The Joiner's Shop Theory

About 1810: Lewis Miller working at his bench
(York County Historical Society, York, Pa.)

Our house, while having been built a couple of hundred years ago in a, then-common, three bay "hall and parlor" design, lacks one element that would have made it habitable as a dwelling; a fireplace. In fact, it seems to lack evidence of any heating source at all. This is New Hampshire where I wouldn't think of fireplaces as optional. So, maybe our house was built without a fireplace? This theory of our house's origin has that assumption at its center. 

The frame and/or sub-floor of a post and beam house who's fireplace(s) has been removed will typically tell you where the fireplaces were. A large fireplace by today's standards, which our house would have had if it had been a built as a dwelling house, would have to have been accommodated for within it's structure. In a house like ours, there was almost always either a large chimney in the center of the house that had several hearths opening up in various rooms, or, alternatively, two chimneys allowing for a fireplace in both lower rooms and maybe even the upper chambers. Our house doesn't show evidence of having a fireplace in any of the typical places.

Common hall and parlor layout with large central chimney behind the ascending stairs.
Our house is divided into three even-ish segments called bents (the center bent is slightly wider). The log joists were uncut until stairs were added in the mid 19th century, possibly, when the house was moved. I can tell that this is the case because the joists were hap-hazardly cut off and nailed to the stair framing using mid-19th century semi-dimensional lumber and modernish cut nails. It's possible that the log joists are all replaced at some point and that the one hewn beam on the left is the only original beam (see The Dwelling House Theory for an alternative theory), but I will likely never be able to prove that one way or another. I'm just going to assume for this theory's sake that all of the joists are original to the house.

Our house showing the ground floor framing. The stairs shown here go to the basement and 
were added in the 19th mid-century probably after the house was moved to it's current location.
The main part of our house was built using scribe-rule framing. New England timber frame construction, also called post and beam, is basically medieval carpentry that was carried over with settlers from England. Huge old growth trees were squared off with hand tools and mortised and tenon-ed, then pegged together at the joints to form a heavy timber frame.

Numbered or "scribed" joints 
Unlike smaller, modern dimensional lumber, each log to be joined was asymmetrical requiring custom fitting of the two logs being fit together to form a joint. The irregularities of one timber was transferred with a marking device to the timber it was to be joined to. This is known as scribing, which gives the this building technique its name- "scribe rule framing." Once carved to fit one another, the joints were "married" with roman numerals called marriage marks or carpenter's marks so that, when it was assembled before being raised, the correct joins were put together and pegged Why Roman and not English numerals? Because carving an VIII with the straight edge of a chisel is easier than carving an 8.
1814 Samuel Blin, Jr. ad for his
"square-rule of framing school."
Scribe rule framing was gradually replaced by square-rule framing during the 1820's and 30's. While still made of large timbers, this method required that the joins be formed to match a uniform standard at the joint, making all timbers of a certain kind, for instance, joists or girts, interchangeable, thus eliminating the need for scribing and numbering each unique join. Post and beam frames were the standard here in New England from the 17th through the mid-1800's when the industrial age allowed for the availability and abundance of standardized mill-sawn lumber. The ell, or back extension of our house, was built using square-rule framing and accordion lath making it likely to have been built sometime between 1830 and 1850
I have racked my brains over the past two years trying to figure out how or why our could have built without a center, or apparently any, chimney. How could a house not have a heating source in New Hampshire? After spinning my wheels on ideas like, the house must have been built for stove chimneys, the physical evidence didn't seem to jibe with that idea. Besides, there is an old boarded up window and a door behind one of the stove chimneys, so at least that one isn't original. I had assumed that our house was built sometime around 1800, partly because my understanding was that accordion lath, which seems to be our oldest lath, was used from about 1800-1850. Then something dawned on me.

I had pulled some buckling plaster down in one of the bedrooms a while back. This exposed the junction of the wall and ceiling right where a post would have been. It took me several months to understand what was right in front of my eyes. There are two posts across from one another on either side of the room that were cut off at the floor. These posts would have anchored an earlier wall that lined up with the girts on the underside of the frame. This didn't surprise me because it had been done all over the house, probably in an effort to hide the exposed timber frame in an updating effort. What struck me, though, was that the place where this post would have met the ceiling there was just accordion lath. There was no cut off top of the post. SHAZAAM. The accordion lath came after the posts had been cut off. This showed me that the frame had been re-lathed after updating, which was probably done during Sherburne Blake's ownership from 1823-1847. Another thing I noticed was that the horizontal end girt that would have been exposed at the juncture of the wall and ceiling had been carved out into a 3/4 pie shape so that that beam wouldn't show either.   

Where old post was cut.
Juncture at wall and ceiling where 
post and end girt should show.
There is a closet accros the hall in the opposite bedroom that hasn't had the updating done which gives us a glimpse of what the house would have looked like before the posts and beams were cut. The vertical post and the horizontal beams that meet it at the ceiling were all cut out in the adjacent room, presumably because they weren't hidden away in a closet like these are. 

