for more about the home.
1633: From Sowerby, West Riding, Yorkshire, England on the Speedwell. Settled Boston originally.
1636; Granted 12 acres and 4 of swamp in the wilderness along Indian trail which joined Pequot path to Connecticut. His lot at exact center of the little community to be called "Contentment" and later Dedham, Norfolk Co., Massachusetts. Built his home here facing south as was the custom of the time. Home framed with timbers from the ship Speedwell. Carried from England a ship's beam so that he might have seasoned framework for his new New England home. Saved rose brick used as ships ballast to build a central chimney. Occupied by the same family for over 350 years, and has never been deeded or mortgaged. Oldest frame house in America. (The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America - Southern New England; Fairbanks Family in America)
1648; Eldest son John brought his bride to live in the gambreled East Wing was that was recently added for them, "The New House". (Fairbanks Family in America)
1654; West wing added. 8 generations to live here until 1903. Home restored in 1974. Ghost of Indian known to come in and sit by the fire in the old rocking chair. Oldest frame house standing in America in the late 1900's. House contains only those household goods, tools and furniture the family brought with them or made and used here. House built on a mound lawn shaded by Elms. Five doors lead from a small entrance hall to other parts of the dwelling. The step down to the kitchen is a simple log, worn concave by the feet of many generations of Fairbanks.
Stood empty about 80 years until it's restoration. Small secret chamber behind a loose board in the hall chamber. (Fairbanks Family in America: Fine Home Building Feb./March 1983: Massachusetts, A Guide to the Pilgrim State: The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America - Southern New England)
Will: June 1, 1668. I, Jonathan Farebanck, of of Dedham, in the county of Suffolk, senior, being sick and weak, and expecting that the day of my dissolution is drawing nigh, make this my last will. I give unto Grace, my wife, all and every part and parcel of my whole movable estate whatsoever, as well within doors as without, namly, all my household stuff, also my cattle, all my corn, carts, plows, working tools and utensils of husbandry, all debts due to me, and whatsoever else come within the denomination of movable estate. All unto my said wife, to dispose of when and to whom she shall at any time see meet. I give to my said wife, an annuity of 8# oer annum to be paid to her or her assigns to her use yearly, in two equal parts, that is to say, at the end of every half year 4#, during her life. To my said wife, the use of all my houses, yards, and yard rom, for her self and her cattle, her assigns and all her occations, for the space of four months next after my decease. To George Farebanck, my second son, and to his heirs, forever, 16#, the one half to be paid him within the year next ensuing after the decease of my wife. Whereas I have already given and do hereby confirm to my son George, all that my part in the general divident already laid out near Medfield, and some working tools, and such small things, my will is, that the said parcel of land and shop, tools and other small thins, so given, shall be all indifferently and equally apprised, and if they shall together amount to the value of 8#, then it shall be accounted for his first payment. And then my mind is, that my daughter Mary, shall have her first payment within the first year of my wifes decease, otherwise she is to tarry till the second year. I give my daughter Mary, the wife of Christopher Smith, the sum of 16#, which I give to my said daughter distinct from her husbands estate, and to be always at her disposal; this to be paid in two equal sums, eight pounds, in case my son George be paid, within the space of one year after my wifes decease, and in case George be not paid so much, then she is to be paid her first payment within two years after my wifes decease. I give to my said daughter 3#, to purchase her a suit of apparel with, to be paid within the space of three months next after my decease. To Jonas Farebanck, my third son, and to his heirs forever, the like sum of 16#, to be also paid in two equal sums, the first 8# to be paid the next year after his sister, Mary have received her first payment. Unto Jonathan Farebanck, my youngest son, and his heirs, the like sum of 16, to be paid also in two equal sums, the first half to be paid in the year next ensuing, after his brother Jonas is paid his first half. Whereas I have already given, and do hereby confirm to my son Jonathan, one parcel of land, valued aat 5#, my mind is, that he shall have the same in part of his first payment aforesaid, and also what debt shall appear then to be due from him to me, shall be reckoned upon the same account. My will is, that when all my sons and daughters aforesaid, shall have and receive their first payment in the manner and time successively as is before expressed, that then my son George shall be paid his second 8#; and then my daughter and son in that order. Jonas and Jonathan shall be paid to them their heirs or assigns, their wecond 8# each one year after another, until they be all paid their full legacies. I give to Sarah the eldest daughter of my son John Farebanck, on young beast between one and two years of age. And more, three pounds to be paid by my executor when she shall attain lawful age. The young beast before mentioned , I reserve out of the cattle bequeathed to Grace, my wife. To my son in law Ralph Day, 40s, to be paid within six months after my wifes decease. I give to each of the four children of the said Ralph, which he had with my daughter Susan, his late wife, 40s, to be paid them severally, as they shall attain lawful age, provided all my other legacies to my three sons and my daughter be first paid, in manner as is above expressed. My will is, that all these my legacies, above bequeathed, the specie or kind of payment whereof is not named, shall be all paid in current country payment, at price current, in Dedham. To John Farebanck, my eldest son, all my houses and lands whatsoever and not being formerly above in this my will disposed of , together with all my common rights and towne priveledges whatsoever, to him and his heirs forever, to enter upon all my lands forthwith after my decease. And all my houses and yards, at the end of 4 months next ensuing the same. I ordain John Farebanck, my eldest son, to be my sole executor. I entreat my very loving friends, Mr. Elizer Lusher and Peter Woodward senior to be overseers.
