First Period

Last updated

The Jonathan Fairbanks House, Dedham, Massachusetts VIEW FROM WEST END - Jonathan Fairbanks House, 511 East Street, Dedham, Norfolk County, MA HABS MASS,11-DED,1-8.tif
The Jonathan Fairbanks House, Dedham, Massachusetts

First Period is an American architecture style in the time period between approximately 1626 and 1725, used by British colonists during the earliest English settlements in United States, particularly in Massachusetts and Virginia and later in other British colonies along the east coast. Among these cities, Essex County in Massachusetts has the highest amount of preserved First Period architecture mimicking British architecture styles.


Typical features

Facade-gabled house Facade-Gabled House.jpg
Façade-gabled house

Due to cold weather in winter, mass mortality of colonists happened in 1630. To adapt better with geographical conditions, First Period houses are built facing south to optimize sunlight and heat up the whole house. Moreover, First Period houses are often constructed with a central chimney, distinctive style in that era, this is because it needs to maintain enough space for fireplaces and secure sufficient air is led to the stove to burn clean. [1]

Another characteristic of First Period architecture is asymmetrical rooftop. It is designed to maximize the heat from south and minimize the coldness from the north, also, it has the function of preventing heavy snow accumulation. Besides, windows are casements, paired with strips of iron, and at that time are small due to shortage of glass. [2]

Façade gables are also iconic feature of First Period houses, this French word means “the triangular part of a house's exterior wall that supports a pointed or peaked roof”, it provides extra light for the attics through the small casement windows. [3] The earliest example of façade gable house appeared in 1690, named Ross Tavern located in downtown Ipswich, shows characteristics of First Period architectures. [4]

Interior features

Inside the houses, walls are furnished with clay and twigs to protect the houses from severe weather condition, and staircases are created an L shape to match the design of a centered chimney. A heavy oak frame and thick beams (about 8 to 12 inches) are used to maintain the house structure, their exposures are main symbols of First Period houses, differentiate its style from Second Period (Georgian style) interior design. [5]

Wooden frames of First Period houses were smoothed by planes whereas timber frames of later colonial architecture styles were roughly adzed and incomplete. [6] The carpenters wisely chose which part of the frames needed to be exposed and flourished (mainly leaving the timber structure in the front rooms exposed to sunshine), this design had last for a hundred years which demonstrated their expertise in architecture was improving. [7]

Floor plans

First Period houses were constructed with less variable floor plans. The most commonly seen one is Single Eell, appeared in Massachusetts Bay around 1620s, then by the late 1680s, Five-Room Central Chimney with lean-to Plan was introduced, later by the end of the seventeenth century in surrounding colonies, Double Cell, Two-Room Deep, Raised Five Room Centre-Chimney Plan came into sight. [8] A simple First Period house consists of a hall for daily living and master bedrooms on the first floor and two bedrooms for children on the second floor led by a central staircase. [9] This saltbox house design come back again in the 1940s, Colonial Revival architectures implemented First Period concepts which shows the practicability of First Period houses. [10]

Transformation of styles

Houses Built before ca. 1660

First Period architecture could be divided into three periods of time, the earliest immigrants comprise this age category from settlement to 1660s. Ten existing houses in Massachusetts have been proved that they were built before 1660 based on structural evidences. [11]

Houses Built from 1660-1700

While houses built before 1660 were designed by colonists with no architectural background, houses built from 1660 to 1700 were constructed by experienced carpenters, with heavy timber frame to support the structure and more complex design (Tolles & Tolles, 2004). One iconic characteristic about it is chamfers with massive amount of decorative “stops” to carry the wooden frame (Sheldon & Wilson, 2004).

Houses Built from ca. 1700 to 1725

Houses built after 1700 are less decorative and quarter-round or wide decorative bevels replaced the older, bold version of chamfers, sophisticated design are no longer favored. With growing populace of Georgian architecture style in New England, timber frames had a tendency to be hidden and decorated, instead of being shown to people. [12] The joiners substituted the carpenters as main contributors to interior design.

