Monday, December 28, 2015

Jackson, NY, House, Introduction, 2 of 6 posts

A report from this summer - when I first explored the house - to accompany the geometry of the previous post.

Today the house is being dismantled, piece by piece - see the end of this post -

I have watched this small house for more than 10 years, hoping its Dutch framing and Federal style would endear it to a new owner. Its shape and proportions, its entrance, frieze and rake are beautiful. I am delighted it has been purchased.

 I explored it twice inside and out, basement to attic framing, and herein share what I saw.

The house was added to an earlier home, now gone, which then became the service wing.  The stone foundation for the first house exists as does a partial roof and ‘ghost marks’ and well as doors connecting the new and old wings.

 The original home, which faced south, included the kitchen and bath.
The frame on the east side is exposed. Brick nogging used as fire stopping and insulation is visible as is a solid post and beam system, approximately 3 ft. on center, with intermediate studs.  

The southwest corner of the 2nd floor  appears to be an H-bent – a traditional Dutch method of framing.  The roof frame is pegged common rafters.  Dismantling will show more.

The wall and ceiling plaster was applied to split lath:  ½” wood planks forced apart with a hatchet so that the spaces in between would hold the plaster.


The foundation is local stone. There is no basement fireplace, just support for the one above. The photograph shows the mortise and peg on one end of the beam supporting the stone hearth in the living room.
The north side of the basement, beyond the stair, is a crawl space. Some floor joists have been somewhat compromised by the intrusion of plumbing and heating systems. These will be repaired.

In 1790, the house faced the main road between Lansingburg, NY, and Rutland, VT, 2 growing commercial centers. Many people would have passed by, traveling about 5 -7 mph on foot or  in a wagon, 12 mph if on a ‘Trotter’, a fast horse.

No one traveled so quickly that they would  not have noticed and admired the front door with its entablature and columns, its frieze and rake at the eaves, and even the ¾ rounding of the corner boards.

The bead on the corner boards is a typical detail in this area when the house was built - here shown on another house. Those on this house are too worn to be salvaged. The original door has been lost.

The windows were once the height of the front door. The short sections of siding above the modern windows indicate the original size. The exterior window casings would have been flat boards with banding. The header protruded to shed water and protect the window. The sills appear original. The sash was double hung, maybe 8/12 or 12/12 panes.

The interior door’s lights and the transom window’s proportions will help determine the right pattern.


The fireplace has a stylish Federal mantle like those seen the patterns books of Asher Benjamin and Owen Biddle. The marble surround is typical for the area. The bricked-in firebox is a Rumford – modern for the time - designed to radiate the heat of the fire into the room.  
By 1830, cast iron stoves were widely used. The chases for stove pipes are visible in the bedrooms.

The cupboards on each side of the fireplace were for dishes, herbs, spices and medicines as well as books and writing supplies. Notice how the modern, short window is an uncomplimentary shape.

The door and window casings are as elegant as the front door. The window casings are original, but were cut down when the windows were resized.  I have taken profiles for reference.

Dismantling the house may uncover traces of a wall separated the living room from a front hall with its stair case anchored by a graceful newel, well scaled to the small space.
The oval rail fits well in the hand.
 Square balusters march up the stairs and around the hall above. To turn 40 balusters by hand for the railing and have them all match would have been a tour de force in 1790. However a cabinet maker could readily turn one newel post.  It, like the front entrance, is Neo- Classical, the emerging style c. 1800.


For over 200 years people have lived here, loving the house, adapting it to their needs. Their footsteps have worn away the door sills.

The house itself is still strong.  I am happy to help send it to a new owner. Here it is coming down, board by board, brick by brick.

previous post:

The link to  the men who took down and repaired this house, Green Mountain Timber Frames: .

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Jackson, NY, carpenter used squares as did Biddle, 1 of 6 posts

Pass by this house. Enjoy how it is sited between its fields on the left that slope down across the flood plain to the river, and the road and the hill to the right.

It seems abandoned  - although someone carefully closed the shutters on a second floor window.

The broken dormer says there once was a wing - or the earlier house.

In the years that I've watched it, I've  thought:
C. 1800,
Dutch framed, H bents.
The new wing an update to the original farm house,
Set into the hill below the wind.

The old house, a story and a half cape set lower on the land, would have had easy access to the farmyard and the fields. It faced south to the sun, watching the traveler approach. The new wing is set higher, more worldly and 'speaks' to the road instead.

But how sad it is... broken chimney, no paint, dumpy windows,

A dilapidated front door

surrounded by fluted columns, complex and flaring capitals, a segmented architrave that curves,
the original transom,

Please click to enlarge the photograph see the lovely curved details of the architrave.

And rotted wood for plinth blocks/bases.

Worth restoring?

It will be.
The frame is well built. Here is the mortise and its peg for the beam which supports one side of the fireplace hearth,

Dismantled, repaired, it will be reassembled on a new site
with its original casings, doors, newel, and mantle.

