Construction of the 1657 Alexander Knight house

Alexander Knight house Ipswich MA construction

by Ipswich Historical Commission chairman John Fiske: 

The Alexander Knight House that now stands on the South Green is an exact replica of a seventeenth-century, single-room house – the sort that many of the humbler first settlers would have lived in. Normally, Historic Ipswich does not write about reproduction houses. But what should we do if there is no original? None of these early single-room houses have survived. As we all know, history is written by the winners, and the winners didn’t live in houses like this. The larger houses that were owned by the prosperous families, such as the Whipple House or the Heard House, tell the dominant history of Ipswich, but the humble history often disappears – the humble houses and their humble furnishings were not thought worth saving, so they weren’t. An accurate replica is often the only way to bring “humble history” to life. Ipswich is unique in having so many of these (larger) first period houses; it is also unique in having among its town records the only written description of a single-room house, and now it is unique in having the house itself.

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Alexander Knight

Alexander Knight was an early settler of Ipswich, and was a man of some substance, both here and in England before he emigrated in 1634. He appears regularly in the town records, but the first hint of trouble comes in March, 1654, when he was fined 20 shillings for “carelessness in not preventing a fire after warning.” It appears that his young son died in the fire. This fire appears to have caused his downfall, and may have injured him so badly that he was unable to work. At any rate, in 1656 he leased out his land and cattle, which suggests he was no longer capable of farming, and in April of that year the town records tell us

“Alexander Knight being in the house of Aron Pengry for the present necessity the selectmen think it meet that he should free his house agayne by the first of May next.”

The way the town cared for its poor and homeless was to house them with other residents, often as indentured servants. Alexander Knight may have been a bit ornery as a lodger and may not have been able to work, for it sounds as though Pengry had petitioned the selectmen to eject him. Certainly Knight does not come across too well in the record for March, 1657:

“Whereas Alexander Knight hath often complayned to us of his want of an habitation & that he is altogether destitute his wife alsoe being neare her tyme, and that not withstanding all his endeavor he hath not been able to provyd reliefe in this Dir___ & therefore is forced to complayne to the Town for helpe. The selectmen conssidderinge there is noe common house provided in such cases & being informed that Mr. John Cogswell hath an empty house at his disposing wherewith the sayd Alexander may be Comfortably relieved in his nesesity it is therefore ordered that the constable shall repair to the sd Mr. Cogswell (and if he shall engage) shall require him to give him entrance into the sayd house for the present reliefe of ye sd Alexander…”

For some reason, Knight never ended up in Cogswell’s house (did Cogswell know his reputation, we wonder?), for in April, 1657, we come across the record that really interests us: it is the only extant description of a seventeenth-century single-room house.

“It is ordered that Mr. Willson shall desire and is hereby impowered to secure a house to be built for Alexander Knight of 16 foote long & twelve foote wyde & 7 or 8 foote stud upon his ground & to pryd [provide] thatching & other things nesasary for it & in case he cannot secure carpenters otherwise to secure carpenters to worke a day apiece & other workingmen upon the penalty of five shillings a day if they refuse.”
(The selectmen regularly required men to give a day’s labor to public works such as maintaining the roads or building bridges.)

So that is the house the town built for Alexander Knight in 1657. And that is the house that has been replicated by volunteers and completed in 2015.

The pictures below tell the story of the construction of the house.

Construction

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All the wood for the original house was sawn in the saw mill on the Lower Falls of the Ipswich River. The wood for the replica was sawn in a virtually identical mill at the Taylor Sawmill, in Derry, NH. To saw the dense white oak for the frame and the large pine logs for the siding the mill had to be run at the slowest speed. The saw marks are clearly visible on the floor boards in the photographs of the interior of the house.

Alexander Knight house foundationThe fieldstone cellar provided climate-controlled storage throughout the year: cool in summer and above freezing in winter. The section on the far left, with fieldstones laid on the ground is the base of the hearth. The cellar walls provided the foundation for the sills, keeping them off the damp ground.

Alexander Knight house floorThe cellar is reached by a trap door near the hearth. Note the marks of the reciprocating saw on the floor boards.

Inside the Alexander Knight house
The frame: a “gunstock” corner post supporting the side and end beams, and with wind braces for stability.

The roof beams and rafters support a roughly boarded loft for sleeping and storage. Wind braces were set at the corners of the oak frame to stabilize it against any lateral movement.

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The frame for the wooden chimney rises above the roof.

Oak boards on historic Alexander Knight house
The frame was clad in wide pine boards whose edges were cut at an acute angle to shed rain. There was no interior wall or insulation.

The Hearth and Chimney

Inside the Alexander Knight house

chimney of the Alexander Knight house
The hearth was completely open, its wooden walls “catted” (coated) with a clay lining that continued up the chimney. This would not have been allowed in Boston: “Wee have ordered that noe man shall build his chimney with wood nor cover his roof with thatch, which was readily assented to, for that divers houses have been burned since our arrival (the fire always beginning in the wooden chimney)…” Thomas Dudley, 1631.

Alexander Knight house chimney
“Catting” the top of the chimney. John Winthrop knew the importance of this: In his Journal, 1631, he noted that Mr. Sharp’s house in Boston took fire, “the splinters being not clayed at the top.”

Thatching

In smaller towns like Ipswich, thatching was allowed despite the fire danger. Thatched roofs were cheap, warm, dry and durable – qualities that outweighed the fire risk.

Thatching the Alexander Knight house
The roof was thatched with local rushes. The first layer of thatch was surrounded by tightly bound rolls that provided a space for hay insulation.

Thatching the roof of the Alexander Knight houseSalt hay insulation is laid over the lowest level of thatch.

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Laid over the insulation layer, reeds fan out over the ends of the house to shed any rain that might penetrate the outer layer of thatch.

Alexander Knight house Ipswich MA construction
The roof completed. The final layer has the reeds cut and angled outward. A reeded cap has been run along the ridge, and all the thatch is secured with wooden strips pegged securely into the roof.

Windows

windows in the Alexander Knight house

Glazing was expensive; the panes were imported from England in barrels of saw dust, so only the better houses had them. Most windows were unglazed and fitted with hinged or sliding shutters, offering the choice of light-plus-draught or dark-plus-warmth.

window in the Alexander Knight house

A window with sliding shutters.

A glazed window has been fitted in the front here for educational/illustrative purposes even though it would probably have been too expensive for the original house. In some houses of the period the unglazed windows were covered with oiled paper, but this is not documented in any Ipswich house.

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The glazed casement window that opens inward on hinges.

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3 thoughts on “Construction of the 1657 Alexander Knight house

  1. it’s fascinating to imagine my 8 times great grandfather Giles Birdley, (Burley Burleigh) lived in an Ipswich home very similar to this one. I am anxious to see this home when I visit Ipswich later this month.

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