Following close upon the heels of the Virginia Company’s 1607 settlement of Jamestown, a second group of English colonists put down roots in the Northern parts of what was then known as Virginia. Settling Plymouth in 1620 “for the glorie of God, and advancemente of the Christian faith, and honour of [their] king and countrie,” the Pilgrims brought with them to New England their belief in simplicity of worship and strict morality. The English Colonial architecture of New England is perhaps best seen in relation to the character of its Puritan and Separatist settlers.
Their first concern being shelter, the earliest homes were little more than cellars or huts with sod or thatch roofs. But as time allowed and experience with harsh New England winters necessitated, they quickly built larger and sturdier buildings. Using late-medieval rural building techniques familiar to them, houses were most commonly timber framed with the infill covered in wood clapboard or shingles to protect it.
The first houses were generally one room with the chimney located on the end wall and a chamber under the steep roof for sleeping. This soon expanded to two rooms wide with the chimney in the center shared between the rooms to conserve its warmth. Also designed with conservation of warmth in mind, the entry and stairs to the upper chambers were commonly in a small enclosed vestibule located between the front door and the central chimney. Expansions were made by adding a lean-to at the back of the house, resulting in the familiar Saltbox form.
Windows were small casement or sash windows made of diamond-shaped panes, the small opening size reflecting both the need to conserve warmth and the high price and limited availability of glass in the colonies at that time. With the medieval tolerance of asymmetry, windows and doors were placed in relation to interior spaces rather than for exterior symmetry.
Owing to its medieval origins and timber framing techniques, second floors often overhung the first with the ends of the posts shaped into pendants, a lone element of ornament on these otherwise simple houses. Roofs were gabled, sometimes with the framing at the gable end projecting beyond the second floor. Eaves were shallow and devoid of the decorative modillions or bed molds found in later Georgian style architecture. This plain box exemplifies how construction technique combined with locally available materials can create clear form and characteristic style.
At its best, domestic architecture reflects the culture and knowledge of its builders and the time and place in which it is built. The English Colonial homes of New England admirably achieve this. Standing calm on the shores of the New World, these houses are a sober reflection of the Pilgrims’ reserve and fortitude. A fine example is the Parson Capen House in Topsfield, Massachusetts (1683) and Fiske Kimball’s Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic contains an excellent chapter on early Colonial architecture.
For an immersive experience into the life of New England’s colonial settlers, a visit to New Hampshire’s Strawberry Banke Museum, with many original buildings, may be to your liking. It is on a visit there some years ago that I purchased my copy of A Building History of Northern New England, by James L. Garvin, an informative and comprehensive discussion of New England’s architecture.
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