Witnessed by William Avery, Thomas Medcalfe, who deposed, 1/26/1668.
Inventory of the estate taken 12/16/1668, by Eliazur Lusher, Daniel Fisher, Peter Woodward. Mentions - the home lot, with the addition of land in the wigwam plane, the orchard and all the buildings thereupon, 150#; 8 cow commons, 16#; 6 acres of meadow in broad meadow, 15#; 2 acre of fowle meadow and common meadow there, 6#; 22 acres of meadow in Purgatory pland, 22#; 4 acres in the Low plane, 8#; in Natick Divident, 24 acres, 10#; land in the clapboard trees, 2#; swamp in the great cedar swamp near the saw mills, 4#; at Wallumnappeage (Wrentham), and cow common, 8#; right at Paucumtack (Deerfield), 3#.
total: 300 pounds.
1/26/1669; Will proved.
It was in the early 1630's that a yeoman farmer named Jonathan Fairbanke left the village of Sowerby in the West Riding of Yorkshire and crossed the western ocean, landing in the new town of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the spring of 1637 he was granted twelve acres in the new settlement of Dedham, just south of Boston; and in that same year unknown carpenters, themselves newly arrived in the wilderness of New England, built him a house that still stands today. The Fairbanks house, having outlasted all of its comtemporaries, is the oldest surviving wood-frame building in North America.
Three hundred and forty-three years later, in July of 1980, I was one of a crew of modern housewrights who erected a full-scale replica of the timber frame of the Fairbanks house on the Boston Common as the centerpiece of a ____honoring the 350th anniversary of the city.
The Fairbanks house is an important example of the beginnings of American domestic architecture for two reasons. First, it has come through nearly three-and-a-half centuries relatively unscathed by the waves of alterations, remodelings and "restorations" that have destroyed or obscured the original construction of most surviving 17th century houses. The Fairbanks house presents its original face to the researcher and eliminates a lot of sleuthing and guesswork.
Second, the design and construction of the house make it a good example of 17th century building on both sides of the Atlantic. Its construction came right on the heels of a period of drastic changes in house building in England, and the Fairbanks house features many of the innovations of its time. However, the carpenters who worked on the house were emigrants from a backwater of County Suffolk, so it retains archaic elements as well. The evolution of English building techniqhes is most evident in the frame and the plan. The exterior, on the other hand, represents a real departure from European tradition, and is one of the clearest examples of an emerging American architecture.
The English Tradition--In the early 1500s, the house of the ordinary English farmer was a central hall open to the roof flanked by sleeping and service wings set at right angles on one or both ends. Glazing was non-existent. Windows were either open to the elements or closed with wooden shutters.
Cooking was done in an outbuilding; the notion of including the kitchen in the house did not come into fashion until the 1630s. Ovens were unknown in rural farmhouses---bread, if any, came from the baker. The hall was heated by an open fire kindled in the center of the dirt floor. Smoke escaped through vents high in the end walls or roof.
