The Dwelling House Theory

Mortise and tenon joins in a timber frame were not interchangeable
before about 1830. Each mortise and tenon join was uniquely carved
to fit together. Hand-scribed "marriage marks" were used by house-
wrights to reassemble the a timber frame correctly on the site where
the house is erected. This marriage mark is from a mortise and tenon-ed
join on the ground floor of our house. It is visible looking up while
standing in the basement. 

At this point in time, our house does not have a fireplace. I don't know whether it ever did, which has been my obsession of late. Whether it did or not will tell me the answer to a question that is at the root of its origin. In a time before cooking stoves and furnaces were in use, a hearth was essential to any dwelling, so a  building that was constructed in New England 200 years ago would have been built with at least one fireplace.

Wisely, chimneys were strategically placed at or towards the center of the house to minimize heat loss through the outer walls  (in the south, chimneys were often placed on the outer walls instead for the reverse reason). If it can be determined whether a building of this age was built without a hearth, it was likely built for commercial purposes or as a shop. James Garvin notes in his book, A Building History of Northern New England (the bible for old house nerds), that
How marriage marks work. Each join
in unique and must be assembled
according to the marks.
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.... 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) 
With that in mind, finding evidence of a central chimney became my mission.
Because our house was moved in 1858, the brick or rubble base for a central chimney would have been destroyed at that time, so I worked my way up through the frame looking for other evidence of a heating source. Looking up from the basement, the exposed interlocking timber frame has over 100 years of tangled wiring that traces the history of modern lighting and heating technology. From the earliest electricity run through porcelain knobs and cloth covered copper wire, to plastic coated electricity, copper pipes and Internet cables- all clinging to the underside of the old frame with staples and nails. If you can see past that snarl, you will find hand-scribed marriage marks on the joins where a house-wright painstakingly carved each custom mortise and tenon joint from ax felled logs.

A scribed numeral VIII on our house's frame.
The adjoining mortised or tenon-ed timber joint 
would have been scribed with the same numeral 
so it would be reassembled correctly on site.
Scribe-rule was supplanted by square-rule carpentry in the 1820's which allowed timber frame members to be more standardized, and thus, interchangeable. As a result, square rule framed houses didn't require marks to identify particular joins. So I know that it's likely, unless our house's frame is an anomaly, that it was first constructed prior to the 1820's. But was it built as a house or a shop?   

I measured and drew the underside of it's frame to better understand what its basic construction had to tell me. A "hall and parlor house," which were commonly designed in this region with a center chimney at it's core, would have had a center hall just inside the front door. The large center chimney stack running up through the middle of the house would have provided just enough room for a curving ascending staircase (via a landing or two) to be abutted against the front wall of the wall encased chimney stack. 

An example of a stair hall from a hall and parlor house. 
Another example of the layout of a hall and parlor front stair hall. (33-35 Deer Street, Portsmouth, Rockingham County, NH)

This is the layout of a hall and parlor house from above. The center chimney
is shown just behind the stairs and has a hearth opening in both the hall and parlor rooms.
Here is what I found. There is a hand-hewn outer sill connected by two inner hewn girts. I'm glad that I took the time to do this because I discovered two things I probably wouldn't have noticed otherwise. First, the bent in the middle is 2 1/2 feet wider than the outer two bents which could indicate that it was built slightly larger than the outer bents to accommodate a center chimney. Second- all of the "sleepers," or ground floor joists, are rounded logs, except for one, which is hewn. 

What this leads me to believe is that the sills, girts, and one hewn joist are original and that the sleepers were replacements. The second floors joists are a combination of rounded log sleepers and hewn joists, which, again, point to replacement parts. If the sleepers are original than it is clear that there was no room for a central chimney. This was actually my initial conclusion until I considered that the sleepers may have been added after the chimney was removed, thus leaving no trace of its former existence. The roof structure, which is often an easy way to see evidence of a chimney, likewise, doesn't have any of the hallmark chimney framing (called chimney girts). A smaller central chimney, however, could have been snaked through the roof framing without requiring additional chimney supports. 

Our front hall has been drastically changed from its original configuration through the enlarging of the two rooms that flank the hall. 

An image of our front hall while our floors were bring repaired and refinished. The stairs and the wall they are attached to are a later addition in which the adjoining room was made larger, thus making the stair hall narrower. The chimney (if there was one) would have only made a curved staircase possible in such a small house. 

