Massachusetts and Its First Period Houses: A Statistical Survey

IN 1956, in connection with a documentary history of the Parson Thomas Barnard House in North Andover, formerly known as the Anne Bradstreet House, the writer published certain statistics having to do with the First Period dwellings of Massachusetts, those structures erected between 1620 and 1725. The tabular figures were concerned fundamentally with demonstrating the fact that from the nineteenth century onwards the average lay person and many historians as well had tended to assign earlier dates than were justified to a significantly large number of houses built during the first century of Massachusetts’ settlement in a homogeneous style consistent with what the English scholar defines as post-medieval. Fiske Kimball, writing early in this century, was sufficiently concerned with the problem to confine his study of the period to only a small group of firmly documented buildings, and to warn his readers further against acceptance of dates found in the documents which prove little more than that there was a dwelling house on a given site in the early years. Any dates prior to 1650, he concluded, “must be advanced with extreme caution. Thus in the case of the Fairbanks house at Dedham . . . it is rash to maintain the very year of Jonathan Fairbanks’s admission as a townsman, 1636–7, as the date of the building of the central part of the existing house.”89 His choice of this example to prove a thoroughly justifiable point was a poor one, for the traditional date of the Fairbanks House has recently been confirmed through structural and dendrochronological examination, and this celebrated landmark now ranks as the earliest in the State. It is assuredly our oldest building in point of style.

Nevertheless, there are a surprisingly large number of houses in Massachusetts which have been advertised as earlier than they actually are, and the statistical analysis to which we have referred reveals an interesting correlation. Material for the table is taken from the 1937 Federal Writers’ guide to Massachusetts which lists extensively the historic houses in the Commonwealth whether open to the public or privately owned. The dates given are based mostly on unverified tradition and include a number of structures which are not of our period at all. Yet because of this the figures reflect even more critically the popular desire to make the house as old as possible. Dividing the century between 1620 and 1725 into four quarters and grouping the number of structures accordingly a curious graph line develops:









There was clearly a mystique in the 1930’s and even now associated with a construction date in the more romantic-sounding 1600’s. Nor had it been sufficiently appreciated that houses of the first quarter of the eighteenth century belong, generically, to that style period which we have too loosely labelled “seventeenth century.” Thus, a good many later houses (like the Parson Barnard House) had long masqueraded under much earlier dates.

No amount of argument, it seems, can disabuse proud house-owners of the fond conviction that theirs is the first or second oldest in town. This kind of pride, in fact, is indulged in by whole communities. One village north of Boston has boasted in connection with an “open house” day that ten seventeenth-century houses would be on view when actually there is but a single structure remaining within its corporate limits which may have been erected before 1700.90

Even the most authoritative documentation has seldom succeeded in changing many minds. A significant cross section of the public continues to side with the mid-nineteenth-century newspaper editor in Plymouth who, having learned that because of the calendar reform of 1752 the town had been observing the first landing of the Pilgrims for nearly a century on the wrong day, stoutly resisted a local movement to change the date of celebration, declaring that “we much prefer established error to novel truth.”91

In 1922 Fiske Kimball was limited by the “rigorously established” system for dating which he had accepted to some ten houses in Essex County (not all of which even then were correctly authenticated).92 This fundamental group of documented buildings has been considerably enlarged through more recent scholarship, including new methods by which one can make defensible assumptions about the date of a building. Contemporary documents, especially those relating to the title, remain when carefully considered one of the principal sources of verification, but tend to be less effective for the earlier years of the seventeenth century where the danger becomes intensified that we may be confusing a valid First Period structure with an older house described in the records as occupying the same site. More recently a dendrochronological study in eastern Massachusetts, initiated in 1968, has produced sufficient correlation with documentary evidence to suggest the validity for this area of dates based upon treering analysis.93 And further, through structural comparison of vernacular buildings erected in old and New England during the seventeenth century and carpenters’ joints in particular, it is now possible to suggest some chronological relationships at least for many of the houses which have hitherto lacked adequate evidence as to the time of erection.

Much of this enlarged historical data as it relates particularly to Massachusetts Bay has been summarized in the Appendix and will have the additional advantage of shedding some light on the dimensions of the writer’s forthcoming study of the framed houses of that area built during the first century of settlement. For the purposes of the present study, however, all domestic structures of framed and masonry construction between 1620 and 1725 and for all counties of the Commonwealth have been included.

