Historic Houses of the Month The Gambrel Houses

By Nancy Hayford Kueny

Charlestown has more late 18th-and early 19th-century frame houses than any other Boston neighborhood.   Although many streets today are lined with brick townhouses, the majority of the oldest homes in Charlestown are timber framed homes covered with clapboards or shingles.  Because of New England’s abundant forests and relatively cool climate, wood was the obvious choice as a building material, both before and after the burning of the town. In the past, I have written about Federal and Late Georgian styles, as well as the Greek Revival and Italianate styles. A much rarer style to have survived is the gambrel-roofed house.  We are fortunate to have a handful of these clapboarded gambrels sprinkled throughout the town.

The gambrel-roofed home is a subtype of the Georgian style and has roots in 17th-century England, as well as 17th-century Holland. It is characterized by a double-sloping roof extending downward on both sides from the roof peak.  The gambrel roof is an adaptation of the simpler ‘end gable’ style house.  The double-slope gives the home more space on the top floor as a result of the expanded roof shape.  Many gambrels additionally have several dormers which provided additional space, as well as light.  These upper rooms would be used as bedrooms. The gambrel is found predominately in New England, as very few remain in the Middle Atlantic and Southern colonies.

Clapboards (called weatherboards in England) have been used in this country since early colonization, and can be attributed to the fact that many Medieval English houses were clapboarded.  Clapboards are tapered at the top to facilitate a tight overlapping fit.   Old, original clapboards are usually cedar or pine.  Some homes in Charlestown, mine included, still have some intact original clapboard siding, indicating that the wood used in the 19th century was much denser and of higher quality than much of the wood we use today.

The remaining gambrels of Charlestown appear to have been built between the mid-1790s and the mid-1820s.  When I was first in Charlestown, there was a fascinating rumor that the gambrels were actually built by the British following the Battle of Bunker Hill, and were used to house the troops that remained to occupy our town.  While fascinating, this apparently was not the case.  They were built much later.  Nonetheless, they all would have been among the early houses built during Charlestown’s reconstruction phase following the battle.

I touched on 23 Pleasant St. (aka 81R Warren St.) in my September article about Donnell Court.  This lovely late Georgian gambrel was known to be extant by 1808, and is sited on a lovely yard that was once part of Andrew Kettel’s holdings.  It is a five-bay center hall plan with three stories.  The top floor has three shallow dormers facing the yard.  The gambrel end wall creates a lovely silhouette on Pleasant Street. Pleasant Street was created in the mid-1790s and this house must have been one of the first houses to be built on the street.

It would be hard to miss the stunning red gambrel at 47-47A Monument Square. Prior research suggested that this house was moved to the site, and possibly even predated the Revolution, but neither of these scenarios seem accurate.  Recent research indicates that it was most likely built in 1804. The home has been beautifully restored, the wing to the left a more recent addition.  The beautiful Georgian-style entry was enlarged and features entablature and a pediment above handsome double doors with flanking fluted columns.

At 23 Prescott St. is a third example of the late Georgian five-bay-by-one-bay center hall plan gambrel.  This home is comprised of a main block and attached ell, and sits sidewise with its end gable facing Prescott Street.  The fairly steep gambrel has two shed roofed dormers on the top floor.  The Landmarks Commission survey from the 1980s indicates that 23 was purchased as an empty lot in 1823 by the house wright Lot Pool, who owned it until 1835.  As a Georgian-style (1714-1830) home, 23 is a ‘latecomer’.

Note that Prescott Street was initially called Middlegate Street, part of Thomas Graves’ original elliptical Town Hill plan for Charlestown.  Eventually the street was renamed for General Prescott, but on the Peter Tufts map of 1818, it is still called Middlegate.  Keep in mind that Prescott Street at the time that this house was built, was very close to the wharves that lined Charles River Bay prior to the massive infilling that took place later in the 19th Century.  As I have mentioned in previous articles, early Charlestown was a peninsula surrounded by water all the way to The Charlestown Neck.

Perhaps not as recognizable as a gambrel single family home, due to its alterations over the years, is 26 Common Street, currently a store with an apartment above. This frame gambrel is thought to be built in the mid-1790s, which would make it one of the oldest homes on Winthrop Square (The Training Field).  A 19th-century photo of Common Street (with a dirt street!) reveals that 26 Common initially was a  three-story, three-bay side hall plan gambrel with two shallow shed roofed dormers, widely spaced on the gambrel roof.  Additionally, there is a side sitting frame gambrel right next to it, no longer extant.  The entry to 26 is unpedimented, with entablature above a simple fanlight and columns flanking the six panel entry door.  At the time the photo was taken, the home is clapboarded, the sashes appear to be two-over two, the windows had working shutters, the roof appears to be wooden shingles, and there is a tall chimney between the second and third bay.

The final example is a hybrid . . . the wonderful late Georgian Wiley House, circa 1794, located at 45 Old Rutherford Ave.  The Wiley House has a very unique roof, as it has the double sloped roof of a gambrel, but the two ends are steeply hipped rather than gabled, creating a very beautiful roofline.  The house itself is a five-bay three-story center entrance plan, with three pedimented dormers set into the roof.  The home was beautifully restored in 1987 under the guidance of the architect Robert Neilly.  The entry is particularly beautiful with its enframements and Doric columns flanking the door. The wing was probably built in the mid-19th century.  The Wiley House is part of Town Hill, and was built during the same post-Revolutionary reconstruction period that the Hurd and Larkin Mansions were built, making it the oldest home on Town Hill proper. William Wiley (1757-1827), builder and owner, was a Reading native whose ancestor John Wiley (1608-1672) emigrated from Lincolnshire, England, becoming one of the earliest settlers of Reading.  The house remained in the Wiley family until 1871. William and his wife Hannah Smith Wiley (1757-1844) are both buried in the Phipps Street Burial Ground.  Note that Old Rutherford Avenue was originally called Bow Street by Thomas Graves in the 1600s, and, like 23 Prescott St. it was a stones’ throw from the wharves of Charles River Bay, as can be seen on Peter Tufts 1818 Plan of Charlestown.

So as you walk around our town, if you were not aware of our frame gambrel houses, seek them out and admire their beauty as they rank as some of the oldest homes in Charlestown. 

Sources: ‘Old American Houses’ by Williams, A Field Guide to American Houses by McAlester, Ancesty.com, Landmarks Commission Surveys (various),Wiley ‘House Brochure’ by MK Donovan, ‘Building on Monument Square’ by Kent Edwards.

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