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

Sunday, December 18, 2016

PLANK FRAMES, SECRETS IN THE WALLS OF AN OLD HOUSE

THE TELLTALE SIGNS OF A PLANK FRAMED HOUSE

Plank framed Haskell house in Gloucester.  See details below
Sometimes I think I sound like a broken record as I keep reminding people of regional differences in early house construction.  Sometimes these differences vary from state to state and other times the differences are noticeable from one town to another.

I regularly read what people post in “Colonial Home Owners” a closed Facebook group of people who own old houses.  Several contributors are from southern New England; Connecticut and Rhode Island or upstate New York.  I see things all the time on this site that would mean something different to me here in Gloucester, Cape Ann, Massachusetts. 

  One of these features is overhangs on the gable ends of the houses.  To me that would say that the house is first period (1640-1725) but these houses in other areas seem to have later dates in the second period.

Here is a remarkable photo of a house long gone.  It is from a stereo view that came up for sale on eBay and downloaded.  The Cape Ann Museum obtained the original.  Not only does it show the typical vertical planking and overhang but is one of a very few with a double overhang.  The house was in a lonely spot along the waterside.  Picknickers would go there by boat to enjoy the setting.  I would date the house to the first decade of the 18th century..
On the local level here in Essex County, Massachusetts a mere twenty or so miles is enough for a major change in building construction.

In Beverly, Salem or Danvers, Massachusetts the early settlers tended to be from the West in England and brought their building style to America.  This system of construction was already out of date in East Anglia where so many other settlers had their roots.

The defining trait of the housewrights in this area settled by Englishmen from the west of England is a transverse summer beam.  In this neighborhood the summer beam goes from front to back on both the first and second floor of the house.

Housewrights from East Anglia alternated with the first floor summer beam extending from the gable end of the house to the chimney girt above the fireplace.  Once in a while one of these transverse summer beams going the opposite way will show up in Gloucester on Cape Ann making one question who the builder was, where he came from or where the house frame came from. 

The distance between these two neighborhoods is only a twenty minute drive from Cape Ann but there are two distinctly different schools of house construction.

On Cape Ann the summer beams and the frame are more typical but wait a minute!  Something else that is very different occurred underneath those clapboards.

Typically the house frame would be sheathed with horizontal boards.  The walls would be studded on the interior with lath applied to the studs and then plastered.  Sometimes the interior wall space was filled with some material for insulation.  This could be wattle and daub, hay or often bricks laid up somewhat haphazardly because they were not meant to be seen.  This brick infill in the walls is called nogging.  The old Haskell house in Gloucester has nogging only in the north wall, obviously to give the cold side of the house a little more protection from the north wind.

This is a peek at brick nogging in the original north wall of the Haskell house.  It is seen in the attic of the lean-to added
to the house at a later date.

Abbott Lowell Cummings talks about plank framed houses in his book, “Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay”.  He even offers a map showing a decided concentration of plank framed houses in the Cape Ann area with others scattered around Essex County to a much lesser degree.

My first experience with plank framing came when a friend who was working on an old house called me to come over to look at a situation that had her workmen puzzled.  Rewiring the house required breaking some holes in the plaster of this very shabby old house.   Her attention was called by an electrician who saw something strange.  When a flashlight was shined into the hole in the wall they were peering at another very old plastered wall behind.  On this wall was early 19th century wallpaper.  Further study, exploration and research told the story.

This is a 19th century photo of this plank framed house that looks pretty bad but it did survive.  Twenty years
ago it was looking bad again but has been remodelled and sadly, all of the features which survived through
 the hard times are now gone...into the dumpster.  CAM photo

This was a plank framed house dating to about 1718 and what happened later becomes a typical scenario as we go from house to house that are dated to the first period.

When constructing a plank framed house there are no horizontal sheathing boards as one would expect.  Instead huge, two inch thick wide planks sheath the frame vertically, not horizontally.  The girt and the plate have a rabbet, a groove, that is prepared to receive the planks at the top of the house. The planks are then  pinned to the frame above the first floor and again at the sills with wooden pegs or spikes

The recent restoration of the Old Haskell House, a Gloucester landmark, offered the opportunity to photograph a plank framed house clearly demonstrating the vertical planks covering the frame.