The upsurge in economic activity under the Tudors (1485-1603) brought a new prosperity to many English farmers and tradesmen. This culminated, during and after the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), in a housing boom accompanied by dramatic changes and improvements in the buildings themselves--a period sometimes known as the Housing Revolution. Much of what we today consider inexpressibly ancient can be traced back to this time.
The most radical change was the replacement of the open hearth by a central masonry chimney. Multiple fireplaces made it possible to heat seperate spaces, so the open hall was broken up into rooms by vertical partitions. Similarly, since second story rooms could be heated by their own fireplaces, a second floor was introduced. The chimney stack, often including a bread oven, was place toward the rear of the house, leaving room at the front for a staircase to reach the new second floor. The cross wings at the ends of the central hall disappeared. Kitchens, glass windows and wood first floors were other contributions of the Housing Revolution. This two story house with central chimney and two room plan is the basic structure that the colonists brought with them to New England. It was the starting point of American domestic architecture.
Site and plan--The Fairbanks house sits on a slight rise just to the east of the Charles River. The house faces due south, as did most homes of the period. Out of 125 Massachusetts houses whose orientation is known, 98 (78%) were south-facing, and all but a handful of the rest were located in towns where small lot size restricted siting options. Windows were concentrated in the front wall, and the north wall was left blank. Clearly the 20th century has no patent on passive-solar design. The original building measures about 33 ft. by 16 ft.; both these dimensions and the lenght to width ratio (about 2 to 1) are typical of the period. The front door opens on a narrow entry (3 1/2 ft. by 8 ft.). A cramped stairway takes up 2 1/2 ft. of the chimney bay, the rest of which is occupied by the enormous chimney mass, itself 8 ft. by 9 ft. To the left (west side) is the hall. The main living room and original kitchen, it contains the largest fireplace and, with its smoke-blackened joists and ponderous summer beams, is the most imposing room in the house. Underlying the west end of the hall is an early example of that American innovation, the underground cellar. The parlor at the east end of the house was a slightly narrower room than the hall, 11 ft. as opposed to 13 ft. It served as the master bedroom and probably as a sitting room as well. The parlor was enlarged during early alterations to the house, and the original summer beams replaced. Upstairs, the hall and parlor chambers sit above their first floor counterparts. These rooms were used for sleeping and storage. The hall chamber is unfinished and is also the only room in the house without its own fireplace.
The Fairbanks house was built at a time when the brick bread oven was still a novelty, and its original chimney contained none. Similarly, evidence also indicates the lack of a stairway when the building was new. A ladder is still the only means of reaching the unfinished attic. One other archaic feature is ceiling height. In the hall, the distance from the top of the first floor to the bottom of the second floor is 6 ft. 4 in. Head clearance under the joists measured______________________________exceeds 5 ft.
Exterior---The original Fairbanks house had a very different appearance from its English counterparts, not because of the Housing Revolution, but because of the vastly different conditions on the new continent. Wattle and daub was the most popular walling material over timber framed houses in England. First stout splits of oak, pointed at the ends, were strung into shallow slots in the studs. Then smaller strips of withies were woven in vertically around the horizontal staves to complete the wattle. The daub, a mixture of clay and straw, was applied inside and out, filling the spacesbetween the studs. In 16th century England, the outside of the daub received a thin layer of lime plaster and perhaps a coat of white paint or color wash to complete the exterior finish. By the time of the Fairbanks house, this half timber walling was going out of style. Brick laid with clay mortar had largely taken over as the preferred fill, and studding and infilled panels were no longer exposed to the weather. Instead, the entire house was lathed over and covered with a layer of plaster called roughcast.
The Fairbanks house is one of two surviving American houses that have the archaic wattle and daub infill. Its exterior surface, however, sported the new clapboard finish, which was rapidly becoming the universal building material in New England. The original clapboards on the house were riven, or split, and shaved from swamp cedar. Oak was the other wood commonly used for clapboards in early New England houses. In the Fairbanks house, daub was applied from the inside only, with the clapboards --nailed directly to the boards without sheathing -- serving as a back up for the clay fill. The lack of half timber or roughcast exteriors in New England was due to the scarcity of lime for plaster in the early days of the Colonies, and the severe weather, which eroded the daub out of the walls on a number of houses.