We begin then with the raw statistics themselves, divided into four chronological categories: First, those houses which can be accepted without reservation as having been erected before 1660. The cutoff date may seem somewhat arbitrary, but there are good reasons, architecturally speaking, for establishing a boundary marker here, and it is interesting to note that several recent scholars, concerned more with seventeenth-century social and political history, have acknowledged a turning point more or less at this moment in time when the first immigrant generation of preponderantly younger settlers had come to full maturity.

Our second category includes houses erected between 1660 and 1700, at the close of which period there are discernible evolutionary developments in terms of style which lead directly into the third category, those houses built in the final quarter of the First Period between 1701 and 1725. In the case of some buildings, however, authentication has not been possible, for which reason a fourth category has been established. Here will be found all those houses which, because an insufficient amount of the original structure is exposed for inspection, or because the documentary evidence is equivocal (or for the moment unexamined) and the building looks both forwards and backwards in style, have been lumped together under the heading “Circa 1700.”

The revised statistics, therefore, are as follows:

  • 10 extant houses in Massachusetts were built before 1660 as structural evidence clearly indicates; of these, 6 have been firmly documented and only 2 might conceivably be any later.
  • 61 extant houses in Massachusetts were built between 1660 and 1700, and here it should be added parenthetically, only one structure in this category has given any pause: What does one do with the Hart House in Ipswich? Of genuine early date, the house was restored just after 1900 by Ralph Burnham, at which time molded sheathing from another seventeenth-century Ipswich house was introduced. Then, in the mid-1930’s the oldest room and its chamber were completely dismantled, the parlor to be reassembled in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the chamber at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware. This left only a portion of the old house in situ, to which a modern replica of the missing elements was attached! Query: Is the Hart House extant or is it not?

In a more serious vein, it should be noted here that nonexisting houses, of which portions survive in museums, have been counted nevertheless as no longer extant, and these structures are caught up in another set of statistics altogether.

Proceeding then to our third category:

  • 103 houses in Massachusetts survive from the period 1701 to 1725 of which a few at least may conceivably be retarditary First Period houses whose date of construction is somewhat later than 1725.

Finally, in the fourth category:

  • 83 as yet undocumented houses in Massachusetts can be accepted on the basis of style, and for the reasons mentioned earlier, as having been built either just before or just after 1700, with the larger percentage falling probably in the latter classification.

Thus the graph line becomes entirely predictable for the three major subdivisions: 10 – 61 – 103, which together with category four gives us a total of 257 known First Period houses now surviving in the Commonwealth, a claim which it is unlikely that any other state in the Nation could make.

Now for some further refinements of these figures. What, for example, is the record of individual counties? Essex County leads by a generous margin with a total of 151 among all houses erected between 1620 and 1725. The exact breakdown by chronological category is as follows:

Before 1660






Circa 1700


Ipswich, in Essex County, has always claimed the highest density of seventeenth-century houses, and the statistics readily bear this out, especially when we include all houses of the First Period. It is clear, however, that in categories 1 and 2 alone, Salem trails very closely behind:

Houses erected before 1701





Middlesex County is second to Essex with a total of forty-three extant houses. Then follow in order Suffolk County (as originally defined, including the more recent Norfolk County taken out of it and portions of the modern Plymouth County) with a total of twenty-nine existing houses; Plymouth, Bristol, and Barnstable Counties (the Old Colony) with twenty-two; the Island of Nantucket with nine; and the original counties of Hamden and Hampshire with three.

At which point one might well ask, are these data complete and definitive, and the answer is, of course, negative. The writer cannot claim to have blanketed the entire area. On the other hand, he has examined most of the town histories and published historical society records for the older communities of Massachusetts (where the earliest houses erected by the settlers are almost always a subject of discussion), and he has persistently inspected in person as many so-called First Period houses as have been brought to his attention. Here, we have recently seen a significant improvement in terms of quantitative analysis as more and more communities have undertaken professional inventories of their historic architectural assets. Beverly is an excellent case in point where a large area, both urban and rural, has been thoroughly canvassed by a well-informed Historical Commission, and virtually every early house flushed out.

In light of these intensified surveys, will there be any unusual surprises, and if so, where? The figures for Middlesex County, with a present known total of forty-three First Period houses, will probably be subject to greater revision than those of any other county. Despite the efforts of the late Harriette M. Forbes, who sought to inventory all the county’s seventeenth-century houses in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the area has been neglected by students until very recently, and the writer’s own investigations here have lagged somewhat behind those for the other historic counties which constituted the original Massachusetts Bay Colony.

