Chapter Three

The James Allen-Stanley house, ca. 1688. In the 19th century the house was moved and oriented towards the west.

The Distinctive Vineyard House

All the surviving late 17th century houses already show the low, compact, profile and two-room deep plan that were to characterize houses on this Island, as well as those on the Cape, for the next 150 years. The Island house, in fact, has been so consistent since early Colonial times that it has been generally assumed that the design was always this way from the time of the earliest English settlers. Banks implies as much when he says of the first houses: “Of course the houses were single storied—most of them of the ‘low double’ variety.[1] Low double” here is a kind of Island shorthand for describing a one and one-half story full-house plan; a “low single” would be a one-and one-half story half-house; a high double” and “high single” would refer to two and one-half story whole and half houses, respectively.

These simple designations used commonly by old timers and writers (Banks; Joe Allen; Cyril Norton, etc.) refer only to the length and height of a house, which was deemed a sufficient description. Apparently, alternate roof lines like the saltbox, or whether a house was one or two rooms deep were never issues. As far back as anyone could remember, traditional Island houses always had front rooms and back rooms and an ample space upstairs under the eaves of a roof that reached out to span the whole depth of the house.

However, what we are dealing with here—a two-room deep house built around a central chimney with two front rooms and a kitchen area in back, all under one unbroken roof—has to be considered a house ahead of its time for any period including the 1670s and before. One simple fact illustrates this: the earliest surviving house from Massachusetts Bay Colony that was built two rooms deep from the start was the Whipple-Matthews house in Hamilton, Massachusetts, built between 1680 and 1683.[2] Here on the Vineyard we know of four houses of this type, dating from the early 1670s, and five others that were probably under construction during the 1680s. This is surprising enough, but can we believe further that this house type goes back as early as 1646 when the elder Mayhew moved into what may have been the first timber-framed house on the Island?

To put this into perspective, we must refer to the development of the house plan elsewhere in New England during the 17th century. This has been amply documented by many writers; herein I will give a brief summary using quotes from three historians: Morrison, Cummings, and Kelly.

In figure 3-1, we have Hugh Morrison’s illustrations showing “Typical Plans of New England Colonial Houses.”[3] The three most common types were the one-room plan, the two-room plan, and the two-room plan with the added lean-to on the back. Often the last was a result of an additive development from one to two to three. In Morrison’s words:

The one-room plan was the simplest and earliest type. It was used in the early cottages at Plymouth and Salem and remained common in smaller and poorer dwellings throughout the century. The front door opened into a small vestibule, in those days called the “porch,” which a steep staircase crowded up against an immense chimney. The main room was a combination living-dining-cooking room of ample size, usually about 16 by 18 feet, called the “keeping room” or more often the “hall.”[4]

The two-room plan was simply the one-room plan with a parlor added at the other side of the chimney and porch, giving two fireplaces back to back. Several instances are known in which the parlor was actually added as a second unit to a previously built one-room house, but more commonly, when families could afford it. both units were built at once.[5]

The added lean-to plan was the result of an addition at the back of the house with roof rafters ‘leaning’ from one-story eaves at the back against the top of the wall of the main house … the added space was used for a separate kitchen. The cooking was done in a fireplace added to the back of the central chimney mass.[6]

Cumming says that the two most common plans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the first century of settlement were the single-room and two-room plans. He goes on to say of the single-room plan:

The one-room plan cannot be associated exclusively with persons of moderate means … Well-to-do John Whipple of Ipswich, a deputy to the General Court, apparently found the one-room plan a practical starting point. Indeed, a significant proportion of surviving seventeenth-century two-room central-chimney houses at Massachusetts Bay commenced life as dwellings of single room plan. Clearly, immediate need for shelter under pioneer conditions … seems to have dictated for many of the settlers at every class of economic level, a simple single-unit dwelling for a start, to be soon enlarged as their situation in life improved.[7]

Of the later houses, he says:

As fully developed, the characteristic later seventeenth-century house plan at Massachusetts Bay consisted of two rooms ranged on either side of a central chimney, usually with corresponding chambers above. …Before the end of the century, the lean-to at the rear began to be incorporated as an integral part of the frame of the main house. …The practice became increasingly rooted during the first quarter of the 18th century.[8]

