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Guide to the James Blake House
Blake House original appearance
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 Guide to the James Blake House from the Dorchester Historical Society

This conjectural illustration shows the James Blake House as it would have appeared soon after it was built. The Blake House was originally located approximately where the NStar parking lot is today next to the Venetian Garden restaurant, a site visible from Massachusetts Avenue. Massachusetts Avenue did not exist in the early days, and access to the house was from Cottage Street.

1748 Subdivision Plan
Plan of Blake land in 1748
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 The 1748 subdivision plan for the Blake estate presents an illustration of the house and shows its relation to Cottage Street, at that time labeled ?Way? at the bottom of the picture. James Blake?s son John died in 1718 leaving minor children John and Josiah to share the family property. This survey was obtained only in 1748 after the death of Josiah the year before to aid in the subdivision of the property between John and Josiah?s heirs. Note the addition on the left side of the house.

Massachusetts Avenue would later run on the diagonal just to the right of the house as represented approximately by the red lines.

Closer look at the Illustration of the House in 1748 Plan
Detail from 1748 Blake Property division plan
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 This is an enlarged image from the 1748 plan.

House in its Original Location
Blake House
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 Sometime between 1834 and 1859 the house would acquire another addition, this time on the right as you can see in the photograph from the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Blake family
Inventory after death of James Blake
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 Bostons oldest house, the James Blake House, is now sited at 735 Columbia Road, about 400 yards east of its original location on East Cottage Street. In 1895 the Dorchester Historical Society relocated the house in the earliest known example of moving a house for the purpose of historic preservation. The history of the house provides a glimpse into the activities of two early Dorchester families, the Blakes and the Claps, over the course of three centuries.

The Blake House was built near a spring and tributary to Mill Creek, west of the Five Corners and therefore west of the first Meeting House at Pond and Cottage Streets, on land adjoining that of the Clap family. Its original occupants were James and Elizabeth (Clap) Blake. James was born in the area of England near Pitminster (Somerset) in 1624, and emigrated with his parents to Dorchester in the 1630s after its settlement by the first English immigrants. James became allied through marriage to a large family whose activities of daily life in the New World were based upon practices brought from their English West Country background. Their agrarian economy included dairy farming with milk and butter production; growing wheat and corn and establishing a grist mill; establishing orchards for apples and cider; and maintaining sheep for wool. Their tanning business also depended on the rearing of animals. Many of the implements of everyday life were made of leather including harnesses, straps, belts, shoes, clothing, saddlebags and bookbindings.

Deacon James Blake held public office, becoming a constable, town selectman, and deputy to the General Court as well as a pillar of the First Church, serving as Deacon for 14 years and later Ruling Elder for about the same length of time. James married Elizabeth Clap, who in 1634 was one of the earliest children to be born into the newly established Puritan Society, the daughter of Deacon Edward Clap and niece of Roger Clap. The Blake House became the primary focal point of a very comfortable and well-to-do 91-acre estate that included a 10-acre home farm with at least two outbuildings and orchard, yards and garden.

The James Blake House is a two-story, central chimney, gable-roof dwelling of timber-frame construction. It is on a rectangular plan, three bays wide and one bay deep, and measures 38 by 20 feet. The house is unusual for its symmetry with the hall and parlor each measuring 14 feet 4 inches wide and 19 feet 4 inches deep. Built in 1661, the house is one of a relatively small number of its type--the post-Medieval, timber-frame house--surviving anywhere in New England. It is thought to be one of only a few examples of West of England country framing in the United States. The Blake House was built in the manner of the homes of western England, which had long used heavier timber in their framing methods than had been used in the east of England.

In 1700 the house passed to James and Elizabeths son John, who in turn bequeathed it to his two sons, John and Josiah, in 1718. The estate was settled by subdivision in 1748, and from that time the east and west halves of the house were occupied by separate families for over a century, one half being sold out of the Blake family in 1772 to a neighboring Clap relation. Over the course of time, the house and surrounding land was used for agriculture, for a spinning and weaving shop, and for a tanning business.

In 1825 Caleb and Eunice (Clapp) Williams purchased the west half of the house from Rachel Blake, the sole surviving heir, and in 1829 they acquired the east half by inheritance. The house remained in the Williams family until 1892 when it was acquired by George and Antonia Quinsler who in 1895 sold it to the City of Boston. The City government acquired the land to complete a large parcel for the building of municipal greenhouses and to widen Massachusetts Avenue as a complement to Olmsted?s Emerald Necklace, which included the creation of Columbia Road as a boulevard from Franklin Park to the South Boston waterfront.

Roof Framing
Roof framing of the James Blake House
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 This illustration of the roof framing of the Blake House shows the location of the original gable on the front right side. The summer beam, visible at the top of the second floor, runs longitudinally. The common rafters are tenoned into the purlins.