For that always exciting possibility, the discovery of an early house buried within the frame of a later structure, the outlook is certainly less sanguine than seems to be the case in England where buildings which reflect outwardly the prosperity of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and even later periods are continually being found to have earlier, medieval cores. Americans on the whole seem to have been more prone to replace their earliest dwellings. Dramatic discoveries will certainly continue to be made, two of the more interesting in recent years being the uncovering within the shell of the late eighteenth-or early nineteenth-century-appearing house at 250 Sandwich Street in Plymouth of a story-and-a-half seventeenth-century planked frame with crossed summer beams, and in Salem, at the corner of Charter and Liberty Streets, within the envelope of a nondescript tenement with late Mansard roof, a structure dating to about 1680 with carved posts as handsome as any yet discovered in the Salem area and rare evidence for a fireplace having a Tudor-like four-centered arch. These hitherto unsuspected rarities had gone totally unnoticed as far as recorded history is concerned.

Up to this point we have been dealing entirely with the subject of houses which are standing. It is important, however, that some effort at least be made to document the sad and not so gradual loss of First Period houses in Massachusetts since the development of photography in the mid-nineteenth century. For this purpose an entirely new set of data has been compiled, and one need hardly add that the figures are more tentative than those we have advanced for extant houses. The reason, of course, is simple: It is difficult, if not largely impossible, to assess the precise age of a house which is known only from a photograph or written description. The figures presented, therefore, are conservative. Included only, in fact, are nonexisting houses for which a date before 1726 has been determined by personal observation, either on the writer’s part or that of a trustworthy architectural historian, or houses for which the photographs reveal at least some unmistakable evidence of an early date. The figures, arranged roughly by each quarter-century, are as follows:

Before 1875


(and following the introduction of photography)










It is not surprising that the destruction of more First Period houses cannot be documented before 1876 when the Centennial at Philadelphia focused attention upon our past glories, and made the passing of an ancient landmark henceforward a more noteworthy matter. Otherwise, and particularly in light of the overall small sampling, only one significant fact emerges from our table, namely, that between 1926 and 1950, during which period the Nation experienced a major depression and was deeply involved in World War II, fewer early houses were demolished, on the one hand because the demolisher could not afford to build anew, and on the other presumably because of wartime preoccupations. It is further typical of conditions in this period that at least one of the nine houses rotted down through neglect and decay during the 1930’s.

Aside from this one-quarter-century interval, it might appear that the loss of First Period houses had progressed at a relatively stable rate. One could argue also from the table that a heightened awareness of the rarity of structures erected during the first century of our country’s settlement has had only modest impact upon contemporary thinking in light of the figures for 1951 to the present. Of the fourteen houses lost during this period, however, twelve, representing the majority, went down before 1964, which makes the record of the past ten or fifteen years look much better (no more than two First Period houses demolished)! Thus it might be safe to say that the process of erosion has been checked for the moment, and as suggested earlier, to the local historical commissions belongs much of the credit for an increased blanket of surveillance.

Among the total of seventy-two unquestioned First Period structures in Massachusetts, for which the cause of destruction since the introduction of photography is known, fifteen have been lost through fire and only four by neglect and decay. Of the balance, forty-seven, or nearly 70%, have been demolished for street widenings, for school playgrounds, for replacement with more up-to-date structures—in short, for those many reasons which have always grouped themselves around the banner of Progress.

To recapitulate, then, there remain standing today in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts some two hundred fifty structures or more built before 1726. At least seventy-two houses of the same age have been lost since the middle of the nineteenth century, though this figure represents only a modest fraction of the real losses which can never be accurately estimated.

And finally, a word about Boston, the leading seaport and urban center among our thirteen original colonies throughout the seventeenth century. As the twentieth century dawned, there still remained on the old Shawmut Peninsula, wholly or in part, at least ten structures of First Period vintage, four of them wooden buildings dating to the seventeenth century. Today, three-quarters of a century later, we have but a single wooden seventeenth-century structure left, the Paul Revere House, and three early eighteenth-century brick houses which together with portions of a fourth give us a bare total of five First Period buildings, or just one-half of what had survived into the twentieth century. Among these, and here in conclusion let me emphasize as strongly as possible what raw statistics can never show, is to be numbered the Province House, built originally in 1679, and by the 1920’s little more than a remnant of its former glory. However, those who will take the time to examine the photographs published in a recent issue of Old-Time New England, exposed when the house was demolished, may judge for themselves the startling importance of this imposing seventeenth-century mansion, and ponder whether or not its loss was indeed to be reckoned first among all the others.