The shape is simple: 18 ft wide by 36 ft.long. 2 rooms each floor.
2 boxes.
I thought of Owen Biddle's plan for a 'small house'.* That plan used 2 squares divided into 4 parts. Would squares divided in half work here?
Or would I find Asher Benjamin's use of squares divided in thirds?

Owen Biddle's simple division of the square works here.

The plan is 2 squares. The interior wall at the stair is located at the 3/4 mark of the left square.

The windows are placed on the centers of division of the original square . Those on either side of the fireplace are easy to read:half the big square divided into 2 little squares.

The windows beside the front door are centered on rectangles that are 1/4 of the large squares.

The cross section of the house follows the same pattern.

The first floor volume is 2 squares long and half a square high.

The height of the exterior front and rear walls is 3/4 of the square.

The second floor height is 3/8 of the height of the square.

The division of the basic 18' x 18' square into smaller parts is done by diagonals. It is visual. No one needed to write down fractions.

I think the ridge is another 1/4 the height of the square above the ceiling joists.  However since the second floor ceiling is still mostly intact, I could not measure the height to the ridge nor the slope of the roof with enough accuracy to be sure. The interior slope of the ceiling was consistent

The sadly sized windows - replacements when repair of original windows could have saved them - have mismatched clapboard above the lintel which outline the size of the original sash.

Here is my drawing of  the front of the house with its original sash. I do like this house!

The geometry follows that of the floor plan - the square divided into its integral squares and rectangles. The intersections of the diagonals give the dimensions.
The right hand square of the house is drawn. The center line  (A - A dividing the square into 2 equal rectangles) marks the top of the entrance - probably the framed opening, not the casing.
The right window (B) is centered on the small right square which is 1/4 of the large square  or at the 1/4 mark of the right side of the house.

I think about this in 'geometry', but it is hard to show when I can't use my hands. Thus I am adding the  fractions.

 The left window (C) is centered on the half of the small left square, just as in the floor plan or at the 5/8 point.

The size of the window and where it fits in the wall is also determined by the intersections of the diagonals of the square and its parts. Here the right hand square is divided into 2 equal rectangles. I have drawn the lines in green and added emphasis at the intersections.

I measured the height of the front wall from the inside. I did not measure the eave overhang or the frieze. Here I have just laid out the diagonals of the upper half of the square to see what i might find. It looks like it might be right. I will have real dimensions when the house is dismantled. I might be right, or learn something new.

Here is the interior second floor corner where the frame is exposed. The posts which are visible are not regular in size. There is some interesting bracing.  Does the frame also correspond to the rhythm of the square?
I hope to find out.

* See

The link to  the men who took down and repaired this house, Green Mountain Timber Frames: .

Monday, November 30, 2015

Owen Biddle's 'Plan and Elevation for a Small House'

Owen Biddle published his Young Carpenter's Assistant in 1805 in Philadelphia, PA. He included 2 house designs as teaching tools. Biddle wrote that his drawings were not meant to be "eligible for the builder". Instead they were "aiming at instruction for the student".

In 1797, Asher Benjamin published The Country Builder's Assistant in Boston, MA. It also included house designs. Benjamin used crossed squares and the rule of threes in his designs,*

What geometry did Biddle use?
Here is his "small house" - Plate 36.

The layout is 2 squares side by side for the plan and the elevation. The elevation measures the square from the  first floor to the top of the brick coursing. He writes that the student "suppose the building to be raised just above the principle floor, and the wall made level all around."

I enjoyed this because a contractor today still wants his foundation and first floor level before he starts his partitions, of course!

Note on the plan  that the depth of the front porch is determined by extending the diagonals.

Usually I draw both diagonals to denote a square. Here since I will be adding other lines I decided to simplify for legibility.

Biddle designs using the square divided into quarters. On the elevation the top of the first floor windows is determined by the horizontal center line. The placement of the windows is determined by the vertical center line.

The floor plan follows the same geometry. The edge of the window frame is determined by the vertical center line.

Still using the squares, Biddle divides one half in half again, vertically.  This locates the columns - and the size of the front porch - at the 3/4 mark of the squares on each side. Note that the horizontal center line dictates not the top of the fan light casing but the height of the brickwork. These are structural dimensions, information for the brick layer, the sash maker.
The curve of the entrance stair follows the diagonal.
The width of the window is determined by the intersection of the diagonals.

On the floor plan the right hand  side of the square is divided in half; it determines the location of the wall between the rooms and the hall.

The porch is 1/4 of the square.

Here I have drawn the lines that layout the portico in red and given the pattern of the division across the bottom: 2-1-1-1-1-2.
The architrave and the roof are 1/3 of the square of the porch.

When I first saw this I thought the portico and the doorway used the rule of thirds. I was wrong. The door itself may be 1/3 of the porch, but the casing around the door is placed at  1/4 the width of the porch.  The height of the fan light is 1/4 of the square; the door below 3/4.

Note the shadow  to the right of the porch. Biddle wanted his book to teach drawing and presentation. He tells the student (reader) to "enliven the drawing by giving the appearance of shadow". (Plate 36).

