originally owned by Governor Endicott, and conveyed by him to Emanuel Downing, who, in order to pay for his son George's commencement dinner at Harvard, disposed of it to John Pickering, the builder of the home, in 1642.

In design, the dwelling is Gothic, a popular type in the Elizabethan period, and closely resembles the Peacock Inn at Rouseley, England. The timbers used in its construction were taken from a near-by swamp, and when it was first built it showed on the northern side a sloping roof affording but a single story at that end. In 1770, the then owner, Timothy Pickering, decided to raise this end to make room for three chambers, and the new portion was built to conform exactly with the old part, the windows equipped with the same quaint panes, set in leaded strips, which were finely grooved to receive the glass, on which the lead was pressed down and soldered together. It was found when the weatherboards were ripped off that the sills were sound, and it was decided to continue to use them, feeling they would last longer than those that could then be obtained. Two of the peaks found to be leaky were removed at this time, and they were not replaced until 184o, when Colonel Timothy Pickering's son, John, had reproductions set in place. The house has never been out of the Pickering family, and, with one exception, has descended to a John Pickering ever since its erection.

Distinctly a New England landmark is the Colonel Jeremiah Page house at Danvers, Massachusetts, erected in the year 1750. It occupies a site that at the time of its construction was on the highway between Ipswich and Boston, now broadened at this point and known as Danvers Square. Originally, it consisted of four rooms, but these were later moved back and a new front added, the ell being replaced by a larger one.

From a historic point of view, the roof is probably the most interesting feature of this old home, for here occurred the famous tea-party that Lucy Larcom has forever immortalized. During the troublous times of 1775, when all good patriots scorned the use of tea, Colonel Page demanded that it should not be drunk beneath his roof. Mistress Page had acceded to his request, but she did not promise that she would not drink it on his roof, so with a few friends she repaired one afternoon to the rail-enclosed roof, and here brewed and distributed the much liked beverage. The secret of the tea-party did not leak out until after her death, when one of the party, visiting at the house, asked to be taken to the roof, at the same time relating the, till then unknown, experience.

Antedating the Page house some twenty-five years is the home of the Stearns family on Essex Street, Salem, erected by Joseph Sprague, a prominent old-time merchant, whose warehouse occupied the present site at the corner of North and Federal streets. This dwelling is of spacious dimensions, excellently proportioned, and it is especially interesting from the fact of its unusual interior arrangement, which provides on each floor for three rooms at the back and only two at the front. The original owner was captain of the first uniformed company of militia organized in Salem, April 22, 1776, and he was also the first American to spill his blood in the Revolution, receiving a slight wound at the time of Leslie's retreat, while scuttling his gondola so it should not fall into the hands of the enemy.

Another fine old home is the Cabot house, also in Salem. This dwelling, erected in 1745 by one Joseph Cabot, is considered by experts to be of the purest colonial type, and it has proved a subject of unusual interest to any number of artists and architects.

No modern touch has been allowed to mar the old-time aspect of the Whipple house at Ipswich, Massachusetts, built in 1760, and which remains wholly unchanged from its original construction. It stands to-day almost alone in its picturesque antiquity, its huge central chimney, tiny window-panes, plain front door, guiltless of porch, with iron knocker, steep-pitched roof with lean-to at the back nearly sweeping the ground, all betokening its age. Little wonder it is the haunt of tourists, for it presents a picture in its old-time beauty that modern architecture can never duplicate.

In the historic town of Marblehead, in Massachusetts, is one of the most interesting of old-time homes, the Colonel Jeremiah Lee mansion, built in 1768, and considered at the time of its erection the finest house in the Colonies. It was designed by an English architect at a cost of ten thousand pounds, and the timber and finish used in its construction were brought from England in one of the colonel's ships. It stands well to the front of the lot of which it forms a part, with scarcely any yard space separating it from the sidewalk, and it boasts a handsome porch supported by finely carved pillars, approached by a flight of steps. The broad entrance door, with its brass latch and old-time knob, swings easily upon its great hinges into a spacious hall that extends the length of the dwelling, affording access to the finely finished interior apartments.

Equally as interesting as these old homes are several houses in New Hampshire, one of the most prominent being the Stark mansion at Dunbarton. This was built in 1785 by Major Caleb Stark of Revolutionary fame, and it is approached today through the original tree-lined avenue, a mile in length. In construction it is of the mansion type, two stories in height, with gambrel roof, twelve dormer windows, and a large, two-storied ell. Its entrance door is nearly three inches through, with handsome, hand-made panels, and it swings on wrought-iron hinges two feet either way. It is adorned with a knocker and latch that were brought from England by the major. Ever since its erection, this house has been occupied by a member of the Stark family, and the present owner, Charles Morris Stark, boasts the distinction of being of Revolutionary stock on both sides of the family, his mother being a lineal descendant of Robert Morris, the great financier of the Revolution.

Another interesting colonial home is the Warner house at Portsmouth, occupying a corner section on one of the city's main thoroughfares. This fine dwelling was erected by Captain Macpheadris, a wealthy merchant who came to this country from Scotland, and it is built of Dutch bricks that were imported from Holland, with walls eighteen inches thick. It stands firmly on its foundation, a magnificent specimen of early construction; and its gambrel roof, Lutheran windows, quaint cupola, and broad simplicity of en-trance door, suggest the old-time hospitality that was so freely dispensed here. After the captain's death, the house came to his daughter, Mary, who had married Hon. Jonathan Warner, a member of the King's Council until the outbreak of the Revolution, and it is by his name that the fine old home is known.

