Fairbanks House (Dedham, Massachusetts)
Fairbanks House in 2013
|Location||511 East Street, Dedham, Massachusetts|
|NRHP reference #||66000367|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHL||October 9, 1960|
The Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts is a historic house built ca. 1636, making it the oldest surviving timber-frame house in North America that has been verified by dendrochronology testing. Puritan settler Jonathan Fairbanks constructed the farm house for his wife Grace (Lee Smith) and their family. The house was occupied and then passed down through eight generations of the family until the early 20th century. Over several centuries the original portion was expanded as architectural styles changed and the family grew.
Today the Fairbanks house is owned and operated by the Fairbanks Family in America, a member-based non-profit organization, as a historic house museum. The Family Association has preserved, studied and interpreted their ancestral home and its collections for over 110 years. The house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The house was built in several stages; the center portion of the present house is oldest, with a gable-roofed portion at the center. It was once a lobby-entry, hall-parlor house of two stories with a center chimney bay. The lean-to was added later, contrary to the note on the first floor plan (see image on left).
The oldest section of the house was completed by at least 1641, based on dendrochronology of several beams in the house. The summer beam has been dated to 1637, and other wall boards and beams were dated to 1638, 1640 and 1641. Other American houses claiming to be older have yet to be scientifically dated, and the Fairbanks House is almost universally regarded as the oldest house in New England.
Exterior walls were covered with wide oak clapboards at the front, narrower oak on the west gable end, and narrow cedar on the rear. The front door was originally located to the west side of the chimney-bay, while the rear door is still located at the west end of the north wall. Original front windows included wide banks on each floor and small windows lighting the chimney bay. A well-preserved four-light window survives in the east gable end, but the north and east ends of the house apparently had no windows.
A lean-to was later added at the back of the house and, perhaps in 1641, a wing on the east side. The west wing was added around 1654. The east wing was probably added circa late 18th century, assembled from two earlier buildings elsewhere. A chimney was then built for it; later its roof rafters were raised and reused in a new gambrel roof. The next major change was the expansion of the parlor to the east, under a hip roof, and the addition of the small entry to this expanded space, probably around 1800. A new wing was added to the west side of the house, including two rooms. The last addition to the house, completed by 1881, was a privy added behind the west wing.
Hex signs were carved into the mantle by early inhabitants to protect the house from fire and witches. Shoes have also been found in the attic and behind the chimney, and are presumed to have been placed there to prevent evil spirits from entering the house.
Jonathan Fairbanks came from Heptonstall in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, to Boston, Massachusetts, in the year 1633, and in 1636/37 acquired land and settled in Dedham, Massachusetts, where he built the house on his farm land. The house is likely the oldest dwelling house in New England and the oldest house continuously owned by the builder and his lineal descendants. Since the original purchase, the estate has never had a mortgage incumbrance upon it. The house museum is now a well-known Dedham attraction.
There is evidence that some residents practiced folk magic in the house, including placing hex marks and various objects in the house to ward off witches and other evil spirits.
Early historians claimed that the Fairbanks House was built in 1636 although more recent historians now believe the earliest part of the house was built between 1637 and 1641. One skeptic of the 1636 date points out that the house was framed with massive oak timber, and that there is no historical evidence of anyone erecting a framed dwelling house in Dedham as early as 1636. According to some family traditions, however, the frame of the main part of the house, together with the bricks and tiles and windows, were imported from England, and remained in Boston for several months before being carried to Dedham. In 2001, dendrochronological testing by the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory confirmed that the timbers from the earliest section of the house were felled between 1637 and 1641.
The house was not built as it stands at one time, or in one year, although it is certain that Jonathan owned a house situated on the same lot by 1648. Subsequently, perhaps as late as 1654, a large addition, called the new house, was made to the original building, and was purportedly built for the occupation of his son John after his marriage. The current roof was put on during this period and has been dated to 1652–1654 using dendrochronology. Later additions to the house occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries.
"It may be said quite simply that no other house of the mid-17th century in New England has survived in such unbelievably unspoiled condition. It is also extraordinary that so early a structure should preserve such a high percentage of original features. It is a veritable storehouse of information concerning the small handful of houses which survive from this early period." —Abbot Lowell Cummings, Professor Emeritus, American Art, Yale University
Sale and conversion to a museum
In 1879, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Jonathan and Grace Fairbanks, Nancy Fairbanks, died without a husband or children and left the house to her niece, Rebecca Fairbanks. Rebecca moved in, but moved back out again for a short period of time when lightning struck the house and killed her dog. Her worsening financial situation led her to sell the house to local realtor John Crowley in 1895, but she was allowed to continue living there. She also sold a number of family heirlooms, including a wooden chest made in 1658 by John Houghton. The item was purchased by the family again at auction in 2003, and now splits its time between the Fairbanks House and the Dedham Historical Society.
In 1897, Crowley was going to tear down the house to develop the two acre lot, but an appeal in the Boston Transcript led to it being purchased by Mrs. J. Amory Codman and her daughter Martha. The Codmans allowed Rebecca to remain in the house until 1904, when the newly established Fairbanks Family in America took it over and turned it into a museum in 1905. The curators camped in a tent outside the house until 1912, when a new house was purchased from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog and erected next door.
The Boston Bicycle Club often stopped at the house during their two-day "Wheel Around the Hub" tours through Boston's suburbs. On the occasion of their 40th anniversary in 1916, they planted a tree on the grounds. In 1926, 15 years after the death of club co-founder and "father of American bicycling" Frank W. Weston, it was discovered that his ashes were still being stored at the undertaker's. The members of the club rallied and, on a Friday afternoon in September, consecrated his remains to the ground under their anniversary tree.
In 1964, a 17-year-old Dedhamite was driving and missed the turn onto East Street. His car ended up in the east wing of the house, prompting a stone wall to be erected. The wall prevented another car from hitting the house in 1973. A group of arsonists tried to burn the house down on July 4, 1967. Powderpost beetles were exterminated from the house in the 1970s.
- List of the oldest buildings in the United States
- List of the oldest buildings in Massachusetts
- List of National Historic Landmarks in Massachusetts
- National Register of Historic Places listings in Norfolk County, Massachusetts
- "Oxford Tree Ring Laboratory".
- "Dated Buildings in Massachusetts". Oxford Tree Ring Laboratory. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
- Parr 2009, p. 27.
- Lorenzo Sayles Fairbanks, Genealogy of the Fairbanks family in America, 1633–1897 (American printing and engraving company, 1897)
- "Folk Magic and Mysteries at the Fairbanks House (episode 93)". Hub History. August 12, 2018. Retrieved August 16, 2018.
- Parr 2009, pp. 23-4.
- Parr 2009, p. 24.
- Parr 2009, p. 25.
- Parr 2009, pp. 26-27.
- Abbott Lowell Cummings, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625–1725, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University Press, 1979
- Abbott Lowell Cummings, The Fairbanks House, Boston, Massachusetts; New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2002.
- Miles, D H, Worthington, M J, and Grady, A A, 2002 "Development of Standard Tree-Ring Chronologies for Dating Historic Structures in Eastern Massachusetts Phase II", Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory unpublished report 2002/6
- Parr, James L. (2009). Dedham: Historic and Heroic Tales From Shiretown. The History Press. ISBN 978-1-59629-750-0.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Fairbanks House.|
- Fairbanks House permission granted for use of written information 10/17/06
- National Park Service: Fairbanks House
- 260 Years, One Family: The Fairbanks House
- "Jonathan Fairbanks House, 511 East Street, Dedham, Norfolk, MA". Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress. May 1940. Retrieved August 2010. Check date values in: