The James Blake House in Dorchester is Determined to Be the Second Oldest Standing Building in New England
Interest in New Englands beginnings has risen to the fore once again with the announcement that dendrochronology, the science of dating buildings through tree-ring analysis, has shown that the James Blake House in Dorchester was built in 1661. This announcement follows on the news in April that the Balch House in Beverly was dated to 1679 although the Beverly Historical Society had claimed that it was from 1636.
Michael Burey boring cores for dendrochronological testing, May, 2007.
Earl Taylor, President of the Dorchester Historical Society, says he is thrilled with the results of the testing. He said, Although we have claimed a construction date as early as 1648, because we had supposed that James Blake and his wife Elizabeth Clap built the house at the time of their marriage, we never had real evidence of a date before 1669 when there is a mention of the house in the town records. This report confirms that the Blake House was already 8 years old by 1669 and is the second oldest standing building in New England, after the Fairbanks House in Dedham.
The relatively small number of seventeenth-century houses still standing in Massachusetts makes the thorough investigation of each house crucial to the study of architecture in the early years of the Commonwealth. Architectural historians have grouped the earliest houses together as First Period Architecture, a term including houses from the period of first European settlement to the year 1725. Of the possibly 300 to 400 First Period buildings in existence today, only a handful were constructed before 1675. The Blake House is a superb example of a house from this early period and is significant for its use of heavy timbers characteristic of a tradition from England?s West Country.
The Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory describes the technique: The way dendrochronology works is relatively simple. As a tree grows, it puts on a new growth or tree-ring every year, just under the bark. Trees grow, and put on tree-rings, at different rates according to the weather in any given year: a wider ring in a favourable year and a narrower ring in an unfavourable year. Thus, over a long period of time (say 60 years or more) there will be a corresponding sequence of tree-rings giving a pattern of wider and narrower rings which reflect droughts, cold summers, etc. In effect, the span of years during which a tree has lived will be represented by a unique fingerprint, which can be detected in other geographically-similar tree-ring chronologies.
Characteristics of First Period Houses
The dean of architectural historians of the First Period is Abbott Lowell Cummings whose 1979 book The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay is considered the bible in that field. Cummings studied more than 100 First Period buildings to establish patterns in construction and decorative finishes. Houses built in New England up to about 1725 reflect a tradition of building brought from England --- Post Medieval. First Period houses exhibit exposed posts and beams with chamfered edges and ornamental stops and joinery held together with wooden pegs. These houses are usually one to two stories with an attic built on a plan with a central chimney and a parlor on one side and a hall on the other.
As many as 150 First Period structures were listed individually or in historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places by 1986. Since then a National Register thematic designation for other buildings was filed to include another 113 properties, overwhelmingly estimated to be from the late 17th-early18th century.
The restoration of the Blake House
Prior to funding the restoration of the Blake House, the Dorchester Historical Society commissioned architectural historian John Goff to produce an Historic Structures Report on the building detailing both the history of the house and its occupants and the physical details of the building. One of the results of the report was recognize the importance of the 1890s restoration of the house when it was moved from its original location near Massachusetts Avenue to its present site in Richardson Park. This means that the house may be interpreted as a 17th century building through the vision of the Arts and Crafts movement.
[John Goff is available and so is Jerry Eide of Hilltown Restoration, the contractor for the job]
Like many historic buildings owned by the cities and towns and non-profit organizations in the Commonwealth, the Blake House benefited from a major grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission through its Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund (MPPF). MPPF is a state-funded 50% reimbursable matching grant program established in 1984 to support the preservation of properties, landscapes, and sites (cultural resources) listed in the State Register of Historic Places. By providing assistance to historic cultural resources owned by nonprofit or municipal entities, the Massachusetts Historical Commission hopes to ensure their continued use and integrity. Some of the criteria used in selecting projects are level of historical significance of the property, potential for loss or destruction of the property, appropriateness of proposed work for the property and extent of public support and benefit from users, professionals, and community leaders.
[Janine DaSilva is the representative of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, who is working with the Blake House project]
But the $50,000 MPPF grant represented less than 1/3rd of the cost of the exterior restoration, and the Dorchester Historical Society has obtained the remaining funds through direct appeals to its members and through fund-raising events. Last fall the Society hosted a fundraiser at the Phillips Old Colony restaurant featuring an appearance by Dorchester-born Dennis Lehane, the author of Mystic River and other books that have become popular movies. Earl Taylor says that members and OFDs (people original from Dorchester) have been very generous in their giving, leaving only about $20,000 still to be raised to retire the debt on the project.
In 1630 when the English settlers first arrived in Dorchester in the ship Mary and John, they needed to construct temporary dwellings for shelter until they could build real houses. Due to the insubstantial nature of these dwellings, there is no evidence remaining of exactly how they were constructed. From documentary sources we know that some of the early arrivals lived in dugouts and some in adaptations of the wigwams in use by the Native Americans. Dugouts were pits roofed over with poles and bark. The English improved the wigwam by adding crude wooden chimneys over fireplaces and doors hung in frames. The framework consisted of poles made from young trees stuck in the ground with their tops bent over and lashed together to form an arched roof. The whole structure may have been covered with thatch.
Colonists probably replaced their temporary shelters with more permanent buildings within a decade of settlement. The first cottages built from sawn timbers and hewn planks could be built only when the new settlers had provided for their dietary needs by creating gardens and constructing mills to grind grain. The earliest versions were probably made of planks placed in the ground vertically like palisades with thatched roofs. Reconstructions of wigwams and cottages in a style that the settlers may have first used can be seen at Plymouth Plantation and at Pioneer Village in Salem.
