Monday, October 15, 2012

Capes The New England Vernacular

The Cape house started out in the 17th century and before as a single rectangular room(called a hall) with a large fireplace (with perhaps a beehive oven on one side or inside the firebox itself.) at one end of a rectangle.  Early buildings were made by driving the upright posts of the house into the ground and building the rest of the house around it.   There might only be a hole in the roof to let smoke out and rain in.  A fire was kept going on the ground. The clay in the soil would eventually fire into a soft ceramic.  Later a raised hearth of stone or brick would sit on the floor in the middle of the room.  Beyond the fireplace was a narrow hallway or just a door leading in from the wide side of the building at one end.

Later there were two rooms of nearly equal size with a fireplace and a partition between them.  There might be a large cooking fireplace facing one side and a blank brick side facing the other room, or there might be a second smaller fireplace facing the second room.

As time went by, and houses got larger(see note below) the configuration changed again.  The front center of the house would have the door and entry hall.  This would be about as wide as the fireplace mass which was often as big as a small room on its own.
 To each side, left and right, was a room which would be nearly square and extended to the back of the fireplace mass.  The back walls of the two rooms formed a long wall across the length of the house.  A door from each side room would lead into the back room.  This is sometimes referred to as a keeping room. This was basically the other half of the house.
 Along with the front rooms, the footprint of the house was close to a square or a not too elongated rectangle.  28 by 39 was a not too uncommon size. 
Remember that the closer to a square you get, the more efficient you are at conserving heat. 
This last room usually had the narrow end against the wall partitioned off to make a small, perhaps 6 foot deep, room called by many, probably incorrectly, a "borning" room. 
The back corner of the house, behind this room sometimes had a tiny spiral stair with high risers that went to the second story under the roof. 
There was often a staircase in the front hall that had a landing on the right and rose to an upper room from right to left.  It might be exposed, with a newel post and spindled rail or hidden behind paneling with a door leading to the landing from the hall.

Take a look at the Space Saving Partition Walls, posted elsewhere, for simple interpretations of these partitions.

The fireplace would be huge in these back rooms, perhaps a dozen feet or more!  Sometimes they would have a huge beam supporting the front of the firebox opening, an arch of brick or later on even a forged iron bar.  The early fireplaces might have an oven built into the back wall of the firebox.  You would step right inside the fireplace to bake.  When you wanted to rake out the coals from the oven, they just fell onto the hearth.  Often you would sit right inside the firebox on your little stool or chair while working all day.  Later the firebox was a bit smaller, and the oven moved outside the firebox to one side, though the decorative mantle still extended over the oven opening.  The oven often had a wooden door panel just pushed into it to block the heat in(often replaced as you might expect), and later on, they might have an iron door on the front.

There would be a huge panel of cast iron standing at the back of the fireplace if you could afford it, to reflect heat into the room and keep the heat from damaging the brick or stone of the back wall of the firebox over time.  Sometimes they were very simple or they could be great works of folk art with figures and dates cast into them.

One might be surprised at the size of homes of this time period.  These people were only limited by their time set aside for food production and desire to set aside building time.  The lumber was free.  Much of the house was joined using square Black Locust(where available) or Oak wooden pegs, and local people often were able to mine iron and make nails(the only purchase other than window glass if you wanted it).  You could actually build an entire house with just wood.  Only the clapboards had to be nailed on,  If you have plenty of time, even the siding can be pegged on.
Instead of window glass, you could use oiled paper, or nothing.  Often there were wooden bars that kept intruders out and eventually evolved into mutin bars to support glass panes.  Shutters closed at night or on cold days.
Back to the size....there was fuel everywhere early on, and other than inefficiency and drafts, there was no reason at all to be cold.  Fires were small, usually, just because wood was a lot of work, and fires became smaller as towns grew and the forests receded.  Basically, however, if you did not mind the work, you could heat large houses easily.

In Europe, people had depleted the forests centuries before and had to rely on dead, fallen wood for heat. (Forests were often the property of the lord or landlord.)  Coppiced twigs, grape or other woody vines and peat were used in some areas.  You could also burn dung from your animals, though you had to have dry conditions to get it to burnable and low odor condition.  Cold was your constant companion in the winter.

The Cape house was easy to expand into the next big trend, which was simply the Cape plan or an existing Cape that you wanted to alter, with the roof raised up and another floor inserted under it.  You might go without fireplaces upstairs, relying on heat's habit of rising, or smaller fireplaces would be added to the extension of your central chimney.

Thatch was a common roofing material(again requiring no nails), bark could be used in big sheets as roofing, but split shingles were most common.

Siding was sometimes just a matter of filling between the beams with mud and woven twigs plastered over (with true plaster or with a mortar or plaster made from shells) bricks and mortar or mud filling.  both could be seen alone, plastered, or covered over with split oak clapboards.  Later came wood plank sheathing, either vertical, fitting into grooves in the beams, or nailed on horizontally.  Then they were clapboarded over.  Much later came board and batten siding.

Professional house-wrights made pretty regular, cookie cutter houses that were similar except in size, but any good craftsman could build a house.  There were design trends, sometimes published but you could have many variations in houses of the period, that might look very similar outside. 

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