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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

THE PITFALLS OF DATING AN OLD HOUSE

DEEDS, DATES AND "DENDRO"

The obvious way to date a house is to do the deed research, discover the chain of title to ascertain when a house appeared on the previously vacant land.  Right?

Only partially right!  Here is why this doesn't always work.

Deeds follow the land not the buildings.  Simply relying on the the chain of title we look for the words "dwelling" , "buildings" or "house".  We are elated as we go back through the deeds and the reference to a house on the lot is still there.  Often this leads us to an early date.  Everyone wants their house to be OLD and better yet, even OLDER.  So what is wrong with that?

When a deed refers to a house on the site you have no idea what the house looked like or if it is even the same house that is there now.  Chances are it isn't the same house.  Houses were replaced with better houses doing away with an early settler's cottage or even a substantial house.  Houses burned.  Chimney fires set the wood roofs on fire destroying a house. In other cases the lot was subdivided with a newer house built on the new smaller lot.

One day a lady told me she was researching her house. I knew her house, it was similar to my own house and I commented that I thought it was built around 1860.  I will never forget her retort.  She said, "I'm here to tell you that I am back before 1840 and still going."  I knew what had happened because I just happened to have researched the older house right next door.  I knew that the lot had been subdivided about the time her house was built and her house, the newer house, was built on the newly created lot.

The lesson here, although this process may seem oversimplified, is to take a hard look at the house and estimate how old you think it is.  The house in this instance was a pre Civil War Gothic revival.  The house next door with a center entrance was full of fireplaces.  Hers had none.  The house next door was obviously older. This is a common mistake.. Her research had taken her back to the time when there was one bigger lot with one older house before the lot was subdivided and her house was built.  She was now researching the wrong house, the house next door!

Tracing a lot back to the late 17th or early 18th century and still finding a house on the lot does not mean that the house is necessarily a first period house.  A first period house (built before approximately 1725) would have a decorated frame with chamfers on the beams that were meant to be exposed.  If the frame is undecorated there is no way that it is a first period house no matter how much the owner wants it to be and no way that it was built in the 17th or early 18th century.

Therefore it is not sufficient to rely on the deeds alone. There has to be a correlation between the deeds and the physical evidence.  Both need to be considered.  Often if you can estimate a date based on the physical evidence and then look at the chain of title you can sometimes discover possible clues to substantiate the evolution of the house.  The deeds can reveal dates such as when it was sold to a new family who may have replaced the earlier house.  The concept of "tear downs" is not necessarily new. Or perhaps there was a marriage or a death signaling change in the ownership that often coincides with a major change in the house.  New owners, just as today, will remodel or rebuild. So look for milestones in the ownership of the house to see if they correspond to changes in the house or perhaps a house that is entirely new.

Here in Gloucester we do a fair amount of research before approving a plaque for a house.  It is not that we are imposing restrictions on the style or the age of an acceptable house  but rather we are committed to getting the correct date on the signs. As I travel around New England I observe signs proudly displayed on houses that are blatantly incorrect.

In one instance, as a Realtor, I sold a house with a 17th century date that was at least thirty or more years earlier than it really was.  The conscientious owner, upon realizing that the date was incorrect,  removed the plaque from the front of the house and put it in the cellar. The house was sold and the new owner immediately put the incorrect sign back on the house and there it is to this day nearly twenty years later.

So what can an owner do to "get it right"? There is one accurate way to date a house although pricey. It is called dendrochronology or "dendro" for short.  It is a study of tree rings.

Tree rings to the waney edge

For each year a tree grows a ring.  If it is a drought year the ring is small.  If it is a wet year the ring is wider. This pattern of the rings can be correlated to coincide with the weather pattern over the years for a particular geographic area.

The house frame  in a timber framed house is raised very shortly after the trees for the frame are felled. So being able to determine quite precisely when the trees were felled it follows that the construction of the house won't be far behind.

In order to have some degree of accuracy the beams tested must be intact out to the bark layer, the waney edge. The bark need not be present. Samples are taken from the timbers and there will be considerable consistency throughout so that a consensus can be arrived at, pinpointing the construction date with amazing accuracy. Dendro can also reveal additions, repairs or changes that are not part of the original frame. (This is a great oversimplification of the process but you get the idea.)

There is another factor causing some houses to be mis-dated.