Most English roofs of the period were either ceramic or stone tiled, or thatch. But tile roofs were the product of a more settled and finished society than pioneer New England, and the long winters increased the danger of fire always present with thatched roofs. The abundance of wood, and both oak weatherboard and the more common shingle roofs can be traced back to the first houses.
The shingles were made much the same way as the clapboards, with the preferred woods being cedar and pine. Unlike tiles or thatch, which were applied over widely spaced poles and battens, shingles were nailed to a solid layer of board. Shingled roofs did not require the steep slopes necessary for tile and thatch (tile because of its great weight, thatch in order to shed water), but the Fairbanks house retains the steep pitch of 17-in12, of 55", associated with the older materials.
Another characteristic of the Fairbanks house is the absence of a framed overhang at the eaves. While these were common on gable ends, the only protection afforded to the side walls was provided by the extension of the roof sheathing a short distance beyond the top plate.
The few surviving original windows in the house show glazing technology at an early stage. Small diamond shaped panes of handblown glass were set in lead cames (grooved rods) to make the individual lights. These were then inserted into the framed openings between the mullions and jambs. Grooves in the sill and header received the leaded glass lights, which were first raised into the deep slot at the top and then lowered to engage the shallower one at the base. The fragile windows were supported by steps rabbeted into the large ovolo mullions and applied to the jambs, and were wired to small intervening diamond-shaped stay bars.
Interior----In England, the framing, sheathing, flooring, interior finish and trim, windows and doors were likely to be made of oak. The colonists, while retaining the traditional oak frame, switched to pine for most other applications. In the Fairbanks house the floors, trim, roof boarding and wall sheathing are all of pine. The partitions seperating the hall and hall chamber from the chimney bay are made of siplapped vertical boards in the typical single-wall colonial style--one thickness of plank spanning from
floor to ceiling without intermediate support. The exterior walls of the hall are covered with unusual clapboardlike sheathing of shiplapped horizontal boards nailed to the studs. The parlor and parlor chamber are plastered.
By 1668, when Jonathan Fairbanks died, a full-length shed lean-to had been added to the back of the house. This follows the standard practice of expansion in early American houses. Typically, a third ground-floor fireplace opening into the lean-to was added to the original chimney mass and the kitchen moved into this new wing. Utensils, food and drink were also stored there.
The addition of a lean-to became almost universal as the 17th century progressed, and by the end of the century it had ceased to be an addition, and had become an integral part of house construction. Thus the saltbox was born. In the early 18th century, a second story was added to this integral lean-to, and it disappeared under the main roofline. And, in the final step in the development of this house plan, dual chimneys replaced the single massive central stack. These were relocated either at the gable ends of the house or against the back walls of the hall and parlor. The former chimney bay became a central hallway, and the winding stairs were turned and straightened rising from front to back in a single run. The central hallway plan--well established by 1770--is the prototype for many houses built in our own time. Those who grew up in a 20th century "colonial" house will recognise the model for their childhood homes.
18th Century Embellishments---Dominate by their massive oak frames, 17th century buildings were simple and unadorned. Clothing of the the frame was minimal and entirely subservient to the structure. By 1750, an enormous change had taken place. New applied decorative elements were everywhere.
The frame had shrunk, both leterally and figuratively. Its importance was downplayed, and its beams and posts vanished under a welter of fine finish work. The effect was refined, sophisticated, classical--American architecture had belatedly entered the Renaissance.
If the 17th century was the century of the carpenter, the 18th was the century of the joiner (the ancient equivalent of the modern cabinetmaker and finish carpenter), and this shift had profound effect on the timber skeletons of colonial homes. The frame was the heart and soul of early houses, and as such received the bulk of the decorative treatment. Arrises--or sharp edges--of major beams were given flat or molded chamfers ending in elaborate carved stops. In the Fairbanks house, almost every exposed member--everything but the studs and wall braces--received some kind of chamfer and stop, ranging from a quick swipe with the drawknife on joists and common rafters to careful work with plane, saw and chisel on girts, summers, tie beams and door jambs to produce the singular treatment that was the signature of the builders.
Other embellisments of early timber work included carved decoration on jowled or flared posts, serpentine braces, pinnacles crowning rooftops, pendants below posts in second story overhangs and molded mullions in early window framing.