Two miles from Portsmouth, at Little Harbor, is the old home of Governor Benning Wentworth, built in 1750. In general, this dwelling is two stories in height, with wings that form three sides of a hollow square, though it boasts no particular style of architecture, appearing to be rather a group of buildings added to the main structure from time to time. It is screened from the roadway by great trees, and on the north and east faces the water. Originally it had fifty-two rooms, but some of these have been combined, so today there are but forty-five. The cellar is particularly large, and here in times of danger the governor hid his horses. After the governor's death, his widow married John Wentworth, and it was during the occupancy of Sir John and his wife that Washington was entertained here.

Typical of the wooden mansion type, that succeeded in favor the gambrel-roofed dwellings, is the house now known as the Endicott house, at Danvers, Massachusetts. This building, constructed about 'Soo, was purchased about 181z by Captain Joseph Peabody, a Salem merchant, and grandfather of the present owner, as a place of refuge for himself and family during the embargo. In design, it is most imposing, and the front now shows a wide veranda, with the entrance dignified by a porte-cochere, supported by high columns, between each two of which a great bay tree is set. Sweeps of smooth lawn afford an attractive setting, and great trees, here and there, bestow protecting shade. The dwelling is surrounded by beautiful gardens, the most interesting from a historic point of view being the old-fashioned posy plot laid out at the time of the erection of the house.

Not unlike in type to this fine home is "Hey Bonnie Hall" in Rhode Island, the residence of the Misses Middleton. Built in 1808, it stands today in all its original beauty, the pure white of its exterior admirably set off by the great green sweeps of sward, dotted with fine trees, that surround it on all sides. It was erected from plans of Russell Warren, who designed the White House at Washington, and it is renowned not only for its beautiful colonial architecture, but also for the wonderful collection of old-time furniture and objects of art that it contains.

In type, it is very similar to a Maryland manor, with projecting wings, the service portion in a separate building connected with the main house by a covered passage, after the Southern fashion. In this passage is the well room, so called from the fact that a well of pure spring water is located here. In length the house is one hundred and forty feet, its front just enough broken to avoid monotony, and its spaciousness affording an air of comfort. Two Corinthian columns, as high as the house itself, support the roof over the entrance porch, and on either side are well-protected verandas, overlooking beds of old-fashioned flowers and smooth stretches of sward. In front lies the harbor, and beyond is the picturesque town of Bristol, affording a most pleasing prospect.

Unlike these latter-day types, in fact unlike any set design, is the low, rambling house at West Newbury, Massachusetts, known as Indian Hill, and so called from the location that it occupies. In appearance, this dwelling is most picturesque, resembling in design a castle, and it is as historic as it is interesting. The site that it occupies is the last reservation of the Indians in the neighborhood, the land having been sold by Old Tom, the Indian chieftain, to the town, and the deed of the sale being still preserved by the present owners.

Viewed from any angle, the house presents a series of pictures, each equally as interesting as the other, and its irregular roof lines, gables and bays, quaint, diamond-paned windows, and chimneys adorned with chimney pots, are further embellished by the flowering vines of a rambler rose, perhaps the finest in the country. While the house can be seen from the road, it is only when one drives under the archway into the courtyard, bounded on three sides by barn, stables, and house, that he can realize its true worth.

Salem, fortunate in specimens of early construction, is also fortunate in examples of latter-day types, and here are to be found several of the fine brick dwellings, built at the time of her greatest commercial prosperity. One of these is the Andrews house, located on Washington Square, and one of the three dwellings erected in 1818. Its brick exterior gives no hint of its age other than the softening dignity that time bequeaths, and it stands to-day, tall and broad, its gray-faced bricks brightened by white trimmings, and its beauty emphasized by a fine circular porch supported by white' columns, topped with a high balustrade. At one side is a charming old-fashioned garden, laid out in prim, box-bordered beds, and all about its fence inclosure flowering vines clamber. Complete, the dwelling cost forty thousand dollars, a large sum for the time of its erection.

Every brick used in its construction was first dipped into boiling oil to render it impervious to moisture, and all the framework is of timbers seasoned by long exposure to the sun and rain. On one brick is cut the date of erection, the work of the master builder under whose supervision the dwelling was erected. The great pillars of the side porch, overlooking the garden, are packed, so the story goes, with rock salt not an uncommon process at that time to keep out dampness and to save the wood from being eaten by worms.

Some years previous to the erection of this dwelling, Mr. Nathan Robinson had constructed on Chestnut Street a brick dwelling, considered by connoisseurs to be one of the finest specimens to-day extant. The porch, at the front, is wonder-fully fine, and has attracted the attention of any number of students and architects, who have made a careful study of it.

And so we might go on and on, singling out particularly good specimens here and there, but when all is said and done, it is undeniable that all old houses afford interesting study. Architects of the present are coming to appreciate their worth, and into many modern homes features of early construction are being incorporated. Naturally, to the antiquarian, nothing can ever take the place of these bygone specimens, and as he paces the main thoroughfares of historic cities, now lined with stores, he sees in fancy the stately homes with their fragrant garden plots, which modern demand has superseded. Pausing on the curbing near the old State House in Boston, what an array of bygone dwellings in fancy can be conjured, and how many of the old-time dignitaries can be recalled. So vivid is the picture that one might almost expect to see old Thomas Leverett saunter by, or perchance hear the rattle of wheels as the carriage of Dr. Elisha Cook lumbered on its way. It is a pleasant picture to contemplate, and the lover of the old breathes a sigh of regret at the passing of such picturesqueness.



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