New England Large

The Old House Web

By Nancy Platteborze,
with Deb Holmes

Nancy Platteborze is renovating an 18th Century Colonial in the historic town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Here's a bit of history of Newburyport and the style of house known as New England Large, or New Englander.

Nancy's house is on Franklin Street, which is smack between the center of town and Plum Island.

Franklin Street is perpendicular to Water Street, which runs along the Merrimac River. Newburyport is located at mouth of the river. From the end of Franklin, you can see where the river flows into the Atlantic. This, says Nancy, makes for a contemplative morning walk.

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The town: Once buzzing with life and work

The following is Nancy's description of her town:

Nancy's house from the back side

My house is located on Franklin Street, in what's called the South End. Town records tell us that in the 1700's, a church steeple here was hit by lightning. According to local legend, officials called in Ben Franklin to solve the problem and our street was named after him.

Even though Newburyport is delineated by High and Low Streets, the architectural mix reflects one of old New England's aberrations: a middle class.

Walk through the South End, and you'll see from various historic plaques that this place was buzzing with life and work two centuries ago. Shoe maker, blacksmith, sea captains of varied success, ship builder, twine and rope maker, mariner, shopkeeper, and all those women simply called "wives" lived here.

Several houses in the south end have plaques dating them from late 1600's to late 1800's, but the only one on my street with a plaque is my immediate neighbor's, dated 1740. That's close to a 1739 coin a carpenter found in my front parlor.

The South End has a mix of architecture. Surrounding houses are other New Englanders and different sized Colonials. There are some expanded saltbox style houses with summer kitchens off the back, Federals and Queen Anne Victorians.

No ship owners on Franklin Street. You have to walk up to High Street to enjoy their grand homes.

A typical New England Large, the Samuel Knap House, in Stamford Connecticut, built in 1700. Photo: The Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey.

Nancy's house sits long on the lot, with the narrow end facing the street.

Historic Newburyport

The following information about Newburyport comes from the book "New England by the Sea," in the series "The Architectural Treasures of Early America," National Historical Society (White Pine Series), Main Street Press, Pittstown, NJ, 1987.

The neighboring town of Newbury was settled in 1635. The heyday of Newburyport was around 1804-05, when duties collected in Massachusetts exceeded those of New York.

The book goes on to say "This was the time when Newburyport was at the height of prosperity. In 1805, its fleet numbered 173 ships and vessels of good size. Shipbuilding was also an important industry and at one period 100 vessels were under construction at the same time.

A number of frigates and sloops were built in its yards..."

The book notes that shortly after settlement, and by the time of the American Revolution, Newburyport was already an important shipping town.

The book mostly gives details on the grand houses on High Street, which were largely built between the Revolution and the War of 1812.

The house

In "American Shelter," by architect Lester Walker (Overlook Press, 1997), Nancy's type of house is called a "New England large," and described as "a two-and-a-half story house, essentially an upward and rearward expansion of the two-story house."

According to Walker, "From 1690 on, the most popular New England farmhouse dwelling was the one-and-a-half, two, and two-and-one-half storied house.

Times were more prosperous and the people more settled...these houses marked the transition from early colonial dwellings to the Georgian Style."

The most distinctive feature of these houses, says Walker, was the huge central chimney that incorporated a fireplace in each room.

Most New England Large houses had a whole or partial cellar and simple ridged roofs with no dormers. All these houses, including many built up to 1850, were of braced oak frame construction. These frames were supported on between eight and twelve posts so that the exterior walls or inside partitions did not have to carry any weight.

Exterior walls were cedar clapboards nailed into heavy oak horizontal sheathing boards that were nailed to wall studs. The inside walls were covered with lath and plaster and were otherwise un-insulated.

The book goes on to describe these houses as being constructed for a 150 year period. Trim was simple, until the English Renaissance period, around 1840, when door details and trim were added to these simple houses.

Walker also notes that the New England large was adapted well to being partially built, then expanded as families grew or got more money.

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