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Image Massachusetts Building Ways: East Anglian and Kentish Origins of New England Houses

The same pattern of persistence and change also appeared in the vernacular architecture of New England. By an early date in the seventeenth century, a distinctive building style developed in Massachusetts Bay. It was not invented in the New World, but adapted from customs and fashions that had prevailed in eastern England during the period of the great migration.1

This architecture could be recognized in part by its choice of building materials. Through nearly four centuries, New England houses have been made of wood. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when hardwoods were abundant, they were given frames of oak, sills of hackmatack, floor of white pine and outer skins of cedar. As these species slowly disappeared, cheaper softwoods became more common. But wood itself remained the dominant building material in Massachusetts from the seventeenth century to our own time—more so than in any other American region.

This preference for wood was not merely a reflexive response to the North American forest. It was an old folk custom that had been carried from the east of England, where even today timber-framed houses are more common than elsewhere in the British Isles. Historian R. J. Brown, in a survey of English domestic architecture, finds that the county of Essex “probably contains more timber-framed buildings than any other.”2 Wood-sheathing and particularly wooden clapboards are also found more frequently in East Anglia, Kent and East Sussex than elsewhere in England, just as they are more common in New England than in other parts of the United States.3

Techniques of building also showed similar patterns. House carpentry in Massachusetts was much like that of eastern England in the many complex details of post-and-beam construction—such as the design of windbraces, the placing of pegs, the shape of mortise and tenon joints, and the design of crownposts, rafters, purlins and scantling.4

The interior plans of buildings in Massachusetts also resembled those of eastern England. One common design for a farmhouse in southern New England was a simple rectangle of two stories, with a central chimney stack and a steep “twelve pitch” roof. A one-story lean-to was often added to the back for the kitchen, and by 1680 was built as an integral part of the house. To cover it the back roof was carried down in a straight line, creating the classic “salt-box” silhouette that gave this house its name.5

The salt-box house was not a New England invention. It had been common throughout Kent and East Anglia before the great migration. A case in point was a seventeenth-century wood-framed house at Parsonage Lane, Darenth, Kent, which was exactly like a New England salt-box in every respect—two stories in front and one in back, a central chimney stack, a kitchen lean-to behind, creating the classical salt-box silhouette. The interior was divided in two large chambers on the ground floor, and smaller rooms upstairs. It was not a large structure—only twenty-six feet square. But it made a comfortable home for an artisan or husbandman. Not many of these wooden salt-box houses survive in old England today. Most have fallen victim to damp, decay, and changing fashion. But in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century they were common in the eastern counties, and were carried to New England with comparatively very little change.6

Another New England style was the Cape Cod box—a small structure of one and one-half stories. This house also had developed in eastern England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, as cottagers “chambered over” their wood-framed houses by adding separate sleeping quarters above. It was


Whitman House, Farmington, Connecticut, 1664


Parsonage Lane Cottage Darenth, Kent


Moulthorp House East Haven, Connecticut

The Salt Box House was not invented in New England. In the early seventeenth century, it was an established form of vernacular architecture in East Anglia and Kent. An example was this cottage (now pulled down) which stood in Parsonage Lane, Darenth, Kent. Its plan and elevation were similar in every important way to a New England Salt Box House. Timber framing and wood sheathing were commonplace in southeastern England, and rare in other British regions. Sources for these sketches include Morrison, Early American Architecture, 57; AC LXXVII, 92-93; Chalkin, Kent, 237; drawing by J. Frederick Kelley in Dow, Everyday Life in Massachusetts, 24f.

in common use throughout New England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was revived in the twentieth. The “cape” as it is called today remains very popular, long after it was abandoned in England.7

A more pretentious New England plan was the stretched box, a wooden rectangle much like the salt box, with additions to the sides instead of the rear. The result was an imposing facade of exceptional breadth, and more room for the complex households of the rich. In eastern England and Massachusetts the stretched box became the house of prosperous yeomen and lesser gentry.8

Yet a fourth design was the gabled box. An example was the Downing-Bradstreet house in Salem, with three front gables, and double windows and two massive chimney stacks. These were the most opulent private houses in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, and resembled the homes of lesser gentry in East Anglia.9 They were often enlarged by the addition of gables and wings without regard to symmetry—a custom which was also common in East Anglia, where we find that “complex roof-gable shapes” were more common than in other parts of England.10

A distinctive characteristic of these larger houses was a projecting second story (which in England is called the first story). The front of this second floor extended a foot or two beyond the first floor in a design called a “jetty” in the seventeenth century. This fashion had been specially popular in the villages and towns of East Anglia. It was much used in New England for a century after settlement.11

Site plans in Massachusetts also showed an architectural kinship to East Anglia. Houses in the Bay Colony were customarily


The Corwin House, Salem, Essex County


Church Hall, Boxted, Essex, circa 1600

The Gabled Box was the most opulent of New England’s early house-types. These complex framed structures had multiple bays and wings, and often a rambling ell in the rear. One example was the Corwin House in Salem, here reproduced from an old drawing. Its central porch was two stories high, flanked by large gables projecting to the front and sides. A massive central chimney stack heated many rooms, and the roof-peaks bore large ornaments at each gable end. Many of these houses were built in Boston, Salem, Ipswich and Saugus. They closely resembled large houses in the east of England. Sources for these sketches include a drawing by Samuel Bartol in the Essex Institute, and a photograph in Cummings, Framed Houses of Massachusetts, 13.

built facing south. They stood so close to the road that carts rumbled by only a few feet from the door. This tendency in New England has sometimes been explained as a response to the environment—a way of reducing the labor of “breaking out” in snowy winters. But precisely the same pattern may still be seen on the old roads and byways of East Anglia.12

The building ways of Massachusetts were never static. In the eighteenth century major changes would be made in fenestration, as casement windows yielded to small guillotine sash windows and later to large double-hung windows. During the nineteenth century, the framing of houses was revolutionized by a shift from hardwood posts and beams to a “balloon frame” of light softwood studs and joists. The proportions of the house were enlarged, and other changes were introduced in the interior, by a subdivision of rooms for greater privacy. Aesthetic tastes in New England houses were also transformed by Palladian forms in the eighteenth century, and by the Greek Revival in the nineteenth. But behind these changes in taste, there was an underlying continuity in building materials, methods, plans, styles and sites. For three centuries, domestic architecture in Massachusetts preserved a special character that derived from the culture of eastern England.

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