What is Plymouth’s oldest building? You’d think that’s an easy question to answer, but don’t be so sure.
By most accounts, the Sparrow House – at 42 Summer St. – is the oldest surviving house in Plymouth, with a listed construction date of 1640. Close runner ups are the Howland House (1667) and the Harlow Old Fort House (1677). We are also lucky to have dozens of other buildings dated prior to 1700. The construction dates of these buildings come from oral histories and research, but recent technologies may challenge some of those claims. Sophisticated new dendrochronology testing (the study of tree rings from timber samples) suggests not all the dates may be accurate; further research is required.
Let me introduce myself. I’ve been fascinated by Plymouth’s historic homes since an early age. My interest led me to study architecture and take classes in historic preservation, where my love for historic architecture was firmly cemented. Coming home during breaks, I was able to survey the amazing number of historic homes in Plymouth, and my favorite genre became the earliest homes.
Now I’m looking forward to bringing my experience and enthusiasm to a regular column for the Plymouth Independent focused on the history and architecture of one of the original non-indigenous settlements in what was eventually to become the United States of America.
The primary source of information on our oldest homes is the Plymouth Tax Assessors database. All buildings in Plymouth have a listed construction date. Wildly unreliable, the database includes a dozen or so construction dates prior to 1700. Indeed, a couple claim construction dates of 1627, which would mean the building was erected the year the original Pilgrims were released from their seven-year contract with the Merchant Adventurers and allowed to move beyond the first settlement.
I had a chance to investigate one of the “1627 houses” with a timber framing expert. We crawled through the attic and on our bellies in a dirt crawl space. The result? A very early structure consisting of reused framing timbers, but the joinery and saw marks on the beams clearly indicate a construction date after 1700.
The truth is that nearly all the earliest structures built by the Pilgrims were temporary in nature. Research undertaken at the Plimoth Pawtuxet Museums has shown that the early structures were most likely to be cratchet frames, which were quickly erected with six major upright posts secured to the ground in dug holes. At the top of each post was a naturally occurring “v”. Stretched across the “v” was a horizontal log. This formed a rough frame of a dwelling. The Pilgrims knew these techniques from England. This same technique was adapted to provide quick shelter in the New World. Once shelter had been provided, something of a more permanent nature could begin. The chances that any of these structures survive in Plymouth is close to zero.
Our next search avenue is the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Inventory System, known as MACRIS. The MACRIS is an invaluable research tool. Established by the Commonwealth to ensure our built environment was documented before it was erased, surveys of properties began in the 1970s. Plymouth’s database is extensive, although far from complete. A large number of buildings were documented by Pilgrim Society members in the 1970s. The town hired a private firm to research hundreds more structures in the 1990s.
The MACRIS database relies on oral histories, tax records, historic maps, census forms, and the book by William Davis known as Memories of an Octogenarian. Even when the results from the MACRIS are similar to the tax database, we are often still left with more questions than answers. I refer to the MACRIS when doing research but don’t rely on it for definitive accuracy. Instead, the most illuminating discoveries are often made in the field by accident.
In 2012, I was hired by an historic renovation contractor to document an 18th century house that was in the process of being dismantled for relocation. Our task was to record the as-built conditions for later reconstruction. At this job site, we discovered something wonderful. Near the primary house in West Duxbury, was a small shed slated for demolition. I was one of the first people to see this small shed and its interior. The shed, used for storage, was long forgotten. In fact, the shed had originally been used very early in the 18th century as a joiners ( fine woodworker) workshop. The discovery sent waves throughout the historic communities. This building had been hiding in plain sight for centuries.
So…is Plymouth’s oldest house or building hiding in plain sight? There is a very good chance it is. It’s most likely a small building, the size of a large shed or boat house. It most likely has been moved from its original site. It could also be an appendage of a larger building or now totally encapsulated within another building. It most likely features heavy timber frame construction and few if any plumb walls. I think that there are many of these examples that still exist here in town. Even experts may be totally unaware what the actual date of construction was.
Just last year I was helping a client with a major renovation project in Chiltonville. The listed original construction date of the home was in the late 1700s. It was heavily remodeled and renovated over the last two hundred years of its history, including having its massive center chimney removed along with all its fireplaces. During the documentation of the existing conditions we discovered something truly surprising. Looking up from the basement to the first floor framing were several gunstock posts repurposed in the floor. Originally posts, they were recycled into floor beams. They were easily dateable to the late 1600s, and most likely reused from an earlier house on the site. Not the oldest, but a wonderful example of an early Plymouth house hiding in plain sight.
I’m pretty confident some other older buildings are out there….just hiding. If you think you know of such a structure, reach out to me here at the Plymouth Independent. I’m always up for a good investigation.
Architect Bill Fornaciari, a lifelong resident of Plymouth, is the owner of BF Architects in Plymouth. His firm specializes in residential work and historic preservation. Have a question or idea for this column? Email Bill at email@example.com.
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