Architecture Week

9 Architectural Details You’ll Find in a 300-Year-Old Home, According to a Preservationist

published Oct 26, 2022
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Ancient Saltbox House
Credit: KenWiedemann/ Getty Images

When you think about historic homes, the first thing that probably comes to mind is architecture. Think: hand-carved newel posts on staircases, old-timey hinges and door knobs, intricate molding — all the good stuff that you won’t always find in new builds today.

“The older the house, the more likely it is that it was created by hand, specifically for that property, using local materials,” says Carissa Demore, Historic New England’s leader for preservation services.

During Architecture Week, Apartment Therapy set out to find the original architectural details you might notice in some of the oldest houses still standing in the U.S. today. Many homes in New England (and throughout the Northeast) are around 300 years old, which means they pre-date the Revolutionary War. Of course, there are Native American homes across the country that are even older. The Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, which dates back to 1000 AD, is one example. But for the purposes of this story, we’ll be examining early Colonial-era architecture.

So, what makes these antique features so special? “These architectural details not only provide significant character and value to a home, they are unique works of artwork unto themselves,” says Mark Stoner, senior director of preservation architecture for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The skills and artistry necessary to restore decorative elements is already in short supply and continues to dwindle… and where the expertise is available, it often comes at a significant — and possibly prohibitive — price.”

If you happen to own, rent, or encounter a house like one of the 300-year-old gems below, consider yourself lucky. As Elizabeth Finkelstein of Cheap Old Houses puts it, “Nothing makes me sadder than seeing a detail that has lasted for centuries removed in favor of a trend that will last for six months.” Once you’ve counted your architectural blessings, contact your local historic preservation organization. Here are some of the features you’ll find in a home that’s about three centuries old.

“This home has been in the same family — the Wheeler family — which spans 11 generations for over 300 years,” real estate agent Bob Champey says. It was built in 1652 but had significant updates in the 1700s and beyond.

Symmetry

On the outside, you’ll recognize a Colonial-era home for its relatively plain facade. It’ll have an even number of windows flanking both sides of a central front door. The Scotchford-Wheeler home, built in 1652, is one such example, and it’s currently on sale for the first time ever. “This home has been in the same family — the Wheeler family — which spans 11 generations, for over 300 years,” real estate agent Bob Champey says. (Its listing price, you ask? $1,649,000.)

Credit: KenWiedemann/ Getty Images

Steep Rooflines

Early American Colonial homes are also known for their steep rooflines. It’s a regional weather-related thing, Demore explains. Steep roofs shed melting snow faster. Three hundred years ago, common was the lean-to, saltbox-shaped home with two stories in the front and one in the back, resulting in a long profile off the rear. (Often, the kitchen was located in the back.)

Credit: Images say more about me than words/ Getty Images
Clapboards 300 years ago were about 4 feet long. Their short original length makes the fact that they overlapped to cover homes with massive frameworks even more impressive.

Clapboard Siding

It’s very likely that a saltbox-shaped home would have had clapboard siding, that thin strip style of nailed-on siding. Clapboard and shake (also known as shingle) are the two most common siding types you’ll find on a 300-year-old home. Some houses even mixed the two styles, Demore says. One thing to note, though: If you see a home with clapboard siding today, it’s likely not all original. Clapboards 300 years ago were about 4 feet long. Today, a piece of clapboard siding is about 16 feet long.

Credit: Keith J Finks/ Shutterstock
“[Three-hundred-year-old homes] aren’t designed by architects," Demore says. "They are really the work of trained craftsmen who were learning their craft through apprenticeship.”

Central Chimneys

At the top middle of all the exterior symmetry on a Colonial, you’ll likely find a central chimney made of stone or brick, the original version crafted by a mason. “[Three-hundred-year-old homes] aren’t designed by architects,” Demore explains. “They are really the work of trained craftsmen who were learning their craft through apprenticeship.”

At the bottom of the chimney are multiple fireplaces that would have been “used to feed families and heat the entire home,” Finkelstein adds.

"No house that’s 300 years old has survived without alterations," Demore says. "One of the places where you really often see changes is in the fireplace.” Still, the fireplaces often maintain their original locations and large scale.

Large Fireplaces

And the fireplaces were massive — “walk-in sized,” as Finkelstein puts it. It’s worth noting that if there’s a fireplace in a 300-year-old home still standing today, it’s likely been updated to remain functional over the years. Still, a renovated fireplace might be in the same location as the original, as is the case at the Scotchford-Wheeler home.

“No house that’s 300 years old has survived without alterations,” Demore says. “One of the places where you really often see changes is in the fireplace.”

The reason so many homes have dogleg staircases is because the staircase had to wrap around the home's large chimney to fit.

Switchback Staircases

When you walk inside a Colonial-era home, the layout is fairly simple. “Usually you end up with two similarly sized rooms with a stair hall in between them,” Demore says. But the staircase has to wrap around the home’s large chimney to fit, hence the popularity of switchback or dogleg stairs in Colonial homes. Peep the newel posts and spindles in the Scotchford-Wheeler home — they’re classic in profile. Nothing too ornate.

Sarah Madiera Day's 300-year-old Cape Cod home has its original handhewn beams. Her other favorite original details in the house? The fireplace, a built-in glass hutch, and a curved stairwell.

Handhewn Beams

On the whole, the woodwork in a 300-year-old home is certainly impressive due to its large scale, but it’s not incredibly intricate. While the Scotchford-Wheeler home’s beams have been covered up over the years as designed trends have changed, it’s very likely that wooden beams in 300-year-old homes would have been exposed, as well as more low-hanging than we’re used to today. In homeowner Sarah Madeira Day’s home, the core of which is around 300 years old, the beams are original.

“Playing with the balance of clean and new and rough and raw shows an intentionality of embracing the old features of the home rather than working to cover them up,” Day says of how she’s embraced the beams within her home’s design. She adds that she chose mostly low-profile furniture “to create the illusion that the room is taller.”

Original Hardware

In a home that’s hundreds of years old, “if the hardware has survived from the time it was built, it’s going to be hand-forged,” Demore says. “You’re basically looking at the hammer strikes.” From hinges to latches to doorknobs, historic homes are a treasure trove for antique hardware.

In Katherine Barber of The Vintage Kitchen’s home, built in 1750 in Connecticut, the front door and interior doors have their original hardware.

Ultra-Wide Plank Flooring

Very wide floor planks were also common for homes during the Colonial period. “There were just larger trees used to build these houses,” Demore explains. “There were bigger forests to work with.” That explains the ultra-wide floor planks, but they were by no means uniform or regular.

The second floor of the Scotchford-Wheeler Home also has super wide wood flooring, likely original to the house, according to Champey. The widest is 24 1/2 inches.

A Parting Thought

Many extant centuries-old homes have been preserved because they were owned by wealthy, prominent figures throughout history — or because they belong to folks who have the funds to restore and preserve them.

“A more typical house 300 years ago would have been more vernacular,” Demore says. Think: Small rooms, lower ceilings, and a minimalist lifestyle by necessity. If you made and sold goods, for example, you would have made them in your home and your shop would have been right below your house — the original WFH concept, if you will.

“Fundamentally, old houses have this magnificent authenticity to them,” Demore adds. “They are so deeply connected to the really limitless history of how people lived — all these day-to-day experiences of how people took care of their homes that we still do today.”

Whether your space is large or small, whether it’s an apartment or a house, and whether it was built in 1720 or 2020, when you take great care to preserve and appreciate its architectural details, you are taking part in that history.