Dorchester settlers probably lived in dugouts or wigwams, replaced by cottages. The first real houses were made of post and beam construction with massive timbers and central chimneys. The frames would have been covered with clapboards and the roofs with shingles. Clapboards were thin, wedge-shaped boards of only about 4 to 6 feet in length and were riven or split from oak logs with a tool called a froe. Shingles were also riven by hand with a froe. A catalogue published in England in 1630 describing ?such needful things as every planter doth or ought to provide to go to New-England? included axes saws, hammers, augers, chisels, etc. and ?2 frowers.?
The existing Dorchester houses from the 17th century were built for the second and third generations. These include the James Blake House, now dated to 1661, the Pierce House, and the Barnard Capen House.
The Blake House is the oldest existing house in the city of Boston and was built in 1661 by English-born housewrights who adapted their knowledge of building techniques from the conditions of the Old World to the New. The massive timbers and other building elements in the Blake House are characteristic of the Post-Medieval tradition in the English West Country ? a territory that includes Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset, the original homes of many of Dorchester?s early settlers. 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 provides examples of construction techniques of the period, showing the timber frame construction held together with specially designed joints and with wooden pegs called trunnels (tree nails). It shows interior evidence of gables on the front of house at the attic level, sheathing boards underneath the siding and a version of wattle and daub filling in the exterior wall spaces.
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.?
The house has been called a mansion house of the period, and it was the home of a family at the upper level of society in a little Puritan village ? small in population but huge in territory, covering an expanse in the seventeenth century from South Boston almost to the Rhode Island line. Cummings in his book The Framed House of Massachusetts Bay mentions that fa?ade gables are evidence of material prosperity showing the status of the family. James Blake was a solid citizen in the community, and his wife wife?s family included Roger Clap who became Commander of the Castle, the fort known as Castle William on Castle Island, as well as an extended family of Claps who, along with the Blakes, dominated the northwestern part of the town of Dorchester. The Blakes and Claps together were yeomen at the top of the mercantile class. They were farmers and businessmen.
James Blake held office nearly every year from 1658 to 1685, holding the posts of Rater, Fence viewer, Constable, Clerk of the Writs, Recorder, Sergeant in the military company and Selectman. The town records indicate that many times the Board of Selectmen met at the Blake House to conduct their meetings. James Blake was also a Deputy to the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, i.e., a state representative. He served as deacon of the First Church for 14 years and later as a Ruling Elder for another 14.
The Blake House is a symbol of Dorchester?s agricultural heritage. The Blake house was built near a spring and tributary to Mill Creek, west of the Five Corners and west of the Dorchester Meeting House on land adjoining that of the Clap family. Their agrarian economy included dairy farming with milk and butter production; growing wheat and corn and establishing grist mills; establishing orchards for apples and cider; and maintaining sheep for wool. The 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. 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 2 outbuildings and orchard, yards and garden.
The house passed to James and Elizabeth?s son John who in turn bequeathed it to his two sons, John and Josiah, in 1718. 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. At the time of the Siege of Boston, the Blake House like most houses on the patriot side of the embankment across Boston Street most likely quartered revolutionary troops prior to the fortification of Dorchester Heights. Certainly the house witnessed the passage of the wagons and troops that supplied the materials for extraordinary embankments created in a single night on the Heights, impressive enough to induce the British to leave Boston.
The Pierce House on Oakton Avenue in Dorchester has been dated using dendrochronology to the year 1681. It displays an integral lean-to at the back and exhibits original clapboards in the attic. Owned by Historic New England, the Pierce House has become a destination for hundreds of school children every year.
Dorchester?s third seventeenth-century house, the Barnard Capen House, has been taken apart twice. From the days of early settlement until 1909, the house stood on Washington Street opposite what is now Melville Avenue. In the face of urban development, Professor Kenneth Grant Tremayne Webster acquired the house and had it taken apart piece by piece to be re-assembled in Milton where it stood until winter 2006-2007. Following the wishes of a new owner, it was again taken apart and placed in storage for eventual sale to allow construction of a modern house with higher ceilings at the Milton location.
Seventeenth century interest grows
Massachusetts is synonymous with history, and there is a resurgence in interest this year in seventeenth-century colonial beginnings. The Essex National Heritage Commission and the North of Boston CVB have teamed up to present Seventeenth Century Saturdays at three Newbury homes: the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, the Sweet-Ilsley House and the Coffin House in Newbury. Future dates are on First Saturdays: August 4, September 1 and October 6 from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Salem Preservaton, Inc., in the person of John Goff, and the Dorchester Historical Society have created the Alliance of First Period Properties to bring more attention to the earliest surviving structures in New England. By creating an alliance among groups that care for Colonial history, they hope to bring attention to the formative period of Massachusetts history, one of the most significant periods in all of American history and to serve as a model of cooperation among institutional owners of First Period properties. As the first members of the Alliance, Salem Preservation, Inc. and the Dorchester Historical Society bring together two towns that served as gateways of migration and settlement of other towns in the Commonwealth and across the country. The early history of the two communities shed light on colonial life and colonial architecture. The earliest European settlers in both communities were primarily from England?s west country and shared a common background.
The Alliance sponsored its first project in May, 2007, with a bus tour of three Boston 17th century houses including the Revere House in the North End and the two early houses still standing in Dorchester: the Pierce House and the James Blake House. Participants heard discussions of early house-building practices as well as the stories of the families who lived in these properties.
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Created: April 25, 2009 Modified: December 21, 2012