About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Monday, November 11, 2013


First Period  1640-1725

First period houses in Gloucester means that these houses date to the earliest building period in New England. Although the first period begins as early as 1640 there almost no survivors that are this early and none are in Gloucester.  The oldest house in Gloucester may date close to 1660, a very early date, but this has not been verified.

The absolute oldest standing timber framed house in the United States is the Fairbanks house built about 1641 and located in Dedham, Ma.  The second oldest house may be the Blake House in Dorchester dating to 1661.  Almost all others are newer...a lot newer.

The first settlers around here came from East Anglia in England and brought their building styles and techniques with them.  In fact, it wasn't until long after the Revolutionary War that America developed a style of its own.  London remained the seat of culture and the inspiration for style in houses and just  about everything else.

The first building period extends from approximately 1640 to about 1725 after which the styles gradually began to reflect the Georgian taste in England named after a long line of Georgian kings.  From approximately 1725-1730 houses became less post medieval.  Now they were very refined with no exposed beams, no bare bricks and only minimal bare wood.  That period had been left behind forever.  (or at least until the 20th century when a new interpretation of "early"  made it fashionable to unmask all that was intended to remain covered)

The earliest houses were temporary because they were built right on the ground and could not have lasted.

On Cape Ann (Gloucester and Rockport, MA) there are few known survivors from the 1600's.  The two houses suspected of being the oldest in Gloucester date to middle or late 17th century.   All others, as far as is known, date to 1700 and beyond.  After 1700 the number of early houses swells dramatically.

This means that when someone tells you a house was built in 1650, or almost any date in the 1600s, you can be 99% sure that the date is incorrect.

Only yesterday a new listing in a nearby town stated that the house was built in 1634.  That would mean it was the oldest standing timber framed house in the United States.  I don't think so!

Let's look at some survivors.

From the White Pine Series of monographs, c. 1932
The Edward Harraden house is located in Annisquam Village overlooking Annisquam Harbor. This old photo shows its very steep roof, the hallmark of an early house.  The house has been dated to a very early date, possibly the 1660s.  It began as a small house (the front door and the two windows to the right.  The left side was later added and yet another addition on either end creating a very long house.  My understanding is that much of the early evidence is covered and it has not had dendrochronology (the study of the tree rings).  It is quite likely the oldest house in Gloucester or all of Cape Ann but that is unverified.

The Harraden house as it appears in the 21st century
Tucked away out of site is the Aaron Riggs house.  This is not the famous Riggs house of log construction but a house of another generation.  Below is a 19th century photo of the house.  I have made the photo large so that you can see what a county house and yard really looked like 150 years ago.

Country yards were not manicured in the 19th century.  This is how they looked.
The following picture show the early summer beam, the main carrying timber, that is found on the inside at the ceiling.  It has what is called a flat chamfer, a beveled dressing along the edge of the beam, the signature of a first period house,  At the left end of the beam is a carved "lamb's tongue" or chamfer stop, a decorated flourish where the beveled chamfer ends.  It has been smoothed and polished to a furniture finish.
Huge chamfered summer bean and lamb's tongue
The owner made me promise many years ago that I would not divulge the location of the house and his privacy would be respected by me.  Therefore, no specific location will be included.


In West Gloucester near the head of Little River is the Jacob Davis house.  Here Jacob Davis established his saw mill and built this house around 1709.  It has an overhang on the front, double overhangs on the sides and an extremely heavy chamfered frame visible on the interior.  It is a very fine example of the first period.

The first period Davis Freeman house with "jetty" overhang.
It was also associated with important black families, the Freemans and the Johnsons, who lived in the house for a number of years after which it was very run down.

Magnificent large chamfered summer
beam with lamb's tongue chamfer stops.
Once the house caught fire from a defective chimney.  Hattie Johnson continued to sit undisturbed in her rocking chair.  After the fire was out the fire chief asked her why she didn't move somewhere safe and comfortable.  Her answer, "Sentiment.  Just sentiment."  To her it was "home sweet home."

