Jetties of the New England Post-Medieval Renaissance

Dodge House, N. Main St., Ipswich MA

“As we walked down the town, the quaint appearance of the houses struck me very forcibly – very different were they from those in most of the New England towns. They had pointed gables, and irregular slanting roofs; and in many of them the upper stories projected considerably over the basement apartments, in some such a way as the old houses are built at Chester, and in some of the old cities in England.”–British writer John Ross Dix visiting Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1846.

The Ipswich houses described above by John Ross Dix are First Period saltboxes with second floor overhangs. A projection of the second story over the first, which is common in parts of England, was found in the earliest houses in the New England colonies in the form of an overhang, frequently decorated at the lower end of the second-story corner posts carved pendants. The photo above is the Dodge house on N. Main St. in Ipswich MA, demolished in 1888.

Wells Cottage, Easthorpe, Essex England

Overhangs originated at the end of the Medieval period as the economic and political changes made it possible for ordinary people to moderize and enlarge their small houses, which were often heated by an open fire and a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. The invention of the fireplace and chimney made it possible to heat larger spaces. The strongest way to add a second floor was to extend the new joists and girts beyond the existing house frame, and extending only the second floor via an overhang wouldn’t intrude into the narrow cart paths.

Corner framing of a First Period house with front overhangs. Extending the second floor provides for a stable transition from the first to second floor in post and beam framing.
Shambles Rd. in Cork. Image courtesy of Odyssey Traveler.

Today we refer to jetties as overhangs, but in post-Medieval England they were called jetties. The earliest overhangs were framed, with floor joists overlapping the front second floor carrying beam. The form survived until the end of the 17th Century. The ubiquitous suburban “garrisons” of the late 20th Century are a “colonial revival” throwback to the front overhang.

Matthew Perkins house, Ipswich
The Matthew Perkins house at 8 East St. in Ipswich has an elaborate pilastered chimney, a rear ell, hewn overhangs front and side, and one of the best Jacobean staircases in New England. This house has a preservation convenant with Historic New England.

A more common Colonial version is the shallower hewn overhang developed as a retro fashion during the brief post-Medieval revival period of the late 17th and very early 18th Century. A well-preserved example is the Matthew Perkins house in Ipswich. The form is frequently but not always found along with a similar feature, the facade gable, a slight overhang of the attic over the second floor girt on the two gable ends of the building. Gables framed to overhang the second story are found in several Cape Ann locations including the Capen house in Topsfield, the Boardman house in Saugus, and the east gable of the Whipple house in Ipswich. Facade gables are also occasionally found on plank frame houses, which in our area generally date to about 1700 and later.

The Rev. Joseph Capen house at 1 Howlett St., in Topsfield (1683), is one of the finest surviving example of Elizabethan architecture in America.

The origins of post-Medieval jetties, or overhangs is debated. The jetty was probably first used in towns where the homes of the peasantry sat in close proximity to a narrow footpath. An overhang became the preferred means for the joinery required to add a second floor to a house without encumbering the narrow way in front. As John Fiske pointed out in his book, “When Oak was New,” the development of the fireplace at the end of the Medieval period allowed for the expansion of houses upwards, as this space would no longer be filled with smoke. In the early 17th Century, the overhang disappeared in English farmhouse construction, with walls continuing straight up from bottom plate to the roof. But the settlers of New England brought with them and continued to use the more traditional forms of construction. Within only a few decades, houses here were being built with continuous flat walls.

Thomas Knowlton house, Ipswich Ma
The Thomas Knowlton house on Summer St. in Ipswich MA

And then something quite odd happened: Beginning as early as the 1670s and lasting for a period no longer than 40 years, some homes of the more prominent citizens featured a revival of projecting overhangs, facade gables, beaded summer beams and other decorative features of a century earlier. In addition to the framed overhang of their grandfathers, they sometimes used a hewn overhang, the projection of which was by necessity smaller, being limited to the width of a solid post resting on a hewn beam. Just a hint of an overhang, known as a facade gable, was often applied to the second floor and attic intersections, performing only a decorative function.

Whipple House Ipswich MA
Whipple House in Ipswich before it was restored and moved to its current location on the South Green.

The jetty and facade gable form is part of what Abbott Lowell Cummings called the distinctively elegant regional school of architecture that flowered in Ipswich in the late 17th century. The Whipple house in Ipswich is a striking example of this throwback to late Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture, which continued only into the early 18th Century in Eastern Massachusetts, but survived for an additional century in Connecticut, the last gasp of the Middle Ages in America. Only about two dozen overhang/facade gable houses remain standing in Essex County, half of which are in Ipswich or in immediately neighboring towns.

Whipple House, Ipswich
1 South Green, the Captain John Whipple house (1677), restored by the Ipswich Historical Society, moved to its present location, owned by the Ipswich Museum. Framed overhang and framed facade gable on east side only.

