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The Story Behind the James House

The survival of First Period Houses - a term used by architectural historians to identify the technology of 17th century houses, built in the English manner between 1630 and 1725 -- are extremely rare in New Hampshire. (Massachusetts has fared much better in this regard.)

Certain principles of construction during the First Period of Settlement were held in common throughout New England. These include a braced frame of hewn sills, exposed chamfered posts and chamfered summer beams, girts, plates, rafters, and purlins. Only a dozen or so authentic First Period Houses still exist in New Hampshire. While many early houses claim to be of the First Period, it is a very rare structure that survives to the present without evolutionary changes that remove or destroy the earliest "first period" features.

Among its earliest settlements, Dover, Portsmouth, and Exeter claim the majority of First Period houses. Hampton recognizes only one. Like most First Period houses of ordinary people, Hampton's surviving example originally was a half house, one room over one room deep, with a chimney flanking an end wall. The other half was built later than the First Period.

Recently another fully braced house of the First Period has been discovered in Hampton. Known as the Benjamin James House, seven generations of that family have lived there until 1931. Basically the full house stands as a complete unit, its timber frame members are authentic and clearly visible. Despite a few Victorian and early 20th century surface alterations, the most obvious of which is the removal of the central chimney, its many First Period features have been undisturbed.

Following the one over one room pattern on each side of what had been the central chimney, the rooms are large. A second frame of smaller rooms (of one over one) was built at the same time. From the beginning the roof covered both frames. Was the builder not able to handle additional rooms in any other way? Does this framing suggest the beginning of the transition toward what has become known as Georgian Colonial? As the story of the James House continues to unfold, we may learn more about who the master carpenters were, and why the James House was built the way it was.

a brief history of the James House >


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