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Dating an Old House

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John Gehri Zerrer

John Gehri Zerrer

River's Edge Home Inspections

How well do you think you know our local historical building vernaculars? Do you know what to look for to indicate the approximate age of an old house you might be listing or selling? And are these features worth pointing out to a prospective buyer as selling points?

In this detail of a Hunterdon County home, the narrow right section of the stone module is the original home, built in the 1730’s. It has a low, beamed ceiling height, a winding staircase to the 2nd floor, diminutive windows, a rubble (not dressed) stone exterior and walk-in fireplace. The left side stone addition was built in the early 1800’s with beautifully matched stonework. The wooden additions, to the right and left (not shown) were constructed in the 1980’s and renovated again in 2014.

The earliest 17th and 18th century rural homes in Bucks and Hunterdon counties, were built by colonial immigrants. Early settlers purchased land from Native Americans between 1688 and 1758, paying with knives, clothing, blankets, rum, guns, powder and shot, allowing them to enter the area and build houses and start towns. They brought with them the building vernaculars they were familiar with in their home countries: the English-stone, Germans-log or stone, Dutch-stone or brick and Swedes-logs.

Field stone and forests provided building material for early homes. Prior to saw mills and quarries, water and rail transportation that would make building supplies more available, settlers had to gather stone, by hand, for their stone houses, or cut trees and mill beams, by hand, for their wooden homes. First generation homes were usually one story, one or two room structures, just enough to keep people protected from the elements. The open room served as living, dining, kitchen and sleeping with a single fireplace for heat and cooking. Later, mid 18th century homes, featured 4 room layouts, 2nd floors and central fireplaces. Architectural layouts evolved in parallel with the establishment of commercial centers, churches, taverns, farms, factories and transportation.

Maybe in an attic or certainly in a basement, you can get a good look at the framing. If you find large hand-hewn beams framing the floor structure, they were cut and dressed by hand, prior to any availability to a local saw mill. Walk-in fireplaces are another indicator of 18th century building, as are low ceilings, winding staircases, small window and door openings. Look for any outbuildings on the property like summer kitchens, small barns, rubble foundations or an outhouse that might help date a home.

Back in the day, I loved renovating old homes, studying their architectural details, pulling them apart and restoring them. I learned how this early vernacular evolved into later architectural styles, reflecting better economics and changing culture. It’s fun to imagine how these farm families lived and somehow managed to erect these iconic houses.

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