Vertical planking on exterior of the Haskell House.
Gloucester, MA


Gable end of the house where the planks are
inserted into a groove creating a small overhang

These planks are then pinned to the beams at the second floor level and at the bottom are pinned to the sills of the house. The sill remains visible inside the completed house running around the edges of the first floor.

Another view of the stripped house.
There is ample evidence in the patches to prove
 that the house originally had leaded casement windows,

Over time, perhaps to make the house warmer and to cover up the large exposed beams and sills the walls were built out.  Studs were added to the old walls then followed by new laths and plaster until the room appeared much more modern and the original walls now entombed behind the new walls.

This alteration could go unnoticed for decades until someone, like my friend, discovered the double walls in her house.

 Laths were attached with rose head nails inside the house.  Riven lath, short strips of oak, are nailed directly to the planks on the inside of the house and attached with rose head nails.

Next comes the plaster applied to the lath to finish the interior. The walls are a thin sandwich of sheathing with clapboards on the exterior, and lath and plaster on the interior. That is all there is.


A better known example is Gloucester’s White- Ellery House, a study house open by appointment or on the first Saturday of each month from June to October.  This 1710 house had also been built out covering the raised interior sill and some of the framing and molding around the ceiling.  Its interior appearance with wallpaper became quite Victorian.  It is owned by the Cape Ann Museum.

This is the White-Ellery house with new clapboards,  The windows
are now replaced with leaded casements.
Around 1947 this venerable house was in the path of highway construction and was moved to a safer spot across the street.  At this time the newer walls were removed and the original walls with  paint and plaster were revealed after being sealed away for who knows how many years.  Old photographs show papered rooms that looked Victorian.

The White Ellery house in the 19th century with overhang.
Photo property of Cape Ann Museum
The City of Gloucester has approximately ten houses that are first period.  The only one that has been dated using dendrochronology is the White-Ellery house in which case the date that was first determined by deed research was confirmed to be 1710.

I was present when someone who had obtained salvage rights to an ancient house opened up the walls.  This house dated to about 1718-1720 and there were the planks.  This house was partially torn down saving much good material including a lot of unpainted feather edged sheathing before being abandoned, then bulldozed.

I was there when this house was opened up and a much earlier first period
plank framed house was revealed at the core of this seemingly second period house.
Photo property of Cape Ann Museum

On and on it goes.  House after house has been confirmed to have the vertical planks of a planked framed house.

There is another giveaway.  When the planks meet the end girt at the top of a first period house and are inserted into the rabbet it forms a very shallow overhang.  Each plank framed house has displayed this slight overhang.

Of the ten or so houses dating to the first period eight have evidence of the overhang.  Two of them do not show an overhang.  These are the two houses that appear to be the oldest of the ten.  They have not been tested by dendrochronology but have such steep roofs they could only be 17th century.  An early date of around 1660 has been ascribed to one of the two.  One knows instantly that it is from the 1700s.  There is no sign of the overhang.  Plank framing, at least in Gloucester appears to begin closer to 1700.

This is one of Gloucester's two earliest houses dating to the 17th century.  There is no
sign of a gable overhang but the extreme steep pitch of the roof is a clue to it'svery early date.
It has been suggested by some that plank framed houses were built in areas close to a saw mill.  Here there were several saw mills and that may have encouraged the building of these houses. Perhaps they were also quicker or cheaper to build.

Recently I received a call from a homeowner in West Gloucester.  Her house was recognized in the past with an incredibly early date of 1651.  Yet in 1985 when Boston University conducted a survey of first period houses all of which were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 this house was not included.

The former Redcoat Antiques in West Gloucester
The overhang on the gable end of the house
can be seen through the shadows.
I had been in this house about 35 years ago but didn’t remember the details and have to admit that way back then I probably didn’t know very much about first period construction.  I had been living in Newburyport, MA, famous for its beautiful Federal period houses and some wonderful Georgian houses.  I had been immersed in studying these periods and had not had much exposure to first period houses.

