By John Nye Cullity
One of the most important and interesting questions about an old house museum is, “How was it originally constructed and what changes were made over the years?” Old photographs help, but these are rare and can’t account for work done in pre-photographic times. Many features, interior and exterior, can be carefully examined, inner walls and other layers removed, and exterior changes and old rooflines seen when shingles are stripped for replacement. A lot can be learned by examining the timber frame of a building, though this can be difficult because much of the typical frame is hidden by boxing or other coverings. Usually the attic and root cellar is a good place to begin.
Rosanna Cullity and others first got a look at the Benjamin Nye house in the late 1950s when the process of preservation was begun, and several features indicated that the house had been enlarged from an early version. Gunstock posts (typically a 17th century feature) were found exposed in the upstairs hall or landing, and at the stairway leading up to the attic. In the attic, it could be clearly seen that the house sheathing consisted of vertical boards, an early feature. At each end, an earlier roofline could be clearly seen, the seam covered with a plank. This suggested that the house could have originally been built as a double house, so called, one room deep, two rooms wide, two rooms high. Rosanna had been told by her aunt, Delia Nye Blake (1869-1959) who was born in the house, that her grandfather Silvanus Nye (1744-1820) “had a big family and had to raise the roof up from a saltbox” or words to that effect. For many years we have thought then, that the house was rebuilt at least twice.
One puzzling feature was that each old roofline cut seemed to overhang the back plate, meaning the attic level lengthwise timber that rests on the gunstock posts and supports the roof rafters. Also, what appeared to be boarded up attic window openings existed, but curiously off center from what we thought was the peak of the original house.
In 1983 an account book belonging to Silvanus Nye and his son Samuel (1789-1867) was given to the Association by Lois Howland, a Nye descendant and Rosanna’s cousin. Close examination of this indicated that the house was substantially rebuilt, including a new chimney, in 1816. We accept this as the date for change from a saltbox to its current full colonial shape. This was progress in understanding.
In 1985 when we had antique house craftsman John Mackensie restore the keeping room, he and I spent some time trying to figure house framing. A conclusion was not reached because important points of investigation were covered by trim, etc. When John took up the keeping room floor, however, he did find several of the original 17th century roof rafters, with purlin notches, which had been pressed into service as floor joists. In length they roughly matched up to the earlier line and angle of the front roof. The mortises (holes chiseled out of a timber) for these rafters could be seen in the front plate; the 1816 rafters sat on the corner of the front plate and were held there by a large trunnel (wooden peg) through each.
Unfortunately, during repairs done in either the 1920s or the 1960s, the rear roof, plate, and the timber sitting on top of the back gunstock posts had been completely replaced, removing many useful clues.
John and I also tried to find evidence of how an early double house could have had lean-to rafters added to the rear gunstock posts to form a salt box house, but we could not find such evidence.
In January 2012 I set about measuring and drawing the parts of the frame that could be seen. There were three useful areas: the attic, the stair area leading down to the root cellar, and the cellar itself (rectangular, 10 by 23 feet, of fieldstone).
In the attic, the front plate to me has all the appearance of an original timber, with the tie beams (8” by 8” oak beams running from the front to the back of the house) dovetailed into it, sitting on the gunstock posts. It does not run the full length of the building, an additional five feet was spliced on to reach the corner post. Most puzzling was the west end girt (similar to the tie beams, but simply at the ends of the building), which also appeared to be original in every way, yet it projected about a foot north of where the old back timber or plate would have been, and was fashioned into a lap splice. This overhang seemed to correspond with the overhanging roof line mentioned earlier, but I couldn’t figure out how it figured into the framing of either an early double house or a saltbox.
A breakthrough came while reading the classic by Abbott Lowell Cummings, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay 1625-1725 (1979). He began describing what he called the integral lean-to house, in other words, a dwelling built originally as a salt box, not a “lean-to added” type. These used cantilevered end-girts and tie beams, extending back from the plate several feet, in order to support the long lean-to rafters, which were often also spliced at that point.
It is my opinion that the one remnant of this – the one foot projection of the west end girt, originally extended out several feet as Cummings described, but it (and the others, sawn off during repairs long ago) had been formed into splices to connect to and support the timber running to the new (in 1816) back plate of the rebuilt house. Strangely, this west end connecting timber was not re-installed during 20th century repairs. There is only a small board there now, as workmen must have found it too involved to properly replace it, nail the vertical sheathing to it from the outside, etc.
Finally, I believe I figured out the odd placement of what seemed to be boarded up 17th century attic windows or shutters. These old openings were each filled with 21” of board width, which was centered over the 18 foot distance between the end posts of the front part of the house. Guessing, I drew the conjectural early frame as if the peak were centered over these blocked openings, and the resulting saltbox roofline appeared more sensible and pleasing. This suggested that during the 1816 rebuild, when the old front end rafters were removed, a few inches were sawn off the tops of the vertical sheathing boards to achieve the new roof angle.
The opinion I am led to by all this is that the house was built as a saltbox, or integral lean-to. This fits well with the results of last year’s dendrochronology (tree ring based) study by Cornell professor Carol Griggs, who placed the date of construction at 1677 or 78. (The sample was from a white oak floor joist removed during the parlor restoration in 2009). From my recent study of numerous antique house books, especially Cummings, this time, 1680, plus or minus, was a time when many such houses were built in southern New England.
An interesting side note is that I found a deed in the Registry in which Silvanus purchased the house across the street (82 Old County Rd) in 1811 from the estate of Gideon Allen. In 1816, the old Nye House was substantially taken apart, as we’ve seen, and the family had to move furniture and live somewhere during the process. I believe they lived in the Gideon Allen house across the street for the duration. In his 1820 will, Silvanus left that house to his son Joseph, who is described as being a merchant. He soon died at age 36, however, and his widow Betsy and children lived on there for some years. The Nyes owned an interest in that house until 1868, when that interest was sold to Joseph Hoxie.