In the colonial period nothing was squandered so that pieces of an earlier house were often recycled into the new house.  The presence of an occasional chamfered beam in a house does not mean that the house is first period but simply that the remains of an earlier house on the site or from elsewhere were utilized in the new construction.  No house should  not be dated based on a stray beam here and there. Sad to say, this happens all the time.

On day I viewed an old farmhouse with a 1686 construction date.  As I went through the house I didn't get any sense of first period or even second period.  The size of the rooms, the height of the ceilings, the appearance of the fireplaces and woodwork said circa 1800 to me.

Finally, we reached the cellar and there holding up the circa 1800 house was a magnificent summer beam with quarter round chamfers...a piece of the 1686 house for sure.  After returning to the main floor I happened to look into the cooking fireplace.  I was surprises to see that the lintel of the fireplace was a reused beam with mortise pockets in it.  A quick look around and I saw that the lintels in other fireplaces were reused beams with mortise pockets left over from their previous life. The spacing of the mortise pockets was consistent with 17th century joist spacing.  I can think of several other similar scenarios that I have seen and each house displaying the date of the early beams that were reused.  Incorporating a first period beam into the underpinning of a much later house does not make it a first period house!

In another documented case a significant beam is part of a garage.

Simon Bradstreet, a Massachusetts colonial governor, and his wife, Anne Dudley Bradstreet, the first American poetess, lived in North Andover, MA after moving from Ipswich. They owned more than one house over time.  One of their houses burned and is the subject of one of Ann Bradstreet's famous poems.
T o read her sorrowful poem on the loss of her home follow on this link.

 http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172963)

In the mid 18th century a commodious house was built  by the Phillips family. (Phillips Andover Academy) It has been strongly suggested that one of  Simon Bradstreet's houses was located on this Phillips property. There is an ell attached to the rear of this Phillips house now converted into a garage.  Spanning the ceiling of this garage is the most beautiful decorated summer beam.  The size of the chamfer and the mortise pocket spacing denotes a 17th century house.  As you stare at the magnificent and ancient beam in this modern setting it is hard to picture Ann or Simon Bradstreet sitting under this great beam in front of their fireplace in a house that is no more!  But this stray beam is just a fragment.  It doesn't mean that this Phillips house is 17th century.  It is simply a reused beam.

These are some of the pitfalls of trying to date a house.  Don't jump to impetuous conclusions.  And please understand that being older does not always mean better in this apparent competition to own the oldest house.  Each house should be judged on its architectural merits: who lived in it and what happened  to it rather than getting hung up on a "my house is older than  your house" syndrome.

Other helpful sources can assist you along the way.

Old maps often show the footprint of the house and even may produce a name on the house. These maps (often from the period 1850 to 1900) can reveal to you whether or not  the footprint matches the house and is the name on the lot the same as the name in your chain of title for that time frame.  Is there a match?

Assessors' records for your community can be helpful if available.  They may indicate if there is a building on the lot. A sudden increase in the assessment suggests changes.  These records can also indicate hints such as "new house" or "unfinished house".

It is also helpful to know that more and more information is coming online all the time.  Here in Essex County, MA deeds from 1640 to the present are now online.  Probate records including wills and inventories are also online up to 1842 with more to come.  A researcher hardly needs to leave home to get at the official information. This is huge!  In addition, old maps and atlases are also on line.  One of the best sources is the Leventhal Map Collection at the Boston Public Library with maps for all areas.  Copies of early maps can be purchased from Historic Mapworks. (historicmapworks.com)

These are some of the tools available to you that are often accessible from the comfort of your home.  All should be utilized and checked until you are confident that you have an appropriate construction date.

Strive for accuracy.  Don't be like the people I know that suspect that their house is mis-dated but like it the way it is and don't want to rock the boat to get to the truth. Trying to pass a house off as older than it is will always be recognized by those who know the difference.

Enjoy your old house and accept it for what it is.  If you are planning to place a plaque on your house or replace be sure to get it right!

Thanks for reading.

Pru

2 comments:

  1. I so enjoy reading all that you write about old houses, even though I live in a modern townhouse.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Read this last week. I thought I commented already guess not.
    Impressive fund of knowledge needed to inspect these homes and write so skillfully .
    Enjoyed it all.

    ReplyDelete