In 1608, Henry Hudson, an English explorer sailing for the Dutch East India Company in search of a shorter route to the Far East, discovered the great North American river that still bears his name. Although the prospect of a western route to the Asian subcontinent soon faded, the enterprising Dutch saw an opportunity to develop a lucrative fur trade in the New World. From 1613–14, Captain Adriaen Block was the first to map the area between Virginia and Massachusetts, which he named New Netherland. By the 1620s, thirty-some families were settled on Manhattan, Long Island, and in Connecticut. Few examples of their earliest homes exist, but their architectural legacy has survived.
The earliest houses were a single room, typically twenty by twenty feet, built over a cellar and with a habitable half story beneath a steeply pitched roof. The ground floor room was used for all activities of daily living, with the upper room reserved for storage and servants. This economy of form was the result of simple means, the restrained nature of the Dutch colonists, and their medieval heritage. This basic unit would be repeated to form houses two or more rooms wide that opened directly to the outdoors, with no interior hallways. Only later houses included center or side halls.
Nearly all materials were locally obtained, connecting each house to its place. Clay was commonly used to form bricks and pan tiles along the Hudson River. Stone was plentiful throughout New Jersey and along the Hudson, while weatherboards and wood shingles predominated on Long Island. Because glass was an imported and precious commodity, windows were small and few. Often irregularly placed, they consisted of small panes protected by planked or paneled shutters.
Early Dutch houses shared common construction techniques. Several H-shaped frames, made of two tall posts connected by a beam joined into the posts below their tops, made up the house frame. Four to six H-frames were aligned and tied together with a plate and sill. Steeply sloped rafters were covered with horizontal boards and then thatch, shingles, or clay tiles. Exterior walls were weatherboard or brick; in stone houses, the upper members of the H-frame sat directly on the wall.
Considered a hallmark of Dutch Colonial houses, the gambrel roof is not particularly Dutch. Early roofs consisted of a single steep pitch, but as houses grew in depth and height, such roofs bore heavy wind loads and length of timbers was an issue. A gambrel roof relieved the wind load by lowering the overall height of the roof and allowed the roof to be built of shorter timbers. To achieve this, the roof was formed out of lower rafters at a steep pitch and upper rafters at a low pitch. This still allowed for a habitable upper half story.
Extended eaves, also called spring or bell-cast eaves, were a common detail further south. These nearly always appeared on the southern exposure of houses to help regulate heat. Most unique to early Dutch Colonial houses, and a carryover from medieval times, is the Dutch fireplace, consisting of a hearth built into the floor, a masonry wall behind, and a chimney resting on a beam spanning the hearth. It lacked the side walls and solid foundation-to-roof chimney of English fireplaces and was rarely located in the center of the house.
When considered all together these characteristics show the Dutch Colonial house as a masterful example of beauty achieved through the simplest of means. Resources for further study include Blackburn’s Dutch Colonial Homes in America and Meeske’s The Hudson Valley Dutch and Their Houses.
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