Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dating Your Historic Home

Historic plaque on my home courtesy of our local historical society
You know your house is old, but are you certain how old? For many owners of historic homes, obtaining a copy of the original deed or a complete title is not so easy. Records were not kept as diligently as they are now, if there even was an original record to begin with, so historic home owners often need to do their detective work while trying to pinpoint the true origin of their homes.

Now where to begin? Start by exhausting every possible record your house may have on file with your county or town. Your title, or the property deed, will list the past owners of your house, but if your property is exceptionally old it may not date far back enough to reveal the original owner. Barnstable County has an online database of recorded deeds that saves you the trip to the county clerk’s office (

An Indenture for the transfer of land from Nicholas Thomas to Lambert Strarenbergh in Albany, New York, circa 1734. Getty / Fotosearch
If you are still having trouble, visit your local tax assessor. Your tax roll may reveal when your house was built on your property. Another option is requesting a full list of transactions (also known as the “tract index”) involving your property from your county’s Registry of Deeds. You will then be able to see every purchase and transfer of ownership of your house, but again, if your house is older than the mid 19th century, these kinds of records are all too often incomplete.

If you are lucky enough, perhaps your town’s historical society or library has comprehensive records of the historic properties in the area. Early photographs, newspaper clippings, personal accounts, and census records are some of a few clues to get closer to accurately dating your house. I know in my case, trying to date my 19th century farmhouse on Long Island was incredibly difficult. The records were scarce and mostly unclear. With the help from our town’s historian, I learned that my house was built by a prominent farmer in the area, but he did not live in it. Finding his grave in our local cemetery, I discovered he died in 1849 so I was able to validate that my house was likely built in the early part of the 19th century. Here on Cape Cod, there is a helpful website that allows you to search for gravestones by town and cemetery ( without having to search aimlessly through the cemetery (however fun that sounds!)

Gravesite of the builder of my house, Obadiah Wells (Setauket, NY)
The state of Massachusetts has a great online database of historic properties throughout the state called The Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System ( Simply type in the address and/or city of your property and the results may be able to tell you the year your house was built, in addition to the architect, architectural style, and even perhaps the original significance of your property. Another slightly less reliable database is HABS (Historic American Building Survey) where you can also search for your property by county. If you manage to  find your property on there, consider yourself one of the lucky few! Properties recorded on HABS can include architectural drawings and photographs. Score!

Once you’ve traced back your property with every record that exists, complete your investigation with the most basic method: your own observational skills. If you can hire an architectural historian, by all means invite them over! But dating your own house to an architectural time period is easier than you think, and quite fascinating, in my opinion.

Start by looking at the exterior of your house. If it hasn’t been renovated extensively, it should be fairly simple to identify the original architectural style in which it was built.

Some popular (and by no means is this a full list) early American architectural styles include:
Buttolph-Williams House, Wethersfield, CT (c. 1711)
17th Century Colonial Houses (~1630-1740)
Characteristics include: Wood and stone construction, side-gabled steep roofs, diamond paned windows, plain fa├žade with no trim, large chimney usually placed in the center of the house.

"Home Sweet Home" Museum, East Hampton, NY (c. 1720s)
Saltbox House (~1607-early 1700s)
Characteristics include: Steep roof that peaks at a second story in the front of the building and slopes to a first story in the back, large center chimney, mostly shingled wood exterior (some clapboard), double-hung windows with 9-over-9 or 12-over-12 panes, simple and mostly symmetrical.

Historical Society of Santuit and Cotuit
Cape Cod House (~1690-1850) 
Characteristics include: Wood frame, steep roof, full Capes feature a central door with two sets of windows on either side. A three-quarter Cape features a single window on one side, followed by a door, and then two windows on the other side. 

Half Cape at Old Bethpage Village Restoration in Old Bethpage, NY
A half cape features the door on the side of the front and two windows adjacent to them. Full Capes typically have a center chimney, whereas three-quarter and halves typically have their chimney on one side (not on the exterior wall as some later reproductions do.) 