Original horizontal and vertical timber framing. The room opposite to this one
had these members cut out and lathed over. 

While looking for information of central chimney sizes and the possibility that one might have been crammed in where the basement stairs are, I came across this in James Garvin's book, A Building History of Northern New England:
"One will occasionally encounter a house whose frame consists of a series of evenly spaced bents, with no sign of accommodation at the center for a chimney or entry. This type of frame often proves to have started it's existence as a warehouse or shop. Such a building typically had no internal subdivisions and, if originally heated at all, had a chimney placed wherever convenient. Many such utilitarian structures were eventually converted to dwellings in the old coastal cities of New England, and deeper investigation of such an atypical house will often reveal that it began as a commercial structure." (p. 11)
This bit of information made this theory come together. I had known that our house was owned by Josiah Blake, a joiner, from 1806 to 1823. But I proceeded to find three joiners, one saddler and one shop-keeper. A pattern, I'd say. Here is a picture of the deed in which Josiah Blake bought the property that included our "house," may have been a shop. 

The selectmen of the town that are listed on this deed as the sellers , Samuel Tenney and Oliver Peabody, had purchased the house from Bradbury Johnson in 1802. Johnson, too, was a joiner. He helped design and did the finish carpentry for the First Congregational Church and Samuel Tenney's residence before moving to Saco, Maine

Exeter's beautiful and iconic First Congregational Church, designed and built by Bradbury Johnson and Ebeneezer Clifford in between 1797-1799.

In looking through possible earlier related deeds, I stumbled on a deed from Lydia Hall granting her property to The Town of Exeter on February 10, 1801 (deed-157/405). This is part of the lot that was purchased for the purpose of building the first Exeter public school in 1801 known as School House #1. Her property was adjacent to Johnson's. Apparently, Johnson had been renting a building on her property, and, within this transaction, it was written in that he was to pay Hall any rent due and for any damages "of taking the building from thence." He may have been renting a building from Lydia Hall and using it as his workshop while building the church and the Tenney house.

The interior sliding window shutters and their handmade brass hardware that we found in our basement appear to be identical to those in the Tenney house which lends some credibility to my theory that our house was Bradbury Johnson's work shop. Each one of the panels is different making me wonder if they were leftovers from jobs.

Lydia and her sister Elizabeth Hall, both "spinsters," meaning that they had never married or had children, had bought the property in 1772 from a ship building and lumber merchant named John Montgomery.

Based on the deed from Montgomery to Hall, I believe that the property contained both a "dwelling house" and a shop, which was referred to as a "tenement" in the deed. During the 18th and 19th centuries,  tenements were often rented by tradespeople and functioned as a dwelling and shop. When Montgomery sold the property to the Hall sisters it was "in the occupation of Joseph Knight, saddler."
Montgomery, referred to as a merchant, would have lived in the main dwelling house and Joseph Knight would have rented the "tenement," as his workshop or dwelling house and workshop. So who did John Montgomery buy the property from? A cabinetmaker named Andrew Gerrish on February 15, 1763. At this point there was apparently just a "house standing thereon." Is it possible that our house was a joiner's shop going all the way back to the 1760's? Why not?

From an 1832 map showing Deacon Blake's BH (Boarding House)
So, to recap the history of the house from 1763 to 1823, there were three joiners, Andrew Gerrish, Bradbury Johnson and Josiah Blake. There was also a saddler, Joseph Knight. The Hall sisters may have run a shop of some kind- I'm still looking for information on them. From 1823 forward, the house had been converted from a shop to a tenement. I believe that Sherburne Blake, the deacon of the First Congregational Church who bought the property that year, updated the house by cutting out the visible timber framing, re-lathing it with accordion lath, adding stove chimneys, a front door and a staircase. I think he did this in order to convert the house into a boarding house for Phillips Exeter Academy students.  

William Gilman Perry, an Exeter physician who was interested in local history wrote a book about his young life in Exeter called, Exeter in 1830. In the book he recollects some of the town's people, including Deacon Blake and his family:
Across the street was the house of Deacon Sherburne Blake, since replaced by the Baptist church. It was a long, two-storied house, plain in appearance, with two front doors, and a long drawn out ell on Spring Street. A part of it was removed to the corner of Union and Garfield Streets. Of the origin of the house I am ignorant, its occupants I remember well...

I remember the old deacon well in his cinnamon colored wig. He was a typical deacon of the old time, positive in his convictions, an observer of all the ordinances, and a staunch defender of his creed, not popular with the young, not given to hilarity, but withal a kind neighbor. It was said that in his last sickness, for the last fortnight of his life he took nothing but water. Deacon Blake had five daughters, besides the sons mentioned above — Eleanor, Olive, Dorothy, Shuah, and Abby, all fine women. All married, except Miss Eleanor, an estimable woman, who spent her life in the old house. She always had boarders, principally Academy students.
So from shop to dwelling, based solely on the lack of evidence of a central fireplace. It's just a theory, which is likely all I will ever have. 
To read about an alternative theory, go to The Dwelling House Theory

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