Inheritance and Innovation

First Period concepts were developed from English post-medieval styles, there are dominant three types of roof structures in New England which adopt architectural characteristics from the west of England, the principal and common rafter system, the principal rafter and purlin system, and the principal rafter system. [13] These roof design systems were maintained to the later eighteenth century along with exposed and decorated timber frames. The main multiple purlins span the principal rafters at the level of the outer face of the rafters, which are placed above the bay posts, and support vertically laid roofing boards. [14] This style had gained prevalence in the seventeenth century, especially in Essex County, where English colonists firstly settled down.

Meanwhile, English settlers innovated the principal rafter system in New England with adjustments to local conditions. In the West of England, thatch rooftops were widely used, so thick collar beams were demanded, but in New England, thatch roofs were superseded by wooden shingles which significantly reduced the weight and hence collar beams disappeared after modernization. [15]

Types of buildings

Barker Tavern in Scituate, Massachusetts, also known as the Williams-Barker House circa 1634 Barker Tavern in Scituate Massachusetts MA also known as the Williams-Barker House circa 1634.jpg
Barker Tavern in Scituate, Massachusetts, also known as the Williams-Barker House circa 1634


New settlers found adequate amount of wood and mud in New England, but few materials to mix them. They decided to design their homes with solid wooden structures and natural resources to acclimatize themselves to the long and cold winter and the short time suitable for agricultural work. Hence, wooden English cottages emerged in large numbers with thick clapboards nailed to the outside.

However, houses in New England are not unified. The Puritans dislodged some people to Rhode Island and Connecticut River valley and later more untrammeled colonists from other part of England. Compared with former architectures erected by the Puritans, their style is more laissez-faire, mixed with individual personality. [16]

Another English architecture style is brought to new England in first period is façade gable, its purpose is to direct the rainwater away and introduce light to the attics, which is abandoned in the later Georgian style, an advanced version of First Period styles but more modern, demands highly symmetrical design.

Williams-Barker House is a heritage house, its foundation finished in 1634 by house owner, John Williams, who is one of the earliest English immigrant in New England. From the outside, it could be seen that the timber frame supports the shape of the house and there is a central chimney to ventilate, few casement windows and a steep roof.

Inside of the house, the ceiling is fairly low and wood beams are visible, fireplace is centered to ensure it heat up the house evenly and dining tables are placed surround it, due to its new use as a restaurant.

Old Jail, Barnstable, MA Old Jail Barnstable MA 2014.jpg
Old Jail, Barnstable, MA

Public buildings

In colonial British North America, jails are one of the earliest appeared public buildings, they did not serve the role of imprisonment, but a pre-trial accommodation for defendants. In Massachusetts Bay Colony, colonists established regulations that immigrants should not breach the laws in England and then erected houses of correction for penalty. [17] At that time, recognizance is well accepted by colonial judges, so only few amount of criminals went to the jail, the scale is much smaller compared with contemporary jail in United States.

Moreover, the structure is different as well, the culprits live in cages or cabinets. A familial model is adopt in colonial jail system, jailers (and perhaps their family) live in the same building as the culprits. The jails imitates First Period residential places, built in wood structure and tight arranged planks. [18]

Old Jail established in Barnstable, Massachusetts has been used for 130 years since 1690, the maximum capacity of whole jail is 6-8 people. Cells are small and windows are reinforced with rectangle metals, there is one door in the front which is small as well with heavy bar locks, and clapboards are interlocked at the joints with massive amount of nails.