This house was an exercise, just as Asher Benjamin's were. The geometry he uses comes naturally and easily, Although he knows the rule of thirds he barely uses it. He does not use crossed squares. Benjamin uses both.

This is not the geometry seen in New England nor in the folk houses documented by Glassie. It might be the geometry of Philadelphia.

 *To compare see my post: 

Owen Biddle, Biddle's Young Carpenter's Assistant; or A System of Architecture Adapted to the Style of Buildings in the United States, Benjamin Johnson, Philadelphia, and Ronalds & London, New York; 1805
Dover Publications, Inc. edition, 2006, unabridged republication

Friday, November 13, 2015

Tessellations and Geometry, teaching kids

Perhaps I should let the photographs speak for themselves.

The picture is from our first class.

The teacher, Jude, drew the circle and swung the arcs you see on the blackboard when  he realized we needed to watch the circle and its daisy wheel come into being. He knew how to help each student as they learned to twirl a compass - not easy for some children. Jude was essential to our success. .

When we looked for the triangles in the circle they were with me, as you can see.

I introduced the wall tiles and carvings from the Alhambra at the end of class. Everyone knew immediately why I had brought the pictures; they was fascinated.
I showed them how carefully the craftsmen had made every joint as perfect as possible. They understood.
Jude taped them to the blackboard. He invited me to come to school earlier for the second day so that we could do more

The next day we expanded the circle . That was easy. Extending the segments of the hexagon, making a new bigger star was an obvious step.

 So we tackled the 'rolling circles' of the church windows.   Much harder... not making the circles but finding the muntin pattern within the jumble.

The older children were the most successful.

Some children explored on their own and showed me their work.

I brought in 2 star dodecahedrons* for them to hold -  a great hit.

I had fun, learned a lot. The kids practiced and understood.
And they were patient: The compasses I brought were accurate but delicate and hard to adjust. The students shared and adapted. I will find them better tools.  

 * That may not be the proper name  for a dodecahedron studded with pyramids - I haven't found a good reference. Please advise if you know.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Geometry of the Cobb-Hepburn House, Part 3, front elevation

Here's the  Cobb-Hepburn c. 1780, in Tinmouth, Vermont, as it was  being dismantled last winter.

This front elevation feels bare and stark, less  sophisticated than similar houses built at the same time  in New England.
The 4 closely paired windows on either side of the facade, and the wide expanse of wall between the windows and the door seems 'not quite right'. As I travel, though, I see the same spacing on other houses near by. Am I seeing a local variation? the same framer working on many houses?

The frame is well built even though it was completed in stages.

The geometry, however, is rudimentary.  The plan for the posts and beams begins with squares, crossed to create a rectangle. The distance they are crossed is based on the arcs used to lay out the square - one of the first manipulations of practical geometry that an apprentice would have mastered.

The first plan shows the posts and beams with the crossed squares in red. The second plan shows how the width the squares are crossed was determined by the crossed arcs - dashed red lines - of the squares. 

(The center beam is off set to allow the chimney to pass and exit the roof at its peak.)
Was the framer never taught the geometry? He was capable of quality timber framing; he must have served a apprenticeship. Was his training interrupted by the American Revolution?
What he uses here are only the very elementary forms of practical geometry.

Here is the first page of  Biddle's Young Carpenter's Assistant. published in 1804. Biddle wrote his book for carpenters like the man who framed this house.
To see the bibliographic information about Owen Biddle's book please see the links at the end of this post.

After explaining how to make a drafting board, fix paper upon it and make a T square  - A,B, and C,  - Owen Biddle lays out solutions "to some of the most useful geometrical problems, which every Carpenter ought to be acquainted with."   
E: how to raise a perpendicular,  F: how to let fall a perpendicular, G:how to add a perpendicular at the end of a line.
And then H:  which I have marked with a red square 
how to layout out a square.
 I shows how to draw a 3/4/5 triangle which will always have a right angle. J  shows how to divide a circle into 12 equal parts.

Very simple work with a compass - and the geometry used in the design  of the Cobb- Hepburn House.

I have labeled the floors, the rooms, and the windows and door on the frame for easier understanding.  

The floor plan used the intersection of the arcs  of the square based on the width of the house for the placement of the interior beams ( BII and BIII).
To read the 2 previous posts which discuss this please see the links at the bottom of this post.

The front elevation uses the same geometry - the intersection of the arcs derived from the height of the house is both the edge of the posts for BII and BIII and the top of the 2nd floor plate. See the black dots where the arcs cross.

The framer next needed to place the windows and the front door. He 'crossed' the rectangles (BI to BII on the right, BIII to BIV on the left) on either end of the front wall. They cross in the center of the shape, which is also the 2nd floor plate. Upstairs and downstairs windows are symmetrical to that  crossing.

 I have outlined the right side with a red dashed line and added the diagonals.

Then it was easy for the framer to 'cross' the lower half of the rectangle. I drew it with black dashed lines. Where the red diagonals and the black diagonals cross is the center of the window frames.

The location of the door is similarly found by dividing the left over center space in half.