As the decorative emphasis shifted from frame to skin, these carved adornments disappeared, and the frame itself began to recede behind paneling and plaster. Finally, floor joists vanished behind plaster ceilings.
Summers, girts and posts were cased or reduced in size so that they too disappeared, and with them went all visible evidence of the timber frame, detectable at this point only in unfinished attics and basements. The 20th century penchant for exposed beam ceilings in 18th and 19th century houses is a fad with little historical basis--except as a harking back to earlier and simpler days. The marked decline in the quality of timber framing, along with the ascendancy of joinery over carpentry, was hastened by the early 19th century development of balloon framing, which rapidly replaced traditional timber framing for house construction.
Research--To accumulate the vast amount of information needed to recreate the frame of the Fairbanks house, we supplemented available documentation with hours of on-site inspection and measurement. The old house was reluctant to give up its secrets, and many pieces of evidence were missing.
The sills, first floor, an lower ends of studs and posts were lost to decay; the parlor summer beam and east wall were removed during early remodeling. Others were buried under sheathing, plaster or daub. You can't just tear into the walls of historic buildings to satisfy your curiostiy about original window locations, so where wire probes and intuition failed us we resorted to Xrays. Several important questions were settled by the ghostly images of framing taken through the wood and plaster.
Most of this archaelogical work in the Fairbanks house was done during the winter of 1980. The building had not been lived in for 80 years and had never been modernized. When we stepped through the front door, we left the 20th century behind, and days of stooping under low ceilings in the dim light and bone chilling cold of the unheated house were arduous ones. The conditions were offset by the pleasure of the work. There was a steady stream of discoveries, and occasional moments of high drama, such as the time we stumbled across a small secret room behind a loose board in the hall chamber. (In our elation we almost missed the footprints of our many predecessors in the brick dust around the chimney). Most rewarding was the rare chance to encounter history face to face, without the intermediary of books.
Many old buildings have a special quality, a trace of accumulated lives of their inhabitants. In the Fairbanks house--birth and death place for nine generations and silent witness to the comings and goings of four more--this aura of personal history was very strong. Walking through the house I often felt that I was brushing past the people whose paintings and photographs adorned the walls.
On my final day of note-taking, I arrived early and worked straight through lunch. Time passed quickly, and it wasn't until the orange glow began spreading across the floor that I realized the day was drawing to a close.
The midwinter sun was sinking into the empty woods bordering the Charles River when my flashlight batteries expired. Determined to finish the task at hand, I started for the spare set in the car when a hush fell over the house. The buzz of the rush hour traffic died away, and the building was enveloped in that awesome silence in which you can hear a single snowflake fall. My footsteps echoed strangely, and I stopped just short of the entry. Perhaps it was only a lull in traffic. But I still wonder whether I could have opened the door onto the forests and fields of the 1630s. In any case, I waited silently in the gloomy hall until the noises of the world returned.
Then I walked out into the 20th century and got my batteries.
Raising the Replica
Work on the replica of the Fairbanks timber home got off to a shaky start. One of the drivers of the 10-wheel crane trucks delivering timber to my Canaan, N.H. shop missed a turn and got hopelessly mired in the mud several miles down a little used country road. One drive-shaft and many hours later, men and truck emerged, mud splattered but triumphant, bouyed by the thought that we had probably just fulfilled our disaster quota for the entire project. Happily, this proved to be the case. Three months later, our five man crew laid down their chisels, having shaped nearly 9,000 square foot of oak into 300 seperate members. The array of timbers was impressive--11x10 summer beams that weighed half a ton, 8x9 girts and ties, 7x7 plates, and almost 100 4x6 ___ mortised into 9x9 sills. In all, we cut over ___ joints and 550 oak pins for the 1,000 square foot house. The whole project was funded by the Northeastern Lumbermen's Association. The Fairbanks frame replica, like the original, was built of green oak. Modern folktales notwithstanding, timbers were almost never seasoned; they were cut, joined and mortised in the same year they were felled. Drying the logs or beams wasn't realistic since it takes many years for large oak timbers to reach equilibrium with atmospheric moisture, and the seasoned wood is so hard it's practically unworkable.
