The Washerwoman’s Genes

July 24, 2006

Review:The Early Stone Houses of Ulster County

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 8:17 pm

Myron S. Teller, The Early Stone Houses of Ulster County. Ulster County Historical Society, 1959, rept. 1974; 2001.

I looked through this book before the Hurley stone house tour, concentrating on things I would likely see, such as doors and windows, and not catching many of the details of construction. On Stone House Day, though, I quickly got a case of information overload: docent-chat about owners and property history, furnishings and décor, and particular features of each individual home meant I didn’t focus well on the architecture or the craft, that is, on the work of stone masons and carpenters. Rereading Teller’s work, I long to revisit, this time with book in hand.

Teller, an architect and advisor to Ulster stone-house owners (he died shortly after the first edition was published), provides a spare but complete technical description of stone house architecture. After a short overview of the historical circumstances leading to the profusion of stone houses in the early Hudson Valley, he analyzes their components: floor beams, floors, roofs, frames, doors, windows, roofs, and the fireplace and oven. Teller refers frequently to particular homes as examples (another feature that makes me wish I had had the book with me), and the book has more pages of drawings, elevations, and plates than of text.

In documenting the precision and craft necessary to construct a house of stone, Teller reveals the sophistication of seventeenth-century engineering. The houses are not that different in construction from a twentieth-century stone house (although in the twenty-first, pre-fab, plastics, metals, and composites replace many natural materials). What is different is the sheer labor required to quarry and move stone, cut and trim logs, saw planks and plane floors, create nails and iron hardware, and more. This is not a book about construction but about functional design. Still, a reader can glean the monumental labor necessary to create each house.

He explains that stone houses were at first merely “one large square room enclosed with stone walls 2 feet thick” (1), in which the family cooked, ate, slept, and did all their “living,” a fact that testifies to the difficulty of putting up a house of stone. Even so, in the earliest ones there’s a cellar formed by extending the foundations six feet below grade, and an attic made by building walls up four feet above the room’s ceiling. (Both were crucial, for one stored grain and the other provisions.) Hardly stone heaps, these came to be called “story-and-a-half” houses.

Walls were made of “native limestone available from near-by ridges and low hills, where it lay near the surface and was easy to quarry.” This was mixed with “what they called ‘Field Stone’ . . . rooted out or dropped . . . by the early glaciers” (3). Teller meant no irony, of course, but “easy to quarry” is a relative term. (Hear the sledge hammers ringing.)

Building a wall, stone on stone, was methodically done: “when built in[to] the wall, [the stones] were always laid to rest on their natural base, [the masons] selecting a straight or smoother side to show on outside of wall.” (3) Nothing quick and dirty here.

A cement of lime and sand, with hair as a binder, “was used to point up the outside joints in walls which served to prevent the rains from washing out the clay mortar and saved the building from ruin” (4). Lime was scarce and costly, and so masons used a cruder mortar of clay and straw to hold the inner walls together. No ripping open a bag of insta-mix concrete—back then, it was all home-brew.

Floor beams were logs of oak, flattened on the top side if not all, and “usually peeled of the bark.” Other beams were “squared with the broad axe and adze, a processed called ‘hand-rived’” (4).

Floors were planks of pine or other white wood, “cut with the rip saw which operated by hand up and down” and “hand planed” (4). The boards between the main room and attic were planed on both sides.

You need to say these phrases again: “peeled of the bark,” “squared with the broad axe and adze,” “hand-rived,” “cut with the rip saw . . . by hand up and down.” Sounds positively biblical.

Grooves in the plank edges allowed the planks to be fit closely together (just like the flooring in the house my father build for his family in the 1950s), and the planks were “secured to the beams with hand made wrought iron nails,” if available, or, especially in the early days, wooden pegs. Iron was at such a premium that sometimes a disused frame building would be burned down to recover the nails (4). A hell of a way to recycle.

Every such detail that Teller recounts conveys the forethought, the craft, and the sheer hard work to make a house of stone. As he writes himself, the first settlements were of wood, “as it took considerable labor and time to build [in stone]. . . . The first task was to clear and prepare land for cultivation and provide for living” (1). Then the permanent houses were crafted.

Soon enough, walled villages of stone houses, such as the Stockade built in Kingston after 1658, became necessary to protect against Indian attacks—stone houses becoming, as it were, our continent’s first exercise in “homeland security” (if you ignore the irony that it was the Indians’ homeland and not the Europeans’). Teller explains, “This combination one-room home provided only with cellar and 1st floor entrance and three or four small windows closed with heavy batten doors and shutters was also their fort to protect them” (2).

But after threats subsided, settlers continued to build in stone, up through the early 1800s, so that, as you drive certain old roads “bordering the foothills and edging the broad fertile valley, you come on these picturesque houses near the road and overlooking their fields” (1). Teller’s description is almost fifty years old, and the houses endure still, and endure as residences: most remain in private hands and cannot normally be visited. But we have Teller’s book to give us an x-ray view.

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