The Dorchester Historical Society became interested in saving the James Blake House when it became clear that the house was to be demolished. The 1895-96 move and restoration of the Blake House was an historically significant project in the Richardson Park section of Dorchester, which was just then becoming rapidly urbanized, with new street widenings, new streetcard lines, the creation of new parks, the building of Columbia Road, and new landmarks including new churches. Patriotic feelings associated with the World?s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, combined with growing interest in America?s history and the development of new architectural styles that were built upon American motifs, resulted in a frenzied interest in the Colonial Revival followed by the Arts and Crafts movement. The 1890s preservation and restoration of the colonial Blake House was undertaken with great care and devotion and has become historically and architecturally significant in itself, demonstrating the Arts and Crafts interpretation of First Period architecture.

The Colonial Period
Generic framed house with terms
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 Building a House in the Colonial Period

This illustration of a generic framed house shows some of the terms associated with posts and beams. Not all the features are characteristic of the Blake House as you will see in the notes below. Some of the terms, such as corner post, are obvious. Others to note are the prick post in the middle of the end wall under the gable, the chimney post on the front and back walls on either side of the chimney supporting the chimney girts, the summer beam at the ceiling level, and the collar beam, rafters and purlins in the roof assembly.

Broad Axe
Hewing to the line with the Broad Ax
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 The broad axe was used to shape the beams, but it left score marks, so the adze was used to make the timber smooth.

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 Illustration of adz.

Pit Saw
Open Pit Saw
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 The pit saw was used to cut elements of smaller size such as the studs and joists.

First Floor Parlor
Blake House prick post
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 The first elements of the structure that you will notice in the Blake House are the massive beams at the first-floor ceiling level. These include the end girts running from the front to the back of the house at the end wall, the chimney girts running from the front to back next to each side of the chimney and the summer beams that run from the end wall to the chimney girt supporting the joists.

In the Blake House, you will see that the joists have tusk tenons, that is, they have one sloping shoulder. Some of the joists have the original saw marks from the pit saw.

The joists are supported at the middle of the room by the summer beam, which is itself supported on one end by the prick post at the end wall and at the other end by the chimney girt.

The posts and beams in the Blake House were given a decorative finish by chamfering the exposed edges. In some early houses, the chamfer is a plain bevel, but in the Blake House the both the summer beams and chimney girts have a quarter-round chamfer with a fillet. The chamfers are finished with a stop in the shape of a lamb?s tongue and a pip (a diamond-shaped cut) just beyond the head of the stop. Abbott Lowell Cummings states that the quarter-round chamfer was an expensive decoration found mainly in the more pretentious houses, usually confined to the summer beam.

Post tops
Post types
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The tops of the posts at the ceiling level on the second floor widen out in early houses to provide more of a bearing surface for the beams they support. These are sometimes called gunstock posts.

Second Floor Parlor Chamber
Blake House prick post
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 The tops of the prick posts in the Blake House are decorated with chamfers as well. Cummings says that the molding of the post head tends to be confined to houses with transverse summer beams supported by posts, most often in Essex County, therefore the Blake House is an exception. The Blake House has prick posts supporting longitudinal summer beams in both stories, and the flare of the post head is robustly decorated.

Longitudinal summer beams run from the end wall to the chimney girt as in the Blake House, and their purpose is to support the floor joists of the story above by bridging the space between front and back walls. Transverse summer beams run from the front wall to the back wall and have the additional function of binding the frame together.

Three-section window
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As you can see in the conjectural illustration at the beginning of the pamphlet, the windows in the Blake House were originally in the center of the left wall and in the center of the right wall in both stories. At a later date, probably in the early eighteenth century, the windows were changed to give the appearance of a five bay house with two windows to the left and two to the right of the door. This modernization may have coincided with the removal of the attic gables on the fa?ade.

An inspection of the house for the Historic Structures Report revealed window posts in the front wall on the second floor. The original windows would have been of the three-gang casement type, where the left and right sections are fixed in place and the center window swings in and out (see illustration on front cover). In the second floor living room, you can see the pattern of the posts in the front and back walls ? the posts that supported the window framework. The window openings were changed in the early 18th century to the pattern you see today with two windows on either side of a central door.

Window Restoration
Blake House window and shutter 1895
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The 1895 restoration used these later window openings and replaced double-hung windows with casement windows incorporating leaded diamond-paned handmade colored glass panels in an attempt to recall the house?s 17th century beginnings.

Restored window and shutter 2007
Blake House window and shutter 2007
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The window shutters seem to be another re-interpretation of the 17th century as seen through the Arts & Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century.

Second Story Hallway
Scarf joint at Blake House
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 At the second story in the hallway between rooms (also in the bathroom at the center back of the house), you will see a joint in the plate (the beam at ceiling level that supports the rafters). The early settlers found it difficult to create beams as long as the 38 feet necessary to run the full width of the house, so the carpenter of the Blake House used a splice called a squint butt bridled scarf. The squint butt that was uppermost could not subside without the lower, while the tongue, or ?bit? of the bridle prevented the lower butt from subsiding.