Because our budget was limited, we did much of our sawing and boring with modern tools. When we could, though, we used 17th century methods. A fair number of our timbers were hewn, pitsawn, laid out and bored the same way as the original Fairbanks frame.
For boring out the hundreds of 1 1/2" mortises in the original house, the carpenters used a 1 1/4" shell auger, of nose auger. This tool is basically a half cylinder with a flat bottom and a T-shaped handle. Half of the bottom is beveled to form the cutter; the other half is cut back to serve as a depth guage and chip escapement. Since it's difficult to start boring on a flat surface with a shell auger, we chopped shallow conical holes with a gouge to get it going. Like many of the other 17th century tools we used, the shell auger turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was by no means effortless, but it bored smoothly, and the geometry of the cutter made it essentially self-feeding.
Confronted with a pile of timber, a 17th century carpenter couldn't pull out his power-return rule and framing square to lay out beams. The Fairbanks house, like its contemporaries, was probably laid out with a long measuring stick called a story pole. All of the lengths and locations needed to lay our the frame were marked on it. The story pole itself was laid out with 1 ft. rules, 2 ft. rules, a 10 ft. rod and dividers. It is more versatile than it sounds, and after the Fairbanks relica was done, I began to use story poles for all repeated layouts in my own timber framing. The advantage of a story pole is that all the necessary layout data is written on one device that can be laid directly on the beams. This allows the timber framer to position joints away from faults in the lumber because all of the various points are clearly marked on the stick. The story pole also minimizes careless errors in repeated measurements, and eliminates the need to memorize increments or constantly refer to plans for them.
There were sawmills in New England in the 1630s, but none near enough to Dedham to be of any use to the builders of the Fairbanks house. Major timbers--sills, posts, summers, girts, plates, ties and principal rafters--were hewn from logs with a felling ax and broadax. To cut stock for the scantlings (smaller pieces such as studs, joists, braces, purlins and common rafters), a large log was first hewn square and then pitsawn. Pitsawing implies setting a log over a large excavation and then neatly
sawing it into various lengths with a two man whipsaw. Pits, however have their disadvantages. They are difficult to dig in rocky soil, they provide homes for creepy and crawly things, they are wet and muddy, the scenery is terrible and, perhaps worst of all, a pit is not very portable. It's unclear whether the Fairbanks house carpenters sawed over a pit or used trestles as we did. The coarse ripping teeth of the 8 ft. long saw take a big bite, 2 in. per stroke in a 6 in pine timber, about one-third that in
oak, but it's still a lot of strokes from one end of the log to the other. Twice per rip the saw must be dismantled, removed from the kerf, and the timber relocated to avoid sawing through the supports. It's no wonder that sawyers in England were noted more for their fondness for taverns than for native intelligence. Contrary to myth, our sawyers preferred the bottom position (pit man) to the top (tiller man). It takes more strength and staying power to pull the saw up than to pull it down through the cut/ Sawdust was also more of a problem for the tiller man because it accumulated on the log and obscured the line of cut. The pit man needed to worry about sawdust only when the wind blew
In the first two years of its life, the Fairbanks replica frame has had four homes. After a trial raising it in Canaan, N.H., the frame was disassembled and shipped to Boston where it was raised in July of 1980 on the Common amidst the trappings of a 17th century market fair. It took six of us three days to raise the frame, with occasional help when extra hands were needed for heavy timbers. The job could have been done in a long day, but the celebration turned the event into theater, and we took our time, did some teaching and enjoyed ourselves. The current Jonathan Fairbanks, who is the curator of American Decorative Arts at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, helped with the raising. His daughter Hilary, a 12th generation descendant of the original Jonathan, worked with us on the wattle and daub infill.
The end of the project was as eventful as the beginning. Rob Tarule, now curator of Mechanick Arts at Plimoth Plantation, had been its originator and director. At the last minute, he and I realized that we had forgotten to make a plumb bob level, the 17th century predecessor of the modern spirit level. We didn't want to pull out an anachronistic tool in front of the throngs watching us on the Common. On the other hand, we did want a plumb and level building. So we plumbed the frame by aligning it with the distant, vertical sides of modern Boston's skyscrapers. (The Fairbanks House - Fine Homebuilding Magazine, February - March 1983)
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