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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Not Knowing What’s Not So

Well, we’ve been visiting old houses hereabouts. It got me to thinking. What’s the oldest wood-frame house still standing in the US? It’s hard, what with fire, termites, and Supreme Court Kelo decisions, to keep much of anything made of wood standing for a long time. As far as the oldest house of any kind, Saint Augustine Florida tries to pawn off a house made of a sort of seashell masonry, and New Mexico has some sort of mud hut I suspect is not really original equipment mud, but neither is made predominately from wood so let’s ignore them anyway.

I found two houses, right here in Massachusetts, that claim 1636. The provenance of the one in Beverly is a little sketchy, and their website is dreadful, so I hereby bestow the claim to the Johnathan Fairbanks House in Dedham, Mass:
(By the way, the Beverly Yacht Club is about a mile and a half from my house, which is about an hour and a half from Beverly. Everybody knows this is where you want to be.)

Anyway, if you examine the floor plan, it was originally a linear plan, about 34 x 16 feet, two rooms, really, and then had a bunch of little additions put on. McMansion, colonial style.

The additions are really ancient, too so they’re not cheating with the date. 1648, 1654. It’s not all that spartan inside, when you get a peek in there:
OK, that bedroom is 16 by 8 feet. It’s against the building code to build a room less than 7 feet wide in Massachusetts, including in a prison, so it still passes muster, barely. The building inspector wouldn’t like that firebox; too shallow, not enough hearth, not enough clearance to combustibles over the opening, not fire brick… well, the house lasted over four hundred years and Dedham has probably buried 50 building inspectors since then, so maybe they should mind their own business more. If you’ve ever used a fireplace like that you know it draws well and throws a lot of heat and light into the room.

The kitchen has all the bells and whistles:
Lessee. You got your fire, some more fire, (a bread oven) a shelf, a plate or two for the shelf, some guns to fill the plate, a hook to hang the pot. Anything else would be extravagance, really.

It ended up a four bedroom house, with several parlors, and a real privy indoors. Two holer, too. Guy must have been rich. Oops, spoke too soon. They put four more bedrooms upstairs. Mrs Fairbanks must have been tired a lot.

I’ve been in many houses almost this old, and I can assure you they are quite pleasant to live in once you update the bathroom and get some electricity and heat going in there. I can’t stand up in many of the rooms, and have to duck to get through the doorways, but that’s a little thing. The builders didn’t know what they were doing, so they relied on pattern books with everything based on classical themes. And classical Greek and Roman architectural proportions are based on the human body, and people instinctively respond to a facade that looks like a head, or a windowpane that is proportioned like a face, or a moulding based on a section of the Parthenon’s columns, which is based on a man’s stature, and so forth.

So in their ignorance, vernacular builders then knew many things that educated persons now do not, because they did not know what was not so. It strikes me, in architecture as well as many other things, we have come full circle, and must make a supreme effort to not know what is not so again.

6 Responses

  1. Sippican: I never know what to comment after these type posts. But please don’t take the lack of comments to indicate a lack of interest.

  2. Heh-
    If you like reading it, than it is a success in some small way.

    There’s a great old story about a young man who was playing for Miles Davis. Miles was a little scary. The guy wouldn’t have been hired if he wasn’t really good. The interplay was very complex, and he didn’t understand exactly what was expected of him. He told Miles:
    “I don’t know what to play.”

    “Then don’t play nothing.” Miles told him.

    You always have permission to just be here. We will wait for pleasant things from you when you feel like offering.

  3. I’m so impressed by these posts that I’ve hesitated to say anything after reading them. Architecture is one of my favorite subjects – I wanted to be an architect from 4th grade until just before I graduated from high school. Still enjoy drawing, too.

    BTW, where did you get the floorplan? I can’t see it clearly enough and was interested in a couple of details – is it online somewhere?

    Please continue – outstanding stuff!

  4. I’ve been living in Santa Fe over 20 years now, and over 40 years in New Mexico. And certainly it is a world renowned tourist destination. Because it’s so damn weird, to visitors, at least. Brown, round and shapeless kind of buildings, which depend on a gate or a nice front door to give it some kind of gravity. But the tourists are delighted because it looks like it was designed and fabricated by trolls.

    Because I was born in Bergen County, New Jersey and I lived there until I was 10, I have a deep respect and wonder for these classic wooden structures of New England and the eastern regions.

    I rode my bicycle over to “The Oldest House in America”, just a couple of days ago, and stopped there, gazing in the windows. It’s been a curio shop for probably 70 years, and is currently empty and for rent. It’s old! Really old. A lot of mud, a few wood beams, and some tiny little windows are the primary ingredients. Santa Fe is truly a splendid vision, but if I was choosing to claim “This Old House” or the one in Dedham, I’d choose the latter.

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