Georgian in Deerfield, MA
Georgian House (~1700-1830)
Characteristics include: Symmetrical design, double hung windows with 9-over-9 or 12-over-12 panes, doors with ornamented pilasters and/or transom lights, brick siding in the south and clapboard in the north, side-gabled or hipped roof.

Federal in Setauket, NY
Federal House (~1780-1820)
Characteristics include: Symmetrical design, square or rectangular building, hipped or flat roof, ornamental doorway with pediment, pilasters, sidelights, and/or fanlights, decorative molding, interior chimneys located on each end of the structure, brick or wood construction

Greek Revival House (~1825-1860)
Characteristics include: Typically painted white with black shutters, gables with pediments, elaborate cornices, columns, decorative rectangular windows towards the top of the house, fanlights and sidelights in the doorway.

Victorian in Setauket, NY
Victorian House (~1855-1900) Characteristics include: Steep multi-gabled roofs, asymmetrical, textured walls, abundance of trim and detail, pavilions, corner bays, porches, brick foundations. Many physical variations.

After identifying the architectural style of your house, you now have a broad idea of the time period in which your house was built. To enhance your findings, step inside and observe. Do your wide plank floorboards appear to have hand-hewn nails? If so, it was most likely built before 1800. Hand wrought nails were predominantly made in the 18th century and earlier. By the 1830s, nails were being machine made and became more uniformed in appearance.

If possible, look at the support beams and framing of your house. Can you see rough saw marks, or do they look milled and uniformed? If they resemble the latter, your house may be dated back to the 1830s or later. Large timber beams connected to joists with wooden pegs or a cavity (also called mortise and tenon framing) is a clear indication of an older home from at least the early 19th century. By the 1830s, balloon framing became the more popular method and is still used to this day. Identifying features include long vertical 2x4 beams that are nailed to each floor frame, essentially creating a skeleton of the house.

An example of mortise and tenon construction
There are countless clues your house is willing to reveal to you if you simply acquaint yourself with these methods of dating. There are many books on the topic and articles on the web to help you with your quest.

A few parting words of advice:
  • Do your homework! Make sure you have at least a general understanding of American architecture before you explore. There are countless sources online as well as in print that illustrate key architectural features for each time period and style for you to reference.
  • Leave no stone unturned! Keep in mind, people did not like to waste anything in the past. Many old houses were built with recycled parts, so while investigating, do remember to compare all your findings before drawing a conclusion. Focusing on one part or feature alone will not give you an accurate picture. Assume nothing! Does your title seem to only go back to 1895 but your house looks Georgian? Toss that title to the side and dig deeper. The record might be incomplete.
  • Last and most importantly, enjoy the quest. Investigating the age of your house is fun and exciting. By studying each nook and cranny, you gain a greater appreciation and understanding of your home’s construction as well as its past. Even if your research does not lead to any definitive conclusions, the knowledge you’ve achieved in the process is priceless.
#capecod, #preservation

Sunday, November 26, 2017

2017 Holiday Season on Cape Cod

by Deb Crowell

The holidays on Cape Cod are truly magical.  It is a wonderful time to escape the commercialization of the season and attend events that are both authentic and steeped in tradition.  To help you sift through all the events the Cape has to offer, here are a few of our favorite picks.

Santa Arrives!

Santa’s arrives by boat in Falmouth Harbor with other seaside celebrations in Orleans, Provincetown, Hyannis, and every village in between.  This is just a few of the reasons that Christmas on Cape Cod is so memorable.

Christmas Strolls

Almost every town on the Cape begins opening up the first weekend of December to ring in the holidays. Now is the time to decide which one(s) you want to attend. Here are just a few.

