August 12, 2015

The (House) Dating Game

From New England, the house-dating capital of the world it's . . .

The Dating Game.jpgIf you really want to touch a nerve with an old house owner, question the age of their house.

This is particularly true when you are dealing with early American houses that were built in the 17th, 18th, or early 19th centuries.  In stark contrast to a culture that tends to be obsessed with youth, connoisseurs of old houses want old.  Or older.  Or, best of all, oldest.

A quick drive around any ancient town in New England will give you some insight into the highly competitive world of structure dating.  This competition is carried out not on a field or court, of course, but on a series of handsome plaques affixed to the facades of America's historic buildings.

These signs are the work of historical societies, town historians, architectural historians, and homeowners, themselves. In the best of circumstances, the plaque might be accompanied by a bronze National Register of Historic Places plaque, which indicates a fairly rigorous vetting of the research done on the house.  In many cases, however, the information on the plaque can be of much more dubious quality.  And it is these more sketchy plaques that shine a light on the weird psychology of old house people.

Having spent more than my fair share of time around old houses and old house people, and having worked on the historic plaque program for my own town's historical society for ten years, there are some bizarre phenomenon that continue to both puzzle and amuse me:

The Spirit of '76 
Image result for spirit of 76If the plaques and historic home real estate sites are to believed, despite the whole war with England thing, the colonists were building houses like crazy in 1776.  Never mind that there must have been intense demand for manpower and supplies from the warring factions, every colonist was busy building an HGTV-worthy dream house. Strangely, this construction fever seems not to have been as fervent in 1775 or 1777.

The Pre-Rev Paradox
Among those few early American homes that weren't built in 1776, there seem to be surprisingly few that were built between 1777 and 1830, at least according to the homemade plaques.  In fact, almost anything that could even conceivably pass as being 18th century seems to be labeled as pre-Revolutionary War.

Now, on the surface, this makes no sense.  After all, shouldn't there be fewer houses remaining the further back one goes in time?  Particularly with the British showing a penchant for burning the property of "traitors" from time to time?

Image result for the dating game flowerAnd what about the contravening evidence?  Many of these houses lack crucial details that would attest to their colonial status.  Many more possess details that would seem to indicate a post-Revolutionary war construction date.  All easily explainable, as it turns out.  Aren't those glaringly Greek Revival details?  Added in a major renovation.  Isn't that square rule timber framing, rather than the earlier scribe rule? The builder was an early adopter of new building technology.  Why do the land records indicate that no house existed on a property until 1815? Sloppy colonial record keeping.

To be sure, those can all be valid explanations for dating anomalies, but it is amazing how much effort it sometimes takes to explain away the evidence that might indicate that a house is a beautiful 1790s or 1800s structure, rather than an elaborately misunderstood pre-Revolutionary dwelling.  As for me, I am a staunch believer in Occum's Razor - the simplest explanation has the greatest likelihood of being correct. So, if it looks like a 1790s house, and the records point to it being a 1790s house, it probably is a 1790s house.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have lived the pain of losing a true colonial house.  When we bought the Enos Kellogg Homestead, it had a plaque with a very convincing "1753" boldly emblazoned on it.  We were beyond excited to live in a house that was "older than our country."  Until it wasn't.

Two years after moving in, we had an experienced researcher from the Norwalk Historical Society dig into the history of the house.  And the evidence was pretty compelling.  Our house had been built in 1784.  Or 1785.  Honestly, it even could have been 1786.  Who's to say?  "Circa 1784" was the decision.  And I was sort of depressed.  Even though our house was unchanged, it took a while before I felt like the house was not diminished in some way.  Emotionally, older is just cooler, somehow.

The 17th Century Core-ollary
Image result for apple core imageThis phenomenon refers to the earnestly stated coda that often accompanies a homeowner's description of their 18th century property.  It happens in person, but also in real estate blurbs, and sounds something like this:  "Well, the architectural historian/town/ historical society puts the house around 1725, but we believe that the core of the house is 1690s."  There is rarely any supporting evidence provided, and the date is always 1690s, never earlier.  I guess that 1680s or 1670s pushes credibility too much.  A variation is "The house is circa 1820, but the core is pre-1776."  As it turns out, there are more of these mysterious "cores" in the old house world than in an apple orchard.

The Jedi Mind Trick
Some homeowners seem to believe that all it takes is sheer force of will to date your house.

Deed research often is far from definitive, and generally involves a healthy does of conjecture. Property lines were described based on transient (over the course of centuries) landmarks and neighbors. Houses and outbuildings were built, knocked down, and moved.  Descriptors that once held meaning now mean nothing to anyone.  Enos Kellogg's will, for example, referenced "the wood lot", "the Wapon Swamp", and "the Salt Meadow at Barron Marsh, so-called". Unfortunately, these places are "so-called" by nobody in 2015.  I still have no idea what they mean.  All of this is to say that establishing an exact construction year is damn hard, even when good land records exist.

Image result for jedi mind trick image
These are not the dates
 you are looking for.
So, if things are a bit ambiguous (or simply not to your liking), many homeowners past and present have chosen to go the authoritative route - by picking a date and ferociously committing to it. "Circa" be damned, and always pick a year than doesn't end in a zero or five (which make it sound like you are guessing).  If you aren't going to go with the always-popular 1776, try 1767, 1729, or 1693.  And remember, if you say it with enough conviction, it becomes true!

Notwithstanding all of the mental games that we may be tempted to play with ourselves, it really is remarkable that we can even begin to establish any kind of reasonable date for the construction of an 18th century house.  Seriously, that was a long time ago, and I can't even remember when we built the shed in our back yard. I am always blown away how many land records survive from hundreds of years ago, and how accessible they are.  Architectural historians, meanwhile, continue to come up with new and better ways to analyze and interpret physical evidence, and the internet has made available a host of information to facilitate the research process.  Even dendrochronology (tree ring dating of wood) is becoming increasingly accessible to the public.  So, don't take that weathered plaque that has been hanging on your house since the 1930s for granted.  Do a little digging and learn something new about where you live.  Happy dating!

The Dating Game [TV Series] (1965) the signature blowing a kiss goodbye #memoriesfrombackthen
So long from the Dating Game!