This very old house

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We strive for square, straight and true just like the old masters. But in my daughter’s 1760 home, getting things square wasn’t necessarily a priority.

My daughter and her husband live in a home built in three centuries – the main original portion, a very small home consisting of two rooms, was built in 1760. Nathan Hale’s nephew called it home in those days.

Two more rooms were added in 1842 that doubled the size, although it was still small. Jump forward another century and owners in the 1980s added a large master bedroom of incongruously jarring contemporary design (with skylights!), two more bedrooms, a bathroom and deck.

It’s interesting to walk from one end of the house to the other. Starting in that new master bedroom you have level floors and square walls – or, at least as square as modern builders do things these days. The walls are sheet paneling and drywall. But step over the threshold from 1980 to 1842, and the flooring planks jump to 15”, and the floor is so uneven that it’s like walking on a moving train: You’re never quite sure where your foot is going to land. But the walls are rock-solid plaster and lath.

Step from 1842 to 1760, and you’ll find a few floor planks 20”, and even more unevenness. The walls in this section are anything but plumb. I’ve never measured, but I’d guess that the front wall of that section tilts at least a full 3 or 4 degrees. Maybe more. The interior walls are solid wood in this room; you couldn’t drive a truck through it.

This kind of workmanship would get a contractor fired today, at least for the visual aspect. But back before this country was a country, when the primary concerns were being eaten by bears and freezing to death, solid construction was valued more than worrying whether a wall was a few degrees off-plumb.

The modern portion of her house is very nice, and as a modern woodworker I can appreciate the attention to workmanship that’s straight and square. On the other hand, the workmanship on the original portion of the house has stood for some 250 years, and is just as strong and sturdy as it was back in 1760. I doubt seriously the modern portion will see another century turn, much less 250 years. Or even the 170 years of those 1842 additions.

I think you can guess which parts of that house I like best.

A.J.

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