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, March 17, 2014



The gambrel roofed story and a half cottages that dot the shoreline from Manchester to Cape Ann and all the way around our cape are the signature houses of  Cape Ann.  This is what the average family lived in while the merchants and sea captains lived in the larger versions in the Harbor Village in Gloucester.

These dwellings were small and snug but in spite of their small size often housed very large families.
Some were only a half house with a front door on one side and a large room on the other side of the front fa├žade.   Others had a central entrance with rooms on both sides either built that way or a smaller house to which there was an early addition.

The Oliver Griffin homestead in Annisquam.  The main block
of the house depicts what these cottages consisted of before additions.

Because of their small size and hard use many have disappeared, been added onto or merged into a larger house with hardly a trace showing on the exterior.
Here is a full-fledged two story center entrance house.  The only hint of changes
is the location of the chimney below the ridgepole.  It began life as a gambrel cottage.
Today there is another large addition.

The first building period on Cape Ann, and all over New England, extended from the first settlements until about 1725 at  which time the post medieval styles of the Pilgrim Century were left behind.

In Gloucester this second period lasted from approximately 1725 or 1730 through the rest of the 18th century.  Cape Ann housewrights
embraced the gambrel roof, a change from the steeply pitched roofs of the first period. 

In Gloucester's Middle Street neighborhood, beginning in the late 1730s, many large, refined, gambrel roofed houses were built for the wealthy inhabitants of the town but the fishermen farmers lived in the vernacular cottages we now know as “Cape Ann Cottages”.

Two story full- blown Georgian house with a gambrel roof.

 In fact, a cape style house with a gambrel roof is now recognized throughout the country as a “Cape Ann Cottage”.

These tiny houses sometimes consisted of a center entrance, central chimney plan with small attic-like rooms above the main floor tucked under the gambrel roof.  Often they were just “half houses” with a door and chimney at one end.  This version could be added onto at a later date as money permitted and space was needed.
This Rockport cottage is very symmetrical including the pair of dormers
on the roof.  

This is a house which is almost a center entrance house but
there is only one window bay on the left side so that the
cottage is somewhat asymmetrical.
The windows had small panes and were double hung.  Leaded casements were still available but very old fashioned and not used in these houses.  The roof was sometimes punctuated by small dormer windows but this was not always the case.  Perhaps most of these dormers were installed later.

Another example of one dormer window in the room of this cottage
This is known as the old Tarr Cottage in Rockport, also with one dormer.
There is evidence that many were not even finished on the interior.  The proof of this is in the existence of whitewash still visible if one looks behind the plaster.  These were finished off at a later date and houses built later in the 18th century had more formal finishes on the interior from their date of construction.

Add here is the old Tarr cottage again, as it appeared ion the 19th century.
This photo is from Swan's history of Sandy Bay (Rockport)
Here is a gambrel cottage without its chimney.  Later it gained a saltbox
lean-to with a Beverly jog (so-called)  More than 100 years ago a  large
Victorian  addition was built that  dominates.
When the Cape Ann Cottages were finished on the interior they reflected the finishes in the larger, finer houses of the Harbor Village.  The fireplace walls were paneled, there were paneled doors and decorative elements.  In most cases, however, the staircase was enclosed and very narrow and steep.  The floors were pine, as was all of the woodwork. The floors remained unpainted and unfinished.

Here is another example of "the tail wagging the dog".   If you
look at the left side  you can see the gambrel cottage, the oldest
 part of the house to which  the main part was added

The rooms were frequently 16 feet in depth and contained a fireplace.  The kitchen fireplaces were very large with a bake oven built into the interior of the firebox.  A parlor fireplace was smaller and if there were fireplaces on the second floor they were diminutive.

Sometimes the woodwork was left unpainted but not by choice.  As soon as there was enough money and paint was available, the interior was decorated.