Old Ship Church Exterior OldShipChurchExterior.jpg
Old Ship Church Exterior
Roof Framing, General View, Old Ship Church by the Historic American Buildings Survey Roof Framing, General View, Old Ship Church by the Historic American Buildings Survey.jpg
Roof Framing, General View, Old Ship Church by the Historic American Buildings Survey

Christianity was brought to the United States by early English colonists, the oldest First Period church was built in New Mexico in 1629, named San Estevan del Rey Mission Church, is still in use as a museum. And later in Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts, few churches were constructed by Puritans following English medieval architecture styles in 17th century. [19] Unlike Boston, cities like Plymouth and Hingham have not been restored to attract tourism, churches are well-maintained in original medieval architecture styling with centered fireplaces near the staircases. [20]

Old Ship Church is one of the oldest church built by puritans in Hingham, Massachusetts and a well-preserved example of First Period architecture style. It is named after the shape of ceiling, which was inspired by its architects, carpenters from the early arrived English colonists. The wooden timber frame of the church and walls were constructed in 1681, and later in 1740s, galleries on the side were added. [21]


It is not surprising that First Period houses are damaged as time goes by, but it is not noticeable before 1876 as the Centennial at Philadelphia focused on the past glories. [22] Since only a small amount of architecture samples were left after the World War II and the Great Depression, house owners could not afford the fees to restore the buildings, and wartime preoccupation distracted people from heritage preservation. [23]

Another reason that first period houses are hard to preserve is erosion. During the 1930s, one of nine First Period houses collapsed due to decay of construction materials, wooden are easily rotten due to moisture and fungi (microscopic organisms). [24] Apart from these two decades, First Period houses are demolishing at a stable rate, this is because the local historical commission scrutinizes the process of erosion regularly and takes actions immediately after finding endangered architectures. [25]

To summarize, among over two hundred fifty buildings constructed in First Period, about seventy of them were lost, fifteen of them were destroyed by fire, four of them collapsed, for the remaining buildings, fourteen percent of them were demolished for better urban planning, such as road widening or school playgrounds. [26] Only a small portion of First Period houses are maintained till now, actions are urgently needed to protect the heritages.

See also

Related Research Articles

Timber framing Traditional building technique

Timber framing and "post-and-beam" construction are traditional methods of building with heavy timbers, creating structures using squared-off and carefully fitted and joined timbers with joints secured by large wooden pegs. If the structural frame of load-bearing timber is left exposed on the exterior of the building it may be referred to as half-timbered, and in many cases the infill between timbers will be used for decorative effect. The country most known for this kind of architecture is Germany, where timber framed houses are spread all over the country.

Hammerbeam roof Type of English Gothic roof

A hammerbeam roof is a decorative, open timber roof truss typical of English Gothic architecture and has been called "...the most spectacular endeavour of the English Medieval carpenter". They are traditionally timber framed, using short beams projecting from the wall on which the rafters land, essentially a tie beam which has the middle cut out. These short beams are called hammer-beams and give this truss its name. A hammerbeam roof can have a single, double or false hammerbeam truss.

American colonial architecture

American colonial architecture includes several building design styles associated with the colonial period of the United States, including First Period English (late-medieval), French Colonial, Spanish Colonial, Dutch Colonial, and Georgian. These styles are associated with the houses, churches and government buildings of the period from about 1600 through the 19th century.

Cruck Curved timber used as roof support

A cruck or crook frame is a curved timber, one of a pair, which support the roof of a building, historically used in England. This type of timber framing consists of long, generally naturally curved, timber members that lean inwards and form the ridge of the roof. These posts are then generally secured by a horizontal beam which then forms an "A" shape. Several of these "crooks" are constructed on the ground and then lifted into position. They are then joined together by either solid walls or cross beams which aid in preventing 'racking'.

Cape Cod (house) Architectural style

A Cape Cod house is a low, broad, single-story frame building with a moderately steep pitched gabled roof, a large central chimney, and very little ornamentation. Originating in New England in the 17th century, the simple symmetrical design was constructed of local materials to withstand the stormy weather of Cape Cod. It features a central front door flanked by multi-paned windows. The space above the 1st floor was often left unfinished, with or without windows on the gable ends.

Jacobean architecture

The Jacobean style is the second phase of Renaissance architecture in England, following the Elizabethan style. It is named after King James I of England, with whose reign it is associated. At the start of James' reign there was little stylistic break in architecture, as Elizabethan trends continued their development. However, his death in 1625 came as a decisive change towards more classical architecture, with Italian influence, was in progress, led by Inigo Jones; the style this began is sometimes called Stuart architecture, or English Baroque.