Nantucket Christmas Stroll—December 1-3. Visit:

Falmouth Village Holiday Stroll—December 2.  Visit:

Gardens Aglow—Heritage Museum & Gardens

Gardens Aglow, has become a holiday family tradition. Heritage Museum and Gardens is transformed into a Winter Wonderland with more than ten miles of holiday lights adorning the gardens and woodlands to create a twinkling wonderland. Throughout the grounds and buildings, enjoy festive holiday displays, family-friendly activities, marshmallow-roasting, music and special performances, visits with Santa Claus, displays of model trains and more.

Hanukkah Storytime

Barnes and Noble - December 3rd, 4:30, Cape Cod Mall.  Visit:

Holiday Historic Home Tours

Holidays at Highfield—December 1-3. Visit:

Barnstable Village Holiday Home Tour—December 3. Visit:

Chatham Historic Inn Tour—December 9.  Visit:

Sandwich Holly Days Holiday Home Tour—December 10.  Visit:

First Night on Cape Cod

First Light Provincetown—December 28-January 2.  Visit:

First Night Chatham—December 31.  Visit:

First Night Sandwich—December 31. Visit:

For a comprehensive list of events during the month of December visit the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce ( and The Cape Cod Museum Trail (

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Count Rumford Fireplace

by Lisa Hassler

When we first viewed the c. 1827 home that we would ultimately purchase, we were thrilled with the four fireplaces.  The home had once been a double dwelling house for the workers at the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company.  Each side of the house has a kitchen fireplace, with a beehive oven, and a parlor fireplace.  And each fireplace has the tell tale angled walls of a Rumford style fireplace.

Sir Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford)
birthplace in Woburn, MA
Count Rumford, born Sir Benjamin Thompson in 1753, was a soldier, statesman, inventor, scientist and humanitarian.  He was born in Woburn, MA and studied at Harvard.  Being a loyalist, he left for England in 1776 where he was later made a fellow of the Royal Society.  His title was bestowed in 1790 when he was made count of the Holy Roman Empire.  Interestingly, "Rumford" came from the place where he lived in NH at age 19 (now Concord).

A fireplace in the Benjamin Thompson house
His name lives on through his contributions to science, and in particular, his advancements to heating.
In 1798 and 1799, Count Rumford wrote a series of 3 essays describing the ills of the common form of construction of a fireplace and the remedy to save fuel and increase comfort:

Chimney Fireplaces, with proposals for improving them to save fuel; to render dwelling houses more comfortable, and salubrious, and effectually to prevent chimneys from smoking.

p. 547

Shows the common construction of a fireplace prior to alteration

p. 549

Shows the same fireplace after Count Rumford's suggested improvements

Rumford's suggested improvements caught on like wildfire (pun intended)
Fireplace in the Cobb House Museum, Brewster

Kitchen fireplace, home in Yarmouth Port

According to, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello has 8 Rumford style fireplaces.
Jefferson wrote to his friend, Wilson Cary Nicholas regarding the dimensions of his Rumford fireplaces:

Mr. P. Carr informed me two days ago that you wished for the dimensions of the Rumford fireplaces.  I therefore avail myself of the first post to send them.  I state them as I have used them myself, with great satisfaction, the back one half of the opening.  Count Rumford makes the back but one third of the opening, this was to accommodate them to coal; but it renders them impracticable for wood.  My larger fireplaces I make 2 f in the back & 4 f in front; those for bed-rooms 19 1/2 i in back & 3 f - 3 i in front.  The opening of the former 3 f - 3 i or 3 f - 6 i high, the latter 3 f high.

Monticello, South Square Room, facing East

Which brings me back to my fireplaces - none of which are currently working.  We are having them parged inside and re-pointed where needed.  Our mason tells us that the fireplaces have great draw - Yay Rumford!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Exterior Paint Colors - What is Historically Accurate?

by Deb Crowell

Having owned several historic homes, knowing what exterior paint color combinations were historically correct was often a conundrum.  Since none of my homes had original clapboards or trim, it was not possible to determine its original colors.  Given that, I relied on restoration resources to guide me.  One of the best articles I found was prepared by John Fiske for the Ipswich Historical Commission and the Architectural Preservation District.  Here are the cliff notes.

