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August 2003


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"Daniel H. Weiskotten" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 1 Aug 2003 20:19:09 -0400
text/plain (125 lines)

Keep up the excellent work on the Berne History Project.  It sounds to be a
model that we can all follow, not just another project to gather data for
dry old National Register forms.

Frame and Plank houses are common across Central New York, principally from
the 1790s to 1840s.  They are essentially as you described for the several
in Berne, timber framed with stout planks nailed vertically to the
outside.  They are covered with clapboards on the outside and lathed and
plastered on the inside.  The finished walls are about 4-5 inches thick and
quite solid, making insulation and modernizing virtually  impossible.  They
needed timber framing and wide hemlock planks, and I think the style went
out with changes in technology and availability of material.

In some of the earliest of these houses the walls are exceptionally thin,
with wide single-plank wainscoting on the lower part of the inside walls
and plaster above and on the ceiling.  Several building contracts indicate
that this method is used as the panelling can be put up first and then the
upper walls and ceiling can be "ceiled" with plaster when the time permits.

In a c.1806 house in Cazenovia I saw the original walls intact under an
1820s remodelling.   The original construction had the very thin walls and
wainscoting, but all this had been encapsulated by another stud and plaster
wall built right over the top of the original walls, with about 1 inch
between them.  Unfortunately there was no decoration in any part of the
original walls and the chair rail had been removed to make the old wall
flush.  This same house has (or perhaps by now, had) a single-room shed on
the back which was about 20 by 40 feet but had the pole rafters running the
long way - it had sagged but a little in near 200 years.

One house in the Village of Cazenovia, built by the Otis Ormsbee, the
carpenter who is known to have carved the woodwork in a number of
Cazenovia's finest homes of the first decades of the 1800s, is frame and
plank, but has no upright frame pieces.  All it has is the timber frame at
the bottom for the floor joists and a matching above frame for the ceiling
members.  The whole thing is held up by the vertical planks and no knees or
corner posts!

Now, go to the New Military Tract to the west and you get into log houses
that were never meant to have the logs exposed, and are covered by
clapboards and plaster.

The joy of historical structures is that you can expect the
unexpected.  Don't assume that because it was built long ago that it was
not well built or was an experiment or example of ignorance in techniques.

The house I grew up in Cazenovia was built in about 1833.  I found recently
that the man who built it, Abijah Annas, had been a Shaker at Watervliet
for a few years but jumped ship and ran home.  He built it for his brother
and then went to DeRuyter, a town a few miles south, and built a lot of
houses and buildings there.  Clearly he did not learn carpentry or
housewrighting while he was a Shaker as his constructions I know are
nondescript in their construction, although nicely proportioned.  Also,
although my childhood home is well and cleanly built, the joists of the
first floor are an intriguing mix of hewn, pit-sawn, rived, roughed square
and complete log joists!  The rest of the house has timbers shaved smooth
as paper.

It would take a lifetime to study and describe all the building techniques
used by housewrights in the first quarter of the 19th century in New York
State.  And that is just houses, as we all know that Barns are a beast of
their own!

         Dan W.
         (lover of timber frame and plank houses and English Threshing Barns.)

At 12:18 PM 7/30/2003 -0500, you wrote:
>The Berne History Project at www.Bernehistory.org has begun an inventory of
>early buildings in the Town of Berne, Albany County. We are concentrating
>first on the 480 buildings shown on an 1866 map by Beers, of which perhaps
>half are extant. While almost all of the houses were of frame construction,
>a few unusual types of construction were used.
>So far two houses have been identified in Berne that are of vertical plank
>construction. In both the vertical planks are visible in the gables of the
>attic. The new owners of one of these houses had no idea that it was not the
>usual frame construction. Vertical plank buildings are constructed of rough
>sawn planks, each more than a foot wide, two inches thick, and long enough
>to reach from the top of the cellar walls to the attic. The planks were
>placed vertically so that their edges abut, thus requiring no studs. There
>are two overlapping layers so the walls are four inches thick. The exterior
>is sheathed with clapboard, and the interior had lathe and plaster. There is
>no insulation. Both houses are thought to have been built around 1800.
>There is one house of stacked plank construction that so far has been
>identified in Berne. It was probably built around 1840. Stacked plank, or
>plank-on-plank buildings were constructed of rough milled planks stacked and
>nailed on top of the other, thus requiring no studs. The boards were laid
>similar to log construction with every other board extending to the corner
>so that the ends overlapped the one below for the adjoining wall. The result
>was a dense, solid wall with no insulation. An advantage was that the
>construction did not require a great deal of expertise, making it an
>excellent choice for people who were not skilled craftsmen. The
>disadvantages were that they required a large quantity of lumber and nails,
>and were prone to warping. As the exterior is covered with clapboard, it is
>impossible to tell the method of construction from the outside. On the
>inside of the Berne house alternate planks are offset an inch to create keys
>for a plaster finish, thus requiring no lathe.
>Several gravel houses were constructed in the Town of Berne in the mid 19th
>Century. While the 1855 census lists only one gravel house, by 1865 there
>were eight. The walls were a conglomerate of lime, horse hair and gravel.
>Today we would probably call them concrete houses. Gravel was not a strong
>building material and only two houses survive, both of which are faced with
>brick. The brick was probably added after 1865 to reinforce the walls. Both
>houses have in recent decades had structural problems and had to have walls
>I am writing a newspaper article about these Berne houses. In order to get a
>feel for how rare they are, I would like to know of other houses of similar
>construction in New York State, and when they were built.