Nehemiah Perkins house, Wenham

The Nehemiah Perkins house (18th Century, altered 1840)

The house at 40 Cherry Street in Wenham has what appears to be an 18th Century frame. The house was modified during the 19th Century in the popular “carpenter gothic” style. Physical examination of the frame indicates a story and a half cottage constructed before the 1777 deed, which mentions a house and barn on the land. Hand-hewn chamfered summer beams and posts throughout the house and basement appear to predate the Georgian era (1725-1780), when framing was boxed and no longer dressed.

The owner of the house provided the following deed history:

  • 1777: Asma Kimball sold 45 acres to Thomas Webber. The deed references a house and barn on the land.
  • 1809: Thomas Webber dies and Betsey (Webber) Merrill inherits as part of his estate.
  • 1817: The deed for Daniel Merrill and Besty (Webber) Merrill mentions a house and barn on the western end of land
  • 1820’s: Betsey Webber Merrill, now living in Gloucester breaks up the estate and sells 45 acres (she lived in Gloucester not Wenham)
  • 1835: Francis Merrill sells this lot to John Perley.
  • 1837: John Perley sells to Nehemiah Perkins for $85.
  • 1837: The next day he sold it to his son Nehemiah Perkins Jr. for $1.00.
  • 1865: Property sells for $1,000, including buildings on the site.

The Perkins family in Wenham

Nehemiah Perkins Jr, son of Nehemiah and grandson of John Perkins was born in 1800 and was age 37, with 5 children when bought the land, owning it until his death in 1861. It appears that he restored the house with its present “carpenter Gothic” appearance.

The Perkins family in Wenham dates back to 1690 when Sergent John Perkins of Ipswich and others bought 300 acres on the border of Wenham and the Hamlet near the Great Swamp, a section of Ipswich that is now Hamilton, which had previously been common land. At the beginning of the 18th Century, the town divided the common land among groups of 8 residents, called companies.

Colonial Post and Beam frame

Rather than facing the street like the other older houses on Cherry Street, the front of this house faces due south, which was more common in the early Colonial period. Hewn summer beams are exposed in the entryway, and the inside corners of the house frame have painted hewn posts with beveled edges. The summer beams, corner posts and beams in the basement show evidence of powder post beatles, but there is no indication that the corner posts or summer beams were ever boxed. A filled-in mortise in the summer beam suggests the original location of the stairway post. Mortises in the left beam have been filled with wood but indicate the location of the original floor joists.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, wooden structures in New England were still being constructed of hand-hewn timber frames. Timber framing persisted through the Federal and Greek Revival Periods, and began to be replaced by light balloon framing around 1840 at the beginning of the Victorian era, which includes Gothic Revival architecture. Most of the sheathing and roof framing in this house are hidden behind finished walls and ceilings, but evidence of a post and beam, story and a half cottage having pit-sawn horizontal exterior wall sheathing at least 20″ wide is visible in the opening to the attic over the right addition. Mills began using circular, rather than straight, saw blades starting around 1830; by 1900 circular saws had replaced nearly all the sash sawmills.


In the 20th Century, an opening was made in the stone foundation of the main house to extend the basement underneath the attached barn when it was remodeled to become a wing of the house. Problematic is the lack of evidence of an earlier central fireplace. The cellar walls are not stacked field stone, but mortared and relatively smooth, suggesting the house may not be on its original foundation. Or the earlier chimney stack may have disappeared when the house was reconstructed and the concrete basement floor was poured.

The masonry arches and fireplace date to after 1780-90, but no later than the 1840 renovation. The small fireplace in the left room and the cooking fireplace in the right room are both of Rumford design, and are supported by brick trimmer arches. Wood heat and beehive ovens were used until the beginning of the industrial revolution around 1840, when coal began to replace wood as fuel for heating and cooking. Count Rumford detailed his improvements for fireplaces in 1796 and in 1798, and the “Rumford fireplace” became the standard by the beginning of the 19th Century. The cast iron wood burning stove was marketed by Stewart Oberlin in 1834, and sales soon boomed throughout the United States.

Present appearance: “Carpenter Gothic”

The present appearance of this house dates to sometime after 1837 when the early story and a half cottage was reconstructed. “Carpenter Gothic” homes were built during the early Industrial Revolution from 1840 – 1860. The Gothic gables on this house are less steep than usual, indicating a modification of the existing roof framing, which is not accessible for examination.

In America, the Gothic Revival style was popularized by Andrew Jackson Downing in his books, Cottage Residences in 1842 and The Architecture of Country Houses in 1850, which included architectural plans and elevation drawings. The form generally includes steep “wall dormers.


The house represents stages of construction and renovation over a period dating from the Colonial era to the mid-19th Century, plus modern modfications. Structural and stylistic evidence indicate that the frame of this house was probably constructed no later than the first quarter of the 18th Century. Orientation of the house toward the south provides additional evidence. Masonry in the two fireplaces dates to between 1790 and 1840, indicating the possibility of two major alterations. The present house was modified after it was purchased in 1837 with a “carpenter Gothic” roof. Further deed research and a dendrochronology test of the summer beams and other framing may help determine the approximate date of original construction.

House plans by Andrew Jackson Downing:

Other Sources:

Architectural books and guides

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