The photo on the left shows an original post that was kept in tact, perhaps because it's inside of a closet. The room across the hall from it, though, had its posts cut off at the floor and ceiling. The middle picture shows the "new" stairway. Instead of curving to accommodate a central chimney, it was allowed to run straight up the new wall. The same thing was done on the first floor as you can see below- all of the original posts were cut off at the floor and ceiling making the house scary from a structural standpoint. I can't think of any reason that these beams would have been cut aside from wanting to modernize and enlarge the rooms. Fortunately though, the evidence that remains, allows me to see the original configuration of both the upper and lower floors.

This picture shows the horizontal and vertical beams that are mortise and tenon-ed and pegged
together. The vertical beam has been cut off, probably to modernize the room in the 19th century. 
I know what you're thinking: what about the lath on the attic floorDid it show evidence of a central chimney? Good question! It did not show any evidence of a central chimney, but I think I can explain that. The lath in our house is from several periods, as with most old houses. I believe that the lath that covers the attic floor was added during a renovation in the 1820's. It is split board, or accordion lath, which was in wide use beginning in the late 18th through the mid-19th century. Accordion lath replaced hand-riven lath (hand-split from a log with an ax) once mill-sawn boards were widely available. The house may have originally had accordion lath too, depending on when it was built, but it was remodeled with accordion lath, and, on later walls, dimensional lath. How do I know this? Because there is a cut off beam that has accordion lath over it. 

The cut off post at the ceiling was lathed over with accordion lath, telling me that this change was
made prior to the 1850's when accordion lath was superseded by dimensional, mill-sawn lath. 

Where accordion lath covers the
post where it met the ceiling. 
Where the post was cut off at the floor. 

Another theory I have is that our house was a joiner's shop and eventually converted to a dwelling by Sherburne Blake. That theory germinated from the fact that there is no evidence of fireplaces in the frame of our house, which is necessary for a dwelling house, but not a shop or commercial building. So if this theory is right in that the house originally had a center fireplace that would have made it habitable as round-the-clock dwelling, then who built it and why was it built as a dwelling on the same property as another dwelling? 

Here is my theory: 

Phinnehas Merrill's 1802 map of Exeter.
The circle indicated the spot here our
house would be if it was there in 1802.
In 1823, Sherburne Blake, a prominent Raymond, New Hampshire deacon and businessman, moved 20 miles east with his wife and five children to serve as a deacon at Exeter's First Congregational Church. He bought a house at the corner of Spring and Front Streets from a joiner named Josiah Blake. In this theory, it was originally built as a dwelling, not a shop. If it were built as a dwelling and not a shop, it would have been included on this map, which it wasn't. (Likewise, if it was a shop it probably wouldn't have been drawn on the map, meaning it could be older than 1803). 

Based on the scribe-rule frame, Josiah Blake may have been the builder of our house sometime between 1806, when he bought the property, and 1823, when he sold it to Sherburne Blake. Another reason I don't think that Sherburne Blake was the builder is because I believe he was the one who updated it by cutting out the posts and re-lathing it. If the posts had been cut off at the time the house was moved in 1858 the lath used to patch the walls would have more likely been dimensional mill-sawn lath and not the older accordion lath. The two narrow stove chimneys on the back walls of the hall and parlor rooms were no doubt added by Blake as well. 

Phillips Exeter Academy was founded in 1781. Local families were the primary source of lodging until dorms were built later in the 19th century. So it's possible that Josiah Blake saw an opportunity to make a profit by boarding some students and built the house for this purpose sometime between 1806 and 1823, but he would likely have built it with a central chimney. As James Garvin noted in his technical assistance report of the Fogg-Rollins House in Exeter, 

One of two stove chimneys that were
likely added when Blake owned the
house. It has a round opening just
big enough to receive the vent pipe
from a parlor stove. 
By the 1830s, heating and cooking by open fireplaces began to be replaced by heating and cooking by airtight iron stoves.  At that point, construction of large and complex central chimneys generally ceased, and the carpentry traditions that had accompanied the use of such chimneys began to evolve into newer and less complex framing methods. (Report on the Fogg-Rollins House, Exeter, NH)
Or, maybe it was a broken down old building on the lot that Sherburne Blake bought in 1823, and being the keen businessman that he was, he decided to fix it up sometime between 1830 and 1847, when he died, and rent its rooms to Phillips Exeter Academy students. It's impossible to know for sure if the theory that it was a boarding house is true, or when it was actually built, but I think it's

Second Academy Building erected in 1794.
So what evidence, you ask, do I have for my boarding house theory? William Perry, an Exeter physician and author, noted in his book, Exeter in 1830 that, "Deacon Blake had five daughters...— 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." An 1832 map of Exeter Academy's private family boarding house's shows "dec. Blake's BH."

1832 Phillips Exeter Academy map of private families that took in boarding students. 

To read an alternative theory of our house's origin, go to The Joiner's Shop Theory

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