Saltbox house Building with a long, pitched roof that slopes down to the back

A saltbox house is a gable roofed residential structure that is typically two stories in the front and one in the rear. It is a traditional New England style of home, originally timber framed, which takes its name from its resemblance to a wooden lidded box in which salt was once kept.

A tie, strap, tie rod, eyebar, guy-wire, suspension cables, or wire ropes, are examples of linear structural components designed to resist tension. It is the opposite of a strut or column, which is designed to resist compression. Ties may be made of any tension resisting material.

Tudor Revival architecture Architectural style

Tudor Revival architecture first manifested itself in domestic architecture in the United Kingdom in the latter half of the 19th century. Based on revival of aspects that were perceived as Tudor architecture, in reality it usually took the style of English vernacular architecture of the Middle Ages that had survived into the Tudor period. The style later became an influence elsewhere, especially the British colonies. For example, in New Zealand, the architect Francis Petre adapted the style for the local climate. In Singapore, then a British colony, architects such as R. A. J. Bidwell pioneered what became known as the Black and White House. The earliest examples of the style originate with the works of such eminent architects as Norman Shaw and George Devey, in what at the time was considered Neo-Tudor design.

Paul Revere House United States historic place

The Paul Revere House, built c.1680, was the colonial home of American patriot Paul Revere during the time of the American Revolution. A National Historic Landmark since 1961, it is located at 19 North Square, Boston, Massachusetts, in the city's North End, and is now operated as a nonprofit museum by the Paul Revere Memorial Association. An admission fee is charged.


A purlin is a longitudinal, horizontal, structural member in a roof. In traditional timber framing there are three basic types of purlin: purlin plate, principal purlin, and common purlin.

Fairbanks House (Dedham, Massachusetts) United States historic place

The Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts is a historic house built ca. 1641, making it the oldest surviving timber-frame house in North America that has been verified by dendrochronology testing. Puritan settler Jonathan Fairbanks constructed the farm house for his wife Grace and their family. The house was occupied and then passed down through eight generations of the family until the early 20th century. Over several centuries the original portion was expanded as architectural styles changed and the family grew.

Domestic roof construction

Domestic roof construction is the framing and roof covering which is found on most detached houses in cold and temperate climates. Such roofs are built with mostly timber, take a number of different shapes, and are covered with a variety of materials.

Parson Capen House United States historic place

The Parson Capen House is a historic house in Topsfield, Massachusetts, that was built in 1694. It has drawn attention as an example of early colonial architecture and due to its well-preserved condition compared to other houses built at that time.

Australian residential architectural styles

Australian residential architectural styles have evolved significantly over time, from the early days of structures made from relatively cheap and imported corrugated iron to more sophisticated styles borrowed from other countries, such as the Victorian style from the United Kingdom, the Georgian style from North America and Europe and the Californian bungalow from the United States. A common feature of the Australian home is the use of fencing in front gardens, also common in both the UK and the US.

King post

A king post is a central vertical post used in architectural or bridge designs, working in tension to support a beam below from a truss apex above.

Timber roof truss

A timber roof truss is a structural framework of timbers designed to bridge the space above a room and to provide support for a roof. Trusses usually occur at regular intervals, linked by longitudinal timbers such as purlins. The space between each truss is known as a bay.

Hall house Vernacular house typical of Britain, centred on a hall

The hall house is a type of vernacular house traditional in many parts of England, Wales, Ireland and lowland Scotland, as well as northern Europe, during the Middle Ages, centring on a hall. Usually timber-framed, some high status examples were built in stone.

Mason House (Guilford, Virginia) United States historic place

Mason House, also known as the Hinman-Mason House, is an historic dwelling located at Guilford in Accomack County, Virginia. Trees were cut for its construction in the winter of 1729/30 and construction likely started soon thereafter. The house is a single story, single-pile, three-bay, brick structure. The mason hired to construct it laid its brickwork in an extraordinary fashion, which reflects its early date. He set glazed brick headers in large chevron patterns in recessed panels between the front windows and door. He seemed also to have raised the chimneys as exterior features, but they were demolished and rebuilt as interior stacks in the 19th century. To date no archaeological evidence for their original form have been found.

