“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.