Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Persistence of the Salt Box Plan, Part 2

The original owners of these houses in Bennington County, Vermont, have ancestors who lived on the New England seacoast. 

Why is that useful information? 

Settlers built what they knew. 
We have seen this in the houses the Dutch built in New Amsterdam, in the Victorian era houses in Oregon which look like the 1840's houses on the East Coast their owners had left behind, in the houses in Ohio's Western Reserve which copy those their owners knew in their home towns on the Connecticut River. 

House-wrights in new settlements built what they had been taught 'back home'.  They might have seen a pattern book; but those guides showed the Classic Orders, complex roof details, stairs and railing, mantles and entrances: decoration - not basic post and beam framing systems. A house-wright learned his craft by apprenticing to a master-builder: hands-on. He built what he had been taught and had seen.

Bennington County house-wrights copied the saltbox plans they knew.

Here are two examples.

Samuel Safford came with his family to Bennington, VT, in 1761. The next year he built the town's first corn mill and a saw mill. In 1769, he built this house for his family, 2 stories with a tight front stair against the center chimney, a large room on either side, a long narrow kitchen behind with small service rooms on either end - the salt box plan. The Safford family had lived in Hardwick. MA. Their parents had lived in Ipswich, MA. Houses with this floor plan, pre-dating this one in Bennington, can easily be found in both towns.

The Safford Mills Inn is now a B&B and a restaurant, open to the public.

The house where Robert Frost wrote 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is also open to the public. It is a museum in Shaftsbury, VT.

Built by Amaziah Martin in 1769 it uses the salt box floor plan with a variation, a center hall. The chimneys were located on the end walls which are stone.
Martin was part of a group of Baptists who came to Shaftsbury about the same time that Bennington was being settled.
The Baptist families came from Dover Plains, NY. Their parents had come to Dover Plains from the area around Smithfield, RI, where there are many salt box houses. 

Both of these houses were dramatically updated several times in the last 240 years. For an architectural historian - me - they are fascinating to visit.

I have researched the family lines for the Saffords and the Martins. I think it adds little to my thesis to include those genealogies here.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Geometry as Design

At the PTN Workshops last summer I tried to teach geometry in construction. I assumed most people had an understanding of geometry and facility with a compass. 
I was wrong.

This year I have been 'practice teaching' with students as my guides.

This year I taught children, teenagers and adults how to use a compass. 
How it opens, how it twirls, how to keep it steady.

Everyone needed these basic skills before I could begin to help them understand the science and art of geometry, never mind how it was used to frame a building.

I thought people knew this, like the ABC's. I thought it was taught in schools, but I had teachers practicing and asking for help along with the students.

Kids and adults responded in the same way, with awe and amazement, joy and laughter - with lots of  enthusiasm.

When the children realized they could make a star by connecting the 6 points on the perimeter of the circle, they had to show me how! tell me what I should connect next!

They had magnetic tessellation blocks for exploring.

With teenagers and adults real building elevations worked best. Most of my students know the Bennington Old First Church. Since good measured drawings of the church exist, used those.

I began by asking the students to draw in the floor line, right at the bottom of the doors. This would have been where the framer began his layout, but I didn't tell them. I have found that interesting knowledge is - at this point - extraneous information.

I asked them to draw diagonals across the main body of the church - from the floor to the eaves. We noticed that the lines run up the sides of the roof over the main door and cross at its ridge. 

Then with a compass we found the radius and drew the circle.  This could take some time with people who were not familiar with compasses, radii, or circles. The discovery made the effort worthwhile.

I pointed out that if the roof lines extended through the steeple those lines would meet at the top of the circle  - the ridge of the roof.
 If time permitted we found the top and bottom points on the circle with the compass. We divided the circle beginning with a horizontal diameter to find  6 more points along the perimeter and saw how the facade of the church was laid out.
We added circles, as many as we had time for. Everyone kept their diagrams.

I am pleased with the interactions. All the students knew what they had drawn. Some could explore farther on their own. Even those who couldn't be rigorous had fun.

The adults had basic tools for real conversations about the use of geometry in design and construction.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Persistence of the Saltbox Floor Plan.

This is a ‘saltbox’. 

The name comes from its roof, which reminded Victorians of the slope of kitchen saltboxes.

Variations of this house with this roof line were built on the New England seacoast from the late 1600's to the mid-1700's..

The saltbox plan was a pattern. It did not cease to be when saltbox roofs were not longer built. It evolved, grew and adapted. 

Early NE houses were usually 2 rooms down, 2 rooms up with a chimney in the middle serving the fireplaces. 
 A lean-to off the back was often added for storage.

The storage evolved into a narrow room the length of the house with a fireplace built into the main stack. Usually small rooms on either end served as pantries and bedrooms for birthing or invalids. 