American historic carpentry

American historic carpentry is the historic methods with which wooden buildings were built in what is now the United States since European settlement. A number of methods were used to form the wooden walls and the types of structural carpentry are often defined by the wall, floor, and roof construction such as log, timber framed, balloon framed, or stacked plank. Some types of historic houses are called plank houses but plank house has several meanings which are discussed below. Roofs were almost always framed with wood, sometimes with timber roof trusses. Stone and brick buildings also have some wood framing for floors, interior walls and roofs.


  1. Morrison, Hugh (1952). Early American Architecture: From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period. Dover Publications Inc. pp. 49–98.
  2. Harris, Gordon (2015). "First Period, Georgian and Federal-era houses of Ipswich". Historic Ipswich ON THE MASSACHUSETTS NORTH SHORE. Retrieved October 13, 2020.
  3. Augustus, Pugin (1915). A series of ornamental timber gables, from existing examples in England and France of the 16th Century. Cleveland: J. H. Jansen.
  4. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "MACRIS inventory record for Ross Tavern". Retrieved November 22, 2020.
  5. Harris, Richard (2008). Timber-framed Buildings. Shire: Shire Publications.
  6. Cousins; Riley, Frank; Phil M (2000). The Colonial Architecture of Salem. New York: Dover Publications Inc.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. Cummings, Abbott Lowell (2017). "Summary abstracts of the structural history of a significant sampling of First Period Houses at Massachusetts Bay". Retrieved November 22, 2020.
  8. Stuhlsatz, Dave. "The Royal Barry Wills Cape Home". Retrieved November 22, 2020.
  9. Dwight, Timothy (1823). Travels in New-England and New-York. Nashville: New-Haven.
  10. Sheldon, Noah; Wilson, Richard Guy (2004). The Colonial Revival House. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  11. Harris, Gordon. "First Period construction". Retrieved November 22, 2020.
  12. National Park Service (1987). Salem: maritime Salem in the Age of Sail. Washington: US Department of the Interior.
  13. Hubka, Thomas C. (2004). Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England. Lebanon: University Press of New England.
  14. Lindgren, James M. (1995). Preserving historic New England: Preservation, progressivism, and the remaking of memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  15. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. "Colonial Period 1640 - 1800". Retrieved November 22, 2020.
  16. Foster, Gerald (2004). American Houses: A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  17. Scott, Christianson (1998). With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America. Boston: Northeastern.
  18. Hirsch, Adam (1992). The Rise of the Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America. London: Yale University Press.
  19. Rosenblum, Nancy (2000). Obligations of Citizenship and Demands of Faith: Religious Accommodation in Pluralist Democracies. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 156.
  20. Emily D'urso (2007). "Classic New England: Five for the Road". WashingtonPost. Retrieved October 14, 2020.
  21. Butterfield, Fox (May 14, 1989). "The Perfect New England Village". New York Times. Retrieved October 14, 2020.
  22. Huber, Gregory D (2006). "Abbott Lowell Cummings' Prescience and Dates for First Period Houses of Massachusetts Bay Colony Using Dendrochronology". Material Culture: 39–52.
  23. Floyd, Margaret Henderson. "Massachusetts and Its First Period Houses: A Statistical Survey". Retrieved November 22, 2020.
  24. Zabel, Robert A.; Morrell, Jeffrey J. (2012). Wood Microbiology: Decay and Its Prevention. Cambridge: Cambridge Academic Press.
  25. Nilson, Tomas; Thorell, Kristina (2018). Cultural Heritage Preservation: The Past, the Present and the Future. Halmstad: Halmstad University Press.
  26. Alanen, Arnold R; Melnick, Robert (2000). Preserving cultural landscapes in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.