J. Frederick Kelly, in his study of Connecticut houses, gives a chronology for this development. He states that the two-room plan prevailed up to 1650; that from 1650 to 1675 it shared honors with the added lean-to type; and that from 1675 to 1700 the original lean-to became general.[9]

In figure 3-2, we see three houses from Massachusetts Bay that are examples of the one-room, the two-room, and the two-room with added lean-to plans. The Boardman house in Saugus was built in 1687 with lean-to added before 1696. The Fairbanks house was originally built as a two-room house around 1636 or 1637, and the rear lean-to was added probably before 1668. The Parson Capen house of 1683 never had a lean-to added to the back, and thus, remains an excellent example of a two-room plan house. In this case, the hall, to the right of the front door, remained the cooking-dining-work area of the house. This is one of the most English-looking of all the New England Colonial houses.

The illustration in figure 3-5 shows how growth patterns differed on the Vineyard from those in Massachusetts Bay.

As the Island house comes down to us from the late 17th century, it has already a plan, a shape, and a development pattern that are distinct from the Colonial houses of Massachusetts Bay and elsewhere. (For the moment, we will put off discussion of how this type came into being and possible earlier stages before the 1670s.) The Northern equivalent to the “half-house,” and sometimes termed this, is the single-room plan that Morrison and Cummings have described. On the Island, there are no surviving “single room” houses. The Island half-house is more truly a house than a cottage because it is two rooms deep and separated the functions of the living room from those of the back area of the house where cooking, dining, storing of food, and caring for the young took place. The plan of an Island half-house is given in figure 3-4a. The basic front room is roughly square, fourteen to fifteen feet on a side which is rather less than the approximate sixteen by eighteen feet rectangular main room of houses to the North; but, in comparison to the single-room plan, the Vineyard front room serves many less functions. The front vestibule or “porch,” stairs or ladder, and chimney mass enclosed within their own bay at one end of the house are similar in both types. Where the Vineyard house differs most significantly is in the addition of the back kitchen area. This included not only the main kitchen where the cooking and preparing of meals was done, and which was used as a general workspace as well, but also two smaller rooms opening off the kitchen in the direction of the outside wall opposite the fireplace. The northerly and, therefore, coolest room was the pantry or buttery where pots, pans, kitchen utensils and certain foods were stored. Next to it was a tiny bedroom sandwiched between the pantry and the front room which was commonly called the “borning room.” The nearby warmth of the kitchen hearth and the ready availability of hot water made this an ideal location for women in labor. It was also used for the care of very small children and the sick where they could always be near the women of the house working close by. The often numerous children of the household and sometimes the parents as well slept in the loft upstairs, which in the early days was left largely “unfinished” or unplastered, with only simple board partitions where needed. With the mass of the great chimney passing through this space, and the heat form below rising up, the upstairs must have been a warm and comfortable sleeping space.

This early half-house nucleus often expanded in later years as families grew or circumstances permitted. In this case, just as in the North, an addition would be added on the opposite side of the chimney where a flue to the fireplace of the new room could be easily added. The chimney would then be in the center rather than at one end of the house. The advantages of this location for thermal mass and warmth, as well as the easy accessibility of flues for fireplaces, was obvious. In contrast to the North, the additions on the Island house would almost always continue to be two rooms deep. The one exception to this that I know of was the extension of the Adams-Knowlton house which took place in the mid to late 18th century. Here, the back half was extended first creating what is commonly called a Beverly ell and only later was the bedroom part added in front of this. Today, the house appears as a “normal” three-quarter house of two rooms deep.

There were two types of extension that took place. One created the three-quarter house by adding a half-room, generally used for a bedroom, on the opposite side of the chimney, and extending the kitchen in the back. The other type of extension added a whole room which often became the parlor in the house. Here one usually finds the finest paneling and finish work. In this case, the older front room would either become a second living room or perhaps the master bedroom. The back part of this extension would increase the width of the kitchen, and additionally add another borning room and pantry opposite the first at the other end of the kitchen. The full extension gave a symmetrical balance to the house and created what we call the full-house plan. From the front, a half-house has two windows, a three-quarter house has three, and a full-house has four windows; two on either side of the front door.