The owner told me that her beams were chamfered with a flat chamfer.  That alone would indicate first period.  I was able to find a couple of pictures of the house online and when I looked closely there was the gable overhang.  It must be a planked framed house and accordingly must be first period.  It seems to have fallen through the cracks.

To me this could indicate a house built during a small span of time.  Planked houses were not built much before 1700 and the latest ones I have found are around 1720.

Furthermore, the later examples have another distinguishing feature.  This is the very end of first period and the houses are much less post medieval.  The huge framing of the 17th century has disappeared as have the wide flat chamfers.  The usual chamfer of the first period has been replaced by quirk beads on the summer beams and elsewhere.  These are small and almost look as though they are the bead on a boxed frame of the second period but they aren’t.  They are actually the small dressings on the edge of the actual beam.  There are no lamb’s tongues or chamfer stops.  This is the transition period from post medieval to second period Georgian. 

Post Script!

I have since visited this West Gloucester  house and am still  pondering what I saw.   I hit a brick wall in searching the chain of title but will get back to that and hope I get past the stumbling block.


In the middle years of the 20th century this house was a well known antiques shop called the "Redcoat".  Old issues of Antiques Magazine regularly displayed ads for the Redcoat in West Gloucester.  The restored house and shop were owned by the Buswells whose very impressive mansion was nearby if not on the same grounds.

The house has overhangs on both gable ends of the house.  On the second floor there are dramatic gunstock corner post and large braces as one would expect. 

The summer beams have small flat chamfers that were not terribly wide and ended with tapered stops.  After seeing them I would date them as belonging in the period from 1715 to 1725.

What was most surprising was the small size of the rooms when we have been accustomed to seeing large rooms in first period houses.

The chimney is large and square.  The back to back fireplaces on the first and second floor left a wide cavity between them.  This is what is very surprising, the likes of which I have never seen.

This house does not have the typical three run "captain's" staircase to the second floor.  The staircase goes straight up passing right through the middle of the chimney in the space between the back to back fireplaces. Surely this represents a change and rebuilding of the chimney and fireplaces but lots of strange things happen to houses over several centuries.  I should know better than to be surprised!

Also, this house doesn't fit the usual formula but with gable overhangs, plank framed construction and a decorated frame it meets the criterea for a first period house in my opinion!


The information on this house and the research will be continued. There are lots of unanswered questions regarding this house and the last chapter in its history is  yet to be written .


Many of the photographs of the Haskell house are courtesy of Jeff Crawford.

Thanks for reading!

Pru







  

5 comments:

  1. Hello Pru, Thank you for this informative post. I will have to look through my old photos to see if there is any evidence of plank framing. I love 19th century photos of decrepit Colonial houses, as missing pieces can often reveal the construction underneath.
    --Jim

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  2. Interesting- definitely a first period house, but maybe dating to 1730 or 1740. The small size of the rooms tells me it was built on the two-room plan. Did all four beams have the same chamfer? Also, I think the attic framing would answer a lot of questions. The very shallow pitch makes me think the entire roof was replaced, along with the chimney and stairs.

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  3. And it kind of reminds me of the Macy-Colby House in Amesbury, dating probably to around 1740-1760; don't know if that house has first period features, but the scale and shape is similar.

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    1. Hi Matt, Thank you for you response. I do know the Macy-Colby house and it used to have a very early date above the door. I was in it once and visitors were being given the 17th century date. I was annoyed because it was clearly second period. I know the date has been corrected but I don't remember a decorated frame. Another early house in that neighborhood that I have seen, also misdated, is the Theophilus Foote house almost across the street from the Macy-Colby house. Perhaps M-C has had dendrochronology but I'm not sure of that.

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    2. I haven't seen Macy-Colby in person, but it appears to be an excellent Georgian house. Unfortunately, an early date carries weight, especially for museums. The Rebecca Nurse House, for example, no doubt first period, was pretty clearly not built before 1700. Nice house, but it has no link to witchcraft.
      Anyway, if the West Gloucester house has well-defined chamfering, then it's a first period house. At the same time, though, a date of 1750 is not unlikely.

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