The larger houses of the period were of summer beam construction but the story and one half cottages did not have the traditional large summer beam holding up the second floor but rather a series of beams. Some of the later examples were of more typical summer beam construction.
Center entrance cottage by with evidence inside of alterations and changes
making it a center entrance.
It was said that on Cape Ann there were approximately 350 of these small cottages scattered all the way from Manchester to Gloucester Harbor and throughout North Gloucester and Rockport.  Strangely, there aren’t any in Essex, two in Ipswich and an occasional cottage here and there in Essex County.  The vast majority were right here, on Cape Ann.

By 1800, the small vernacular houses once again were being built with pitched roofs although not a steep as in the first period.  The new finishes  reflected the Federal period and no more gambrel roofed cottages were built.

In many cases the owners were poor.  These were the homes of fishermen and farmers. The houses were soon too small and they became vulnerable.  Many burned or were replaced by finer houses at a later date.
Here is the Master Moore cottage showing the profile
from the side with several additions.
Today there remain about sixty of these cottage houses.  Most of these are not intact, some are just fragments.

This cottage is known as the Master Moore house.  The right
side of the house is an addition.

Here are some of the scenarios which took place.

Often these small houses became the ell of a larger house such as the house on the corner of Essex Ave. and Lincoln Street in West Gloucester.  Rather than destroy  the house, it became an incidental appendage to the new house.

Some were so swallowed up in newer houses that they virtually disappeared.  In West Gloucester on the corner of Magnolia Ave. and
Essex Ave. is a Victorian house which shows just the corner of its original Cape Ann Cottage peeking out of the back left hand corner.
This house on Knowlton Square was moved here
from a unknown location

This tiny cottage with a big addition is in West Gloucester..  A missing chimney
might suggest that it was moved to this location.
Many were just picked up and plunked down somewhere else.  The cottage at 3 Winchester Court was moved a short distance to the back yard when the new house was built.  It began  a new life as a separate entity, unattached to the new house.
This wonderful cottage on Winchester Court was moved from the site next door when it was replaced by a Victorian.
It has bee said that the outline of the original foundation of this house remains in the cellar of the other.

  The Cape Ann Cottage on Knowlton Square was moved to that site but no one has discovered where it came from.
This sweet cottage had fallen into very bad repair but now  has
been restored.

Several were torn down in recent years and replaced with modern construction such as the one on Western Ave. opposite Hesperus Avenue and the one on Eastern Ave. just after Harrison Ave.
One cottage in Rockport  on South Street which looked almost beyond salvation has recently been saved.

Others have been enlarged with a lean-to on the rear such as the example on Gee Ave.

This small cottage house on Gee Avenue was expanded with a lean-to and
 yet another 
Sadly, the fact remains that most of them are gone.  Those that remain are very special and need protection.
The appealing Cape Ann Cottage is truly the signature house of Cape Ann.

The Thomas Riggs cottage, one of the best known cottages, has an earlier  piece on the right hand
side but the gambrel roof was added in the 1750s at the height of the popularity of this style
While working on this post I was not at home with my own collection of photos.  The photos in this post were found in public records on the Internet as assessor's records or inventory photos from Massachusetts Historical Commission.  In some cases the houses have been restored.  None are up to date. but perhaps I can replace some of them.



  1. Pru these are my favorite houses in all the world! Thank you for this beautiful post, Warmly, Edyth

  2. I learn something every time I read one of your wonderful posts! Keep them coming!

  3. Thank you for writing this and posting the photos. As always, it's been a joy to look at homes from back home and learn more history of the area. I especially love the Oliver Griffin homestead. What a pleasure it would be to care for a home like that!

  4. Thank you, I'm glad I found this blog. I'm working to preserve some of the stones in First Parish Burial grounds. (1644) I've often wondered if some of the houses are still standing for the people buried there. Sandy Barry

  5. Hello Prudence, Stumbled across your site after googling Oliver Griffin homestead. Drove past it last summer and took many pictures. Beautiful. Enjoyed reading your site; we live in a 1790 cape in Amherst, NH.