Colonial Period (1640-1780)

First Period (1640-1720s) Clapboards oftentimes were not painted or stained, but left to weather. Trim was then either left unpainted or painted Indian red/Spanish brown. If they were painted, generally it was two colors with their trim and sash the same color and the door distinct.

Second Period or Georgian (1725-1780) In this period body colors included dark stone colors, chocolates, orange, ochers, greys and reds.  Trim was almost always white, however, the white had a more yellow tone when compared to today’s bright whites. Doors were always a dark color and typically selecting from chocolate, red, green or blue.

1740—1780, Second Period: Meetinghouse Blue, 
Standish Blue, Landon Dove, Parsnip

Federal Period (1780-1830)
The federal period saw a shift away from the stronger Georgian colors.  The favored body colors were white, cream and straw, however, orange, pea-green, red and slate were also seen. Trim was white or the same color as the body while shutters and doors were dark green or black.

Greek Revival (1825-1860)

The earth-based pigments and natural stone colors of the federal period continued until the 1850s. The body colors were the same with white or off white, stone (such as greys, pale blue greys, grey browns and tan) and straw (ochres and yellows).  White, off-white and cream continued to be the colors of choice for trim.  However, sash was now often painted black.  The most common color scheme was a white or off-white body, green doors and shutters and black sash.

Early Victorian (1840-1870)
Federal period body color choices continued with traditional stone and earth-colors still popular.  Trim saw a dramatic change as white was not used. Instead it could be a darker shade of the body color or, if the body color was dark, the trim would be a lighter shade.  Sash was often painted the same color as the trim.

1860s—1880’s, Victorian: Picholine, Codman Claret, 
Portobello, Danish Pine

Later Victorian (1870-1900)

Paints were now being mass produced and available in resealable cans resulting in a wide range of possibilities that included pastels and deeper and more saturated colors. Strong contrasts with three color schemes for the exterior became the norm.  The three-color scheme was most popular with body, trim and sash all being distinct colors.  The sash, along with the doors and shutters, were always the darkest of the three colors. The color selection was based on color harmony; either harmony by analogy (adjacent colors on the color wheel) or harmony by contrast (opposite colors on the wheel).

Second Empire/Mansard (1855-1885)

A neutral palette continued at the beginning of this period with greys, tans, ochers and warm beiges prevalent.  Later, stronger colors appeared in combinations that included russets, olives, grey-green, ochers and browns.  Body and trim were typically two shades of the same color with the trim often being the lighter shade.  Sash, doors and shutters were black or very dark green.

Queen Anne (1880-1915)

This period is easily recognizable due to the use of different architectural elements including towers, bays, gables, porches and varied size windows. This architectural style lent itself perfectly  to four and sometimes five-color schemes. The body would be one or two intense colors.  If the house had shingles and clapboards, each would be its own color.  Trim color would be chosen to unify the two body colors with decorative accents painted a distinct color.  The sash would be the darkest color with choices typically being dark green, deep brown, black, dark red, maroon, chocolate, or deep umber.

Shingle (1880-1990)

As the name suggests, a “woody” appearance was dictated. The body would typically be stained or painted deep brown. Dark olives, grey-browns and dark greens were also seen.  Trim would be beige, tan or a dark contrasting color such as dark green, dark olive, or maroon.  Sash and doors were always dark.

Now you have an overall idea of what is appropriate for your period house when choosing body, trim, sash, shutter and door colors.  But where do I find paint formulated in the right shade and which shade do I choose?  To takeout the guesswork, Historic New England outlines precisely which colors are appropriate for each period using California Paints color chart, Historic Colors of America. 
To read the full article by John Fiske click here
Reading:  “The Anatomy of Color: The Story of Heritage Paints and Pigments” by Patrick Baty.  Find it on Amazon here