Often after these additions were made, an ell was added to the back of the house with a gable room that ran at right angles to that of the main roof. Shed-roofed additions were never used. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this ell was always very modest in size and was probably used as a further pantry, buttery, or storage area.

In the 19th century, the ell was often extended and became the new kitchen area of the house when stoves replaced the old cooking fireplaces.[10] The many telescoping ells that can often be seen on old houses today were usually added in this century or the last. See figure 3-5c of “Barnhouse,” c. 1690, from the back, showing numerous ells. Here the original was the smallest section having been moved out and stuck back on the end when a larger ell was added for the kitchen in the 1920s. Later another extension was added to all of this.

When these additions were finished, the tradition did not allow for more. The compact, self-contained house with its roughly symmetrical front (often one front room was somewhat larger than the other) was always preserved. Never do we see the numerous shed roofed extensions or additional wings that protrude in all directions from the Fairbanks house. Nor were the multiple gables common at Salem, or dormers allowed to interrupt the lines of the roof. When these occur, they are always the addition of a later era (19th or 20th centuries). The dormers at “Barnhouse,” for example, were added in the 1920s.

The full-house plan of Cape and Island houses ultimately looks very similar to fully developed plans in Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, with one exception, that they are more modest in scale. How each one gets to this point is where the difference lies. Consistently, we can say that the early Vineyard house developed as a deep house first before it expanded in a lengthwise direction. The half house was always two rooms deep before it became a full house.

The opposite was true of the Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut houses where the lengthwise expansion came before the expansion in depth. Here, they added the “parlor” opposite the “hall” (as Morrison has described) before they built on the back kitchen under a lean-to roof. Occasionally the back kitchen was never added as in the Parson Capen house in Topsfield, Massachusetts (c. 1683). In this case, the hall or left-hand room remained the kitchen as in English houses and early Colonials in this country.

Because of this difference in development, there was also a difference in roofs. The saltbox evolved because the back kitchen area was added as an afterthought to the main mass of the house. This brought about either a broken or an asymmetrical roof line with the back rafters longer than the front. In many cases, the houses of Massachusetts Bay may have looked better before the kitchen lean-to was added. The Parson Capen house, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful of the 17th century Colonials and perhaps closer than any other to English predecessors, would be a case in point. Imagine adding a lean-to kitchen on the back of this house and you would create a misshapen design that certainly would not be an improvement.

On the Vineyard house the back kitchen was there from the start (there may have been some early exceptions to this, as we will see). Thus, the rafters reached out to encompass both rooms under a gable roof that were the same length in front as they were in back.

This meant that as the Vineyard house grew, it grew into symmetry rather than out of it as did the houses of the North. The beautifully balanced full-house plan was the completion of a design that the earlier half house had always seemed to anticipate. Small wonder that Banks had assumed that most early houses were “of the low double variety” (i.e., full-house plan)—for this is the way it seems they should look. However, of the eleven Island houses mentioned from the 17th century (all now full houses), six, at least, grew into their present plans from an earlier half-house stage.

Thus, by the late 17th century, the Vineyard house had already evolved into a practical and well-developed design which even had a complete and logical growth pattern sequence implicit in its plan.

Fig. 3-1. Typical plans of New England Colonial Houses (from Morrison, Early American Architecture):

Fig. 3-1a. The one-room plan showing “Hall,” “Porch,” massive chimney at one end of the house, and stairs going up to a sleeping loft or chamber above.

Fig. 3-1b. The two-room plan showing “Parlor” added at the other side of the chimney. When this was added, the parlor became the best room in the house.

Figure 3-1c. The added lean-to plan. The kitchen, pantry, bedroom area in light lines was added under a lean-to roof built onto the back of the house. A kitchen fireplace with its own flue and circular bread oven was attached to the existing stack.


