Dating old houses

When machine split lath became available in , it was widely used. It was spooky at first. The door was locked so I rang the bell. The door literally creaked open a crack and I heard a voice say, "yes? I thanked her and said it was too bad he wouldn't get to see my King George II coin. Jude and I walked to the car and the door opened wide and a very nice normal-looking woman with color in her cheeks called us back. Jude and I smiled at each other, thinking, "way to go, George! I could hear her talking to a man and he to her, and then she started shouting questions down the stairs to us, and I up to her, signing for Jude who is deaf the whole time.

Jude and I were laughing because it was just like a scene from the "Wizard of Oz"! Then this tall, lanky man comes bounding down the stairs flashing piercing blue eyes -- and I apologized for interrupting his work and said we'd come back. I showed the man the sales transaction and the coin and we were a.

The man invited us upstairs and started going through all his books to try and find the two names, and the street -- and let me go through anything I wanted. The only really interesting documents we came away with were an petition by the residents of Franklin Street including our mariner Post's signature requesting the town to accept Franklin Street and also widen and lengthen it up to Milk Street. We also found information about Post's family father, Ebeneezer, wife Mary, her parents which includes her mother's maiden name a woman must have written this genealogy , and five daughters!

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This riven lath helps date Nancy's house to pre From there we went to City Hall, and the assessor's office. There was information about 35 Franklin Street, and the assessor actually started having fun looking at the maps with us.

We found a missing link -- we are very, very lucky because the empty lot next to us, in , had a house right up against ours. There couldn't have been two feet between them.

Bricks & Brass: House Dating Tool

If anybody builds there now, it will have to be I think at least 10 feet from ours. From there we went to the planner's office. We discovered the Registry of the Historic District -- and there was our house, 35 Franklin Street, central chimney vernacular, circa ! Let the Revolution begin! There was nothing on the Gunnison who sold the house to Post beyond the sales transaction. So that's yet to be dug up, and of course, as soon as the library archives open up again, I'm going hunting for Annie.

Now that we know Post had five daughters, I wonder if that had something to do with her staying at the house? So James lived with seven women. Nancy Platteborze with an resuscitated antique lilac. Don't put a dishwasher or television in her house! Back at my house, I grapple with the reality of restoring a house sensitively while making it suitable for modern living.

Dating Old Buildings

I think the hinges are original, although they're glopped over with paint. Most are attached with original nails and just a couple modern screws. I have traced what's here and sent the design to a blacksmith who wants to hand forge the hardware for the house. I think I want him to do that, but haven't decided what period I want to go with yet or even if I want to go that "decide on a period and go with it" traditional restoration route.

Something bugs me about that. I don't believe "pure" reflects any historical stage. We live in a mix of old, new, and in-between -- I don't think anybody ever lived in a purely one period or another space. There were shops in the and s where blacksmiths went to work everyday. They got good at making certain kinds of hinges, and those hinges became more and more uniform. But some of those blacksmiths created their own designs for their own homes, and that sort of thing. I think the path to authenticity is in coming to terms with the messiness of lived history and working within the spirit of our particular place.

It may be a moot point, but it bugs me nonetheless. Future generations would be wrong if they assumed I had a television or read romance novels or had a dishwasher because these things depicted my time. They'd "replicate" things I'd hate to have in my home if they used the "pick a period" approach to restoration. Index to all stories in this series Next part: Be ready when the temperature drops Queen Anne homes: His more recent study, English Houses The Hertfordshire Evidence , has an excellent discussion of the difficulties which many buildings present; from the antiquarian copyist who makes his building look older than it is, to the enthusiastic revealer of the timber frame who removes most of the physical evidence of his building's history by stripping it back to the original.


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Historians always like to confirm a date suggested by the physical evidence against any available documentary sources. At one time this was regarded as almost unnecessary, but the revolution brought about by Howard Colvin's A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects has changed the nature of post medieval architectural history. From the first edition, published in to the thoroughly indexed third edition, published in , we have been able to locate dates and architects quickly and to find the references to back them up.

There are later biographical dictionaries but except for a notable local attempt in Suffolk none provide such comprehensive lists of works.

Colvin, of course, includes only buildings known to have been designed by architects. Major buildings are usually easy to date. The Builder , now Building , established in , is one of many architectural periodicals that deal with buildings of a later date than those covered by Colvin. The great advantage of documentary research is that it gives more than a date: All this complements the information derived from the building itself. Before launching straight into primary research it is sensible to see what is already known and what might be available.

The statutory list is often itself a help. It should give an analysis of how a building has developed as well as a description. More recent lists often include a bibliographical note, useful in identifying articles in Country Life or local journals and sometimes references to The Builder or other primary sources.

Few lists are as detailed as that for Barrow-in-Furness where many entries give dates and attributions from the local building act plans. Then there is Pevsner, of course, the inimitable series of county by county guides to the buildings of Britain. But the absence of a reference does not mean that none exists.

The NMR with some three million photographs and 50, measured surveys should always be tapped. But in many cases it is the local library and record office which is the principal source; here, in addition to topographical works and the Victoria County History there will be the journals of local antiquarian societies and other printed works.

When trying to establish a date from primary sources it is often easiest to work backwards. Map evidence can be crucial and the Ordnance Survey is always the best place to start, comparing the various editions. Some industrial areas have had very large scale maps made of them which give the plans of churches and public buildings as well.


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Earlier maps vary in quality and usefulness; it is always important to remember that a building shown on a site does not necessarily mean that it is the building that is there now. Working backwards through street directories and ratebooks can also tell you when a building first appeared and gaps in the series, or significant changes in value, can be a clue to alterations and rebuilding. Owners may have title deeds and these should be examined. Some areas have had land registration since the 18th century of these, Middlesex and West Yorkshire are the best known , but the registers are not easy to handle.

For most of that part of London which used to be in Middlesex, original building leases should be registered, a source profitably tapped by the Survey of London, that Rolls-Royce of architectural surveys. Where land was owned by one of the great estates - the Crown, aristocratic landlords, corporate bodies - then with luck the estate records will survive, now often in a local archive office, or, for the Crown Estate, at the Public Record Office.

Locating these records is often something with which the National Register of Archives can help. What architectural historians like to find, of course, are drawings and illustrations. There are many topographical records and photographs.


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  8. These will not necessarily help to date a building, though they may establish limits before or after which changes have taken place. As antiquarian interest in old buildings developed, this changed the nature of drawings from that of 'seats', as in many county histories, to that of rchitectural record, as in the huge collection of some 12, drawings produced by the Buckler family and now in the British Library.

    Further into the 19th century more archaeological drawings were produced. All such drawings need to be assessed carefully. A recent study of JS Crowther's drawings of Cheshire churches has shown that he doctored them to fit his preferences for what the churches should have looked like and it is known that TH Shepherd, usually a very reliable topographical draughtsman, removed existing accretions from a drawing of to 'restore' the terrace to its Palladian symmetry of Most drawings were not produced for artistic, antiquarian or archaeological purposes but for practical reasons, at the time of building or subsequent alteration.

    These are often a better clue to the date of a building than the topographical illustration. They can range from beautiful perspectives, designed to attract the patron and critic, to the technical detail of working drawings. The greatest collection of design drawings is that of the Royal Institute of British Architects in the British Architectural Library, now being merged with the archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Otherwise designs can often survive with clients, in family or corporate collections. Not all designs were carried out, in full or in part, but the unbuilt is often as fascinating as the built, as shown in Unbuilt Oxford or London As It Might Have Been.