Attic Stairway
Butterfly Hinge from 17th century at Blake House
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 You can see 17th century butterfly hinges on the doorway to the attic and in the stairway to the attic, now reinforced with more modern hinges.

The heavily dimensioned roofing of the Blake House suggests a west of England derivation, and the bridled scarf joint is common for seventeenth-century houses in the westerly counties of England. The use of four vertically aligned pins to secure the tenons of the chimney girts also suggest a west of England influence.

Wattle and Daub in attic at Blake House
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 As you proceed to the attic, you will see the collar beams?it will be hard not to hit your head on one. At the end wall, you will be able to see original wattle and daub infill in the gable.

Wattle & Daub
Wattle and daub at Blake House
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 During the restoration work, the infill in the side walls was visible. The usual infilling of the walls of timbered houses was of this type. The wattle is a network of riven laths wedged between the studs that retain the daub in the wall. The daub has been determined to include mud, marsh grasses, hair, pine needles, cloth, burned bone and pebbles.

Wattle & daub continued
Wattle and daub at Blake House
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 The daub was applied from the inside, adding layer after layer until the space was filled and the surface could be finished with a coat of plaster and be color washed.

Roof frame
Rafters and purlins
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 The roof frame is unmatched elsewhere in that it has no intermediary principal rafters between the end gable rafters and those which limit the central chimney bay, while the common rafters are tenoned into the principal purlins without pins rather than riding over them.

A more usual system of framing a roof has the common rafters riding over the purlins.

Blake House roof frame
Roof Gable
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 You can see evidence of the original fa?ade gables in the front wall of the roof. The Blake House has mortises in the front wall plate to receive the rafter feet of the gables.

Construction of a roof gable along with pattern of common roof rafters riding over the purlins.

Blake House facade gable
Blake House original facade gable
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 This illustration shows the location of the original right fa?ade gable. The feet of the gable rafters were mortised into the plate. You can see the common rafters connecting into the horizontal purlin instead of riding over it.

 The analysis of tree rings in the beams of the Blake House has determined that the beams came from trees felled in the winter of 1660/1661. This means that the house would almost certainly have been constructed during 1661. We may never know whether William Blake built the house two years before his death in 1663 or whether it was built by his son James. In either case James may have had a role in its construction. The report from the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory states ?The date of construction is especially significant in that it confirms that the Blake House is the second oldest standing building in New England, after the 1641 Fairbanks house in Dedham.?

The earliest known reference to the Blake House is a passage from the Dorchester Town Records. The house was held in such high regard that the Selectmen chose it as the model for the minister?s house in 1669. Richard Mather had died in the spring of that year, and the Selectman voted to provide a house for use of a minister, probably as an inducement to potential candidates for the vacant position. They voted to have a house ?to be such an house as James Blaks house, is, namly 38 foote in lenth and 20 foote wid and 14 foote between Joynts gert worke.?

Restoration Notes
 The exterior of the James Blake House was restored by the Dorchester Historical Society in 2006-2007.

The James Blake House, which is listed in the State Register of Historic Places, has received a matching grant in the amount of $50,000 from the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund through the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Secretary of the Commonwealth, William Francis Galvin, Chairman.

The remaining $150,000 needed for the project has been raised through the generosity of the members of the Dorchester Historical Society, Blake family descendants and others who have a fondness for Dorchester and its history.

Restoration Architect: Salem Preservation, Inc., John Goff, principal.

General Contractor: Hill Town Restoration, Jerry Eide, principal.

Leaded Glass Window Contractor: Shalan Stained Glass Studio, Glenn R. Shalan, principal.

The ease with which this project proceeded is due in large part to the devotion of Ellen Berkland, live-in caretaker of the Blake House.

Note: All the technical descriptions are quoted from The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 by Abbott Lowell Cummings. Cambridge, 1979.

Blake House after 1895 restoration
James Blake House 1895
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This photograph shows the Blake House soon after it was moved to Richardson Park in 1895 and restored.

Appearance of Blake House after 2007 restoration
James Blake House after restoration 2007
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 This photograph shows the Blake House after the 2006-2007 restoration of the exterior.

Related Images: showing 8 of 24 (more results)
Here are some images from the Atheneum archive related to this topic. Click on any of these images to open a slideshow of all 24 images.
James Blake House, Richardson ParkBlake House conjecural appearance 1776Blake House conjectural appearance 1830Butterfly Hinge from 17th century at Blake House
Wattle and daub at Blake HouseWattle and daub at Blake HouseMichael Burey boring beams in Blake House for dendrochronologyJames Blake House 6-25-2011
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Created: December 31, 2008   Modified: January 15, 2013