Fig. 3-2. The three types of Colonial houses from Massachusetts Bay:

Fig. 3-2a. Peak house from Medfield, Massachusetts, late 17th century. An example of the one-room plan. (Cummings, Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay).

Fig. 3-2b. The Parson Capen House, Topsfield, Massachusetts, c. 1683. A two-room plan house with chambers above. The hall is on the right, the parlor is to the left of the front door. (Morrison, Early American Architecture.)

Fig. 3-2c. The Boardman House, Saugus, Massachusetts, c. 1687. The two-room plan with added lean-to on the back. Note the appended flue built into the main stack to serve the kitchen fireplace added when the lean-to was constructed in back. (Cummings, Houses of

Massachusetts Bay)

Fig. 3-3. Three types of typical Vineyard houses:

Fig. 3-3a. Half-House: The gambrel-roofed Hillman-Goff house off Tea Lane, Chilmark, ca. 1709-11. Addition on right was built in 19th century. Islanders would term this house a “low single.”

Fig. 3-3b. Three-Quarter house. The Simon Mayhew-Clark house in Squibnocket, Chilmark, ca. 1707. It was originally a half-house, later in the 18th century made into a three-quarter house with the addition of the small bedroom to the right of the front door.


Fig. 3-3c. Full-House. The Isaac Robinson-Bruno house was also once a half-house. Original portion dates back to 1673 (to right of front door). Western half of the house was added in mid-18th century. Islanders would term this house a “low double.”



Fig. 3-4. Typical Vineyard house plans of the Colonial period:

Fig. 3-4a. Half-house plan. From Hancock-Mitchell house, Quansoo, in its half-house stage, c. 1670s.

Fig. 3-4b. Three-Quarter house plan. From Mayhew-Clark house, Squibnocket. Original half-house c. 1707.


Fig. 3-5. Three samples of houses that grew:

Fig. 3-5a. The Mayhew-Meinelt house of 1711, South Road, Chilmark. This house was once a half-house, the left or western portion being the original half. In recent times, the old central chimney was replaced by the two stacks we see here on either side of the ridgepole; the present windows were put in in the 19th century. This characteristic Vineyard house is two rooms deep without resorting to the saltbox shape. Note the low-pitched roof and compact shape of the house. Though more than one branch of the Mayhew family lived here at once, the many wing additions of the Fairbanks house (figure 3-5b) would have been deemed inappropriate for the Colonial architecture of the Island. This house would be called a “high double.”

Fig. 3-5b. The Fairbanks house, Dedham, Massachusetts. The early portion dates from 1636. The lean-to in back and the gambrel-roofed wings were added later in the century to accommodate a larger family, and later, the son’s families. The random growth pattern, the steep-pitched roofs, and the lean-to addition in back are very different from the Colonial architectural tradition we find on the Vineyard.


Fig. 3-5c. “Barnhouse,” Chilmark. Built by Nathan Skiff in 1690, possibly as a half-house, the latter half would have been added in the 1730s. The two thin chimneys replaced a central stack in the 19th century, and the dormers were added in the 1920s. Traditionally, Vineyard houses grew out the back, sometimes with a series of ells as here. The original ell was the tiny one to the far right of the picture. This was moved out to the back when the large kitchen ell was added that now joins the main part of the house.

Notes – Chapter Three

[1] Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 145.

[2] Cummings, Framed Houses, p. 33.

[3] Morrison, Early American Architecture, p. 23.

[4] Ibid., p. 20.

[5] Ibid., p. 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cummings, Framed Houses, p. 22.

[8] Ibid., p. 33.

[9] See J. Frederick Kelly, Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut (New Haven, 1924), Chapter Two.

[10] Gale Huntingon says this of the kitchen ell: “about the first quarter of the nineteenth century … a kitchen ell was added opening into the big room (the old kitchen). The kitchen ell marked the coming of the iron cookstove, the kitchen sink, and the pitcher pump with a cistern under it to catch rain water .those were modern improvements. …The Vineyard name for the kitchen ell was the porch. And only when true porches began to be built was that name given up for the kitchen ell.” Gale Huntington, an Introduction to Martha’s Vineyard (Oak Bluffs, MA, 1974), pp. 29-30.