Sources and further reading:

Additional houses in Essex County with overhangs and facade gables

Ross Tavern, Ipswich MA
The Ross Tavern sat on the southeast corner of the Choate Bridge in Ipswich, and was moved in 1940 to the former Wendel Estate on Jeffreys Neck Road at Strawberry Hill. Framed overhang, framed facade gable.
41 Turkey Shore Road, the Howard – Arthur Wesley Dow House (c.1680-1709)
41 Turkey Shore Road, Ipswich, the Howard – Arthur Wesley Dow house (c.1680-1709).
Low House, Heartbreak Rd., Ipswich
42 Heartbreak Road, Ipswich, the Thomas and John Low house. The first part of this house was built before 1684 by Thomas Low Sr. or by his son John Low. Facade gable only.
Giddings, George House, 1690, 66 Choate St
George Giddings house, 66 Choate St, Essex (1690). Plank framing, probably a hewn overhang, with facade gable and saltbox addition.
Giddings, Lt. Samuel House, 1678, 143 John Wise Ave.,
Lt. Samuel Giddings house, 143 John Wise Ave., Essex, MA (1678). Hewn 6″ front overhang, hewn 2″ facade gables.
William Haskell house, Gloucester MA
William Haskell House, 11 Lincoln St, c 1700. While there is a predominance of framed First Period houses in Essex County, this house features plank framing throughout. In 1927 the house was purchased by Boston Sculptor, A.H. Atkins. The building was featured in magazines of the 1920s and 1930s with measured drawings by Frank Chouteau Brown as a well preserved example of First Period architecture. Facade gable is likely hewn.
White – Ellery House, 247 Washington St, Gloucester, (1710)
White – Ellery house, 247 Washington St, Gloucester, MA (1710), built for Gloucester’s first settled minister, the Reverend John White (1677–1760). Framed overhang, probable hewn facade gables.
121 Haverhill St., Rowley MA
Chaplin – Clarke House 121 Haverhill St, Rowley, MA (1671-c.1700) This is Rowley’s oldest dwelling, and the only house standing in Rowley having an overhang and lean-to. The lean-to was added to an existing single-pile hall and parlor two story wood frame structure c. 1700 by Richard Clarke, in whose family it remained until the early 20th century. There is a slight overhang on both the first and second stories at the east end but none in front, nor in the west end which is set into the bank. Slight gable and second floor overhangs on the street end, probably hewn.
Old Castle, Rockport MA
Old Castle, Castle Ln Rockport MA (c 1712). Believed to have been constructed by Jethro Wheeler, in whose family it remained for six generations. Now owned by the Sandy Bay Historical Society. Deeds and dendrochronology confirm the 1712 construction date. Hewn front overhang, no facade gable observed.
Old Garrison house, Rockport, MA
The Old Garrison House, 188 Granite St. in Rockport is the only remaining example of log construction in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was more frequently used in New Hampshire and Maine, including the 1707 McIntire Garrison House in York Maine. The ends of ten heavy transverse spanning girders project to support the second story log wall of the facade. The lowest log of the second story wall is cut to fit over the girders and lap the sides about one inch. Probable hewn log front overhang.
Rev. Joseph Capen house 1 Howlett St., Topsfield (1683), is one of the finest surviving example of Elizabethan architecture in America. The Topsfield Historical Society purchased the house in 1913 and restored it during the Colonial Revival era of the early 20th Century under the direction of George Francis Dow. Framed front overhang, framed gable overhang.
John Ward house, Salem MA
The John Ward House, 7-9 Brown St. Salem MA (constructed between 1684 and 1723) was the subject of an early 20th-century restoration by antiquarian George Francis Dow. The house was moved to the Peabody-Essex Museum campus in 1910. Framed overhang; original gables were removed.
Jonathan Corwin house.
House of Seven Gables
Capt. John Turner House (House of Seven Gables,) Salem MA. The earliest section of the House of the Seven Gables was built in 1668 for Capt. John Turner, and remained in his family for three generations. The earliest part of the structure was a two-room, 2 12-story house that now forms the center section of the house. The facade gables are restorations, having been removed in the 18th Century. The house was restored and obtained its present appearance in 1908. Framed second floor end overhang. Apparent hewn facade gables.
Saugus Iron Works House, 244 Central St., Saugus (1687). Originally a Tudor-style structure consisting of two rooms on each floor around a central chimney, together with a two-story projecting porch and a full-length lean-to. In 1915 it was acquired by a pioneer in historic preservation, Wallace Nutting, who restored the house to what he and his architect, Henry Charles Dean, felt was its original appearance. Framed second floor overhangs, facade gables.
Boardman house, Saugus MA
Boardman house, 17 Howard Street, Saugus, MA (c1692). The house was owned by members of the Boardman family from its construction until 1911, when the property was sold to a developer. Concerns over the preservation of the landmark house brought it to the attention of William Sumner Appleton, who purchased the house in 1914 for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England. The society restored most of the house to its original late 17th/early 18th-century appearance. Framed second floor front overhang.
Thomas Fiske house (Claffin-Richards house)‘ Wenham, MA. (1697). Although traditionally dated to 1661, Abbot Lowell Cummings noted that “In 1697, the selectmen of Wenham granted Thomas Fiske “pine Timber for building his house and for planke and board,” indicating that the Captain’s house was constructed of pine at that time. Cummings further observed that all major framing members in the oldest part of the “so-called” Claflin-Richards house, with the exception of posts and a chimney girt. are indeed pine, and that the walls are planked rather than studded, and the interior is embellished with “such comely refinements as the serpentine braces of the Captain Thomas Fiske house in Wenham.” Dendrochronology has not been done to determine the actual age and builder of this house. Hewn overhangs on front, side and gable.