One writer in the 1920s predicted that the house was so deteriorated it would soon be gone.  They were wrong.  It is now in great condition and is called "Wellspring House", a place that offers training to women in unfortunate circumstances to help get them back on their feet.

It is a wonderful example of the period with considerable remaining integrity.

Can this house be saved?  Yes, it can!

Deacon James Lane was an early settler in the Lanesville section of Gloucester.  This was a very remote neighborhood in 1700.  It was shortly after this date that a road was pushed through following the shore to Flat Stone Cove. (Lanes Cove)  It is between Flat Stone Cove and Folly Cove that several families of Lanes established their homesteads. 

The small Deacon James Lane house has been sensitively added to without spoiling the saltbox profile.

This James Lane house is first period, possibly dating to around 1708 and has unusual carved post heads on the interior where the posts meet the horizontal framing members at the ceiling.  It has a saltbox shape but probably the saltbox lean-to was added on later as many of them were.  The chimney was reproduced during a restoration about thirty five years ago.  

At some time in the nineteenth century  this house was moved from a location closer to the main road to the rear. It is now approached by a long lane to a very charming and private setting.

The present owner has added onto the small house in a way that has not spoiled the integrity of the saltbox shape.


The Thomas Riggs house has  long been called the oldest house in Gloucester.  As in the case of the Harradan house it will take dendrochronology to verify the age.

In Massachusetts there are only three houses of squared log construction.  The ell of this house is one of them.  The others are the so-called Witch House in Rockport and the Norwood Cottage, also in Rockport. The Witch House dendrochronolgy dated that house to 1711.  The others have not been tested.

Thomas Riggs was the Town of Gloucester's first town clerk and first school master.  He was on this property as early as the 1660s.  Was this the original cottage?  Only testing will determine the answer to that question.
The Thomas Riggs house as it appears today as a fully functional  21st century house with old features intact
The log portion of the house is the little ell to the right side of the house.  That is the first and oldest part of the house.  The gambrel roof was added by a grandson in the 1750s.  It is very charming with many fireplaces, a ten footer in the old kitchen and some of the smallest fireplaces in the bed chambers.

The ell is the little squared log cottage of Thomas Riggs
When purchased in the late 1990s by the present owner it was still owned by descendants of the Riggs family.  It had only been occupied as a summer house.  It was accessed by passing behind a more modern house on the property to the old house beyond.  It had minimal electric and plumbing and had never had central heat.  It has been carefully restored respecting its originality but creature comforts were added. It is now a year 'round home.

Comparison to other similar houses helps to date a house.  In this case, the log construction is so rare as to make comparison difficult.  Because of this I am not assigning a construction date to this house.  There is not doubt, however, that the log portion of the house dates to the first period.

The names found on the above five house: Riggs, Lane, Harraden and Davis, represent the names of some of the earliest settlers in the area.

My next post will continue with more houses of the first period in Gloucester; the homesteads of more of the earliest occupants of the Cape,  followed by some important early houses that have been lost. Note that they are not in chronological order and the dates are subject to change pending further testing.

The antique photo of the Aaron Riggs house is from the collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

Thank you for reading.



  1. I always enjoy your blog and look forward to learning more about first period homes in your next post.

  2. Pru I love this! You are the only one who could do it too!

  3. Jacob Davis, Edward Harraden, Thomas Riggs, Sylvester Eveleth, William Haskell, John Proctor Sr., were all direct ancestors, so I find your posts very interesting. Thank you!

    D. Davis, Manorville, NY

  4. The Riggs House belonged to my 8th Great Grandparents - Thomas and Mary (Millet) Riggs!!! William Haskell and his wife Mary Tybbot were also my ancestors. My sisters and I are planning a trip this fall to investigate and visit these old homes. So excited!

  5. Do you have any information on the Jesse Saville house? I have found references to him and also have read that his house was near a tanning pit but can find no other indication of where this house stood or still stands. I have bought a painting of the house executed around 1930, so assume it was still extant at that point. Any information is appreciated.

    1. Hi, Nancy, I don’t think it does. I live on land that was once owned by him. I’d love to see that picture!