The drawings are by James Garvin - please see citation at the end of this post.

Settlers moving into Maine, western Massachusetts, the upper Connecticut River valley, and across the Green Mountains of Vermont built what they remembered - the layout, the relationship of rooms to function and each other. 

Sometimes they grew the house, using the salt box floor plan for a wider cape. This also simplified the roof frame. 

James Breckenridge built this cape in Bennington, VT, about 1765. 

This c.1800 cape, the house end of an attached farm complex, is near Brunswick, Maine. 

Bennington framers were influenced by their proximity to Dutch framing systems in the 
Hudson River watershed.
They  built story-and-a-half capes with more head room upstairs. The first floor was the saltbox  plan: 2 main front rooms with smaller rooms in the back. So was the second.

Hezekiah and Ira Armstrong built this farmhouse in Bennington  about 1810. Although it has been updated by its 5 subsequent owners, its original floor plan is still clear. 

A  story and a half cape with a post and beam frame, now demolished, about 5 miles from the Armstrong House. 

The original plan had been poorly reworked. The house lost its character.

Hiram Waters, Bennington master carpenter, built this story and a half cape for his family about 1825.

The original house uses the saltbox plan including the center chimney.
From right to left: his workshop including a display room and boarding for apprentices; his original house (the back wing with its roof facing the street); his c.1840 front wing and porch.

These 5 houses all had a steep tight back stair for access to the second floor. Broader stairs with more head room have been attempted with interesting results. 

The salt box floor plan was also used for full 2 story houses– 2 large front rooms, a long back space divided as needed on both floors,  a steep back stair as well as a turning front stair set against the chimney.
Growing up on the NH seacoast, I played in several c.1740 houses with this floor plan.

This c.1800 Westford, MA,  2 story house was measured and photographed  by the WPA in 1933-4 . It burned shortly thereafter. 

Here is its first floor plan: center chimney, 3 fireplaces, large front rooms, long back space divided as needed. 

In Bennington, VT,  the prosperous Norton family built 2 houses between 1807 and 1817 both with Palladian windows. The master-carpenter was Oliver Abel. 

These houses have center halls with graceful staircases, beautiful moldings and 2 chimney stacks. However they do not follow the 4 room, 2 chimney, center hall plan which followed the saltbox plan - seen here as drawn by Jim Garvin. They continue to use the salt box plan - 2 large front rooms, smaller service rooms in the back.

So does this house in Caledonia County, VT. first laid out about  1780, much updated since.

The Vail House in Bennington, c. 1800. While the chimneys were  moved to the end walls, the framer kept the traditional saltbox plan. 

Finally, the Blow Me Down Casino at Saint-Gaudens NHS in Cornish, NH.
I was there last week for a preservation conference. The house was part of the program.

Its record says 'Built in 1788'. At first I thought, "Absolutely NOT! Somebody who wanted to be 'Colonial' added that center chimney."

Then I looked at the paired 2nd floor windows - the placement of those windows in the wall, the geometry, said this house was pre-1800.

The record and physical evidence show that in 1926, the foundation, the first floor joists, the back wing, attic, and roof were replaced. East and west windows were altered. The chimney was removed, rebuilt. Again in the 1950's the first floor interior was changed. Porches, verandas, balustrades were added and deleted. 

I explored the house, basement to attic. I read the drawings and notes. One indicated the 2nd floor layout had been adapted, not changed.

Not until I had left the conference did I realize the 2nd floor was the saltbox layout -  a large front room on either side of a center chimney, (now removed and replaced by a bathroom and modern chimney) perhaps a front stair (now also gone) and the back stair in the back wing with small secondary rooms. 

For more , please read my second post on the saltbox floor plan:

To read about the house first pictured  - the Defoe- Mooar- Wright House in Pownal, VT, - see the column I wrote for the Bennington Banner.

Most of the houses shown here I have been in, including their basements and attics. Many I have measured. They all have the saltbox floor plan. I have posted photographs to emphasize that the exterior style of a house was not necessarily reflected in the arrangement of its spaces, and to show the persistence of the saltbox plan.

The 3 floor plans are drawn by James L. Garvin, and can be found in his book, A Building History of Northern New England. Hanover and London, 2001. p.97,98,99. They are reproduced here with his permission.

I am not the only person aware of this persistence of form.

Kenneth Hafertepe, in his article  Asher Benjamin Begins: the Samuel and Dorothy Hinckley House in Old-Time New England, Spring/Summer, 1999, mentions on page 8 that in the Connecticut Valley "center chimneys persisted into the next (19th) century". Benjamin built the Hinckley House in Greenfield, MA, in 1796.